Psalm 39:5

Jeduthun, whose name stands at the head of Psalm 39, 62, and 77, was one of a musical family entrusted with the conduct of the musical service in the time of David. The psalms having his name at the head were probably intended to be sung by his choir. It would thus seem that in the Hebrew service of sacred song the prayers and plaints of the individual believer were included, when set to music. If so, the "service of song in the house of the Lord" covered a much wider ground than is usually supposed, and was made to include not only direct address to God, whether of prayer or praise, but also the rehearsal of personal experience; and thus a holy fellowship of song would arise, anticipating long ages before, the expression of the apostle, "Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs;" only it should be noted that these would be musical utterances of an actual experience going on then and there. It does not follow that the like utterances would be suitable for the service of song now. Discretion and discrimination are needed in the use thereof. This is evidently an individual psalm; it is neither national, prophetic, nor Messianic; it is one of those which reflect the care and anxiety with which David was bowed down at one crisis of his life, though to which of his numerous crises it refers it is not easy to decide, Nor, indeed, is that of moment. It will profit us more to note the course taken by the psalmist at a time of crushing sorrow, and then to see how far the course which he took may be a guide for us under like circumstances.

I. LET US NOTE THE COURSE ADOPTED BY THE PSALMIST AT A TIME OF CRUSHING SORROW. There is a somewhat wide divergence among expositors in their estimate of this psalm, and of the mental revelations therein contained. But we feel bound to look at the psalmist's words tenderly rather than harshly, knowing as we do, how often, in agonies of soul, the best men may utter words which would not escape them in their calmer hours (cf. Psalm 116:11).

1. Here is a case of sore affliction. "Thy stroke" (ver. 10); "the blow of thine hand" (ver. 10). Whatever the sorrow may have been to which reference is made, it is regarded as coming directly from God. "Thou didst it" (ver. 9). It was so heavy that David was "consumed" thereby (ver. 10). And it was looked on by him as a chastisement for his transgressions (cf. vers. 8, 11).

2. It is, under such circumstances, very hard to be absolutely still. So the first verse implies. There is little indication that the disturbing trouble arose (as some suggest) from seeing the prosperity of the wicked; but evidently there is some distinctively personal trouble, probably sickness and weakness, which, with all the public demands made upon him, weighs heavily upon his soul, and he is tempted to complain and to seek sympathy from without. But:

3. He is in the midst of uncongenial souls. (Ver. 1.) "The wicked is before me." Note: Earthly men are poor companions in the distresses of spiritual men. To the natural man the sorrows of a spiritual man would be altogether unintelligible. And supposing that the troubles here referred to arose about the time of and in connection with Absalom's rebellion, the majority of those round about David would be men whose thoughts and aims moved entirely in the military or political sphere. Hence:

4. Here is a wise resolve. (Vers. 1, 2.) He will say nothing. There would be many reasons for this.

(1) No one would enter into his feelings.

(2) What he said would be misunderstood.

(3) He would consequently be misrepresented.

(4) The more he said, the worse matters would be. And

(5) if he told men what he thought and felt, he would be very likely to say something which he would afterwards regret. That I sin not with my tongue. Hence silence is his wisest course.

5. But suppressed grief consumes like a fire. (Ver. 3.) There is nothing which so wears out the soul, nor which so burns within, as woe to which no vent can be given; so David found it, and consequently:

6. The silence is broken. "Then spake I with my tongue." But, in breaking the silence, he speaks not to man, but to God. After the word "tongue," the Authorized Version has a comma, but the Revised Version a colon, indicating that what he said is about to follow. What an infinite mercy that when we cannot say a word to man, through fear of being misunderstood, we can speak to God, and tell him exactly what we feel, as we feel it, knowing that then we touch a heart infinitely tender, and address an intelligence infinitely wise!

