Years ago I read a very honest book that described the realities of the Christian life. Rather than sugar-coating our walk of faith, the author made it abundantly clear that God never promised those who trust and love Him a rose garden—unless, I guess, you want to include thorns in that metaphor. For the Christian, life is hard; it is difficult. As Christian discovered in his pilgrim’s progress, there are perils without as well as perils within the soul of the Christian. We face the taunts and the temptations of the wicked, and we face the failures of our own follies. And perhaps it is when we experience the latter that we are most prone to be disappointed, even to the point sometimes of despair.
If this describes your experience, then Psalm 39 provides some deep insight in how to appropriately respond. At the end of the day, Philip Yancey got it right: It is far better to be disappointed with God than to be disappointed without Him.
This psalm is the honest account of a man who is experiencing God’s chastening hand. It is the sorrowful prayer (song) of a believer suffering because of sin—both his own sin as well as the sins of others. We can summarise this as the disappointment that he feels with reference to sin, sickness, and the span of his life.
A Silent Resolution
In vv. 1–3, we see David’s silent resolution. We see some divine insight here into the thoughts that he was thinking—and we can relate!
I said, “I will guard my ways, lest I sin with my tongue; I will restrain my mouth with a muzzle, while the wicked are before me.” I was mute with silence, I held my peace even from good; and my sorrow was stirred up. My heart was hot within me; while I was musing, the fire burned. Then I spoke with my tongue.
Silence is mentioned three times in this psalm (vv. 2, 9, 12). In terms of the psalmist’s own silence, there appear to be two different sorts.
First, he had a noble resolve to be silent lest he sin. As we will see, this silence was borne of sorrow and submission, though initially perhaps it was fuelled by stoicism. As resolved, however, as he was, his silence eventually broke (v. 3b).
The silence perhaps came from a sense of being stunned by what was going on. “The wicked” were before David, probably in his thoughts. He saw the sin around him. Perhaps, in anticipating Psalm 40:9, he had been recently wounded by a friend—one who had turned out to be his enemy.
Further, we know from verses later in the psalm that he was also feeling the guilt of his own sin (vv. 8, 11). In fact, some say that Psalm 38 and 39, though separate songs, are in fact related existentially; that is, they refer to a time in David’s life in which the trials he experienced were self-inflicted.
David knew himself well enough to guard his heart. Since it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks, he would remain silent. There was too much sinful angst in his heart, so he guarded his mouth from spewing forth words that would offend God and others (see Psalm 73:15). He was resolved to not misrepresent God. This resolution highlights that he was taking responsibility for his situation; there would be no blameshifting (see v. 9). He resolved to not say the wrong thing to the wrong people.
In the stanza that follows, we get a further glimpse into what was going on in David’s thoughts. It is clear that David realised that his life was a whisper in the larger scheme of things. He appreciated that life was frail and brief, and he saw his own insignificance. This contributed to the musing and the resultant fire in his bones. It resulted in a volcanic eruption of emotion—yet emotion tempered by truth. In other words, when David did speak, he does so without sinning.
But there is a second form of silence here. David further admits, “I held my peace even from good.” There are a couple of possible interpretations as to precisely what this means.
The ESV translates this, “I held my peace to no avail.” According to that translation, David is suggesting that his resolution to keep silent did little good. In fact, from the remainder of vv. 2–3 it seems, according to this interpretation, that his resolution to keep silent just welled up inside him until he eventually broke silence.
However, it could also simply mean that David opted to suppress what should have been said. There was perhaps some sullenness in his sadness. He did well to guard his ways so as not to sin with his tongue, but there are some good things that he should have said that he also opted not to say.
What can we learn from this passage?
First, it is good, more times than not, to keep your mouth shut. When disappointed, be careful to keep your mouth shut and your ears open. When you are under the chastening hand of God—and if you are a Christian, you will be (Hebrews 12:3–11)—be careful to guard your heart. And one of the best ways to guard your heart is to guard your tongue (see James 3:1–12). Do not give vent to your frustration for, more times than not, you will sin with your mouth.
