19 March 2022

Praying with the Psalms in Lent:
19 March 2022 (Psalms 39)

Rabbeinu Bachya interprets Psalm 39: 12, which mentions both prayer and tears, as teaching that ‘prayer needs tears’ … street art in the Plaza de la Judería, Malaga (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Following a day-celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day on Thursday and yesterday, the celebrations have spilled into the weekend in Ireland today (19 March 2022). But, before today begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

During Lent this year, in this Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 39:

Psalm 39 is known in Latin as Dixi custodiam vias meas. In the slightly different numbering in the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate, this psalm is numbered as Psalm 38, and numbering the verses differs between the Hebrew and Latin versions.

The heading in the Hebrew text addresses this song to Jeduthun: ‘To the leader: to Jeduthun. A Psalm of David.’ According to the mediaeval rabbinical scholar known as Rashi, this refers either to one of the Levite singers or to the name of a musical instrument. Psalms 62 and 77 are also addressed to Jeduthun.

According to the Talmud (Bava Batra 14a-b), this is one of the ten psalms written by Moses. Others say it is written by King David, suggesting he was in emotional turmoil or beset by enemies when he wrote the psalm, and that he struggled to wait patiently for God’s salvation.

This psalm is a meditation on the fragility of man before God, ending in a prayer for a peaceful life. According to Walter Brueggemann and William H Bellinger, ‘Psalm 39 articulates hope and despair simultaneously,’ as it tries to come to terms with ‘the transience and troubles of life.’

Other Christian scholars see the psalm as an analogy to one’s sins, where ‘he’ is representative of the body of Christians.

This psalm could be seen as addressing the struggle faith always has with difficulties. Despite confidence in and hope in God, we face troubles in life and need to turn to God in prayer, asking for God to provide for us.’ There is a time to be silent and a time to speak, and in an inner struggle we may find we have to control our tongues.

Rabbi Bahya ben Asher (1255-1340), the mediaeval Spanish rabbinical scholar often known as Rabbeinu Bachya, referris to verse 12, which mentions both prayer and tears, and concludes that ‘prayer needs tears.’

We might divide this psalm according to this pattern:

1, Verses 1-3: the care and watchfulness over our own thoughts, tongue, and actions;

2, Verses 4-7: the brevity and uncertainty of human life;

3, Verses 8-11: a prayer for deliverance from sin;

4, Verses 12-13: asking to be protected and spared until fitted for another world.

Psalm 39 has inspired hymns and has often been set to music. It was set by Baroque composers such as Heinrich Schütz, and single verses were used prominently in major works by Johannes Brahms in Ein deutsches Requiem and by Igor Stravinsky in his Symphony of Psalms.

The English text of Psalm 39 has been set to music as a motet by Maurice Greene and by Sir Hubert Parry as the final of six motets in his choral work Songs of Farewell. Both works are entitled ‘Lord, Let Me Know Mine End.’

‘Turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again’ (Psalm 39: 13) … street art in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 39 (NRSVA):

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.
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.

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.’

Today’s Prayer:

The USPG Prayer Diary has a particular focus on Ireland and the Church of Ireland this week, and I introduced this theme in the prayer diary last Sunday (13 March 2022), with the theme ‘Crossing Borders’. The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary this morning (19 March 2022) concludes this theme, inviting us to pray:

Let us pray for continued peace across the island of Ireland. May cross-border peace initiatives be supported and embraced.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The grave of Igor Stravinsky on San Michele in Venice … Stravinsky included Psalm 39 in his Symphony of Psalms (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org