This chapter contrasts with chapter 37, where David had described the fleeting nature of the wicked man. Yet, here, he asks the LORD what is the measure of his own days, for man generally is fleeting in nature. This Psalm is also noted to be dedicated to the chief musician Jeduthun (the Hebrew name meaning “laudatory” or “praising“). It is speculated that Ethan and Jeduthun are perhaps the same person, comparing 1 Chronicles 15:17, 19 and 1 Chronicles 16:41-42, 25:1, 25:3, 25:6, 36:15. He is mentioned in 1 Chronicles 9:16 as part of the tribe of Levites (in particular, Jeduthun is actually from the family of Merari – see my commentary on Numbers 3 and 4 regarding the work of the Merarites in relation to the tabernacle); and his name is repeated in 1 Chronicles 16 as referring to one of the crew of worshippers before the ark – v.42 of that chapter states that “Heman and Jeduthun had trumpets and cymbals for the music and instruments for sacred song. The sons of Jeduthun were appointed to the gate.” 1 Chronicles 25 also describes the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who “prophesied with lyres, with harps, and with cymbals” – Jeduthun, “who prophesied with the lyre in thanksgiving and praise to the LORD” (1 Chronicles 25:3) – thus Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun were the three under the direct order of the king (v.6). As an interesting side note – in Nehemiah 11, it is the offspring of Asaph and Jeduthun who survive the exile and return, as described in v.17 of that chapter (and Heman is not mentioned), and of the Psalms written by David, it is only to Asaph and Jeduthun that the Psalms are dedicated to.
The dedication of the Psalm to Jeduthun suggests that the Psalm, though written by David, was led and sung by Jeduthun’s choir.
Adam Clarke notes that this relates to a grievous malady by which David was afflicted after his transgression with Bathsheba (as shown in Psalm 38), though Matthew Henry does not specifically refer to such incident, and calls this chapter instead as a “funeral psalm, and very proper for the occasion; in singing it we should get our hearts duly affected with the brevity, uncertainty, and calamitous state of human life; and those on whose comforts God has, by death, made breaches, will find this psalm of great use to them, in order to their obtaining what we ought much to aim at under such an affliction, which is to get it sanctified to us for our spiritual benefit and to get our hearts reconciled to the holy will of God in it“.
Chapter 39 thus begins with David attempting to stay silent that he may not sin with his tongue (v.1); despite his attempts to be at peace, his distress only grew worse (v.3). The burning of the fire in his heart then caused him to speak the verses after v.4, seeking confirmation from the LORD that he is but a fleeting creature (ending in a pensive Selah in v.5), language similar to what Solomon wrote in the book of Ecclesiastes, storing treasures in vanity. All, indeed, seems to be vanity (v.6). However, just as stated in Psalm 38, David’s hope is not in his own treasures, but in waiting for the LORD’s deliverance, waiting for the coming of Christ. V.7 – “…for what do I wait? My hope is in you.“, although the hostility is caused by the LORD (v.10), such hostility resulting from the LORD’s discipline and rebuke for David’s sin, repeating once again the temporary nature of man with another pensive Selah (v.11). Yet, David seeks peace from the LORD – he seeks to be made right with the Father, observing that he has not made earth his home as he is but a sojourner. As Adam Clarke comments, David is referring to a city that has permanent foundations, which the current Israel / Canaan cannot provide (v.12). Matthew Henry states:
Now he began, more than ever, to look upon himself as a stranger and sojourner here, like all his fathers, not at home in this world, but travelling through it to another, to a better, and would never reckon himself at home till he came to heaven. He pleads it with God: “Lord, take cognizance of me, and of my wants and burdens, for I am a stranger here, and therefore meet with strange usage; I am slighted and oppressed as a stranger; and whence should I expect relief but from thee, from that other country to which I belong?”
Indeed, such deliverance to the new heavens and earth can only be achieved by the Father through Christ, and such propitiation effected by the Father looking away from David (in the KJV, David says “O spare me“) by account of the Second LORD, the Christ (v.13), that David may smile (or, as the NASB translates it, “cheerful“) again.
For I am a sojourner with you,
a guest, like all my fathers.
13 Look away from me, that I may smile again,
before I depart and am no more!”