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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 38

Psalms 38

THIS Psalm discovers in its commencement a near relation to the sixth, and in its close a near relation to the twenty-second. The coincidences with these Psalms are too literal to be accidental, and just as little could they originate in unintentional reminiscence. The contrary is evident from their occurring precisely at the commencement and the close, and from the entirely original and independent character which the Psalm possesses.

The Psalmist begins with a prayer to the Lord, that he would not further punish him in anger, and rests this prayer on the circumstance, that it had already been carried to an extreme with him, that the time had now come, when, with the righteous, love must necessarily take the place of anger, deliverance of punishment. This delineation of the suffering of the Psalmist is given in two sections. In the first, Psalms 38:2-8, after having spoken in the general of God’s hand lying heavy upon him, he complains, in enlargement of the statement, that there is no salvation in his flesh, with which begins Psalms 38:3, and which returns again in Psalms 38:7, upon his miserable bodily condition, and then upon the deep distress of his soul. In the second, Psalms 38:9-12, he points, after the introductory words in Psalms 38:9, first again to the mournful situation in which he found himself, Psalms 38:10, and then goes more deeply into the external distress, by which he was surrounded, as being completely abandoned by his friends, and left to enemies, who were eagerly bent on compassing his destruction, Psalms 38:12. After this representation of the greatness of his sufferings, there follows in Psalms 38:13-15 the protestation that he possessed the indispensable condition of the divine help,—patience, the still and devoted waiting upon God; and while showing how much he had cause to wait upon God, how much he stood in need of God’s help, he here takes a new glance, in Psalms 38:16-20, at his sufferings, and gives a brief delineation of them: he has attained to the painful consciousness of his sins, and he is threatened with destruction by his numerous and powerful enemies, who persecute him, because he strives after what is good. In the conclusion, Psalms 38:21-22, the prayer is raised on the ground thus laid, that God would not forsake him, but would make haste to help him.

The Psalm is alphabetical as to its number, that is, the number of its verses coincides with that of the letters of the alphabet. It is in allusion to this alphabetical character, that in the two concluding verses three members make the last letter of the alphabet follow the first, אל תעזבני , etc. Along with the alphabet, the number ten, as very often happens, has a prominent place in the arrangement. The main subject occupies twenty verses, followed by a conclusion of two. (Of course this supposes the superscription to be a part of the Psalm.)

Of any particular occasion there is found no trace in the Psalm. What at first sight seems to point to this, is soon discerned by the experienced sense to be a mere individualizing, and rather concludes the other way. The alphabetical arrangement already makes it probable, that the Psalmist speaks from the person of the righteous.

According to many expositors, the situation must be of a sick person, according to several, that specially of a leper, who at the same time is pressed by enemies, and indeed so, that the sickness is the Psalmist’s chief suffering. But there are decisive grounds for holding, that the proper substantial suffering of the Psalmist, stood only in the assaults of the wicked, and that the bodily prostration of which he complains, was only occasioned by these. As soon as it is perceived, that the Psalm did not originate in any particular occasion, it must from the first appear improbable, that a double and quite separate cause of suffering should exist; and this being the case, we can have no difficulty in concluding, that the sickness may very well have been the consequence of the assaults, but not the reverse; first, because in all the afflictions of the Psalms generally, and in particular, of the Psalms of David, those occasioned by the assaults of the wicked come out so prominently, then, from the analogy of so many Psalms, in which the wretched bodily state appears as the result of the assaults, but especially from Psalms 6 and Psalms 22 to which the author has himself referred us,—which together shut us up to the conclusion, that the assaults were the proper and only sufferings. Further, in the resumed survey taken of the sufferings in Psalms 38:18-20, the sickness is entirely omitted; there are first only on the one hand, the consciousness of sin, and, on the other, the malice of enemies. Finally, the prayer at the close does not plead for salvation, but only for help and assistance, according to the customary language of the Psalms, against the enemies, clearly manifesting that neither sickness, nor the painful conviction of sin, was the original cause of his sufferings,—that these were to be considered merely as the effects of hostile oppression, which should vanish along with their cause.

