a reflection on Psalm 39

by Dr. Mark F. Whitters

Monday, January 11, 7:40 a.m. I am on my way to catch the train into Manhattan. I take the escalator and walk mechanically along the train platform to my customary spot. Sure do hope the 7:47 is on time this morning. It's terribly cold, more than ten below, and no one waits outside today. A few more steps, and I am there.

All at once a train conductor passes me cursing. Even though it's a bleak Monday, I think, there's no reason for such an outburst! My eyes glance downward listlessly. What is that on the tracks? It looks like rubble of some sort. A pile of clothes? Why is it steaming in the frigid air? Now I focus on it more, and a most horrible realization hits me: It is a large hunk of human flesh, a terribly mangled torso. The 7:39 train has just run over a woman who was determined to end her life.

The train conductor I passed alerts the authorities. The corpse on the tracks is identified and removed. The 7:47 arrives finally after this unavoidable delay. Passengers are slightly inconvenienced this bleak Monday morning. But the trains continue on. The workday begins. Life resumes normalcy.

Psalm 39: 4-6 reads:

How many mortals die each hour? At the end of one day how many have passed through the gate of death? We all must pass through. We take different routes tot he gate, but it is the same gate. On January 11, I stared at one who passed through the gate that I must enter.

I must say I rebelled at the thought. I raged at the futility of life, the finite measure of my days. Why, O God, did you regard this woman as nothing in your sight? Why do you subject me to turmoil so that I, too, may meet a bitter end? Yet, like it or not, the plane of human existence has a definite beginning and ending. The thought may be absurd and ignominious to us, yet it is a reality which we all must face. Our life is a vapor which steams for a while like the woman's body in the cold air of winter and then it disappears, and we are removed. "Make me know my end".

Death is a humbling reality. It levels the person who "heaps up" a lot along with the person who "heaps up" a little. It is a reality that the psalmist found worthy to contemplate. The Hebrew word for "lifetime" is heled (5), and it means more than a span of time. The word implies something like a complete world of events and experiences. When we put everything together and think we have quite a sum of existence, we call it a lifetime. Yet in comparison with the heled of God, our lifetime is as nothing. The Hebrew word here speaks of complete non-existence (ayin).

The psalm then grinds away at all human pretenses. The passage continues in the same vein: We stand as a "mere breath", as if wind-bags, filled with our own hot air. To "go about like a shadow" (yithallek 6) means to wander around like a fog (selem) which has no true reality. Finally, we come to the end of all our efforts to "heap up", and we have no idea as to who really benefits from our "turmoil". Who gathers up what we have accomplished by our agitation and anxiety? These are the thoughts the author brings before God. Blow by blow it all adds up to a confession of human futility.

So I must consider my own life in light of the same questions. I begin to see my life as being less important than I originally thought. The thins that I live for, the goals of my activity, the relationships that I develop are evaluated from the perspective of my own end. Do I strive for that which is only temporarily important? Do I consider my present achievements to be so great today, when in reality they will come to nothing?

As I get older I perceive that I have less energy for daily life and less enthusiasm for change. My eyesight slowly gets dimmer. My back is a little stiffer in the morning. I jog not quite so far and not quite so effortlessly. Programmed within my own body is an algorithm of futility. Whether we pay attention or not, the message is that we will die. Some do not face this reality and are forever "in turmoil". Yet increasingly my body will tell me of my end. One day I will no longer be able to ignore its message. One day I will be dead.

What else does my death make me consider? Why is life so ignominiously ended in death? Death is the destiny for which God created this physical body. The fact that I rebel at this thought suggests that there is a higher purpose for life. There is a higher purpose that is thwarted by death, but God allows this purpose to be thwarted. In giving us death God shows his wrath. In giving us a higher purpose for life God shows his mercy. Thus, when I consider my own death I reflect on God's wrath and on God's mercy.

Similarly, the psalm comes to this same conclusion in the next verse (7). We are to notice that this is the climax of the psalm, because it is structurally and conceptually the very middle verse of the poem.

Attention now turns away from death and turns back to God. Despair about human life turns into prayer for hope. Instead of giving up, the psalmist waits for God to acquit himself. This requires courage, for the next few verses show how vulnerable this "spiritual" approach can be.

8 Deliver me from all my transgressions. Do not make me the scorn of the fool. 9 I am silent; I do not open my mouth, for its is you who have done it. 10 Remove your stroke from me; I am spent by the blows of your hand. 11 You chastise mortals in punishment for sin, consuming like a moth what is dear to them' surely everyone is a mere breath.

The Lord is rather ruthless when it comes to exposing human futility: God can display human sin (8a), God can threaten public humiliation (8), and the psalmist must simply be resigned to such blows (9-10). God seems to take his time and spare no humiliation when it comes to showing us our true condition, turning like a consuming moth into rags our best clothes (11). What is remarkable is that this "punishment" comes from God, and God has all the advantages. In any quarrel with God, there is no question about who wins. This is what happens when a human takes the "spiritual" approach and waits for God.

The psalmist shows ambivalence about to terms with God. The final words of Psalm 39 are honest and blunt:

The psalmist is like a traveler on a journey through a foreign land. He had expected to be treated as a guest and receive appropriate courtesy. Instead, he and his "forbear" (read: the rest of us) have been treated as vagabonds without dignity (12). This is the tone of outrage which is expressed at the end of his prayer (13): He can do nothing about his fate and futility. He is an alien who stays only a short time in this land. He is utterly dependent upon the pity and mercy of God the divine host. If only God would not so ruthlessly expose our true condition, things would actually go better. Surely this is our honest prayer in time of futility: My life would go better without you, God.

After two weeks of inner mourning for the woman who died, I have come to terms with God. Her death made me reflect on the anguish of the human condition, our ultimate fate, and our dependence upon God.

I suspect that the trains to Manhattan are running again thought hey are almost never on schedule. Perhaps there is a semblance of normalcy now. But for one person there on Monday, January 11, at 7:40 a.m., the "normalcy" of life ceased. And for me, my life will not be the same "normalcy".

(c) 1996 Mark F. Whitters
All Bible quotations taken from RSV and NRSV.