Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 39 (Part 2)

Psalm 39, continued

Verses 7-11 [6-12]

Verse 7 [6]

“Indeed, a man walks about in a shadow,
indeed, (in) emptiness he roars,
he heaps up, but does not know who will gather.”

This tricolon (3+2+3) continues the Wisdom-theme from verses 5-6 [4-5] (cf. the discussion in the previous study), emphasizing the brevity and transitory nature of human existence. Especially when compared to YHWH, human beings are nothing, a mere emptiness (lb#h#). The point being made here in v. 7 [6] has to do with all the activity and work a person performs during his/her life. Implicit in this is the idea of human ambition and earthly prestige, and how vain they are in the long run. This is a common theme in Wisdom literature, and it is emphasized here in the Psalm.

Human beings “walk about” (vb El^h* in the reflexive Hitpael stem) and are “in an uproar” (vb hm^h*, lit. “roar, cry out [loud]”), toiling, struggling, and fighting for earthly goods and gain. This is done “in a shadow” (<l#x#B=) and is characterized as “emptiness” (lb#h#). It is possible to read the initial preposition B= of <l#x#B= in an emphatic sense, i.e., “truly (as) a shadow”, emphasizing how a human being (especially with respect to human ambition and pride) exists only as a mere ‘shadow.’

The third line gives more clarity to the idea that humankind only works in vain to pile up earthly goods and riches. One’s lifespan is so short and uncertain that a person may “heap up” (vb rb^x*) wealth without really thinking about what will become of it when he/she dies—who will “gather” it (vb [s^a*) in the end. The final mem (<-) is usually read as a plural suffix (“will gather them [i.e., the heaped up riches]”), but it may simply be an enclitic particle (to fill out the rhythm of the line). Dahood (p. 241) also suggests the possibility that the MT has mispointed a participle (spelled defectively), <p!s=a).

Verse 8 [7]

“And now, what do I expect, my Lord?
My waiting—it is for you!”

Admitting as he does the shortness and transitory nature of human life, the Psalmist declares to YHWH that his focus is not on earthly goods or prestige, but on God Himself. There is possibly a play on words in the first line with the verb hw`q*. The most common root hwq means “wait [for], expect, hope”, but there is a separate root hwq with the fundamental meaning “gather, collect”, which would fit the context of v. 7 [6]. While many human beings are focused on gathering riches, etc, the Psalmist is only interested in gathering the things of God.

At the same time, hwq with the meaning “wait [for], expect” is clearly related in sense to the root ljy in the second line, which is synonymous in meaning (“wait, expect, hope”). The ultimate hope and expectation of the Psalmist is objectified by the noun tl#j#oT (“waiting”). His declaration to YHWH is that “my waiting is for you.”

Verse 9 [8]

“From all (those) breaking (against) me, snatch me away,
do not set me (as) a disgrace (before a) fool!”

The MT points yuvp as yu^v*P=, which suggests that it is the Psalmist’s sins that are in view. In this context, however, it is unlikely that the root uvp is being used in that sense, since its fundamental meaning relates to “breaking” a bond of faith (or of friendship, loyalty, the covenant with YHWH, etc). This more properly characterizes the wicked, than the righteous (i.e., the Psalmist). I tentatively follow Kraus (p. 416) in repointing yuvp as a verbal noun (participle) with 1st person object suffix—i.e., yu^v=P), which serves as a shorthand for the expression yl^u* <yu!v=P), or something similar (cf. GKC §116i).

The Psalmist’s prayer thus echoes that of 38:12-17 [11-16], in which the wicked oppress and taunt the ailing protagonist; a similar scenario is alluded to in v. 2 [1] of the current Psalm as well. The wicked person is characterized as a “fool” (lb*n`), as we find frequently in Wisdom tradition. The folly of such a person is indicated here in verse 7 [6] (cf. above).

Verse 10 [9]

“I was bound, (and) did not open my mouth—
(Oh) that you would (now) do (this for me)!”

The Psalmist reiterates how he has remained silent, even in the face of taunts from the wicked. This also reflects his humility before God, and his willingness to accept responsibility for any wrong-doing (and to repent of it). This, he hopes, would demonstrate to YHWH his faithfulness and loyalty, and that God would act in response, by delivering him from his illness and suffering. I believe that this is the best way to understand the somewhat obscure second line “that you did” or “that you have done”. It could be an admission that YHWH is the one who has struck him (with illness); however, a precative perfect better fits the context, in line with the interpretation stated above.