7. In speaking to God he moans and groans. (Vers. 4-6.) Does David speak petulantly? Is he asking God to let him know how long he has to endure all this? Is he adducing the frailty and nothingness of man as an argument against his being allowed to suffer thus? So many think, and some, as Calvin, are very hard on David - very. But why? There is a vast difference between the fretfulness of an overburdened man and the waywardness of a rebellious man. And he who knows our frame, takes the difference into account. When Elijah pettishly said, "Now, O Lord, take away my life I" God did not rebuke him; he sent an angel to him, and said, "Arise and eat; the journey is too great for thee."

8. He declares that his expectation of relief is in God alone. (Ver. 7.) Just so. These are not the words of a rebellious, but of a trusting one. And from that point of view the whole psalm must be regarded (cf. Psalm 62.).

9. He will not utter a word of complaint. (Ver. 9.) Render, "I am dumb; I open not my mouth, because thou hast done it" ('Variorum Bible'). "Thyself hast done it." On this fact faith fastens; and when this is the case, not a word of murmuring will escape the lips. The cry of a trusting soul is, "Here am I; let him do with me as seemeth him good" (2 Samuel 15:26).

10. Yet he supplicates. (Vers. 8, 10, 13.) First, he desires deliverance from sin, then a mitigation of the suffering; such is the order, and the order which only a saint would name. The last verse is, in our versions, obscure. The word "spare ' should not be read in the sense intended when we say, "If I am spared," etc., but in the sense of "O spare me this sorrow!" It is a repetition of ver. 10, "Remove this stroke away from me." It asks not for prolongation of life, but for mitigation of pain. The Revised Version margin gives a more correct translation of the phrase, "that I may recover strength;" rather, "that I may brighten up." No conclusion can be drawn from the end of the thirteenth verse, as to the psalmist's view of another life. The Prayer-book Version, "and be no more seen," gives the sense.

11. The supplication is accompanied by a tender plea. (Ver. 12.) "I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were." Archbishop Leighton beautifully expresses the force of this plea, "In this world, wherein thou hast appointed me to sojourn a few days, and I betake myself to thy protection in this strange country. I seek shelter under the shadow of thy wings, therefore have compassion upon me."


1. In some respects we may well imitate him. In restraining our words before man, and in telling all our cares and woes to God exactly as we feel them, and in such a way as will best relieve an overburdened heart.

2. In other respects we should go far beyond him. Believers ought not to confine themselves now within the limits of such a prayer as this; they should always transcend it. We know more of God's Fatherly love; we know of our great High Priest; we know the fellowship of the Spirit; we know of "the unsearchable riches of Christ;" and hence our prayers should rise above those of David as much as the prayer of Ephesians 3:14-21 is above the level of this psalm. Note: The best preventive of sins of the tongue is the fuller and more frequent outpouring of the heart to God. - C.

Behold, Thou hast made my days as an handbreadth: and mine age is as nothing before Thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity.
These simple words have an energy in them which none but a dying man can fully understand. We may, indeed, have felt something of their meaning, as we have heard them read over the corpse of a beloved friend, but then this feeling has been neither deep nor lasting. The cares or pleasures of the world have again called for and had our whole attention. The psalmist's words lead us to consider —

I. WHY HE CALLS THE DAYS OF LIFE OUR DAYS. Strictly speaking, they are not so, not one of them, but —

1. They bring to us innumerable mercies as they hurry on.

2. And they are allowed to us that in them we may work for eternity.

3. We have to account for them hereafter. They are recorded in the Book of God.

II. THEIR SHORTNESS. They are so by comparison.

1. With the period once allotted to the life of man.

2. With the duration of many objects around us.

3. With the eternity of God.

4. With the work we have to do.How diligent, then, should we be. And how silently our years pass away. There is also another painful thought connected with the silent rapidity of time — the longer we stay in the world, the swifter does its flight appear. A year to a man is not more than a few months to a child. Our days seem to rush on with a more silent and rapid motion the nearer they draw to the goal of death, as though they were eager to bear us away unawares to our destined eternity. The fact is, that time, correctly speaking, is nothing more than a succession of ideas; these ideas are less numerous, and the impressions they make less deep and permanent in old age than they are in youth; and consequently the road of life has fewer marks to remind us of our progress.