The following view of the situation hence presents itself as the correct one. The Psalmist, or he, in whose name he speaks, to whom he offers the weapons, with which he can prevail in the contest, is hard pressed by ungodly enemies. The sting of his pain in this temptation is this, that by principle, perpetually true in itself, and, in the Old Testament especially, distinctly announced, that there is no suffering without sin, or that all suffering is punishment, he sees in his enemies so many accusers sent against him by God, and in their superior power a testimony that God is visiting for his sins, which appear to him now in a very different light from what they had done during his prosperity. What he could easily have borne otherwise, prostrates him when so considered, both in body and soul. In his distress he turns himself to the Lord, with a prayer for deliverance from his enemies, which, at the same time, conveyed the matter-of-fact announcement of the forgiveness of sins, and by which consequently his suffering was removed.

A Psalm of David for remembrance. The person who is to be put in remembrance by the Psalm, is not, as is generally supposed, the Psalmist himself, or the whole church, but God, who seemed to have forgotten the Psalmist. Several expound: to praise the Lord, with an allusion to 1 Chronicles 16:4. But הזכיר always signifies only to mention, never to praise, comp. on Psalms 20:7, and for the same reason in the passage of Chronicles referred to, according to which the business of the Levitical singers stood in this, ולהזכיר ולהודות ולהלל , to remind, and to praise, and to extol, the הזיכר can only form the antithesis to the two other verbs, to which also the prefixed ו points.

The Levites had partly to sing the songs of lamentation and prayer, and partly also those of praise and thanksgiving. The exposition: for remembrance, is confirmed also by the subject of the two Psalms, which have this in the superscription, wherein it is to be noted, that in Psalms 70 the superscription thus indicated is the more remarkable, since that Psalm contains precisely the complaining and supplicating part of Psalms 40 with the exclusion of the praising and extolling part: and then by the connection with the אזכרה , remembrance-offerings, offerings through which God was brought by his people into remembrance, to which להזכיר probably alludes, comp. Psalms 141:2, Revelation 8:4, where the prayers of the saints appear as a spiritual incense and remembrance-offering. The opposite is לתודה , for praise, in Psalms 100:1. This superscription of itself contains a hortatory element. When God appears to have forgotten us, we must remember him: the earnest prayer to God for help is the only and the sure means of attaining this.

Verse 1

Ver. 1. Lord, punish me not in thy rage, and chasten me not in thine indignation. It was already shown in Psalms 6:1, that the contrast is not that of chastisement in love against chastisement in anger, but that of the desired deliverance against chastisement, which always proceeds from the principle of anger.

In what follows, the Psalmist gives the ground, upon which his prayer for deliverance rests. The burden of his suffering is so great, that though he must bear it, yet God cannot permit his own to be destroyed.

Verse 2

Ver. 2. For thine arrows stick in me, and over me came thy hand. נחתו , the Niph, found only here, of נחת , to go down. בי , not upon, but in me. The arrows denote the chastisements of sin, depending on God. Hitzig maintains arbitrarily, that by the arrows only a particular form of these is to be understood, sickness; the reverse of which is shown by the original passage, Deuteronomy 32:23, where “I will send all my arrows against them,” stands in parallel, with, “I will heap mischiefs upon them,” and where presently hunger, burning, disease, are particularly named. Then also, in the very passage upon which Hitzig rests his view, Job 6:4, “The arrows of the Almighty are in me, their poison drinketh up my spirit,” the arrows denote the whole suffering which Job had already experienced, not merely his bodily sickness, but also the loss of his children and his substance, the cooled love of his friends, and even of his wife.

For the second member compare Psalms 32:4, Psalms 39:10.

The general is followed by the particular; the Psalmist represents to God, in detail, the mournful condition in which lie was placed, in order to move him to compassion.

Verses 3-4

Ver. 3. There is no salvation in my flesh because of thine anger, there is no peace in my bones because of my sins. Ver. 4. For my iniquities go over my head, as a heavy burden they are too heavy for me. The Psalmist begins with the mournful state of his body. מתם from תמם , without injury, soundness, does not stand as an abstr. for conc., but we must translate literally: not is soundness in my flesh. This is shown by the parallel, “not is peace:” to my flesh is unsoundness, (and therefore) from my bones peace is far, (the violent pain presses through marrow and bone.) The anger of God is in so far the cause of the mournful bodily condition, as it hangs the infliction of enemies over the Psalmist, sins, in so far as they provoke that anger, q. d. because of the hostile assault, in which I recognize the expression of thine anger, the punishment of my sins. What is simply indicated in the expressions: because of thy anger, because of my sins, is more fully carried out in Psalms 38:4. The transgressions of the Psalmist bear upon him in their consequences with insupportable weight, comp. Psalms 40:12, “for innumerable evils have compassed me about, mine iniquities have taken hold on me.” In the expression: they go over my head, the image is taken from billows: they flow over me like one who is nigh to drowning, Psalms 124:4.

