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Psalm 39

Some people’s suffering seems interminable. This psalm tells us we can seek God’s mercy, even when we brought the pain we’re suffering on ourselves.

Wrestling with God

For the musical director, Jeduthun. A David psalm.

I said, “I’ll be careful to watch what I do
so I don’t sin with my mouth.
I’ll wear a muzzle
whenever evildoers surround me!”
2 I was mute, utterly silent
saying nothing when deprived of good things[1]
but my pain only intensified.
3 My thoughts smouldered inside me
till I was on fire inside
and these words burst out:

4 “Tell me what will happen to me, Yahveh
how much longer I have to live.
Show me just how little time I have left.
5 Look, you’ve made my life
mere handspans long—
my entire lifetime like nothing to you.
Every last person standing on earth
is but a breath.
6 We pass like shadows.
Mere breath, we all hustle
to heap up wealth
not knowing who will finally get it.”

7 So now, Yahveh, what do I hope for?
My hope is in you.
8 Rescue me from all my sins.
Don’t make me the laughingstock of fools.
9 I kept silent, not opening my mouth
for I knew you were the one punishing me.
10 Take your scourge away from me
for the blows you’ve dealt me have worn me out.
11 You correct people by punishing their sins—
like a moth you eat away all their desires.
Yes, every human being is just a breath.

12 Listen to my plea
pay attention to my cry for help
don’t ignore my tears
because I’m your guest
a sojourner like all my ancestors.
13 Look away from me
so I can smile once more
before I move on
and my life is over and done.

Gripped by regret and fear, Jacob may have prayed something like this with Esau’s armed horde closing in. Jesus may have prayed this in Gethsemane, facing the cross.

Evildoers—maybe Absalom’s mob—are stripping David of all he desires. He initially resolves to take it stoically, knowing his enemies act with God’s permission, that God is using them to punish him. But his inner anguish builds till he boldly tells God he can’t take any more of this attention.

Despite its philosophical tone, this psalm is actually an argument, saying: “How long must I endure this, God? Besides stacking the deck against us during our fleeting lives, you strip us of all we hold dear when you punish us for our sins. My only hope is that you’ll have mercy and free me from the death grip of my sin and its consequences. Give me a break! Grant me respite before it’s too late!”

Neither lyrical nor upbeat, this psalm won’t likely make it onto our list of favorites. But it serves as a model prayer for anyone undergoing suffering, whether or not for their sins. What makes it so helpful is the way it holds pain and grief—even despair—in tension with undying hope in God’s mercy.

As a sojourner, Lord, I’m totally reliant on your goodness to me. But you sometimes lead me through loss and grief to get my attention or curb my rebel ways. Help me to cry out to you in my pain, knowing that you hear me and your mercy never fails. You alone are my hope. Amen.

In your spare moments today, meditate on this truth:

As a sojourner and guest here, I am fully reliant on the unfailing love of God.


[1] Robert Alter (2007) 138.

Why Yahveh?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and occasionally transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Modern translations, likewise, either translate or transliterate it. While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it is more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. I’ve chosen to transliterate it to root it more firmly in the biblical story as the name—meaning the “self-existent One”—that God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. This name set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it in order better to hallow it. In transliterating it, I follow the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard. He advocated transliterating it as Yahveh—pronounced yah·vay—arguing that following the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish than Yahweh.
May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Robert Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.