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Mizmor 039 - A Crisis of Conscience

(א) לַמְנַצֵּחַ לִידוּתוּן מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד: (ב) אָמַרְתִּי אֶשְׁמְרָה דְרָכַי מֵחֲטוֹא בִלְשׁוֹנִי אֶשְׁמְרָה לְפִי מַחְסוֹם בְּעֹד רָשָׁע לְנֶגְדִּי:
(1) For the musician, Yedusun. A mizmor by David. (2) I resolved to watch my attitude and avoid sinning with my tongue. I would keep my mouth muzzled while any evildoer is before me.
NOTE: For a PDF of this mizmor, please click here. This will enable you to print out the entire text of the article. [Rev 7]
Key Concepts of Mizmor 039 - A Crisis of Conscience
In Mizmor 039 of Tehillim David takes us through a crisis of conscience as he deals with the frustrations of having to endure a painful illness that seems to be endless. The mizmor is somewhat disturbing for we see David reaching the limits of his endurance. His illness has brought him to the point where he appears to be challenging Hashem and Hashem’s plan for the world. However, it does not take long for David to regain his perspective and his humility when he realizes how insignificant he is in comparison to the infinity of the Creator.
David begins the mizmor by firmly stating that he is fully prepared to accept his illness without complaint. But then David finds himself challenging Hashem to offer some kind of assurance that his pain will come to an end and that he can look forward to a pain-free life when it is over. But in the course of David’s cry of unhappiness he begins to realize that life in this world is merely a passing shadow and is of little consequence in comparison to the eternity of Hashem. With his new insight David gains the peace of mind to approach Hashem asking to be be healed of his affliction so that he is enabled to fulfill his mission in this temporary world.
Navigating Tehillim. This mizmor is related to Mizmorim 006 and 038 in which David also asked to be healed from a life-threatening affliction. However, in the current mizmor, the frustrations of an extended illness have tested his resolve and he finds himself going through a moment of crisis before discovering how to put his situation in perspective.
Exploring the Mizmor
PART 1. MOMENT OF CRISIS. Initially, David assures Hashem of his resolve to accept his affiction calmly and in silence. David knows that he has been afflicted because of his sins and he is confident that Hashem will heal him at the appropriate time. But suddenly David is overwhelmed by pain and frustration and he feels compelled to speak out.
(א) לַמְנַצֵּחַ לִידוּתוּן מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד: (ב) אָמַרְתִּי אֶשְׁמְרָה דְרָכַי מֵחֲטוֹא בִלְשׁוֹנִי אֶשְׁמְרָה לְפִי מַחְסוֹם בְּעֹד רָשָׁע לְנֶגְדִּי: (ג) נֶאֱלַמְתִּי דוּמִיָּה הֶחֱשֵׁיתִי מִטּוֹב וּכְאֵבִי נֶעְכָּר: (ד) חַם לִבִּי בְּקִרְבִּי בַּהֲגִיגִי תִבְעַר אֵשׁ דִּבַּרְתִּי בִּלְשׁוֹנִי:
(1) For the musician, Yedusun. A mizmor by David. (2) I resolved to watch my attitude and avoid sinning with my tongue. I would keep my mouth muzzled while any evildoer is before me. (3) I became mute, totally silent. I kept quiet [even] from good though my pain was intense. (4) [But then] my heart grew hot within me. A fire blazed up in my thoughts [and] I spoke out with my tongue.
PART 2. TURNAROUND. David challenges Hashem to offer some kind of assurance that his pain will come to an end and that he can look forward to a pain-free life when it is over. But in the course of David’s cry of unhappiness he begins to realize that his priorities are mixed up. He has been focusing on improving his life in this world, but that is an insignificant and futile goal. Life in this world is merely a passing shadow and is of little consequence in comparison to the eternity of Hashem. The most that one can expect to achieve in this world is the opportunity to grow in spirit and to serve His Creator.
