Gaining Perspective: Psalm 39

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November 26, 2017

A note to readers: Today’s post is part of a Sunday Voice Series by Dr. Timothy C. Tennent, a close friend, mentor and colleague of mine. He serves as the President of Asbury Theological Seminary among other posts he holds across the global church. This Sunday Voice Series will cover the Psalms, beginning to end, by focusing on a Psalm each Sunday. I can’t tell you how excited I am for his interest in contributing here. This will be a huge blessing to us all.

Psalm 39 (NIV)

I said, “I will watch my ways
    and keep my tongue from sin;
I will put a muzzle on my mouth
    while in the presence of the wicked.”
So I remained utterly silent,
    not even saying anything good.
But my anguish increased;
    my heart grew hot within me.
While I meditated, the fire burned;
    then I spoke with my tongue:

“Show me, Lord, my life’s end
    and the number of my days;
    let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
    the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Everyone is but a breath,
    even those who seem secure.

“Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom;
    in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth
    without knowing whose it will finally be.

“But now, Lord, what do I look for?
    My hope is in you.
Save me from all my transgressions;
    do not make me the scorn of fools.
I was silent; I would not open my mouth,
    for you are the one who has done this.
10 Remove your scourge from me;
    I am overcome by the blow of your hand.
11 When you rebuke and discipline anyone for their sin,
    you consume their wealth like a moth—
    surely everyone is but a breath.

12 “Hear my prayer, Lord,
    listen to my cry for help;
    do not be deaf to my weeping.
I dwell with you as a foreigner,
    a stranger, as all my ancestors were.
13 Look away from me, that I may enjoy life again
    before I depart and am no more.”

CONSIDER THIS

There are both similarities and differences between the psalms and our hymns or choruses. They are similar in that both contain acts of praise and adoration to God. However, one of the many differences is the scope of what is covered in the psalms. Many of the acts of worship in the psalms are quite different from what we might experience on a typical Sunday in church. The psalms contain songs of deep repentance, songs of lament, songs reviewing the history of Israel, songs of instruction, songs of imprecation, and so forth. There is no doubt that there is great variety in the psalms. One way of looking at the psalms is to see them as a collection of 150 distinct journeys.

The journey of Psalm 39 is an important one. It is a psalm dedicated to helping us gain perspective. We all know how easy it is to get caught up in our day to day activities. We have meetings to attend, errands to run, money to be earned, children to be shuttled from place to place, laundry to be done, etc. In the midst of all the busyness of life, it is easy to lose perspective on what really matters.

This is where Psalm 39 speaks to us: “Show me, O LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days;  let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you…everyone goes around like a phantom. They rush about, heaping up wealth, heaping up wealth without knowing where it will finally be” (vv. 4-6).

This is a great example of what I call a “Psalmic wake-up call.” You won’t find hymns like this in your church hymnal. It puts life in perspective and calls us to say with the psalmist: “Lord, my hope is in you” (vs. 7). All the things of this life will someday fade away. This psalm uses the same Hebrew word used in the book of Ecclesiastes to describe the fleeting nature of this world: vanity or meaningless (Ecc. 1:2 and Ps. 39:5, 6, and 11).

When I was growing up my mother had a small picture of Jesus in her kitchen with the words beneath, “Just one life will soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” That is a great summary of the message of this psalm.

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Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.

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