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Rev. VanderWal is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.

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.

I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; And my sorrow was stirred.

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

LORD, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; That I may know how frail I am.

Psalm 39:1-4

He kept his mouth with a bridle. He was dumb with silence. So silent was he that he held his peace, even from good!

Why? What was the cause of his silence?

He feared. He feared the power of sin. He determined to take heed to his ways, lest he sin with his tongue.

We inquire further. Wherefore this fear that led to such silence?

The answer is: the presence of the wicked before him. Wicked men were the cause of the psalmist’s fear. They were the cause of his silence, this holding of his peace, even from good.

Why from good? Why not speak what is right and good? Why not speak that which distinguishes good from evil? Why not bring out with the lips the good that is mighty to bring evil to naught? Why not bring evil to shame and cause the evil speaker to flee from the presence of the good?

Could it perhaps be that the purpose of the psalmist’s silence was to refrain from casting pearls before swine? Sometimes evil men will take the good that is spoken and twist and turn it to their evil end. They will take what is good and right and make it into grievous and sore evil. Such is the way of wicked men, always to make crooked what is straight.

Or was the purpose of this silence before the wicked to maintain the psalmist’s own safety? He desires to preserve his life. He keeps silent lest he should be destroyed because of the good that he has spoken. His life or his name or reputation before men may fall under attack.

Or perhaps these wicked men are so set in their wickedness that it is absolutely useless to speak to them. A waste of effort it would be to bring anything good to their ears or even to rebuke them.

This reasoning, however right and proper it might sometimes be, is not the reasoning of the Scriptures here.

The psalmist kept silence for his own sake. Not for the sake of upholding his reputation before the wicked. Nor for avoiding opposition. No, his silence was a taking heed to his ways.

He feared that he would sin with his tongue. He feared sinning against God with his tongue. Taking heed to his ways, the psalmist examined his motives. Speaking can so easily be an act of pride. To speak, even what is right and correct, may then be wrong. To speak when one’s purpose is simply to silence or put to shame wicked men is sinful. Sinful it is when one speaks in order to show that his tongue, too, has might and power. That his tongue can conquer this wickedness and evil before him! Yes, let his words put wicked men to shame!

Then would he sin with his tongue, being heedless of his ways! Then wickedness should beget wickedness! No, let him keep his mouth with a bridle while the wicked are before him.

Or, perhaps the psalmist feared being drawn into a sinful argument. He might be able to begin well. He might speak such words as are fitting and proper. He might even speak those words out of the deepest humility before God and men. But as he continues to speak, he could too easily grow more vehement. He might then be carried away with the force of his own words and become self-willed in his anger. Forgetting the fear of the Lord, he would forget that God is Judge alone.

So he takes heed to his ways, he keeps silence, lest he should sin with his tongue. While the wicked are before him, he keeps his mouth with a bridle.

The silence of the psalmist has a powerful effect in the depths of his heart. This self-imposed silence works upon the psalmist. His sorrow is stirred. His heart grows hot within him. While he muses the fire burns.

We must understand that the wicked do not learn from this silence. They continue to speak, their mouths pour out wickedness, deceit, lies, arrogance, and bold hypocrisy before the psalmist. As they speak, they only strengthen themselves in wickedness, harden themselves in deceit, and encourage themselves in their hypocrisy. They hardly even notice that no word in answer comes from the man before whom they stand.

As they continue to speak, pouring out wickedness from their lips, the psalmist’s sorrow is stirred to greater depths. The silent man’s heart grows hotter and hotter. The fire within him burns ever higher. So great the heat becomes, so hot the fire burns, that he must speak. His silence must be broken. Words that are good and right must come forth from his lips.

But what words we have! These fiery words the psalmist does not address to the wicked. The psalmist is not interested in setting matters straight before the wicked. We do not hear in these words a rebuke of the wicked. Much less do these words call for them to be cast out or executed, as they rightly deserve.

These words are directed to God. He prays to God, in an exercise of heartfelt, sincere fellowship with Him. He makes entreaty to the Lord, expressing his deepest desire to Him.