III. THEIR VANITY. But here, perhaps, it may be said, "What if the period of life is thus transitory? Man is a great and noble being, and has powers that enable him to crowd into this short existence a consequence and dignity suited to his greatness." The words before us however speak no such language. There is another truth declared in them, which pours contempt on all human greatness. They tell us, not only of the shortness of life, but of the vanity, the utter nothingness, of man. This is the testimony they give, "Verily, every man, at his best state, is altogether vanity." Therefore —

1. How precarious and how little worth are all our earthly blessings. Death soon carries them away.

2. And so of all our schemes and prospects. How forcibly, then, are we reminded of the great duty of consideration, of serious thoughts on our life and responsibility; how great an evil is sin, and how great a necessity is our trust in God.

(C. Bradley, M. A.)

I. THY SUBJECT OF THE PSALMIST'S MEDITATION. "Every man in his best state." How glorious was the condition in which man was created. But from that he fell. Still, through God's mercy in Christ, his condition is one of many blessings. He may have the Divine favour, and he may dwell in the Divine presence here. But the psalmist was thinking of man in the state in which he possesses the greatest share of worldly advantages, and in which other men are wont to call him most happy. Picture such a man — thee citizen, the philosopher, the monarch.

II. HEAR WHAT IS SAID OF SUCH AN ONE, the humiliating fact that he is "altogether vanity." For death at any moment may come and strike down the sturdiest frame, the possessor of the greatest prosperity. Remember this, and prepare for the eternal life.

III. THE EMPHATICAL MANNER IS WHICH IT IS URGED ON OUR ATTENTION. "Verily," every man at, etc., etc. And we need that the truth should be enforced, manifest and common as it is.

(W. Curling, M. A.)


1. It is vain in the sense of hollowness. It is an empty fiction, an inflated bubble.

(1)It lacks inner satisfaction.

(2)It lacks endurance.

2. It is vain in the sense of worthlessness. On the assumption that there is no immortality, what useful purpose is answered by our existence? I appreciate the literary productions of genius, but the best of them I feel are unworthy of our creation.


1. It is an existence eternally pursuing a phantom.

2. It is an existence eternally producing injury. Learn —

(1)The infinite worth of the Gospel.

(2)The infinite folly of the Gospel-rejector.


I. Life is short, IN RESPECT OF THE GREAT WORK WHICH IT IS GIVEN US TO PERFORM. Man in his best estate here below is still an improvable condition. There is no perfection on this side the grave.

1. The man of the loftiest attainments in virtue is but elevated to a position whence he has a more enlarged discovery than others of the miserableness and defects of his present standing. The attainments of man in virtue and in piety affect him in a manner similar to what is produced by the other acquirements of life — the more that there is gained, the more is there that presents itself to be desired. The Christian, in his best estate, ever feels clogged in his career, and is ever laying aside those weights which retard him in his motion.

2. As it is with the attainments of piety, so is it with those of knowledge. The longest life is found too short to compass the knowledge of what God has revealed to us in His Word. To some, the duration of mortal existence has proved too short for the attainment of any substantial good. They were cut off in the midst of resolutions of amendment. For this, life was amply sufficient; but, as Seneca has it, "We complain of its shortness, because of the waste of it which is made."

II. Life is short IN A COMPARATIVE POINT OF VIEW; and it is in reference to the consideration of the subject in this light, that the comparison in our text of life to an hand-breadth is peculiarly appropriate.

1. To the child in the dawn of life, when reason begins to expand, and thought to measure out the prospect of happy days spread before it, through all the stages of its earthly career, the anticipated term of years appear so vast as to fill its imagination with wonder, and rack its powers of comprehension. But, with the progress of years, the allotted term of human life ever appears to shorten.