(ה) הוֹדִיעֵנִי ה' קִצִּי וּמִדַּת יָמַי מַה הִיא אֵדְעָה מֶה חָדֵל אָנִי: (ו) הִנֵּה טְפָחוֹת נָתַתָּה יָמַי וְחֶלְדִּי כְאַיִן נֶגְדֶּךָ אַךְ כָּל הֶבֶל כָּל אָדָם נִצָּב סֶלָה: (ז) אַךְ בְּצֶלֶם יִתְהַלֶּךְ אִישׁ אַךְ הֶבֶל יֶהֱמָיוּן יִצְבֹּר וְלֹא יֵדַע מִי אֹסְפָם:
(5) [Hashem,] Tell me my purpose. What is the measure of my days? I want to know what I [should do in] this life. (6) Behold, You have set my days in handbreadths. My life span is insignificant before You. [It is nothing] but total futility. [Yet] every man stands [before You]. Selah. (7) But man goes about in the dark shadow. [His] hectic activity is but futility. He accumulates, but he does not know who will gather them in.
PART 3. RENEWAL. With his new insight David resolves once more to accept his illness as a just punishment for his sins. This awareness gives him the peace of mind to approach Hashem in humble tefillah, asking to be forgiven his sins, and as a result to be healed of his affliction so that he is enabled to serve Hashem and fulfill his mission in this temporary world.
(ח) וְעַתָּה מַה קִּוִּיתִי אֲדֹ־נָי תּוֹחַלְתִּי לְךָ הִיא: (ט) מִכָּל פְּשָׁעַי הַצִּילֵנִי חֶרְפַּת נָבָל אַל תְּשִׂימֵנִי: (י) נֶאֱלַמְתִּי לֹא אֶפְתַּח פִּי כִּי אַתָּה עָשִׂיתָ: (יא) הָסֵר מֵעָלַי נִגְעֶךָ מִתִּגְרַת יָדְךָ אֲנִי כָלִיתִי: (יב) בְּתוֹכָחוֹת עַל עָוֹן יִסַּרְתָּ אִישׁ וַתֶּמֶס כָּעָשׁ חֲמוּדוֹ אַךְ הֶבֶל כָּל אָדָם סֶלָה: (יג) שִׁמְעָה תְפִלָּתִי ה' וְשַׁוְעָתִי הַאֲזִינָה אֶל דִּמְעָתִי אַל תֶּחֱרַשׁ כִּי גֵר אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ תּוֹשָׁב כְּכָל אֲבוֹתָי: (יד) הָשַׁע מִמֶּנִּי וְאַבְלִיגָה בְּטֶרֶם אֵלֵךְ וְאֵינֶנִּי:
(8) And now, for what do I hope, O Master? My yearning is to You. (9) Rescue me from all my transgressions. Don’t let me be an object of shame before the wicked. (10) I have resolved to be mute because it is You Who has done it. (11) Take Your affliction from me; I am completely devastated by the assault of Your hand. (12) In rebuke for sin You afflict a man. You eat away like a moth at his precious [flesh]. All mankind is but futility, Selah. (13) Hear my prayer, Hashem, and give ear to my outcry; don’t be silent to my tears. For I am a sojourner before You, a temporary resident like all my forefathers. (14) Release me and let me recover before I depart and I am no more.
Learning the Mizmor
PART 1. MOMENT OF CRISIS.
(א) לַמְנַצֵּחַ לִידוּתוּן 
מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד:
This song has been prepared for the musician — לַמְנַצֵּחַ  named Yedusun — לִידוּתוּן , who will perform it. It is a mizmor composed by David  מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד .
(ב) אָמַרְתִּי אֶשְׁמְרָה דְרָכַי 
מֵחֲטוֹא בִלְשׁוֹנִי
When I first became seriously ill, I realized that my emunah was being tested. And so I resolved — אָמַרְתִּי  to guard my attitude  אֶשְׁמְרָה דְרָכַי  of self-pity and avoid sinning with my tongue — מֵחֲטוֹא בִלְשׁוֹנִי , not only in my words but in my manner of expression towards Hashem. I knew that everything that happened to me was ultimately for my benefit and so I wanted to accept my afflictions in a positive frame of mind.
אֶשְׁמְרָה לְפִי מַחְסוֹם 
בְּעֹד רָשָׁע לְנֶגְדִּי:
I resolved that I would accept Hashem’s judgment bravely and keep my mouth muzzled — אֶשְׁמְרָה לְפִי מַחְסוֹם . I would not question or criticize the judgment that had been imposed on me. In fact, I would exercise special self-control while any evildoer, who is hoping to see me betray Hashem, is standing before me — בְּעֹד רָשָׁע לְנֶגְדִּי  and observing my reaction. I knew that if I showed weakness, my enemies would be only too happy to mock me and see in my words a betrayal of my Creator.
