Psalms For Life
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Yahveh Elohim hear our prayers

Psalm 39

Wrestling with God

Some people’s suffering seems interminable. This psalm says God puts no restrictions on seeking his mercy, even when we brought the pain we’re suffering on ourselves.

For the musical director, Jeduthun. A David psalm.

I said, “I’ll carefully watch what I do
so I don’t sin with my mouth.
I’ll muzzle myself
whenever evildoers surround me!”
2 I was mute, utterly silent
saying nothing when deprived of good things
but my pain only intensified.
3 My thoughts smouldered inside me
till I was on fire inside
and these words burst out:

4 “Tell me what will happen to me, YHWH
and how much longer I have to live—
how little time I’ve got left.
5 Look, you’ve made my life
mere handspans long—
my entire lifetime is like nothing to you.
At best, everyone on earth
is but a breath.
6 We pass like shadows—mere breaths
hustling to stockpile all we can
without knowing who will get it in the end.”

7 So now, YHWH
what do I hope for?
My hope is in you.
8 Rescue me from all my sins.
Don’t make me the laughingstock of fools.
9 I kept silent, not opening my mouth
for I knew you were the one punishing me.
10 Take your scourge away from me
for the blows you’ve dealt me have worn me out.
11 You correct people by punishing their sins—
like a moth you eat away all they hold dear.
Yes, every human being is just a breath.

12 Hear my plea!
Listen to my cry for help!
Don’t ignore my tears
because I’m your guest here
a stranger like all my ancestors.
13 Stop frowning at me
so I can smile once more
before I’m dead and gone.


Evildoers—maybe Absalom’s mob—are stripping David of all he desires. He initially resolves to take it stoically, knowing his enemies act with God’s permission, that God is using them to punish him. But his inner anguish gradually builds till he has to tell God he just can’t take any more of it.

Despite its philosophical tone, this psalm is actually an argument, saying: “How long, Lord? Besides stacking the deck against us during our fleeting lives, you strip us of all we hold dear when you punish us for our sins. My only hope is that you’ll have mercy and free me from the death grip of my sin and its consequences. Give me a break! Grant me relief before my time is up!”

Neither lyrical nor upbeat, this prayer won’t likely make it onto our list of favorite psalms. But it serves as a model prayer for anyone undergoing suffering, whether or not for their sins. What makes it so helpful is the way it holds pain and grief—even despair—in tension with undying hope in God’s mercy. Gripped by fear and regret, Jacob could have said these words as he wrestled with God, Esau’s armed warriors bearing down on him and his family. Bearing our sins, Jesus may have prayed this on the cross too.

As a sojourner, I’m totally reliant on your goodness to me, Jesus. When you lead me through loss and grief to get my attention or curb my rebel ways, help me to cry out to you in my pain. Help me to know that you hear and your mercy never fails. You alone are my hope. Amen.

In your spare moments today, meditate on this truth:

Hear my plea!
Listen to my cry for help!
Don’t ignore my tears
because I’m your guest here
a stranger like all my ancestors.

Why YHWH?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH or YHVH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and sometimes transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Likewise, all modern translations either translate or transliterate it. Some other options for translating it are “the Eternal,” “the Almighty,” or “the Sovereign Lord.”

While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it seems to me more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. This roots it more firmly in the biblical story as the name God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Meaning “the self-existent One who answers to no one,” the name YHWH set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. I’ve chosen to transliterate only YHWH’s consonants since the earliest Hebrew manuscripts contain only consonants, the vowels being added much later. My aim in doing so is to honor God’s name and set it apart, as unique.

One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it out of reverence. (They read Adonai instead whenever they come to YHWH in the text.) I take the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard, who advocated pronouncing it as Yahveh (Yah·vay). He favored that over the standard Yahweh since the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish. It also makes it sound more robust, period.

Finding strength in the ancient psalms

May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.