Verse 5

Ver. 5. T hey are corrupt, my sores fester because of my folly. מקק in Niph. to melt, here of the sores, which dissolve into a boil. The verse is not to be taken figuratively indeed, but as an individualizing mark of the state of bodily dissolution, in which the Psalmist was placed, and which might also manifest itself in other forms under certain circumstances. Folly here indicates a bedimming of the understanding, in an ethical point of view, comp. on Psalms 14:1. It is to be considered, not as the immediate, but as the primary cause of the miserable bodily condition. The folly has called forth the punishment of hostile oppression, and through grief on account of this did the Psalmist become so much the more corporeally wretched, as he could only recognize in it the chastisement of his folly. That the immediate cause is the hostile oppression, appears from the comparison of Psalms 31:9-10. The extraordinary agreement of Isaiah 1:6, with this verse must be the less accidental as מתם also occurs there, which is nowhere besides found, excepting here in Psalms 38:3 and Psalms 38:7. Isaiah has employed what is here an individualizing description, as an image of the mournful condition into which the people had fallen by their sins. In this allusion there is found a confirmation of the superscription, as referring the Psalm to David.

Verses 6-7

Ver. 6. I am beside myself, bowed down very much, continually do I go in sadness. Ver. 7. For my loins are quite dried up, and there is no soundness in my flesh. The Niphil of עוה occurs in Isaiah 21:3, in parallel. with being horrified, elsewhere of moral perverseness. It is here precisely our: being crazy. The Psalmist’s pains rob him of all recollection. The commonly received signification: to be crooked, bowed down, has no sure foundation, Upon שחותי and קדר comp. on Psalms 35:14. The first member of Psalms 38:7, literally: for my loins are full of the dried, assigns as a reason for the distress of the Psalmist, his bodily emaciation, comp. on Psalms 22:17. The loins are especially named, from being a chief seat of fat in the healthy, comp. on Job 15:27. The exposition which is now current: my bowels are full of fever-burning, deserves rejection on every account. As there are words on both sides of the expression; “soundness is not in my flesh,” and are designed for an expansion of its meaning, they can only refer to the external state of the body; for the loins the bowels are arbitrarily substituted; קלה signifies not to burn, but to roast, dry up; the burnt, or more properly, the dried, cannot stand for the burning. In the expression: there is not soundness, &c., the representation turns back to the commencement, and so rounds itself off.

Verse 8

Ver. 8. I am very feeble and sore broken, I howl from the groanings of my heart. פוג to be cold, stiff, dead. נהם signifies not less than שאג , to roar, and instead of נהמת there might have been שאגת . The emphasis lies upon the words: of my heart. The bodily cry of the Psalmist is only a witness of the spiritual. In his inmost heart pain was raging. The representation of the Psalmist has here reached its acme; he indulges himself in a moment’s rest, and then proceeds more softly. The first section is completed in the number seven, and the seven is so divided, that two strophes, each of two verses, have before, after, and in the middle of them, a strophe of one verse. The main burden, the representation of the bodily distress, Psalms 38:3-7, which rounds off through the resemblance of the beginning and the close, and by its having five as the number of its verses, points to a fourth addition, is hemmed in at the beginning and a close of general import. The second section, Psalms 38:9-12, is comprized, if we except Psalms 38:9, which bears entirely the character of an introduction, in the number three, and in such a way, indeed, that each verse contains a separate delineation of the Psalmist’s suffering. If we reckon together the seven verses of the first, and the three verses of the second period, the whole representation of his sufferings will be contained in the number ten.

Verse 9

Ver. 9. O Lord, all my desire is before thee, and my sighing is not hid from thee. The Psalmist had, at the close of the preceding period, painted his affliction in such a manner, that if he had to do with a human friend, there would very naturally have been the suspicion of colouring. Hence, before he proceeds farther in his lamentations, he appeals to the omniscience of God, who would bear him witness, that the strongest language he could use to express his misery, and the earnest desire of his heart after help, far from exceeding the reality, still fell short of it— q. d. Thou knowest how great my suffering is, and that I am not magnifying it to thee, in order to move thy compassion. The verse has for all sufferers the import of an impressive admonition, not to seek help from God for pretended or imaginary sufferings, and in their complaints not to go beyond the measure which the occasion itself warrants. The help of God, the omniscient, directs itself, not according to the greatness of the lamentation, but according to the greatness of the suffering.