Verse 11 [10]

“Turn from upon me your blow (that has) struck (me),
from the force of your hand, (or) I am finished!”

Again, the Psalmist clearly admits that it is YHWH who has struck him (root ugn) with illness. God is the ultimate cause, and this suffering has come from His “hand”. The meaning of hr*g+T! here would seem to be something like “force, pressure”, which causes affliction and suffering. The Psalmist pleads for deliverance, and confesses that, if YHWH does not soon rescue him, he will be finished (vb hl*K*)— “I am finished!”

Verse 12 [11]

“With your decisions against crookedness, you discipline a man,
and you dissolve his splendid (form) like a moth—
yes (indeed), every man (is merely) emptiness!”

This second strophe of the Psalm concludes with a striking tricolon (with irregular meter, 4+3+3) that echoes again the Wisdom theme established in vv. 5-6 [4-5] ff (cf. above on v. 7 [6]). YHWH disciplines (punishes) human beings for their “crookedness” (/ou*)—in this case, by inflicting suffering through illness, etc. Such punishment wears down a person’s physical health and beauty. Indeed, YHWH’s power is such that, if he wished, he could completely dissolve a person’s entire bodily form, like that of a moth consumed by the flame. It reiterates that, ultimately, human beings are merely “emptiness” (lb#h#) in the face of God’s sovereign power—to both give life and to take it away. YHWH is the Sovereign and Judge, and the punishment he inflicts reflects a legal decision (hj*k@oT, root jky) made against human sin.

Verses 13-14 [12-13]

Verse 13 [12]

“Hear my plea (to you), YHWH,
give ear to my cry for help,
do not be deaf to my tears,
for I am (one who) lives with you,
(who) sits (with you), like all my fathers!”

The Psalm concludes with a prayer and plea to YHWH for deliverance. Verse 13 [12] is comprised of a tricolon (3+2+2) followed by a slightly irregular 3-beat couplet (loosely 3+3). The emphasis is on YHWH hearing the Psalmist’s prayer, expressed three ways: by the verb um^v* (“hear”), the more concrete /z~a* (“give/turn [one’s] ear”, Hiphil stem), and verb vr^j* (II) with the negative particle (“do not be deaf,” “do not be silent”).

His petition is squarely centered upon the covenant bond between YHWH and Israel. This binding agreement requires that YHWH act to protect and deliver his people, as long as they remain faithful to the agreement. The Psalmist places himself among the Israelite people, as one who journeys and lives together with YHWH. This is the basic meaning of the noun rG@. It is often used in the context of those people from other tribes and ethnic groups who live/travel with Israel; but here Israel is placed in the same role, in relationship to YHWH. God dwells with His people, and they with Him. The root bv^y` properly means “sit”, but is frequently used in the more permanent sense of “dwell, reside”. The faithful Israelite essentially “sits” together with YHWH, at His ‘table’ and in His Presence. Here the noun bv*oT (“one who sits/dwells”) is more or less synonymous with rG@.

Verse 14 [13]

“Turn your gaze from me, and I will brighten (again),
before I walk (off) and am no more.”

From the motif of YHWH hearing (v. 13 [12]), the focus shifts here to His seeing, but in a rather different sense. The Psalmist wants God to turn His ear toward him, but now he pleads that YHWH turn his gaze away from him. This draws upon the traditional idiom of judgment and punishment coming from the “face” of YHWH. His face burns with anger at disloyalty, sin, and wickedness. Moreover, this imagery reflects the idea of the all-seeing ‘eye’ of God, the Sovereign and Judge over all Creation. YHWH sees the wickedness of human beings, and renders judgment, punishing them accordingly. Since the Psalmist’s suffering, he admits, comes from God, as a form of discipline and punishment for sin (cf. above), deliverance can only be affected by God “turning away” this punishment. The turning away of His gaze thus means deliverance and healing for the Psalmist, and he will “brighten” once again.

The final line plays on two different, but related, Wisdom themes that have been expressed in the Psalm. The first has to do with the shortness of a person’s life; the second emphasizes how human beings are “emptiness”, having no abiding existence apart from God, whose sovereign power both gives life and takes it away. The Psalmist’s closing statement reflects both of these aspects. On the one hand, he is asking for healing, so that he can live bright and cheerful again for the relatively short time that remains in his life-span (until he “is no longer” alive). On the other hand, it is an effective admission that a human being is ultimately nothing. In terms of one’s earthly existence, when a person dies, he/she simply “is no more.”

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol 16 (1965).
References marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

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