Second, you may have to be extreme to shut your mouth. If you don’t want to be a Hannibal Lector with your words, then put a muzzle on your mouth! Be careful what counsel you receive; be careful what you allow your thoughts to muse; be careful of your emotions. If you feel that you emotions are about to boil over into rash words, perhaps go for a walk or a run to clear your head! Do what you must to muzzle your mouth.
Third, the repentant believer accepts responsibility. David chose not to complain about his lot. He recognised his circumstances as God’s chastening hand (v. 9) and so he chose not to grumble. He accepted that he deserved what he was receiving, perhaps even more!
Fourth, keeping silent can be counterproductive if it keeps you inactive. It is interesting that David not only kept silent from sinning, but unfortunately also from singing. That is, he also kept from speaking good. In fact, it would seem that he isolated himself. This is always a danger when we respond stoically rather than Scripturally.
Now, I am not being critical of David. He should be commended for his response. But at least in this point it does not seem that his motivation was Scriptural and therefore as honourable as it could have been. But let’s give credit where credit is due: David at least got to where he needed to be. It is where we need to be as well.
In the rest of the stanza David describes the warm feelings that arose in him and were then spoken. We need to see that what did come forth was not sinful. In fact, it was very accurate. It was very factual.
So, what did he speak, and what can we learn about handling the disappointments in life? Perhaps most importantly, to whom did he speak?
A Serious Recognition
In vv. 4–6 David finally breaks silence and faces some hard facts.
LORD, make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days, that I may know how frail I am. Indeed, You have made my days as handbreadths, and my age is as nothing before You; certainly every man at his best state is but vapour. Selah. Surely every man walks about like a shadow; surely they busy themselves in vain; he heaps up riches, and does not know who will gather them.
The first word is the most important: David spoke to the “LORD.” In the song, “Where Could I Go But to the Lord?” the Gaither band asks, “Where could I go, oh where could I go, seeking a refuge for my soul?” Sadly, we all too often go to the wrong people, but David rightly went to the Lord.
Whatever disappointments David was facing, here he was at least moving from what may have been stoic silence towards Scriptural speaking. In a nutshell, David faced the facts of the brevity, the frailty and the potential futility of life. And from what he says in v. 4 it is clear that David wanted to make the most of this fact.
God, Don’t Let Me Waste My Life
David is making a request here, but it is not a request to know exactly how long he has to live. Rather, like Moses (Psalm 90:12), David is asking the Lord to teach him to so number his days that he might gain a heart of wisdom. What he is clearly saying to the Lord is, “I have read the book: Don’t let me waste my life!” There is no surer way to waste your life than to sin. In essence, David was working through issues of repentance.
David speaks of the frailty of life. Life is fragile: It is here today and gone tomorrow. He uses several metaphors to describe this reality.
First, he admits that his “days” are “as handbreadths.” This was an ancient measurement of the four fingers of the main part of the hand. It is nothing compared to the rest of the body. The point is that David knew that life was not really all that long. In fact, in comparison to the age of God, man’s earthly existence is nothing. There is simply no comparison. In fact, the Hebrew paints the picture of comparative non–existence.
David further admits that, even when man is “at his best state,” his earthly existence is “but vapour.”
The phrase “best state” can be translated as “firmly established.” The words mean “firm for a purpose.” In other words, man at his tip top best is in fact only a mist. The Chuck Norrises of this world are only a vapour. In fact, such men are in reality only a phantom, they are only a “shadow.” A “shadow” is, in this context a false image. That is, a life that ignores God and that is spent in sin is a false and wasted life in the bigger scheme of things. It is not very substantial in the big scheme of things. David proves this thesis by the rest of v. 6.
Heaped Up for Others
He observes that humans get all worked up over making a living and accumulating wealth, but for what? After all, in the end it is merely “in vain.” It is meaningless, for in fact what we “heap up” will be spent by another.
Alexander Maclaren illustrates this well when he says that the shiny coin in our pocket has the head of a king who is now dead, and one day the coin that we claim we own will be in the pocket of another.