2. But when the psalmist skid, "Thou hast made my days as an handbreadth," he must have thought of the Eternal of ages, whom he addressed, with whom "a thousand years are as one day," and compared with whose immeasurable duration our existence here may well be likened to an hand-breadth. "Our days "is a phrase employed in Scripture to denote the term of our existence here, which is measured by the revolution of days, contrasted with our future being, when time shall be no longer. The psalmist thought of the great, the boundless eternity which lay before him; of that never-ending succession of ages through which we should live, increasing in knowledge and in happiness; and turning his eye to the comparatively puny, limited, and circumscribed being which he now enjoyed, yet considering the vast result that hung upon it, he exclaimed, "Thou hast made my days as an handbreadth." Such language is appropriate to human life. We have received a place among the things which have foundation. Our immortal souls exist in God, who has imparted to them, in reference to futurity, an attribute to Himself — Eternity.

(John Watson.)


1. The psalmist gives us here a very emphatic description of the measure of his days,(1) "A handbreadth," or the breadth of four fingers was one of the least geometrical measures among the Jews; which we may fitly call an inch or two of Time. But alas! the thread of life is as slender as it is short; and often breaks before this inch or two is run off.(2) The psalmist speaks of it in yet more diminishing terms when he adds, "My age is as nothing before Thee."

2. The psalmist gives us a much more diminishing description of the frailty of our nature than he does of the measure of our days. For, "verily, every man at his best state is altogether vanity."(1) He is so in himself, both in body and mind. His body is but a living lump of earth, making haste to deformity and dust. How feeble, contracted and low, are the very best powers of his mind; how weak his reason, how cramped his understanding!(2) His pursuits and desires are vain.(3) His enjoyments are vain — riches, pleasures, honours.(4) His life is vain — transient, short, uncertain.


1. Men do not steadily attend to the nature, consequence, and final issue of things; but confine their views to present objects and appearances, which are sure to deceive them.

2. Sense and appetite too often corrupt the judgment. It is a hard thing for men to believe what they would not have to be true. The truth is, their affections are engaged, and they cannot help thinking well of what they love; they do not care to hear those things disparaged which they exceedingly value; nor can they be easily persuaded to think that what they have fondly set their hearts upon is so altogether vain.


1. What man is in comparison of what he shall be. Do we not look upon one single moment of time as a mere point, when compared with the many years we have a]ready lived? But one single moment of time bears an infinitely greater proportion to the period of human life than the whole period of human life does to eternity. How concerned, then, should we be by a course of steady piety and virtue to add a value to this nothing, by improving our transient years to the purposes of eternal bliss I Because on this moment of time depends eternity.

2. We shall be more sensible of the justness of this description which the psalmist gives us of the vanity of mankind, if we consider in what manner they generally act in comparison of what they should do.(1) In what manner they ought to live as reasonable creatures in a state of trial and preparation for an eternal world. Impressed with this thought, would they not be very careful to watch their heart and behaviour, and daily examine their temper and conduct by that rule of righteousness which God hath given them for their direction and guide; lest they should be unawares seduced into sin, to the danger and detriment of their immortal interest?(2) Do we find that they really do live in this manner? Is not the general course and conduct of their lives often just the reverse of this? How rarely are they disposed to think of another world! How unattentive to the government of their lives and passions!


1. Seeing we know these things, let us beware lest we also be led away with the error of the wicked.

2. The text, if well considered, must surely be a sovereign cure for envy; unless vanity, folly, and wretchedness be the proper objects of it.

3. Is man in his best state altogether vanity? what is he, then, in his worst state?

4. Let us learn hence to rectify our sentiments of human life and all its vanities.(1) What do We think of them under a grievous fit of pain or sickness? When all of them together cannot purchase for us so much as one moment's ease.(2) What should we think of them at death? It is then that men always form the truest thoughts of human life.(3) Suppose we were to judge of them by the general character of those who possess the most of them; and see the pernicious effects they generally have upon the minds of men; what shall we think of them then?

