Intended to be played by the lead musician (v. 1), Song 39 is a melody of one note: five times does it sound the transitoriness of human life– “how fleeting I am”, v. 5
“mere handspans You made my days….
Mere breath is each man standing“, v. 6
“Mere breath he [man] murmurs“, v. 7
“Mere breath all humankind“, v. 12
The song begins, however, with the singer’s attempt to “muzzle” his mouth, so as not to rebuke, or, perhaps, slander the “wicked” (v. 2). His reason is not to spare his enemies but, rather, to protect his own integrity: to “keep [his] ways from offending” (v. 2) –from offending, presumably, the morality of his actions. Nonetheless, “mute”, silent, he is “deprived of good” and his “pain” is “grievous” (v. 3). That the pain and deprivation are the direct result of his silence is implied but not stated.
Suddenly, startlingly, his words break out, not to castigate his enemies, but, rather, to beseech God:
My heart was hot within me.
In my thoughts a fire burned.
I spoke with my tongue: (v. 4)
The heat, the intensity, of his pain –be it the pain of physical suffering or of resentment at his own wasted silence– fuels his supplication. And yet it is as though the silence of his mouth transforms to a spiritual emptiness. His perception is solely of his –and, indeed, all humankind’s– mortality. He questions God,
“Let me know, O Adonai, my end
and what is the measure of my days.
I would know how fleeting I am.” (v. 5)
His recognition is of the contrast between, of the utter oppositeness of, the temporal lot and God’s infinity. Man lives “in but shadow”; his future, despite his “stores” –his achievements– uncertain: he “knows not who will gather” them (v. 7).
The singer’s question to God is unanswered, completed only by its repetition. But this time he adds what is for him the only possibility of gaining knowledge of the future –his own and humankind’s:
And now, what [can] I expect. O Master,
my hope is in You. (v. 8)
Having pleaded for hope, for, it would seem, comfort, the singer faces his own “sins”, and asks that he might be “saved” from bearing their punishment (v. 9). But, at the same time, he recalls his enemies, so that he simultaneously hopes for rescue from his own sins and from “the scoundrel’s scorn”. It is as though somehow the two –his sins and his enemies’ scorn– are linked. His concern, however, for the remainder of the song, is not for his enemies but for his own moral state of being: in verse 10 he asserts that it is God Who has opened his mouth, Who has spurred him to speak:
I was mute, my mouth did not open,
for it is You Who acted.
A strange assertion. Verse 2 declares the singer’s wish to keep his words from inciting him to ignoble action; his silence, that is, would be his protection. Yet now he states that God has prompted him to break that silence. Prompted him, perhaps, to take responsibility for his actions.
Certainly the closing verses of the song ask God to stay His “scourge”, lest the singer “perish” from “the blow of God’s hand” (v. 11); verse 12 explains the punishment:
In rebuke for crime You chastise a man,
melt like the moth his treasure.
Yet, whether or not their destruction is God’s just will, human accomplishments and creations are, the singer repeats, transitory, fragile, without either solidity or permanency. The juxtaposition of the temporal lot of human beings and God’s rebuke of human crime –of the desecration of divine law– suggests that mortality may indeed be God’s censure of offense. That link, however, is not explicit; it is suggested by the verse’s structure. Nevertheless, the verse ends with, once more, the singer’s acknowledgement of the brevity of mortal life. With the last line of the verse –“Mere breath all humankind”– the one note of the song appears to subside: theme and structure seemingly coalesce.
No doubt the song could well have ended at this point; it would have reached a completion. But two more verses follow. The singer turns from his theme of human mortality to anguished concern over his own inevitable death. The first stanza of verse 13 begins with his plea to God to “hear” and ends with the verb in its negative form, “be not deaf”, the tense change itself mirroring the destructive end to all creation. The compassion he prays for, he poignantly argues, should be his because he is “a sojourner with You, a new settler like all my fathers”. The imagery of a temporary stay –the “new” cutting the stability of settling– is allowed no abstract syllogism. Rather, it is followed by a terrible cry, surely issuing out of pain that is both physical and spiritual:
Look away from me, that I may catch my breath
before I depart and am not. (v. 14)
The “You” in the preceding verse makes clear that it is God Whom he is entreating to look away. The “am not”, the extinction, the singer asks for a respite from –be it only for the duration of a “breath”– is, horrifyingly, the fate that the singer is actually (inadvertently?) decreeing for himself. For that moment of respite will come, he believes, only if God looks away. In that absence, in that turning away of God’s sight, is only emptiness. The annihilation of even the possibility of life.* The second line of verse 6 now takes on an appalling meaning: “my lot is as nothing before You”. If his implication is that individual life is “nothing”, of no value, to God Who created it, then no hope is possible. The singer denies all but non-being.
*Rabbi Maccabi’s interpretation of this verse is more palatable than my bleak one. He points out that, in Hebrew, the root of the verb “to look away” ( הָשַׁע) and “to save” (הוֹשִׁיעַ) are so close as to be the same (י.ש.ע. \ ה.ש.ע.). Accordingly, he sees the singer as asking for God’s mercy before his certain death.