Psalm 38 Commentary

Let’s turn to Psalm 38.

Psalm 38 is a lament psalm. In it, David is rehearsing the fact that his sin has caused God to attack him. As a result, David is suffering physically and emotionally. Add to that – his friends are leaving him and his enemies are increasing in number and in power.

So, let’s look at the superscription of Psalm 38 first.

KJV Psalm 38:1 <A Psalm of David, to bring to remembrance.>

And the question here is – Who or what is to be brought to remembrance? Is it David’s sin? Is it God’s mercy?

I think the remembrance that this psalm is referring to is God remembering – taking note of – David in all of his trouble. In other words, David is writing this psalm with a view to getting God’s attention – having him remember David in that way.

Chastened by God for Sins

Why does David need God to take note of and remember him? That’s where we start in verse 1.

O LORD, rebuke me not in thy wrath:
neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure.

And what we discover throughout this psalm is that these things were already happening. David was already being rebuked and chastened in God’s wrath and hot displeasure.

So, Davis is saying to God “please stop doing these things to me.”

Well, what makes David think that God is actually doing this to him? What is coming across to David as rebuke and chastening? Verse 2.

 2 For thine arrows stick fast in me,
and thy hand presseth me sore.

Now, we can point out that God has not literally taken a bow and arrow and shot them into David. Neither did God literally take his physical hand and press it down on David.

So then, what is David communicating?

David is saying that God – in his eyes – has become his enemy. God has attacked David – as if he were an archer with bow and arrows.

God is like a giant whose hand he is using to press down upon the helpless David. He feels pressured in life and he knows that he is in danger – and he is recognizing it as all God’s doing.

But he’s not claiming that God’s actions are unjustified. No – God has reason for doing what he’s doing – as we see in verse 3.

 3 There is no soundness in my flesh because of thine anger;
neither is there any rest in my bones because of my sin.

God is responding to David the way he is because God is angry because of David’s sin.

And God’s righteous anger toward David’s sins has some very unpleasant results. David reports a lack of soundness in his flesh and no rest in his bones. He is physically suffering as a result of his sin.

And yet, it’s not that David is focused solely on God’s punishing his sin. In verse 4 he actually recognizes that it’s not the punishment of his sin that’s the most overwhelming reality – actually, his sin itself is.

 4 For mine iniquities are gone over mine head:
as an heavy burden they are too heavy for me.

So, it’s as if David pictures himself in a sea of his sin. It’s gone over his head. He’s drowning in it. That’s how he feels. It’s overwhelming for him.

And if he were to try to lift his sin and put it somewhere else – so to speak – that would be an impossible task. It’s too heavy for him to lift or move or bear.

But now that David has considered the horrible nature of his sin once more, he turns back to consider its consequences in verse 5.

 5 My wounds stink
and are corrupt because of my foolishness.

And so, my question at this point is – is David really saying that he has literal wounds that are literally stinking and rotting?

I hate to over-emphasize the metaphorical nature of the psalms. I want to be careful not to interpret something as figurative and poetic when perhaps it was meant to be understood as literal.

And yet, we’ve already seen David speaking in highly poetic terms – God’s arrows are stuck in him. God has a hand that is pressing down on him. These images are very metaphorical and non-literal.

They communicate truth – but the truth is indirect – it’s represented by the pictures that he paints.

And I can kind of struggle with this. As I’m studying through this psalm and other lament psalms, I find myself wondering why David needs to be so imaginative in his description of his suffering as a result of his sin. And I think I’m not alone.

So, here are a few thoughts to help explain why we tend to be so puzzled over how the psalmists tend to be highly imaginative in the way they describe their situation – especially in lament psalms.

First, let’s look at ourselves. The way we describe our pain and suffering as a result of our sin or for any other reason can be so… bland and colorless. Have you ever been experiencing chastening for sin? You might say, “I hate this” or “God, please help” or “God, please stop” or whatever else.

Well then, how is saying those things any better than praying to God and speaking of God’s arrows being shot into you and causing your flesh to rot? The way the psalmist paints his suffering is so much more vivid and expressive and emotionally accurate than our rather timid and unexpressive verbal statements.

So, I think the big problem here in interpreting lament psalms for us is that when we’re lamenting to God, our laments are so bland. We’re not thinking of expressing our difficulties and struggles with such vivid pictures. But David is and he does throughout the book of Psalms.

