Okay, I admit it. I’ve avoided writing a meditation on this psalm. Psalm 38 isn’t very cheerful or particularly inspiring. In fact, it’s downright depressing.
This psalm is a lament, the largest category of psalms. This particular lament is penitential, expressing sorrow for sin, but also contains striking descriptions of physical pain, personal persecution, and deep despair. The heading tells us it was written by David for the memorial offering. It sounds more as if it might have been written from a bed in Memorial Hospital!
David cries to God in words that confess the Lord’s sovereignty over David’s afflictions:
O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath!
For your arrows have sunk into me,
and your hand has come down on me (Psalm 38:1-2, ESV).
Those first verses speak of rebuke and discipline, which indicate a recognition that these troubles may be a result of personal sin. We see that more clearly as the psalmist describes his terrible physical state:
There is no soundness in my flesh
because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones
because of my sin.
For my iniquities have gone over my head;
like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me (3-4, ESV).
David clearly sees the depth of his sin within himself and feels a crushing weight of iniquities piled higher than his head. He realizes how his own foolishness contributed to his wounded body.
My wounds stink and fester
because of my foolishness,
I am utterly bowed down and prostrate;
all the day I go about mourning.
For my sides are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.
I am feeble and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart (5-8, ESV).
He is wounded in body, but also in his mind and heart. He is feeble and crushed. He mourns and groans.
In verse 11, we see a glimmer of hope, even though it’s immediately followed by personal and relational complaints.
O Lord, all my longing is before you;
my sighing is not hidden from you.
My heart throbs; my strength fails me,
and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.
My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague,
and my nearest kin stand far off (9-11, ESV).
David confesses that God sees all his longing and all his sighing, even though he feels terribly depressed and isolated. Not only do friends ignore him, but persecutors seek his life and relentlessly plot against him.
Those who seek my life lay their snares;
those who seek my hurt speak of ruin
and meditate treachery all day long (12, ESV).
He has become so ineffective that he feels deaf and mute.
But I am like a deaf man; I do not hear,
like a mute man who does not open his mouth.
I have become like a man who does not hear,
and in whose mouth are no rebukes (13-14, ESV).
Finally we see more than a glimmer of hope in verse 15 (ESV):
But for you, O Lord, do I wait;
it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.
David confesses that he waits on the Lord. He expresses his sure confidence that God will answer. This would be a good verse to memorize so that you could repeat it to yourself when physical struggles cause you to despair.
In what seems like a postscript to that confession, David begs that his enemies will not be permitted to rejoice over him (16, ESV):
For I said, “Only let them not rejoice over me,
who boast against me when my foot slips!”
Constant physical pain seems to bring him near death:
For I am ready to fall,
and my pain is ever before me (17, ESV).
But David’s response is to confess his sin:
I confess my iniquity;
I am sorry for my sin (18, ESV).
Even though he’s confessed his sin, he also reminds God of the strength and malevolence of his foes:
But my foes are vigorous, they are mighty,
and many are those who hate me wrongfully.
Those who render me evil for good
accuse me because I follow after good (19-20, ESV).
We may be persecuted by real people or we may be persecuted by spiritual powers. It may feel as if physical pain pierces us like arrows, but we can confess with David that even these come from God’s hand. And because everyone of us is a sinner, we can join David in recognizing our huge burden of sin and confessing that to God.
But we know from Job’s struggle that not all physical suffering is a direct result of sin. It can be. And it’s definitely part of living in a sin-warped world. Suffering isn’t always a result of our personal sin, however, it’s crucial to practice regular self-examination and repentance!
Whether or not we suffer as a result of our own sin or foolishness, there is only one thing for us to do: cry to God! David ends Psalm 38 with this heartfelt invocation and petition (21-22, ESV):
Do not forsake me, O Lord!
O my God, be not far from me!
Make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation!
it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer (Psalm 38:15).