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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Psalms 38

Verse 1



The chapter heading here is the one found in the superscription, which also names David as the author. As Delitzsch observed:

"The occasion was David's adultery (2 Samuel 12:14); and Psalms 6; Psalms 38; Psalms 51; and Psalms 32 form a chronological series. Here, David is distressed both in mind and in body, forsaken by his friends, and regarded by his foes as one who is cast off forever. The fire of divine anger burns within him like a fever; and the divine withdrawal as it were rests upon him like darkness.[1]

The authorship of this psalm, despite its being numbered among the Penitentials, is declared by some to be uncertain.

"Jeremiah has been suggested as the author of this psalm";[2] but this appears to us as utterly unacceptable. As Baigent noted, "In Jeremiah there is no consciousness of sin,"[3] such as is found in the author of this psalm. We have already noted that Delitzsch accepted the Davidic authorship; and Rawlinson tells us that Canon Cook did also.[4]

Barnes summed up this question, declaring that, "The psalm purports to have been written by David, and there is no reason to doubt that it was composed by him. There is no tradition to the contrary, and there is nothing in the psalm inconsistent with that supposition."[5]

In spite of Barnes' remarks above, it appears to us that there is one problem connected with the proposition that David is the author. That is the matter of the terrible disease which is so often mentioned in this psalm. The Scriptures do not record elsewhere any reference to David's ever having suffered from such a malady as that which is described here.

This problem disappears if we interpret the description of disease here as "figurative," which of course is possible. Ash noted, for example, that, "`Wounds' in Psalms 38:5 may be either literal or figurative."[6]

Spurgeon categorically rejected the proposition that any physical disease whatever is described in the psalm.

"I am persuaded that the description here does not tally with any known disease of the body. It is very like leprosy, but it has certain features which cannot be found in any leprosy ever known, either by ancient or modern writers. The fact is, it is spiritual leprosy, an inward disease, which is here described."[7]

Several scholars have divided the psalm into three parts; but we prefer to use the more detailed divisions suggested by Dahood: (1) "The illness described (Psalms 38:1-10); (2) the reaction of others (Psalms 38:11-16); (3) a summary of Psalms 38:1-10 (Psalms 38:17-18); (4) a summary of Psalms 38:11-16 (Psalms 38:19-20); and (5) the conclusion (Psalms 38:21-22)."[8]


Psalms 38:1-10

"O Jehovah, rebuke me not in thy wrath;

Neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure.

For thine arrows stick fast in me,

And thy hand presseth me sore.

There is no soundness in my flesh because of thine indignation;

Neither is there any health in my bones because of my sin.

For mine iniquities have gone over my head:

As a heavy burden they are too heavy for me.

My wounds are loathsome and corrupt,

Because of my foolishness.

I am pained and bowed down greatly;

I go mourning all the day long.

For my loins are filled with burning;

And there is no soundness in my flesh.

I am faint and sore bruised:

I have groaned by reason of the disquietude of my heart.

Lord, all my desire is before thee;

And my groaning is not hid from thee.

My heart throbbeth, my strength faileth me:

As for the light of mine eyes, it also is gone from me."

Practically all of the scholars whose works are available to this student understand these verses to be a description of a very loathsome disease that had overcome David; but, as stated in the introduction to the chapter, we find it very difficult to accept this interpretation. There is no Biblical record whatever (aside from this passage) that recounts any such illness of David as that which appears here. Furthermore, there are definite statements in these ten verses that, by no stretch of imagination, can be literal.

"God's arrows, and God's hand pressing sorely upon David" (Psalms 38:2), his sins piled up above his head (the figure is that of a drowning man) (Psalms 38:4), how could this be literal? There is nothing literal about such statements. Then why must the rest of the paragraph be construed as the literal description of some disgusting bodily disease? Furthermore, what disease ever fit such a description as that which is found here?

This alleged disease was `total muscle fatigue' and `rotten bones'(Psalms 38:3), `stinking wounds' (Psalms 38:5) `arthritic pain that bent him over' (Psalms 38:6) `burning pains in the kidneys,' (Note: In the Hebrew perspective, the loins always meant, `the seat of the emotions'; and this statement is obviously figurative.), `fainting' and `bruises all over him,' (Psalms 38:8), `total loss of all strength,' `rapid palpitation of the heart,' and `total blindness,' (10)." It certainly takes a good imagination to see this as a description of any kind of a disease. Entirely too much is included here to fit that explanation.