I’m not saying that we need to express ourselves in the exact same ways as David does. But neither would I discourage a little emotional maturing on the part of all of us by means of really vividly describing our suffering in concrete word pictures.

Don’t worry of overstating things. David is obviously doing that here in this psalm. It’s a poetic device called hyperbole.

Hyperbole is not lying. Hyperbole is stating emotional truth. Now, emotional truth may not be – and usually is not – factual truth. For example, God was not really shooting arrows at David. And yet, that’s exactly how David felt – as if God was shooting arrows right into his body.

So, as we bring our laments to God we can use hyperbole. It’s OK.

But even if you continue to prefer speaking of your trials in terms of “I don’t like this” and “God, please stop” – at least we are – I trust – coming to terms with how and why David is expressing himself the way he does in this psalms.

So, stinking and rotting wounds? Yes – that’s how David is feeling about the whole situation.

And no doubt there was some disease that David is experiencing as a result of God’s chastening.

And so that leads to one more thing we ought to consider. Do we think that sickness and disease is ever a part of God’s chastening of us?

I think sometimes we look at the book of Job – for example – and we think that Job’s friends were wrong for thinking that everything Job suffered was a direct result of Job’s sin.

We hear Jesus in the Gospels tell his disciples that neither this man nor his parents sinned to lead him to be a paralytic.

And so, we start thinking that sickness can NEVER be a result of personal sin. But then we have statements that balance that view out – like the fact that some in the church at Corinth were SICK because of their sin of divisiveness.

So, it’s an unscriptural stretch to think that every sickness or disease or trial is a direct result of someone’s sin. And at the same time, it’s also unscriptural to think that God never uses sickness or disease to chasten his people because of their sin.

One commentary I read by a man named Derek Kidner put it something like this –  to think that sickness is never the result of sin is as unwise as thinking that it is always the result of sin.

So, David has been describing his physical difficulties that he connects to his sin. But now in verse 6 he will speak of his emotional difficulties.

 6 I am troubled; I am bowed down greatly;
I go mourning all the day long.

And even in this verse you see the wedding of the physical and emotional. His emotional sorrow creates a physical response. He mourns and is troubled emotionally and that causes him to be bowed down physically.

And don’t we know what that’s like – to have our emotions affect our physical appearance?

Well, then David returns to the physical results of his sin in verse 7.

 7 For my loins are filled with a loathsome disease:
and there is no soundness in my flesh.

8 I am feeble and sore broken:
I have roared by reason of the disquietness of my heart.

So, with his physical and emotional condition laid out before himself and the Lord, David turns his thoughts toward God with an appeal to him in verse 9.

 9 Lord, all my desire is before thee;
and my groaning is not hid from thee.

So, David is confident that the Lord understands all of his desires. In that sense they are “before” the Lord.

And so, David seems to take some comfort in the knowledge that God knows all about his suffering. And yet, he doesn’t stay there very long because in verse 10 he returns to his physical struggles.

 10 My heart panteth, my strength faileth me:
as for the light of mine eyes, it also is gone from me.

So, we have here the picture here of David’s heart beating quickly. That’s how it can be said to “pant.”

And then, the light of David’s eyes would be his physical energy, his life, or his sight. And so, he’s saying that at least one of those things is leaving him.

So, David made a brief appeal to God in verse 9 and then here in verse 10, he’s right back to highlighting his physical problems that have resulted from his sin.

It’s like David can sort of lift his head and put his focus on God for a brief moment. But when it comes down to it, of these first ten verses of this psalm, David’s attention is mainly on his own suffering as a result of his sin.

And that’s probably what makes it so difficult for David to focus on God for very long. Because every time he does, he’s reminded of the one who is chastening him over personally offending this loving God – who loves his people too much to let us continue in our sin.

So, David has so far been very focused on his own physical and emotional state.

Forsaken by Others

But David’s problems aren’t limited to his physical and emotional state. He said that the “light of his eyes” had gone away in verse 10. But that’s not the only thing that’s leaving him.

All of these problems of his have caused his friends to leave him as well. We see that in verse 11.

 11 My lovers and my friends stand aloof from my sore;
and my kinsmen stand afar off.

The word translated “sore” is far more often translated as “plague” in the KJV. In other words, David’s manifold physical ailments are keeping his friends away. Even his family isn’t going to get close to him.

And who else in this life do you have that will tend to stick with you beside these people that David mentions? Those who loves you – your friends – your kinsmen – these are the people who – if anyone is going to stick with you – it’s them.