It would seem that what David, like his son who wrote Ecclesiastes, is telling us is that we should not be disquieted, or be in turmoil or in a commotion, when we see wickedness around us. We should not allow ourselves to get all worked up and make a loud noise over what is happening to us. He seems to have learned not to take himself too seriously. Shadows serve a purpose, but they are not the point. Further, and more personally, our sin, and the chastening that follows, instructs us of the folly of it all. So why waste your life on it? When you are not right with God, life is meaningless.
Now, when you first hear this and then reflect a little further on it, it can be downright depressing! Is David saying that we have no importance? Is he saying that people have no significance? Is he saying that we should not expect to make a difference? Is he saying that life, as Solomon put it in Ecclesiastes, is meaningless? In a restricted sense, this is precisely what he is saying! But thankfully—and thank God—this is not all that he is saying. However, it is meaningless when we waste it on sin (anger, selfishness, adultery, drunkenness, hatefulness, etc.) We need to listen to the rest of his song (vv. 7–13).
A Sympathetic Realisation
In vv. 7–11, David turns his attention to the hope we have.
And now, Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in You. Deliver me from all my transgressions; do not make me the reproach of the foolish. I was mute, I did not open my mouth, because it was You who did it. Remove Your plague from me; I am consumed by the blow of Your hand. When with rebukes You correct man for iniquity, You make his beauty melt away like a moth; surely every man is vapour. Selah.
Listen to this sound advice from Allen Ross: “Believers who are severely chastened for sin and faced with the frailty and uncertainty of life must pour out their complaint to the Lord (and not to an unsympathetic world) because he is their only hope of deliverance.”
Lord, Don’t Waste My Life
So, what is David’s expectation? What does he expect from a life that is like a “vapour”? Simply, he expects the Lord.
Note what David says here. He refers again to the fact that he did not open his mouth. Is he referring to the same time of musing as earlier? Perhaps—or perhaps he is referring to a time period after thinking through the issues that he has raised. He learned the silence of submission. He realised that whatever troubles he faced were coming from the hand of God, “because it was You who did it.” The chastening he was experiencing, the disappointment he was undergoing, came from the hand of God. God, who knew his frame, was behind his disappointment. “He has no choice but to wait and hope in the Lord because there is no other deliverer from God’s chastening than God Himself” (Ross).
There is all the difference in the world between being disappointed with God and being disappointed without God. Disappointment will come, but the one who is blessed is the one who honestly contemplates who he is in the presence of God and who submits accordingly. Job needed to learn this, and he finally did.
In other words, when you come to end of your rope, let go!
Consider, in this regard, these words from John Newton’s “I Asked the Lord that I Might Grow.”
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.
’Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.
I hoped that in some favoured hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
Lord, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“’Tis in this way, the Lord replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.
These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”
I appreciate that David moved from his preoccupation with the wicked to a concern about his own wickedness. In v. 8, he asks the Lord to deliver him from his transgressions. Having contemplated his own heart in silence, he is now concerned primarily with his own standing before the Lord.
Trials often have this effect. They humble us and so we become aware of our own sinfulness while not, of course, being oblivious to the sin around us. In fact, the phrase “do not make me the reproach of the foolish” highlights that he is aware of vile persons in his environs. “God forgive me, or the fools around me will mock me and my faith in You.
Yet they were not the main focus. Above all, David desired to be right with God. His relationship with the Lord was paramount.
It is when we come to the realisation that we are under the loving, holy and wise chastening hand of the Lord that we submit, and our silence is indeed golden. If we do not grasp what the Lord is doing then our silence is merely grievous—painfully, and even hopelessly, so.
In vv. 10–11, David reiterates this point as he recognises that, before God, his life is but a shadow and one that is dependent completely upon Him.
The word translated “plague” means “sore,” “wound” or “stripe.” Obviously, it connotes chastening. As he reflects upon his discipline and attendant disappointments, he reverently resigns himself to the reality that, apart from God, life is meaningless. The Lord had brought him to the end of himself, to a place of weakness and thus of dependence; that is, to a place of trust.
