The Righteous One’s Funeral Psalm

a brief study of Psalm 39, adapted from PCC Prayer Meeting Exhortation on 9 Mar 2007
Psalm 39 may be known as a Funeral Psalm. Referring to its liturgical use in the Anglican church, George Horne remarks: “This Psalm is with the utmost propriety appointed by the church to be used at the burial of the dead, as a funeral is indeed the best comment upon it.”

We do not know the occasion, which prompted David to write this psalm in the first place. But it is not difficult to imagine that it might have been at the death of one of his trusted friends—not Jonathan, but someone who was his contemporary who passed away in his evening years. It must have been a poignant moment for David when his friend, whoever he was, died. David’s health might have been waning too. As he thinks about how his pilgrim journey is coming to an end, he began to reflect on his own life and on life on this side of eternity in general.

This psalm, as such is very suitable for our meditation at the funerals of our loved ones when we are hurting, and we are in need of healing and restoration.

Our Lord Jesus would, no doubt, have used this psalm during His earthly sojourn.

Could He have meditated on it at the time when His friend Lazarus died, when we are told, “Jesus wept”?

Could He have meditated on it in the Garden of Gethsemane as He thought about His own impending death?

Whatever the case might be, we believe that this psalm, as with all the other psalms, was written by David in the Spirit of Christ to be prophetic of the mediations of the Lord during His incarnation. As Bonar puts it, “The Psalmist thus describes Christ when on earth, and at the same time every one of his family while passing through this earth to his kingdom.”

It is because it is not merely the words of David that this psalm could be sung by the church today without modification or adaptation.

This psalm has 3 parts. From verse 1-2, we have the Lord’s Resolutions not to speak aloud. From verse 3-6, we have the Lord’s Reflections before the Father. And from verse 7-13, we have the Lord’s Request to the Father.

1. Resolutions

This psalm begins rather abruptly. It is an abruptness that reflects the words of someone who has kept silent through sorrow of heart.

1 I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me. 2 I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; and my sorrow was stirred.

Our Lord was a man of sorrow. He wept when His friend Lazarus died. He cried as He thought about the horrors of the Cross. He grieved as He saw the women weeping for Him as He was pushed and shoved to the cross at Calvary. He said to them: “Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children” (Lk 23:28).

Our Lord experienced grief. But make no mistake. He never did entertain hard thoughts against the Father. There never was bitterness in His holy heart. His grief was founded upon His compassion for a fallen world. His grief overflowed from His heart and found expression in His words.

But our Lord, like David of old, was careful with His words. He would indeed speak the truth at all times; and His speech was righteous at all times. He does not say one thing while feeling something else. His words were consistent with His heart.

But it is not enough to ensure that our words are righteous and consistent. It is necessary for us to ensure that our words do not give rise to occasion of misunderstanding and hard feelings against God.

Our Lord was sorely tried. His heart was brimming with strong emotions. But when the wicked were about Him, He held a bridle over His mouth and remained silent so that the wicked would not have occasion to blaspheme the name of the Lord. This is what the first two verses of this psalm teach us.

The children of God understand God’s ways. God will sometimes bring trials to His children for their good. But the wicked, all unbelievers, do not understand that. It was for this reason that our Lord held His peace, lest His words become occasion for sin.

It is for this reason that we must also learn to hold our peace before unbelievers when our hearts are brimming with emotions. We may indeed share with God’s people, but it is foolish to try to gain sympathy amongst unbelievers. We ought rather share the attitude of Ezra who was too ashamed to ask King Cyrus for an armed escort “because [he] had spoken unto the king, saying, The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek him; but his power and his wrath is against all them that forsake him” (Ezr 8:22).

We must always seek to preserve the great honour of our God; sometimes, that may mean remaining silent until it is appropriate to speak.

Our Lord did just that. He kept silent until He was no longer in the hearing of the wicked.

Then the pent up emotions in His heart overflowed with His prayerful reflections unto God.

2. Reflection

3 My heart was hot within me, while I was musing the fire burned: then spake I with my tongue,…

Talking is therapeutic. One of the best ways to deal with a hurt is to talk about it. To express one’s emotion is a very human thing to do. But we must always do so at the right time.

When the time was right, the Lord spoke. He spoke in audible prayer.

4 LORD, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am. 5 Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity.…

This was the musing of the Lord: Man’s life on earth is so brief compared to eternity. And it is so meaningless compared to the glory of God. Even the life of the best of ordinary man in his best state is altogether vanity compared to the weight of God’s glory.

6 Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.