(ג) נֶאֱלַמְתִּי דוּמִיָּה 
הֶחֱשֵׁיתִי מִטּוֹב וּכְאֵבִי נֶעְכָּר:
I became like a mute — נֶאֱלַמְתִּי  who has completely lost the power of speech, totally silent — דוּמִיָּה . I even kept quiet  הֶחֱשֵׁיתִי  from expressing a good thought — מִטּוֹב , such as the righteousness of Hashem’s judgment. I didn’t trust myself to hold back cries of resentment once I started speaking. I managed to keep quiet even though my pain was intense — וּכְאֵבִי נֶעְכָּר .
(ד) חַם לִבִּי בְּקִרְבִּי 
בַּהֲגִיגִי תִבְעַר אֵשׁ 
דִּבַּרְתִּי בִּלְשׁוֹנִי:
But my anxiety was so great that the thoughts in my heart grew hot within me — חַם לִבִּי בְּקִרְבִּי  and I was unable to maintain my resolve. A fire of frustration blazed up in my thoughts  בַּהֲגִיגִי תִבְעַר אֵשׁ  and without really intending to I spoke out with my tongue — דִּבַּרְתִּי בִּלְשׁוֹנִי . My words were as follows:
PART 2. TURNAROUND .
(ה) הוֹדִיעֵנִי ה‘ קִצִּי
I am in so much pain! Is there a reason for me to continue living? Hashem, tell me my purpose  הוֹדִיעֵנִי ה' קִצִּי  in this life, so that I can deal with my distress. Will I ever again have the opportunity to live a meaningful life free of pain? Will I have enough time to fulfill my mission in life?
וּמִדַּת יָמַי מַה הִיא 
אֵדְעָה מֶה חָדֵל אָנִי:
Tell me what is the measure of my days  וּמִדַּת יָמַי מַה הִיא , so that I will better know how to value the days I have left and so that I will know what I should do in this life — אֵדְעָה מֶה חָדֵל אָנִי .
(ו) הִנֵּה טְפָחוֹת נָתַתָּה יָמַי 
וְחֶלְדִּי כְאַיִן נֶגְדֶּךָ 
אַךְ כָּל הֶבֶל כָּל אָדָם נִצָּב סֶלָה:
Behold, You have set my days to be measured only in handbreadths  הִנֵּה טְפָחוֹת נָתַתָּה יָמַי , for they are short. My life span is insignificant before You — וְחֶלְדִּי כְאַיִן נֶגְדֶּךָ . In fact, this world is nothing but total futility — אַךְ כָּל הֶבֶל . And yet You have created every man to stand — כָּל אָדָם נִצָּב  before You and serve You. Should man not live forever?  סֶלָה .
(ז) אַךְ בְּצֶלֶם יִתְהַלֶּךְ אִישׁ
But despite his noble stature, man goes about his daily life in the dark shadow  אַךְ בְּצֶלֶם יִתְהַלֶּךְ אִישׁ  of ignorance and insecurity for no one knows what tragedies will befall him.
אַךְ הֶבֶל יֶהֱמָיוּן 
יִצְבֹּר וְלֹא יֵדַע מִי אֹסְפָם:
All of mankind’s hectic activity is but futility  אַךְ הֶבֶל יֶהֱמָיוּן . He accumulates  יִצְבֹּר – possessions, but he does not know who will gather them in — וְלֹא יֵדַע מִי אֹסְפָם . He does not know who will benefit from his efforts after he is gone.
PART 3. RENEWAL .
(ח) וְעַתָּה מַה קִּוִּיתִי אֲדֹ־נָי 
תּוֹחַלְתִּי לְךָ הִיא:
And now — וְעַתָּה  I realize that any expectations that I might have had of gratification in this world were misplaced. The ultimate meaning of life is not physical, but spiritual. So for what do I hope, my Master — מַה קִּוִּיתִי אֲדֹ־נָי ? My yearning is to You — תּוֹחַלְתִּי לְךָ הִיא , to let me serve You. To that end I humbly ask that You forgive my sins, heal my body, and guide me to a better understanding of Your ways. Then I will find my true happiness, not in This World, but in the World to Come.
(ט) מִכָּל פְּשָׁעַי הַצִּילֵנִי
I realize that my sins are the cause of my afflictions. So I now humbly ask Your forgiveness. Rescue me from all my transgressions  מִכָּל פְּשָׁעַי הַצִּילֵנִי , which have dragged me down to my present state.