"What a horrible creature man appears to be in his own conscience when his depravity and vileness are fully exposed by the searching eyes of God."[9]

It is the view of this writer that we have here a figurative description of the terrible mental anguish, emotional despair, oppressive sense of guilt, and mortal fear of David that his sins would result in God's rejection of him and the consequent triumph over him of his bitter enemies.

Rawlinson noted that David's fear here was a triple threat: "His mind is racked by a sense of God's displeasure (Psalms 38:1-2), by grief at the desertion of his friends (Psalms 38:11), and by fear of the triumph over him of his enemies (Psalms 38:12,19,20)."[10]

"My wounds are loathsome ... I am pained" (Psalms 38:5-6). Jamieson agreed that these verses apply to David's `mental anguish.'[11]

"I have groaned, etc." (Psalms 38:8b). Addis declared that the Hebrew here means, "I have cried louder than the roaring of a lion."[12] Delitzsch pointed out the spiritual import of this passage, writing that, "The loud wail is only the utterance of the pain that is raging in his heart; it is the outward expression of the ceaseless inward groaning."[13]

Verse 11


"My lovers and my friends stand aloof from my plague;

And my kinsmen stand afar off.

They also that seek after my life lay snares for me;

And they that seek my hurt speak mischievous things,

And meditate deceits all the day long.

But I, as a deaf man, hear not;

And I am as a dumb man that openeth not his mouth.

Yea, I am as a man that heareth not,

And in whose mouth are no reproofs.

For in thee, O Jehovah, do I hope:

Thou wilt answer, O Lord, my God.

For I said, Lest they rejoice over me:

When my foot slippeth, they magnify themselves against me."

"My lovers" (Psalms 38:11). Barnes tells us that the meaning of the Hebrew here is, "An acquaintance, a companion, or a friend."[14] In this context it refers to David's supporters.

As Kidner observed, "It is ironical that the more desperately a person needs the support of friends and loved ones the less likely he is to receive it"![15] As Rawlinson put it, "The stricken deer is deserted by the rest of the herd."[16]

"I am as a deaf man ... as a dumb man ... as a man that heareth not" (Psalms 38:13-14). Deafness and muteness are clearly figures of speech in this passage; and it is quite likely that the same metaphorical meaning of maladies mentioned previously in the same passage is intended.

"In whose mouth are no reproofs" (Psalms 38:14). The marginal alternative for `reproofs' here is `arguments.' indicating that David was in no mood whatever to attempt any self-justification.

"O Jehovah ... O Lord ... my God" (Psalms 38:15). There are three different names for God in this single verse, indicating, as Kidner observed, that, "David knew God by name (Yahweh) and by covenant (my God), and as Master and Savior (Psalms 38:22b)."[17]

Verse 17


"For I am ready to fall, and my sorrow is continually before me.

For I will declare mine iniquity;

I will be sorry for my sin."

These verses also plead certain reasons why God might consent to forgive David.

"For I am ready to fall" (Psalms 38:17). He is at his row's end. His power to go onward is about exhausted. If God does not help now, he is doomed. This is reason (1).

"My sorrow is continually before me" (Psalms 38:17). My grief is overwhelming me. This is reason (2).

"I will declare mine iniquity" (Psalms 38:18). David here promises to make a full and open confession of his wrongdoing, which he most certainly did in the Penitential Psalms which are accredited to him in the Bible. This is reason (3). Another will appear in the following verse.

Verse 19


"But mine enemies are lively and strong:

And they that hate me are wrongfully multiplied.

They also that render evil for good

Are adversaries unto me, because I follow the thing that is good."

"Mine adversaries, etc." (Psalms 38:19-20). The fact that David's enemies were multiplied against him and threatening to destroy him was a source of the utmost anxiety on David's part. This is reason (4).

"Because I follow the thing that is good" (Psalms 38:20). The only thing anyone has to do to earn the hatred of unregenerated humanity is merely to "do good." David found it so; and Christians of all ages can attest the truth of his experience. "Cain slew his brother Abel. And wherefore slew he him? Because his works were evil, and his brother's righteous." (1 John 3:12).

Verse 21


"Forsake me not, O Jehovah:

O my God, be not far from me.

Make haste to help me,

O Lord, my salvation."

Again we have in this verse that triple name for God which we noted in Psalms 38:15. The logic, the skill, the persistence, and the earnest urgency of this prayer have been the marvel of all who ever studied it. [~'Elohiym] is the all-powerful Creator; Jehovah is the covenant God of Israel, and Lord is the personal Master whom all of God's people are pledged to serve, to honor, and to obey.

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Psalms 38". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.