Psalm 39 There Are No Words

Image from Associated Press

Psalm 39

<To the leader: to Jeduthun. A Psalm of David.>
1 I said, “I will guard my ways that I may not sin with my tongue; I will keep a muzzle on my mouth as long as the wicked are in my presence.”
 2 I was silent and still; I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse,
 3 my heart became hot within me. While I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue:
 4 “LORD, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.
 5 You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. Surely everyone stands as a mere breath. Selah
 6 Surely everyone goes about like a shadow. Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; they heap up, and do not know who will gather.
 7 “And now, O Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you.
 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 it is you who have done it.
 10 Remove your stroke from me; I am worn down 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. Selah
 12 “Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear to my cry; do not hold your peace at my tears. For I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears.
 13 Turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more.”

“There Are No Words” was the headline in my morning paper as the news covered yet another school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida. A nineteen-year-old was equipped with smoke grenades, a gas mask, and an AR-15 rifle and killed at least seventeen people. As the leader of a community of faith I had to stand before my congregation last night as we came together for an Ash Wednesday service and they looked to me for words of wisdom, words of faith, words that fit the paradox of a day that on the secular calendar celebrated Valentine’s day but on the religious calendar reminds us that, “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” There are no words that are adequate to the pain that the parents and students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School must feel. Sometimes we discharge our own inadequacy with platitudes or promises of prayer. I would prefer to remain silent for I know the inadequacy of any words I may say. I would prefer to not speak from my own sense of weakness and frustration at the powerlessness that we seem to have around any issue related to who may possess a weapon in our country. I wonder for the parents of previous shootings who have turned their pain into a desire to make a change only to be frustrated again and again by the politicians who seem untouched or patronizing by these parents’ desire to never again allow this to happen to another family.

This psalm speaks to me this week. The beginning of Psalm 39 is paradoxical as the speaker speaks of their silence, of their desire to hold their tongue and muzzle the mouth. The movement from silence to protesting speech to silence and back to speech reminds me of the words of Richard Lischer:

Before any prophet speaks, the prophet is absolutely positive that he or she must not speak. Moses claimed a speech impediment; Isaiah confessed his own impurity; Jeremiah appealed to his inexperience. After the temple was destroyed, the prophet Ezekiel was transported to a refugee camp at Tel Abib. There he sat for seven days stupefied among the refugees, or, as one translation has it, “in a catatonic state.” Imagine the denizens of the twentieth century, beginning with ninety-three million dead in wars, gazing up from their mass graves or through the barbed wire of their camps, stupefied, catatonic. Something has ended. Visit the Holocaust Museum or Dachau. The normative demeanor is silence. (Lischer, 2005, p. 5f.)

I don’t know what terror the psalmist feels. Their silence could come from a personal illness, a communal tragedy, events that threaten the security or the identity of their nation, or they could just be silenced by the sheer magnitude of horrors both experienced and whispered in their life. Like Job the psalmist here begins in a state of silence. They hold back their tongue for fear of uttering blasphemy against their LORD. Yet their silence does not bring healing. The unexpressed wounds on their soul continue to fester as they remain locked behind their closed mouth. The words which the poet choked down burn now within them. The unresolved injustice burns their heart. They were absolutely positive they must not speak but the words burned within them and so they utter their words of protest. They cry out to God from the unspeakable tragedy of their life and with their words they give the tragic a voice.

“LORD let me know my end, what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.” On a day where Christians gathered and ashes formed the sign of the cross upon their foreheads we remember that our days are a few handbreadths. Yet, we do not accept the senselessness of suffering in silence. The witness of the faithful ones of scriptures bear witness to the words that must be spoken otherwise they burn within us until we speak. We take our words and our feelings into our dialogue with our LORD. We wrestle with how things like this can happen in a world created by a loving God. These words may move us into the uncomfortable place of girding up our loins to stand before God as Job was asked to do. We may stand in the place of Jeremiah who amid his pain would say to God, “Truly you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail” (Jeremiah 15: 18) or in less poetic language to dare to say to God that God’s promises were untrue, or God’s strength was unreliable. We may cry with the psalmist, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.” (Psalm 22: 1) for the pain must go somewhere and the character of God revealed to the people of Israel is a God who sees the misery and hears the cry of God’s people. (See for example Exodus 3: 9) The words which seemed unutterable must be spoken. In the pain of the people and from the pain of the prophet the words cannot be held back. While the measure of days still lasts these the people cannot remain speechless before their God or in the world they live in.

In verses five and six behind the translation of ‘mere breath’ and ‘for nothing they are in turmoil’ lies the Hebrew word hebel (the word behind ‘vanity’ in Ecclesiastes which literally means vapor or mist but often represent emptiness and futility). The poet lapses into the language of the wisdom traditions of the bible trying to make sense of the senseless, to give words to the unspeakable, and grasping for certainties that are not there. Outside of their faith there are no satisfactory solutions for the psalmist wrestling with the crisis which for them makes meaningless a life that once held meaning. They turn to their LORD, where their hope lies, and they dare to speak. They ask for deliverance from their transgression of speech, silence and action.

The paradoxical speech from silence continues as the psalmist feels their personal crisis is a result of some judgment of God. God is the one who is punishing them, God has sent this crisis, God is the one whose chastisement threatens to consume them. The person feels cut off from community and is vulnerable like the wandering foreigner in the land. They have no people, no family, no group other than God. They cry for God to hear, give ear, and not to remain silent. Yet, while they have no family but God they also ask for God to turn God’s gaze away. Even though God may be their only support they are unable to see from God anything other than wrath in the moment. In the confused space of a crisis where there are no adequate words they perhaps need some time in their own silence. Yet, perhaps ironically it is in this confused space where they want God to act in mercy. In a time where words seem to fall flat, and emotions are confused the poet still trusts that God hears and that ultimately God will act. They feel a mixture of self-condemnation, fear, anger, betrayal, shame, pain, and there are no immediate resolutions. They long for the day when they can smile once more, and they pray that that day is before their life ends. Yet, these words echo on days where there are ‘no words.’ The psalm ends without resolution but still with a defiant hope that the silence and speech of this psalm will not be the final word. That even during the futility of this moment and their life they might still find joy once more.

Perhaps the reason these words speak to me today is that they do not claim to have the answer. There may come a time when these words transform into different words and different actions that once again try to imagine a world where these words and feelings are not necessary. To imagine a world where a nineteen-year-old either can’t use a weapon to shatter so many families or where this type of action is somehow prevented. I know my own feelings on this issue may not be popular in Texas where I serve. When I served in the military we did place an M-16 or M-4 (which are the military versions of this rifle) into the hands of young men and women this age but always within structure and supervision. In the time of the psalms and the prophets conflict was a frequent part of the people of Israel’s story and perhaps that is why the psalms and the prophets so often dream of peace and of a world free from the implements of war. Perhaps they had seen too many times where mothers and fathers mourned the son and daughters lost in violence. Perhaps they too knew what it meant to be at the point where there are no words and yet the words they choked back burned within them. They would enter the space where they cried out and questioned God and yet knew that it was only God who might eventually heal the emptiness they felt inside. But on this day, I am running out of words and like the psalm it may not bring any resolution, yet they needed to be spoken.

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One Response to Psalm 39 There Are No Words

  1. Pingback: The Book of Psalms | Sign of the Rose

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