Prayer of a Frustrated Traveler

The prayer of psalm 39 laments, “For what do I wait?” We might ask, in concert with the Psalmist, why do we wait when life frustrates, when we confront the reality of life’s brevity, when it may seem that there is no hope. Some choose to surrender, to commit suicide, when the pressure grows so great and they see no doors in the metaphorical (or literal) walls that surround them.  Others fret to themselves and keep the tension within.  Eventually they boil emotionally, and may explode in anger that frightens those about them.  This was the psalmist’s choice.  He describes his plight in the first few verses:

“I said, ‘I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth with a muzzle, so long as the wicked are in my presence.’ I was mute and silent; I held my peace to no avail, and my distress grew worse” (Psalm 39:1-3).

As I read it, he wanted so desperately to please God through his self-control, especially in regard to his language, that he restrained himself from rebuking others for sin.  He watched himself even more carefully in the presence of the “wicked.”  The tension within reveals his quandary.  He has not been honest with others, or with himself.  He is angry because of this frustration. He frets also about how short life is. Like Adam, who explained his sin to God by blaming first his wife and then God himself, the psalmist attributes his state of mind and failure to speak up to God. He says,

“And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you. Deliver me from all my transgressions. Do not make me the scorn of the fool! I am mute; I do not open my mouth, for it is you who have done it. Remove your stroke from me; I am spent by the hostility of your hand. When you discipline a man with rebukes for sin, you consume like a moth what is dear to him; surely all mankind is a mere breath!” (Psalm 39:7-11)

Even before he vents to God about the brevity of life, he confesses the truth he glimpses, “For what do I wait? My hope is in you” (verse 6). He has spoken of his concern as for who will inherit the wealth for which he has worked.  He has wondered just how long his fleeting days will last. He fears that his actions will cause even the foolish to scorn him. He wonders whether he will know joy again. I thought of nineteenth century poet Thomas Moore’s “The Last Rose of Summer” as I considered the psalmist’s grief.  Moore grieves in the last stanza of that poem about the death of a loved one and writes,

“So soon may I follow When friendships decay And from love’s shining circle The gems drop away  When true hearts lie withered And fond ones are flown.  Oh! Who would inhabit This bleak world alone.”

The psalmist grieves, as would Moore centuries later, but the psalmist perceives himself as held mute by God and as rebuked by God.  Moore longs for death. Each questions the value of life under the constraints he knows.  The psalmist realizes that he must place his hope in God.  He grasps also that life is a pilgrimage and we are sojourners (or refugees) with God.  His awareness of God’s watching him causes him to despair, to ask God to look away.  As the writer of Hebrews observed, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).  The psalmist hopes in God, his host, but fears God, his judge.  Reverence for God must co-exist with hope in God.  I have wondered if we sing too glibly about being a friend of God.  As we journey through life, with God as our father and following Jesus, who leads the way before us, we experience hardship.  God trains us and disciplines us.  We grow in spirit and in faith when we keep our eyes trained on the one who shows the way.  We wince under the gaze of the one who knows our hearts. We worry whether we have wasted our brief time here. We yearn for awareness of God’s love. We pray with the psalmist,

“Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear to my cry; hold not your peace at my tears! For I am a sojourner with you, a guest, like all my fathers. Look away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more!” (Psalm 39:12,13)

(Quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bible)


About Michael Summers

Michael Waymon Summers has preached in twenty-seven of the United States as well as seven other countries. Michael earned a Master of Theology degree. He also has done graduate work in international studies. Michael likes to run, loves to sing, and reads voraciously.
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