See what the psalmist brings before God. He makes no mention of the wicked. He asks for nothing concerning them, not for their shame and confusion, nor for their judgment at the hands of God. Neither is their wickedness brought to God. Their wicked words and deeds are not mentioned, though those things have been heard and seen. Wicked men are left far behind. This exchange is not about them.

He brings before the Lord his God…himself. He sets before the Lord his own need of instruction.

Here is where the wicked have led him: to stand before the Lord his God. These are the things the wicked have given him to think about: his end and the measure of his days. He has been brought before the Lord. He feels the fire burning in his heart. Sorrow stirs up in his inmost being. Hear what he has to say in the presence of his God.

“Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I many know how frail I am.”

How frail I am!

To know accurately and clearly his frailty, to know his frailty as utter weakness, to avoid the danger of thinking himself to be something when he is nothing—those things are the prayer of the psalmist.

Make me to know! Teach me. Overcome my vain imagination! Overcome my pride and arrogance! Make me to know mine end, how near it is. Make me to know the measure of my days, that they are but few and short.

Lord, make me! Make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is, that I may know how frail I am.

In his silence, the psalmist has learned something about himself. He has been reminded by the wicked before him that in him is found the same wickedness out of which those wicked men have spoken and acted. That wickedness is the wickedness of pride and arrogance. Those great evils are not found only in the wicked; they are also found in the godly.

Confronted with the wicked, the psalmist is confronted with himself.

Only one thing is there to do about that wickedness of pride: “Lord make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days.”

This dear, precious, spiritual knowledge is taught only by God. Only the Eternal One can teach us our finitude.

Without that teaching of God, we will always see something good in us. Something, howsoever small it may be. Then our pride will take hold upon that something and build it up to be greater and greater. We will not only think ourselves to be something, but we will think ourselves to be something great. In our wickedness we will find the same evil upon our lips as was spoken by these wicked men.

God makes us to know. He makes us to know our end. When He does that, He brings us also before Himself. He brings our end before us, in the light of His eternity. He who is without end or beginning makes us to know our end.

He also makes us to know the measure of our days. Our days may be very few compared to the days of other men. Our days may be three score and ten, or if by reason of strength fourscore. Whatever that measure, He who teaches us is of days innumerable. With Him a thousand years are as a day. He who is without days teaches us our days.

Being taught by God, we are brought to rest in Him.

Being taught by God, we rest in His eternity and in His power. To rest in Him who is eternal is our safety and security. To rest in Him who is of all power is our strength and might. We rest in God. Fellowship with Him is our delight and joy.

In that fellowship, we come to know how frail we are. We desire to know our end, and the measure of our days, for that knowledge leads us to rest more deeply in the everlasting arms of our God. More delightful becomes God’s strength to us as it fills more and more our frailty.

Being taught by God, we also are kept safe from wickedness, the very wickedness that manifested itself before the psalmist.

The true knowledge of our end not only teaches us the folly of pride, but teaches us also the folly of all wickedness built upon that pride. So frail we are. How can it be that any mere man might try to rebel against God? Yet, the way of the wicked is established upon their stubborn refusal to know their end and the measure of their days. Their wicked way is established upon their refusal to know God’s eternity and His almighty power.

Let such deception be cleared away from our minds and hearts! Lord, make me to know mine end!

The true knowledge of our end teaches us the wonderful way of righteousness. To walk humbly with the Lord our God is to walk in obedience to Him. Feeling deeply the knowledge of our frailty, we seek His strength to keep us and His power to guide us in that blessed walk with Him. Seeking to please Him by whose strength we are kept, we delight in keeping His ways. We take heed to our ways, that they may always be close to Him.

Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is, that I may know how frail I am.

Yes, the wicked leave the presence of the psalmist. They leave thinking themselves triumphant. They spoke; their audience was silent. Their wickedness they made known; they were not reproved. As they came, so they leave: in the deception of their own wickedness. But the psalmist learned much. Through his silence he was preserved from temptation and the deceitfulness of sin. Through his silence he learned of his great need, that God must teach him about his frailty. This encounter with the wicked was for his eternal profit. His prayer was answered. The Lord made him to know his end, and the measure of his days, what it was. He learned how frail he was.

Blessed knowledge! Learned in silence, learned from the Lord!

May we so learn! In our silence!