חֶרְפַּת נָבָל אַל תְּשִׂימֵנִי:
Surely, the extent of my afflictions has been sufficient to warrant atonement for my sins. I sincerely hope that it is not necessary for me to suffer disgrace as well. Don’t let me be an object of shame before the wicked — חֶרְפַּת נָבָל אַל תְּשִׂימֵנִי , who gloat over my misfortune and ridicule my piety!
(י) נֶאֱלַמְתִּי לֹא אֶפְתַּח פִּי
And so I have again resolved to be mute  נֶאֱלַמְתִּי  and not complain about my situation. I won’t open my mouth — לֹא אֶפְתַּח פִּי  even to defend myself against evildoers who are making fun of me. I know that if they are doing this, it is Your will.
כִּי אַתָּה עָשִׂיתָ:
I won’t complain because I know that it is really You Who has done it — כִּי אַתָּה עָשִׂיתָ . They are merely an instrument of Your discipline.
(יא) הָסֵר מֵעָלַי נִגְעֶךָ 
מִתִּגְרַת יָדְךָ אֲנִי כָלִיתִי:
Nevertheless, the affliction which You have imposed upon me prevents my spiritual fulfillment. Therefore, I ask that You take Your affliction from me — הָסֵר מֵעָלַי נִגְעֶךָ . I have surely paid for my sins as I am completely devastated by the assault of Your hand  מִתִּגְרַת יָדְךָ אֲנִי כָלִיתִי .
(יב) בְּתוֹכָחוֹת עַל עָוֹן יִסַּרְתָּ אִישׁ 
וַתֶּמֶס כָּעָשׁ חֲמוּדוֹ
It is Your way Hashem that in rebuke for sin  בְּתוֹכָחוֹת עַל עָוֹן  You afflict a man  יִסַּרְתָּ אִישׁ . You introduce an affliction to eat away like a moth at his precious flesh — וַתֶּמֶס כָּעָשׁ חֲמוּדוֹ .
אַךְ הֶבֶל כָּל אָדָם סֶלָה:
Clearly, if a man has no control over what is most precious to him, all mankind is but futility,  אַךְ הֶבֶל כָּל אָדָם . The flesh is temporary, but the spirit is eternal, Selah  סֶלָה .
(יג) שִׁמְעָה תְפִלָּתִי ה‘ 
וְשַׁוְעָתִי הַאֲזִינָה 
אֶל דִּמְעָתִי אַל תֶּחֱרַשׁ
Hear my prayer, Hashem — שִׁמְעָה תְפִלָּתִי ה' ; it is a sincere act of devotion to You. And give ear to my outcry — וְשַׁוְעָתִי הַאֲזִינָה , for it expresses the pain of my affliction and my desperate need for a yeshuah. Now that I have accepted Your rebuke and endured my punishment, cleanse me of my sin and heal me. And if You are not moved by my prayer or my outcry, have pity on me and don’t be silent to my heartfelt tears — אֶל דִּמְעָתִי אַל תֶּחֱרַשׁ .
כִּי גֵר אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ 
תּוֹשָׁב כְּכָל אֲבוֹתָי:
For I now truly understand that I am only a sojourner before You in this world — כִּי גֵר אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ . At most I am a temporary resident like all my forefathers — תּוֹשָׁב כְּכָל אֲבוֹתָי . Generations come and go, but there is no real difference in our status as travelers passing through the world that You have created for us.
(יד) הָשַׁע מִמֶּנִּי וְאַבְלִיגָה 
בְּטֶרֶם אֵלֵךְ וְאֵינֶנִּי:
Release Your hand of punishment from me — הָשַׁע מִמֶּנִּי  and let me recover  וְאַבְלִיגָה  from my illness so that I can again serve You before I depart this world and I am no more — בְּטֶרֶם אֵלֵךְ וְאֵינֶנִּי . I will be able to make up for my past failures only as long as You allow me to remain in this temporary existence.
Living the Mizmor
Listed below are some of the lessons that you can draw from this mizmor, as well as some of the thoughts you might have in mind when you say the words of the mizmor as a tefillah, expressing your devotion to Hashem.
Lessons for Life - Your Attitude.
[39:2] RESTRAINT. – אָמַרְתִּי אֶשְׁמְרָה דְרָכַי מֵחֲטוֹא בִלְשׁוֹנִי – “I resolved to watch my attitude and avoid sinning with my tongue. I would keep my mouth muzzled.” Follow David’s example and restrain your natural tendency to feel resentful about the difficulties you encounter in life. Hashem has sent those difficulties to you for a purpose.
