Augustine. Exposition on the Book of Psalms. Schaff, Philip (editor). New York: Christian Literature Publishing Col, 1886. Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers: Series 1: Volume VIII. Re-published 2014, Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle electronic edition, ISBN-13: 978-1-78379-372-3.
Augustine’s comment on Psalm 39 immediately discloses the setting of his teaching. He says that “we have just chanted and proposed to discuss” it (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322542). Augustine questions whether the ascription “for Idithun” is a piece of allegory. He does not find the name elsewhere but observes its meaning as “over-leaping them” (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322550). He then moves along to discuss the idea of the “Songs of degrees” or “steps.” Again he considers whether it could refer to the idea of one walking and leaping.
To this idea Augustine ties the idea of the tongue slipping in verse one, as if it were difficult to speak and maintain our verbal footing in a wet and slippery place (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322558). This is made all the harder because wicked people oppose us. Augustine notes that this opposition should not come as a surprise. After all, the same has happened to apostles (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322574).
In verse two the Psalmist made an effort not to speak, out of concern that he should not sin (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322581). This resulted in sorrow, due to neglect of speaking what was good. The words then burst out in verse three. Augustine recalls the Lord’s rebuke of the servant who didn’t even invest what he was entrusted with in the bank. Avoidance of speaking the good is a failure in our stewardship (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322605).
As a result, the Psalmist prays to know his end. Augustine emphasizes that the “end” is a destination. He expects that something will change and that he will be prepared for that change (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322612). Augustine finds in this statement a recognition that we need to seek out the true number and value of our times. In the presence of the eternal God we look to God’s Word and will to find our timing (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322620). Augustine also ties an eternal perspective to our attempts to deal with what is lacking in our righteousness. Since we engage in earthly struggles, we find we are not perfect so we trust in God’s calling rather than our current state (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322628).
As the Psalmist laments his days being “old” (v. 5), Augustine urges us to look forward to the time we will be further “clothed” in Christ. Our old life is to pass away as we enter eternity. The problem which Augustine sees is that the Christian “still drags with him Adam, and even so he is hasting unto Christ” (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322644). Again, Augustine ties this concept to the ascription, a matter of “leaping ahead.”
Verse six continues to reflect on the disparity of our condition. We are intricately connected with the image of God. Augustine reminds us of the irony of a person bearing God’s image and facing vanity (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322671). After all, God is the one who has promised and will provide a future for his people. Yet Augustine is quick, referring to verse seven, to give numerous biblical citations in which prominent godly people find themselves concerned about temporal things (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322687). Verse eight concludes that we are in need of deliverance from transgressions. Again Augustine refers to the idea of “over-leaping” as he describes our need to repent and be forgiven (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322703). Much of the disparity Augustine observes is related to the challenges inherent in living for God’s truth in the midst of a world that denies God. To actively resist evil places us in opposition to not only many of our desires but also to many widely held values (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322718).
At this point, in verse nine, the Psalmist returns to the theme of not speaking. Augustine notes that here the silence is related specifically to God’s chastening. The one who has over-leapt is corrected by God, then has nothing to say (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322726). The correction itself, though unpleasant, is not vain, as it teaches us how to follow God. From this point, Augustine reflects on the various uncertainties of life which we all face. Our anxiety is misplaced, as God remains in control (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322765). Therefore, in verse 12, the Psalmist asks that God would hear his prayer. He places his confidence in God, who has sustained him thus far. He expects to sojourn with God in the future. Augustine observes that the language of sojourning indicates a temporary place, anticipating a permanent place yet to be received (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322781). Looking forward to his permanent home, then, the Psalmist asks the Lord (v. 13) for “some remission, that I may be refreshed.” Augustine ties this idea to the rest and freedom inherent in remission of sins, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322804). The forgiveness, grace and peace we have in this world, then, is a foretaste of the world to come.