Verse 10

Ver. 10. My heart beats, my strength has left me, and the light of my eyes, even that is not with me. Upon the light of the eyes, comp. on Psalms 13:3. The words are in nomin. absol. The expression: even they are not with me, instead of what we would have expected; even that is not with me, occasion no difficulty. If the glance of the eyes has gone, they themselves are at the same time gone too; for it is that, which makes the eye what it properly is. The lamentation upon the inward distress, that is, upon the sad condition in which he was placed as to soul and body, produced by the attacks of his enemies, the Psalmist now follows up by the complaint upon what was merely external, first, the faithlessness of his friends, then at the close, that, from which all the rest proceeded, the malice of his enemies.

Verse 11

Ver. 11. My lovers and my friends stand over against my stroke, and my neighbours stand afar off: Many: they consider me as one smitten by God, and fear to join themselves in fellowship with me. But this is not in the words. These only bring out the deep pain, which is occasioned by those who, when the sore pressure of affliction upon us calls them to come nearer and manifest an active love, by endeavouring, through their compassion to alleviate our sufferings; on the contrary, remove farther away, and abandon us to our pain, after the manner of the world, where the prosperous are envied, and the unfortunate forgotten, (comp. on Psalms 27 Psalms 27:10,) whenever there is danger in taking part with a person and acknowledging him. The stroke of the Psalmist consists in the attacks of the enemies, and the devastations in body and soul, which were thereby produced upon him. מחגד over against, so that they do not come close to him. John Arnd.: “This was fully verified in the passion, as the disciples of our Lord were horrified at the stroke, which he had to bear upon the cross. When the same is repeated in our experience, as the holy Job says: my friends are my railers, but mine eye weeps to God, we must console ourselves with the example of the Lord Christ, for the servant cannot be above his Lord; and it will avail for this purpose, if we commit ourselves to no man, nay to no creature, but to our dear Father, Creator, Redeemer, Preserver, whose faithfulness never fails.” While the friends are far, the enemies are near.

Verse 12

Ver. 12. And they lay snares for me, who pursue after my soul, and they who seek my hurt, speak mischief, and meditate upon deceit perpetually. They speak mischief; not precisely, they concert mischievous plans against me, but, as the two following verses shew, and even the last member of this, they belch out mischievous calumnies against me. In the last member, הגה is better taken in the signification of meditating, than of speaking. For then are deed, word, and thought bound with one another, and we have here a complete counterpart to the decalogue, where prohibition to injure our neighbour, proceeds from deeds to words, (thou must not speak false witness against thy neighbour, corresponding to this here: they speak mischief,) and from words to thoughts, (thou shalt not covet.) The greatness of the suffering, however, does not alone suffice as a ground for the servant of the Lord praying for help; the manner in which he has borne these comes also into consideration. Patience, calm surrender is an indispensable condition of deliverance. Among men at large, according as every one seeks to help himself in passionate excitement by means of words or deeds, (the latter are here particularly pointed to, because the enemies of the Psalmist sought especially by words, by false accusations, to destroy him,) he drives away from him the divine help. Hence, the Psalmist delineates, in Psalms 38:13-15, his patience under the assaults of the enemy, amid which, trusting in God as the judge of his cause, he abstains from every passionate justification, every attempt to maintain by violence his right from those, who can have no ear for a quiet representation of what they are unwilling to acknowledge.

Verses 13-15

Ver. 13. And as a deaf man, hear not, and I am as a dumb man, who opens not his mouth. Ver. 14. And I am as a man that hears not, and who has no replies in his mouth. Ver. 15. For upon thee, O Lord, do I hope; thou wilt answer, O Lord my God. John Arnd: “This was peculiarly, and in the highest sense fulfilled in our Lord Jesus Christ, since he answered. nothing to his calumniators and accusers during his holy passion, but remained silent as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that is dumb before his shearers and openeth not his mouth, (comp. Matthew 26:62-63. John 19:9.) This we must also learn to practise: “in stillness and confidence is your strength, Isaiah 30.” For the expression as a dumb man, we are to supply from the special: I hear, the general: I behave myself. It may be explained from 1 Samuel 10:27, where it is said of Saul, when he was taunted by wicked men, “And he was as one silent.” Luther, in rendering: “but I must be as a deaf man and hear not,” etc., missed the right sense. According to him, Psalms 38:13 and Psalms 38:14 describe, not the patience of the Psalmist, but the shamelessness of his enemies, who would not permit him to speak.