[39:3] – נֶאֱלַמְתִּי דוּמִיָּה הֶחֱשֵׁיתִי מִטּוֹב וּכְאֵבִי נֶעְכָּר – “I became mute, totally silent. I kept quiet [even] from good though my pain was intense.
[39:14] – הָשַׁע מִמֶּנִּי וְאַבְלִיגָה בְּטֶרֶם אֵלֵךְ וְאֵינֶנִּי – “Release me and let me recover before I depart and I am no more.
[39:6] PERSPECTIVE. – הִנֵּה טְפָחוֹת נָתַתָּה יָמַי, וְחֶלְדִּי כְאַיִן נֶגְדֶּךָ – “Behold, You have set my days in handbreadths. My life span is insignificant before You.” If your difficulties are making you feel desperate and frustrated, curb your resentment by putting your situation in perspective. Realize how insignificant you are in the vastness of Creation. Don’t feel that you have a right to a pleasant situation in life because of who you are.
[39:13] – כִּי גֵר אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ תּוֹשָׁב כְּכָל אֲבוֹתָי – “For I am a sojourner before You, a temporary resident like all my forefathers.
Lessons for Life - Your Behavior.
[39:7] WEALTH – אִישׁ אַךְ הֶבֶל יֶהֱמָיוּן יִצְבֹּר וְלֹא יֵדַע מִי אֹסְפָם – “[Man’s] hectic activity is but futility. He accumulates, but he does not know who will gather them in.” Don’t focus your energy and resources on gathering wealth. It won’t last and your efforts will have been wasted. Any wealth you assemble is insignificant in the overall scheme of things.
Tefillos for Life - Your Relationship with Hashem.
[39:8] RENEWAL – עַתָּה מַה קִּוִּיתִי אֲדֹ־נָי תּוֹחַלְתִּי לְךָ הִיא – “And now, for what do I hope, O Master? My yearning is to You.” Realize that expectations of gratification in this world are misplaced. The ultimate meaning of life is not physical, but spiritual, and so you should yearn for fulfillment through bonding with your Creator.
[39:13] APPEAL TO BE HEARD. – שִׁמְעָה תְפִלָּתִי ה' וְשַׁוְעָתִי הַאֲזִינָה אֶל דִּמְעָתִי אַל תֶּחֱרַשׁ – “Hear my prayer, Hashem, and give ear to my outcry; don’t be silent to my tears.” Ask Hashem to listen to your tefillah respond to your heartfelt emotions.
Tefillos for Life - Your Teshuvah.
[39:9] FORGIVENESS. – מִכָּל פְּשָׁעַי הַצִּילֵנִי – “Rescue me from all my transgressions.” Ask Hashem to forgive your transgressions and rescue you from being caught up in their consequences.
Tefillos for Life - Your Anguish.
[39:11] HEALING. – הָסֵר מֵעָלַי נִגְעֶךָ מִתִּגְרַת יָדְךָ אֲנִי כָלִיתִי – “Take Your affliction from me; I am completely devastated by the assault of Your hand.” Ask Hashem to heal your affliction for it has already accomplished its purpose.
Sources
The primary sources used in the interpretation of the verses of this mizmor are listed below.
א - רש"י, רד"ק
ב - רד"ק, מצודות, נר לרגלי, מאיר טוב
ג - אבן עזרא, רד"ק, נר לרגלי
ד - אבן עזרא, המאירי, אלשיך, מלבי"ם, נר לרגלי, מאיר טוב
ה - רד"ק, המאירי, אלשיך, רשר"ה
ו - רש"י, אבן עזרא, רד"ק, המאירי, רשר"ה
ז - רש"י, רד"ק, ספורנו, מאיר טוב
ח - רש"י, בן־רמוך, ספורנו, מלבי"ם, נר לרגלי
ט - רד"ק, מלבי"ם, מאיר טוב
י - רד"ק, בן־רמוך, מלבי"ם, מאיר טוב
יא - המאירי, בן־רמוך, מלבי"ם
יב - רש"י, אבן עזרא, רד"ק, אבן יחייא
יג - רד"ק, ספורנו, מלבי"ם, נר לרגלי
יד - רש"י, רד"ק, המאירי