David wanted the musicians to pause (“selah”) here and muse upon this. God wants us to do the same.
It is not that the life of the Christian has no meaning, but rather that our meaning is tethered to the Lord. As we grow in our understanding of our dependence upon the Lord, the vapour of our lives has great power—like water vapour used as a source of energy.
Such an honest realisation drives us to find our hope in God alone (v. 7). Our expectations can be woefully off the mark. All too often, we expect certain outcomes, only to be disappointed. Sometimes a marriage collapses. Sometimes loved ones die. Sometimes a job is rendered redundant. Sometimes a friend becomes a foe. Sometimes an unbeliever does not repent. Sometimes a sinful habit grasps us again. Sometimes the ungodly prosper. Sometimes the persecuted do not escape. Sometimes medical reports are ominous. Sometimes ministry comes to an end. Sometimes children rebel. Sometimes prayers are answered no. Yet in our disappointments we find ourselves not alone but rather disappointed with God. Sometimes God disappoints us, but at least we are not disappointed alone.
Our attitude must always be like that of Daniel’s friends who, when threatened with a fiery death, boldly declared,
O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.
But again, the main emphasis is on our sin. Be disappointed in yourself and then dependent upon God for His grace. Refreshment will come!
The Soul’s Restoration
In vv. 12–13, David concludes by pleading to the Lord for grace to restore his soul: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; do not be silent at my tears; for I am a stranger with You, a sojourner, as all my fathers were. Remove Your gaze from me, that I may regain strength, before I go away and am no more.”
David concludes the hymn with a prayer. He brings a supplication before the Lord, and it is intense.
David cries aloud and his voice cracks as the tears descend. And, once again, we read of silence. He has tried to be silent as a stoic, only to break the silence with lessons that he learned about submission. But it is one thing for us to be silent—it is good and right to be so, as we have learned—it is entirely another thing when God is silent. David tearfully pleads for the Lord to break the silence. He pleads for God to speak into his disappointment.
But note the basis on which he makes this supplication: “for I am a stranger with You, a sojourner, as al my fathers were.” What does he mean? Probably a couple of things.
First, he may be referencing the fact that, as a transient because fragile person, he knows that he needs the Lord’s help to get through the pilgrimage of this life. No doubt, this is behind this statement. Having acknowledged that his life is fleeting, like a vapour, he asks for the Lord’s help. We are no different.
But there may be a second issue behind this plea. In the Old Testament, God made clear to Israel that they were to show compassion on the sojourners and strangers, for in fact at one time this is precisely what they and their “fathers” were. If this is in David’s thoughts, then he is praying for God’s compassionate care. David is not demanding anything by right from God, but is humbly acknowledging that he needs God’s mercy and pity. In his deep disappointment, he has been so humbled that he is coming before the Lord seeking His mercy. All believers recognise in this sense that we are strangers. Therefore, we don’t demand rights; rather, we pray for favour. This is further substantiated by what he says in the last verse.
Please, Stop Staring
In v. 13 he asks God to remove His “gaze” from him so that he might “regain strength.” “Please end the chastening before it ends me! Let up on me so I can enjoy life. Not only do I not want to waste my life, I also want to enjoy life! Remove your awesome gaze and replace it with amazing grace!”
Like Job, David felt the attention of God on his sinful ways. So he asked God to stop paying so much attention to him. He wanted some pleasure in this world before he died. He wanted to be out from under the chastening. We can understand this.
Verse 13 points to a reality which we must embrace: Our hope in this life is not always bright, but it is brighter than the alternative. Learn to be disappointed with God; it beats being disappointed without Him.
God’s Gaze and God’s Gospel
But we probably have an insight that David did not have. When we ask the Lord to turn away His gaze from us, He does by turning His gaze upon another. As the Father looks to Jesus, He no longer sees our sin. God mercifully chooses to see His Son rather than us, and because of this we can know the joy of the Lord.
Disappointment will come. Will you be disappointed with God or without God? In Christ we can know the former.