This blog continues my reading and translation of psalms 1-41, the first book. Here for example is a wonderfully sharp and honest psalm which I had completely overlooked until I came to translate it.
PSALM 39 To the leader, to Jeduthun, a psalm for David
I will watch my behaviour,
So that I do no harm with my tongue;
I will put a muzzle on my mouth,
Whilst there is a sinner in sight.
I was tongue-tied, stayed quiet, held my peace,
Until the sinner’s prosperity stirred my bile.
My heart was hot within me;
As I mulled it over, a fire blazed up;
So I gave words to my tongue:
“Lord, show me the end of my life
And the span of my days
So that I grasp how frail I am.
Ah, a mere hand’s breadth are the days you have given me
And my lifespan is as nothing before you!
The state of human being is only vapour.
Surely everyone walks as a shadow;
Surely all their trouble is only vapour,
Heaping things up and ignorant of who will gather them in.
So now, Lord, what am I looking for?
My hope is in you.
Rescue me from all my wrongdoing;
Spare me from the scorn of fools!”
I am tongue-tied and have shut my mouth,
For now you have acted.
Stop beating me!
I am worn down by your buffeting.
When you correct a man for wrongdoing
You consume his loveliness like a moth.
Surely, all human beings are mere vapour!
Lord, hear my prayer and listen to my cry;
Do not blunt yourself to my tears;
For I am a stranger and traveller with you,
Like all my ancestors.
Look away from me and let me be cheerful,
Before I leave and exist no more.
This is perhaps the least pious of all the psalms in book 1. It hardly says any of the things that should be said to God -it neither gives nor promises praise, for example; and it does say things that should not be said – reminding God that his discipline hurts and that it’s difficult to be cheerful if you know he’s watching.
The psalm is written in the wisdom tradition and includes ideas that are shared with Ecclesiastes (the frailty of human life) and with Job (the scorn of fools). Its message is that human life is pretty pointless, of short duration and full of misfortune. There’s no true justice, for sinners prosper and just people suffer, sometimes even by the action of God.
In such a world a person should guard their tongue in case they anger God, and should perhaps hope for nothing more than some brief happiness before going the way of all flesh. The psalmist, unlike Ecclesiastes and more like Job, is not passive under the blows of life, but complains that God takes no account of the frailty of his human creatures. One phrase especially sticks out:
For I am a stranger and traveller with you, like all my ancestors.
It’s commonplace that the patriarchs were strangers and travellers in the promised land, for in time the people possessed the land; but to say that they are like this with God is a deliberate provocation, emphasising that even in God humanity has no secure dwelling. Not only is human life short and insignificant it is also under the discipline of God, which takes away happiness.
In a few lines the psalm utterly undermines traditional faith in the goodness and faithfulness of God, yet here it is, in the book of Israel’s praise, with its stubborn impiety. The question arises as to whether the psalm tells us that God answers the complaint of the speaker by punishing him. Certainly it seems as if the speaker recognises that he’s getting a beating for his careless tongue, forcing him to ask God not for justice, since that will be offensive, but for mere pity of his limited existence.
And yet, and yet, he’s still complaining to God, still asking for God’s mercy, still suggesting that God should give him a break. That’s what makes it a song of faith, even if it is one of the strangest.