Man is like a phantom or a mist. He appears but for a moment. He “walketh in a vain shew.” Man is busy for nothing. He heaps up riches which he cannot bring into eternity. Often, he does not even know whom he is gathering his riches for.

Such is the life of the ordinary man.

Why would our Lord withhold Himself from saying these things in the hearing of the wicked? Perhaps it is because it might sound like He was complaining when in fact, He was stating a fact that all men should be aware of.

Our Lord would particularly have to be careful about saying words that sound like complaints in the ears of the wicked because of the sorrows attending His life.

Naturally, when someone is facing severe trials, what he says would sound like complaints to those who do not know him. But complaints against God by God’s children dishonours His name. So our Lord withheld His tongue lest He be perceived to be complaining against the Lord.

So too we must learn to do the same, as Solomon puts it in his wisdom: “There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Ecc 3:7).

Honesty does not require us to say in the hearing of man everything that is in our heart at all times. But we can be honest with God at all times.

We can make our request known unto the Father before the saints. Consider our Lord’s Requests…

3. Requests

7a And now, Lord, what wait I for?

If man’s life is a vanity, what should I look forward to in my life?

As He asks the question, so He answers:

7b My hope is in thee.

The Christian hope is not merely wishful thinking. It is faith in God in regards to the future. It is a certain confidence in regards to the future.

Our Lord’s hope was in the Father. He came to do the Father’s will. He knew the purpose of His life. He knew what He came to do. His life was not without meaning.

He came to bear our transgressions. He came to deliver us from our sin.

He had no sin, but He was bearing our sin. He was being chastised for our sin. He was the reproach of the foolish because they did not understand what He was doing.

8 Deliver me from all my transgressions: make me not the reproach of the foolish. 9 I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because thou didst it. 10 Remove thy stroke away from me: I am consumed by the blow of thine hand. 11 When thou with rebukes dost correct man for iniquity, thou makest his beauty to consume away like a moth: surely every man is vanity.

Our Lord had to deal with a very complex set of emotions.

He delighted to do His Father’s will and He knew He had to face punishment in the hand of the Lord. Yet He, obviously, did not enjoy pain.

He knew that He had no sin, and yet He had to submit Himself to be treated as a sinner.

He knew that when the Father dealt with Him for the sin of His church, His appearance would, as it were, consume away like a moth. Yet, He, no doubt, desired to bear the image of God, including His glory.

He knew He had to suffer injustice; and yet to allow the foolish to reproach Him was to allow them to blaspheme the Father.

So He cries out “make me not the reproach of the foolish.” Our Lord was submitted to the will of His Father, but that did not mean that He should be silent in prayer. His Father delighted to hear the outpouring of His heart.

So He concludes His prayer:

12 Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear unto my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears: for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were. 13 O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more.

Our Lord was a stranger and pilgrim in this world more than anyone of us. But more than anyone of us He needed strength to fight the good fight and to complete the race.

He was going to face death and God’s wrath for His church. He was not going to “be no more” or to be annihilated. David was not expecting annihilation either. It is an expression that describes the finality of death.

Death spells the end of this present life. Death seals up one’s work of this present life.

When our Lord prayed the prayer in this psalm, He had not completed the race. Whether it was when Lazarus died or in the Garden of Gethsemane, our Lord needed a restoration of emotional strength to continue on to the end. It was a way that would get more and more difficult. It would be a journey towards death.

It was a journey our Lord would not presume to undertake without the Father’s presence and blessings. It was a painful journey that He had to undertake with tears.


Beloved brethren and children, death is very poignant. This psalm reflects the thoughts of our Lord as He anticipated His own death. We too can use this psalm when we think about our own death.

But especially, let us reflect on the thoughts in this psalm when we grieve over the death of a saint who has gone ahead of us.

Let us consider how the life of the brother or sister has come to an end. But let us refrain from complaining or suggesting that it is unfair that God should cut his life short.

Rather, let us think about our own life—of the rest of the race we must complete. Let us ask the Lord to give us grace and strength to live and die in such a way as to bring glory to His name. This is how we must deal with our grief. For as someone puts it “if our mourning goes beyond sorrow into bitterness, then we have allowed pain to abscess and become poison.”

Let us pray as the Lord did that we may not be a reproach to the wicked. Let us pray as the Lord did that the Father may give us strength to continue the good fight and to complete the race in a way that will best bring glory to His great and holy name.

Let us do so, especially as death has lost its sting for us, and one day we shall rise from the dead together with all our loved ones in the Lord just as Christ our Lord rose from the dead. Amen.

—JJ Lim