PSALM 38 A Psalm for David. In remembrance.
Lord, do not correct me in anger;
Do not discipline me in hot rage;
For your arrows are lodged in me
And your hand is pressing me down.
There is no wholeness in my flesh because of your anger,
No rest for my bones because of my faults.
For my sins loom above my head;
They weigh down upon me like a heavy load;
My wounds stink and ooze because of my folly.
I am twisted and bent over,
Going in mourning rags all day.
For my guts are inflamed
And my body has lost its health.
I am torpid, utterly crushed;
I have roared out the anguish of my heart.
Lord, all my longing is evident
And my howling is not hidden from you:
My heart palpitates, my strength departs;
My eyesight also has gone from me.
Dear ones and friends kept their distance from my wound,
neighbours became remote.
Those who desire my death set traps for me
Those who hope to hurt me
Speak lies and invent deceits all day.
But like a deaf man, I hear nothing;
like a speechless man, I keep my mouth shut;
So I am like a man with no hearing
Who makes no sharp answers.
For my hope is in you, Lord;
Lord, my God, you will answer for me.
I said, “Do not let them be merry at my expense
Or think they are big men when my foot slips!”
I am ready to stumble
For my pain is always in front of me.
And I acknowledge my wrongdoing;
I am troubled about my faults.
But my enemies without cause are numerous;
Those who hate me for no reason have increased,
Returning me evil for good,
attacking me because I try to do good.
Do not forsake me, Lord;
Do not be far from me, my God;
Hurry to help me, my Lord of Rescue.
This is the eloquent psalm of a man who knows his faults, and declares the ugly consequences of his wrongdoing in his own life. He trusts in the mercy of his God but nevertheless complains that his sad state allows his unjust enemies to think they have defeated him.
It’s hard to know how literally we are meant to take the vivid description of his ailments, but we should remember that illness was popularly supposed to be a punishment for sin. In this case, unlike that of Job, the sick man does not protest that the punishment is unjust; but, rather, from the midst of his sin, holds to the goodness of God and his own fundamental desire to do good.
The most vivid expression of his faith for me is his admission that he has no smart answers to those who scorn him, and his confidence that God will answer for him. George Herbert, the 17th century English poet, who would have read this psalm, has a poem (see below) about people who despise his trust in God, which has the refrain, “But Thou shalt answer, Lord, for me.” That God will answer for his faithful sinners, not only to their human despisers but also to his own holiness, is specially articulated in the theology of the Reformation, and remains an important part of my faith. I may not be able to answer even my own critique of myself, but God will.
One principle of the Jewish tradition of interpreting the psalms is to hear them as from the mouth of the whole people Israel. This psalm works well in that interpretation, which could be extended to include all Christian believers too, along with Jesus Messiah in whom they are united. How could Jesus speak of his own sin? Well of course he did, in the Lord’s prayer, in his acceptance of John’s baptism, and throughout his ministry. He constantly identified himself with sinful people. That’s why we can hear the passion of this psalm as his own.