A reflection on Psalm 38 for Sunday, March 7, 2021 at Mosaic Baptist Church
O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger,
or discipline me in your wrath.
For your arrows have sunk into me,
and your hand has come down on me.
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;
they weigh like a burden too heavy for me.
My wounds grow foul and fester
because of my foolishness; I am utterly bowed down and prostrate;
all day long I go around mourning.
For my loins are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.
I am utterly spent and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
O Lord, all my longing is known to you;
my sighing is not hidden from you.
My heart throbs, my strength fails me;
as for the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.
My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction,
and my neighbours stand far off.
Those who seek my life lay their snares;
those who seek to hurt me speak of ruin,
and meditate treachery all day long.
But I am like the deaf, I do not hear;
like the mute, who cannot speak.
Truly, I am like one who does not hear,
and in whose mouth is no retort.
But it is for you, O Lord, that I wait;
it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.
For I pray, ‘Only do not let them rejoice over me,
those who boast against me when my foot slips.’
For I am ready to fall,
and my pain is ever with me.
I confess my iniquity;
I am sorry for my sin.
Those who are my foes without cause are mighty,
and many are those who hate me wrongfully.
Those who render me evil for good
are my adversaries because I follow after good.
Do not forsake me, O Lord;
O my God, do not be far from me;
make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation.
Psalm 38 (NRSVA)
The psalms encourage the bringing of a myriad of human experiences before God. Fear, joy, revenge, praise, complaint, celebration, worship. Included in this is the very human experience of sin, suffering, repentance, and lament.
This psalm, credited to David, is one of a number of psalms that deal with repentance. Traditionally, there are seven ‘penitential psalms’ contained in this collection: 6, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143.
Clearly the bringing of our sin, guilt, and lament before God is encouraged here. It is an integral part of Israel’s life of faith and prayer .
This is good news. Sin, guilt, and the accompanying suffering that Psalm 38 recognises, are familiar to most.
For too many, these are realities that inspire us to retreat from God, produce ongoing suffering, and can ingrain a reluctance to come honestly and openly before God.
How true it is that wrongdoing separates.
The presence of the penitential psalms, however, insists that this separation does not have to be the case. David, in Psalm 51, brings the murder of his loyal soldier, Uriah, before God. He does not bury this reality.
Rather he comes to God and pleads for mercy.
Psalm 38 is similar – although the specific sin that separates and causes the writer such agony is not named. It seems to cause physical suffering. Whether this is understood as a matter of natural consequence or punishment is a matter of debate. Certainly the poet links these two as a expression of either personal experience or reality.
How closely sin and suffering are linked is a topic that this Psalm certainly raises. It may be that it does not answer this relationship as comprehensively as we may like.
Verse 15 is worth our attention. It reads, “But it is for you, O Lord, that I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.” Even in pain, guilt, and suffering this psalm invites us to ‘wait’ on God.
Indeed, this waiting seems to move from complaint to prayer and back again a number of times throughout this prayer. Many have observed that this relates closely to the experience of seeking God in this midst of suffering. Sickness and guilt can make us self-centred. Prayer – at its best – makes us God-centred.
In this psalm this movement is recognised. Suffering pulls us to self. Prayer to God.
Another aspect of this Psalm is that seems unresolved. Pain is not replaced by rejoicing. Suffering is not taken away or eliminated. The end of the prayer remains a plea for God’s intervention.
Again, this is the lived experience of many.
How closely do you link sin and suffering? Are these always linked or can you also identify experiences where you think that are not related?
How do you respond to suffering and guilt? Do these bring you back to God or are you prone to hide from God? How might this psalm help you in this?
What do you think is the significance of the unresolved nature of this Psalm? In what circumstances do you think you might turn to this psalm?