But even these are leaving David. And they’re leaving because they see how afflicted he is by God.

Pursued by Enemies

Now, it’s one thing for friends and family to forsake you. But David’s problems are going a step farther. His enemies are pursuing him at the exact same time as all of this other stuff is happening, according to verse 12.

 12 They also that seek after my life lay snares for me:
and they that seek my hurt speak mischievous things, and imagine deceits all the day long.

So, these folks are planning to kill David.

Personal Helplessness

And meanwhile – as all of the enemies gang up on David, as all of his loved ones abandon him, as all of his physical and emotional difficulties crowd around him – he acknowledges his own personal helplessness before all of it in verses 13 and 14.

 13 But I, as a deaf man, heard not;
and I was as a dumb man that openeth not his mouth.

14 Thus I was as a man that heareth not,
and in whose mouth are no reproofs.

So, basically he says in those two verses, “Verse 13I didn’t hear. I didn’t speak. Verse 14 – I didn’t hear. I didn’t speak.

He’s picturing himself as helpless to return any defense against these realities. It’s as if he’s in a court of law as the defense – but he can’t hear any of the arguments and he can’t speak in his own defense. He’s helpless to defend himself.

Hope in the Lord

And so, David is left in this really awful position of not being able to defend himself. And yet, it’s at that point when he breaks out in verse 15 with a declaration of confidence in the Lord.

 15 For in thee, O LORD, do I hope:
thou wilt hear, O Lord my God.

So, even though David himself is pictured as not being able to hear – he knows one who can hear – the Lord his God. And for that reason – even though David can’t see the end to this trial – he is going to hope in the Lord. He’s going to confidently expect the Lord’s help.

Then David rehearses the fact that he did seek the Lord in prayer about all of his awful problems in verse 16.

 16 For I said, Hear me, lest otherwise they should rejoice over me:
when my foot slippeth, they magnify themselves against me.

So, David did pray to the Lord about his problems.

But immediately it seems that David slips back into thinking about his problems once more in both verses 16 and 17. Even David’s remembrance of praying for deliverance from these troubling realities brings back to his mind those very same troubling realities.

 17 For I am ready to halt,
and my sorrow is continually before me.

David says he is ready to halt – that is, he’s ready to stumble and fall. He feels that close to the brink.

He’s constantly mindful of his sorrow – or even his pain is how that can be translated.

Repentance for Sin

And even though David’s mind sucked him right back to his problems in this life – David once again has his eyes on his relationship with the Lord in verse 18.

 18 For I will declare mine iniquity;
I will be sorry for my sin.

So, when it comes down to it – what was responsible for David’s numerous difficulties? Was it ultimately the enemies? Was it his physical and emotional pains? Was the reason for all of this simply due to his friends forsaking him?

No. David was suffering all of these things – as he admits – because of his sin. And that’s why we just saw him vowing to confess and sorrow over his sin.

He wouldn’t treat his own sin as a light matter. He wasn’t going to be ambivalent toward it. He was going to own it and confess it and sorrow over it.

Remembrance of Enemies

And you’d like to think that that would solve all of David’s problems. And yet, that would mean we’d need to ignore the next two verses where David returns to lamenting his enemies who are multiplying.

 19 But mine enemies are lively, and they are strong:
and they that hate me wrongfully are multiplied.

20 They also that render evil for good are mine adversaries;
because I follow the thing that good is.

And I think what David is experiencing here is this. When we sin and confess it to the Lord, we might think that that will fix everything. And yet, it sometimes just doesn’t. Our sin can cause irreversible damage sometimes.

And so, even though David has now confessed his sin and sought to do good – well, his enemies are still there and they’re not just going to magically disappear.

Plea for Help

And that’s why David sees the need to end this psalm in a kind of unsettled and open-ended way – seeking the Lord’s continued help for the lingering effects of his confessed sin.

 21 Forsake me not, O LORD:
O my God, be not far from me.

22 Make haste to help me,
O Lord my salvation.

Have you ever found yourself ending your prayers like this? No clear resolution to your problems? All you have to rely on is the Lord ending his silence and coming to your aid.

So, may the Lord not forsake a single one of us. He has promised to never leave or forsake us. So, let’s not be ashamed to pray that promise back to him.

May the Lord not be far from any one of us – just as in truth he is near to each of us – and will draw near to us as we draw near to him.

May the Lord – who alone is our salvation – be swift to help us in every trial, problem, and difficulty each of us is experiencing and wrestling with today.

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