Speaking for Silence (Psalm 39)

1 I said, “I will guard my ways, 
     that I may not sin with my tongue; 
I will guard my mouth with a muzzle, 
     so long as the wicked are in my presence.” 
2 I was mute and silent
     I held my peace to no avail, 
     and my distress grew worse. 
3    My heart became hot within me. 
As I mused, the fire burned; 
     then I spoke with my tongue:

—Psalm 39:1–3

In the 39th Psalm we see David both silent and speaking under the Lord’s discipline. That is clear. The question is, when is he sinning? The easy answer is to say that David was saintly when he was silence and sinful when he was speaking. But remember that David’s son would later say, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent” (Proverbs 17:28). Mere silence can be mistaken for sanctification, but it is not always so. A silent mouth doesn’t always indicate a quiet soul. It was while David was silent that his heart burned and it was while he spoke that he came to a place of renewed silence (vv. 7–9).

When was David sinful? I think it was both while he was silent and while he was speaking. When was David saintly? I believe it was both while he was silent and while he was speaking. Before you write off David’s words following verse 3 as complaint consider two things:

First, David doesn’t blaspheme God in the presence of the wicked. He lifts up this cry in the presence of God. David isn’t silent, but he is still guarding his lips and thus at least partially keeping his vow.

Second, these words that David spoke were given to Jeduthun, a chief leader in Israel’s worship (2 Chronicles 25:1). This psalm isn’t a historical record. It is a song. It is not just poetic expression. It is a song given by Israel’s king to a priest who is a choirmaster of Israel.

So what are we to make of these words? I believe it is clear that as David speaks, he still guards his words. What you have here is a lament for when your soul wants to complain. Here is a lament that walks right up to the edge of complaint and then stops. The complaint is understood, but it is a lament that is spoken. The complaint is suppressed. The lament is expressed.

Oh what a grace is here for us saints. When our hearts burn and sin is present within, here is grace. Grace for us to have something to sing and to pray that will guard our hearts from further sin. Here is a lament for our lips to guard us from complaint when it is in our heart. Here is a prayer to keep you from grumbling. Here is cry to keep you from blaspheming.

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