5. Are these things really vain; it is time, then, that we seek out for some more substantial good.

(J. Mason, M. A.)

Take man in all the variety of his behaviour and humours, in his best and most settled estate (for so much the original imports); nay, in the best managements of his affairs, in the subtilty and strength of all his designs and projectings; even in the pre-eminence of his reason and pretended excellency of his wisdom; when he designs to look and speak wisest, and put off the face of vanity; when he thinks he is most in the right, and his achievements are most successful; take him with all his advantages, and dress him up above nature, with all the improvements of art and sciences, and he is still the veriest fop in the creation, and the merest antic that appears upon the stage of the world.

I. CONSIDER MAN IN HIS CIVIL AND SECULAR CAPACITY. The greatest confidence that men usually have in the things of the world arises from a great estate of wealth and treasure. But what is the foundation of this confidence, but a greater portion of the earth we tread on, or some refined part of it, some rubbish taken out of its bowels, burnished and made shining (to please the fool), and stamped with some image and superscription. But observe the vanity; are we children when we play with trifles, and wise men when we please ourselves with these greater toys? Or rather to confirm our vanity, are we not like them, given to change, and throw away one foolery to take up another? The difference can be no more than that the one is the pleasure and divertisement of children, and the other of men; but both the same vanity.

II. EXAMINE HIM AS TO HIS MORAL AND DIVINE ESTATE, as he is the son and disciple of virtue, and wisdom, and religion; as he is guided by reason, and pretendedly governed by conscience; there, too, he is vanity.

1. The original dignity of man above other creatures is that tie is endowed with a rational soul, a pure immaterial substance that cannot die or be extinguished; by this tie claims kindred with the angels, nay, a certain affinity to God Himself, being created after His image, and cannot but think immortality essential to his very being; but, alas I to invert the words of the apostle, this immortal may put on mortality, and this incorruptible may put on corruption.

2. If we venture a strain higher, even to the best effects of reason; to the high-flown pretences of wisdom and learning, we shall make much the same discoveries. The wisdom of men is not only foolishness with God, but really in itself; and knowledge is as truly but science falsely so called.

III. TO FIX UPON A STATE AND CONDITION OF LIFE REALLY THE BEST AND THE ONLY ONE NOT SUBJECT TO VANITY IS EASY, AND IN FEW WORDS TO BE DISCOVERED, IN CONTEMPLATION AT LEAST, THOUGH EXPERIENCE HATH PROVED THE PRACTICE TO BE VERY RARE AND DIFFICULT. If we should meet and confer together, and discourse this great point one with another in the next world, some little space before our trial comes on. at that. great tribunal of God, what, I pray, would you call wisdom? What would you call exemption from vanity and folly? Be sure not that by which in the preceding world we got a great estate; for, alas! that is quite gone and lost to us and our posterity, nothing of that nature can escape the general conflagration. No! nor that by which we once got fame and renown, for that is vanished too, and perhaps is really inglorious and base in the esteem of all at that day; for then be sure our judgments will be more discerning, and we shall have other thoughts and apprehensions of things. No I nor that by which we attained to arts and sciences, were statesmen or politicians; for we shall have no manner of use of them, neither in heaven nor in hell. Our knowledge must, then, be of another nature, of much greater perfection, or we cannot be happy; and sinner, too, the more sagacious and discerning they then become, the more fitted and qualified (as we may say) will they be for their due punishment; their remorse and torments will be the sorer and more pungent. We shall infallibly then pronounce upon the debate, That we were altogether vain in She other world, and that that was the truest wisdom which exerted itself in all the previsionary means for this great and terrible day of judgment, to secure the grand interest of everlasting life.

(John Cooke, M. A.)

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