Psalms 38:14 is in substance not different from Psalms 38:13. The apparent tautology is justified by the endeayours of the Psalmist to bring clearly out his unimpassioned stillness, and his renunciation of all dependance on self. This appears the more in its place, as we have before us here an indirect exhortation.

Psalms 38:15 carries back the patience of the Psalmist to its ground; it is a daughter of faith. He answers not, because he is convinced that God will answer, whom he must not forestall. The divine answer is a matter-of-fact one.

After the Psalmist has referred back his stillness and patience to his conviction, that God will help him, its proper ground, he shews on account of what he sets his hope in God, and betakes to him for refuge. He is afraid, that otherwise his enemies will triumph over him, Psalms 38:16, and while he shews how much reason he has for this fear, as destruction is so near him, he throws out in Psalms 38:17-20, a new representation of his sufferings.

Verse 16

Ver. 16. For I speak, that they may not rejoice over me, who, on the slipping of my foot, lift themselves high against me. אמרתי , not, I pray, but, I think. Before פן is to be supplied, it is matter of concern, or it is to be feared, or something similar. The second half of the verse is a relative clause, which, according to Hebrew custom, is but loosely appended. We can either expound: who, (now already) since my foot slips, (a mark of misfortune as distinguished from entire ruin) magnify themselves against me; or, who, if my foot slipped, (if I came entirely down), would magnify themselves against me). The first exposition has on its side Psalms 35:26, where the insolent behavior of the enemies is viewed not to a matter of dread, but as an occasion of distress, and especially the next verse, where the halting corresponds to the slipping of the foot.

Verse 17

Ver. 17. For I am given over to suffering, and my pain is before me continually. The Psalmist shows how his present position justified his fear of the triumph of his enemies: he finds himself in great misery. The first member is literally: for I am ready to halt. The being ready cannot just mean, being near; but is as much as: to the hand, given over, adjudged. For the halting cannot denote the full ruin, but only the misfortune, comp. Psalms 35:15, where it is used of a state, in which the Psalmist already finds himself, not which he dreads; and the misfortune was not simply near to the Psalmist, but he was already in it. Elsewhere, also, for ex. Job 12:5, נכון with ל , is used of what already exists. מכאב , pain, not subjectively, but objectively, therefore entirely corresponding to the figurative halting. It is before me continually, q. d. it is my inseparable companion, corresponding to this: I am ready. The assertion that he finds himself in great misery, the Psalmist grounds in Psalms 38:18-20 by recounting his sufferings.

Verses 18-20

Ver. 18. For my guilt must I confess, I am sorry for my sin. The for denotes the relation, not merely of this verse, but of the whole section Psalms 38:18-20 to Psalms 38:17. The suffering of the Psalmist consists first in this, that he has come to the knowledge of his sins, and rues these with poignant regret.

To this sense of sin there come, besides, the assaults of numerous and mighty enemies, all the more sensibly, as the Psalmist had formerly done them good. Ver. 19. And mine enemies live and are mighty, and many there are who hate me without cause. Ver. 20. And they that render evil for good are enemies to me, because that I follow after the good. The first member of Psalms 38:19 is literally: and mine enemies, living, are strong. חיים cannot be joined as an adj. to איבי , for it must then have the article. It contains an entire declaration, as much as: who are living. While the Psalmist finds himself in a state like to death, is dead while living, they are living and powerful. חיים is quite suitable, whether we refer the עצמו to the quality, or to the quantity of the enemies; they are strong in number, in agreement with the second member; and the conjecture חנם , without cause, is to be rejected. Certainly no one would have thought of putting in place of this, the more difficult חיים . To follow after the good, is not quite the same with well-doing. It rather denotes a zealous moral striving in general. This striving, however, in the Psalmist, had specially directed itself in respect to his present enemies. Comp. Psalms 35:12. The rare form of the infin. רְ דוֹ פִ י has been changed by the Masorites into the common one.

Verses 21-22

Ver. 21. Forsake me not, O Lord; my God be not far from me. Ver. 22. Make haste to help me, Lord, my salvation. Calvin: “In this conclusion he brings shortly together the whole sum of his wishes and his prayer, viz.: that God would take up and help him, who had been abandoned by man, and in every way most wretchedly plagued.” The conclusion stands in designed verbal reference to Psalms 22:19. On the expression: Lord, my salvation, compare this: “say to my soul, I am thy salvation,” in Psalms 35:3.

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 38". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms.