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Bible Commentaries

Kingcomments on the Whole Bible

Psalms 38

This is the third of the seven so-called penitential psalms (Psalms 6; 32; 38; 51; 102; 130; 143). It is prayed by the Jews on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, the day of repentance and confession of sins. The psalm is spoken by the individual, by David, but is fully applicable to the faithful remnant in the trials of the great tribulation in the end time.

They realize that the affliction that comes upon them is the result of their sins. They also confess this, without any reservation. They accept what comes upon them from the hand of God as righteous discipline. That is why they also turn to Him, because He alone can take away that discipline. They know that He will do it. But when will He do it? The need is so great. As long as His hand rests on them, there is that agonizing question: When will redemption come?

Prophetically, the psalm describes the situation of the believing remnant. David has committed two sins, adultery and murder. Israel has also committed two sins: they have committed adultery by serving idols and they have murdered Christ. The adultery will reach its nadir with the choosing of the antichrist as their king.

Verses 1-8


For “a Psalm of David” (Psa 38:1a) see at Psalm 3:1.

The expression “for a memorial”, which appears except here only in the heading of Psalm 70 (Psa 70:1), is connects to the time of trouble. The expression means “to call to remembrance”. It is a call to God to remember their affliction and to remember what He has said in His covenant and His promises. To remind God of something is an indirect demand to intervene.

The entire psalm is a prayer. David is addressing God, not the reader (Psa 38:1b). He is so completely focused on God that he sees nothing but his own deep sinfulness. As a result, he is also convinced that God must “rebuke” and “chasten” sin in His wrath and burning anger over it (cf. Psa 6:1b). The rebuke is that for sin, the burning anger is the chastening that aims to restore him in his fellowship with God.

David sees his illness as a result of God’s rebuke of his sin. Prophetically, the believing remnant will also experience this. For example, Joseph’s brothers see their captivity as a result of their sin against Joseph (Gen 42:21-22).

David feels that God’s arrows have sunk deep into him and that God’s hand has pressed him down (Psa 38:2; cf. Job 6:4; Lam 3:12). Both the piercing pain of the arrows and the heavy pressure under which he is weighed are the work of God. David speaks of “Your arrows” and “Your hand”. The “arrows” point to the inner pain David experienced, in which God is seen as his adversary, who has fired arrows at him because of his sins. The order then is: David’s sin causes anger with God, and God’s anger causes pains and sickness with David. These are the means of God’s discipline by which a person suffers physically.

His flesh or body is ravaged by God’s indignation (Psa 38:3). His bones know no peace because he is aware of his sin. Because of the intensity of God’s discipline, all joy in life is gone from him. His whole body is sick, “there is no health in his bones” (cf. Isa 1:6). The word “soundness” is also related to the suitability to sacrifice. David indicates here that the indignation of God is affecting his relationship with Him. He sees himself as totally depraved and unworthy to draw near to God. This is at the same time evidence of his uprightness and the beginning of restoration (cf. Lev 13:12-13).

He does not belittle his iniquities, but sees them as waters in which he is going down and in danger of drowning (Psa 38:4). He became aware of his sins when he experienced the indignation of God, just as the conscience of Joseph’s brothers only awoke in prison. This is about the awakening of his conscience. He came to realize that he himself was responsible for the disciplining hand of the LORD.

The wounds God has inflicted on him stink (Psa 38:5). The smell is repulsive. It is the smell of death. It only now really dawns on him how foolish he was to sin so heavily. David expresses the disgust of his sin. Is our abhorrence of our sins also that great? Sometimes we can tell about our past sins ’flavorful’ and are admired for it. Then we do not have the abhorrence of it that we should have.

The wounds are not cleaned, but fester. ‘Fester’ means that his wound has become infected, that pus and punk have formed. It indicates that sin is in the process of bringing forth death (Jam 1:15). The cause of his sin lies in his folly. Folly is doing something that you know will go wrong. David was aware that his sin would torment him, yet he committed that sin.

No longer able to walk upright, he goes his way “bent over and greatly bowed down” (Psa 38:6). It is killing him. It is not just a physical attitude, it is primarily his soul that is very deeply weighed down. The condition of his soul is visible for others: “all day long” he goes “mourning”. He walks around mourning in black clothing. The severe rebuke and chastening have seized him and can be seen on him.

His “loins are filled with burning” (Psa 38:7). In the loins is the strength to walk. When they are “filled with burning”, every walking motion hurts violently. Once again he says, what he also said in Psa 38:3, that there is “no soundness” or flawlessness in his flesh or his bones. The repetition makes it clear that David has not put forward any mitigating circumstance. He suffers, and fully acknowledges the righteousness of this.

He is also spiritually completely wrecked. He is “benumbed and badly crushed” (Psa 38:8). This acknowledgment prompts God to come and dwell with him (Isa 57:15). He feels feckless, tired, and wracked. Everything hurts. His heart does not stop pounding, it throbs, due to stress and possibly fever. There can be a lot of turmoil around a person, while there is peace in the heart. But when there is turmoil in the heart, there is no peace anywhere. He cannot bear it anymore. Desperately he cries out.

Verses 9-14


David can only do one thing in this hopeless situation and that is to go to Him Who brought this suffering upon him. And that is exactly God’s intention with suffering that He brings upon us. All the pain and trouble does not alienate David from God, but drives him out to Him.

He addresses God as “Lord”, that is Adonai, the sovereign Ruler of the universe (Psa 38:9), and tells Him that all his desire is open before Him, it goes out to Him. As all his iniquities are manifest before God (Psa 38:4), so does God see, hear, and understand his sighing. Sighing is an expression of distress without words. The distress is so great that David can no longer put it into words; he can only sigh (cf. Rom 8:26).

In his desire for God, he now speaks not of his iniquities, but of his powerlessness (Psa 38:10). His heart is filled with fear and trembling and knows no rest. It throbs, so that he has no strength to do anything. He can’t see anything anymore either, he has no view and doesn’t know how to continue living. It is as if he has no eyes, for he sees no light. He has lost sight of God as the God of the covenant and walks in darkness.

So far David has spoken of his own physical and spiritual condition. Beginning in Psa 38:11, he speaks of his surroundings. The illness and the thought of possible sin behind it create a deep rift between David and others. Even his loved ones, his closest relatives, and friends are distant. This makes the pain and misery all the more poignant. From his loved ones and friends he doesn’t have to expect help (Psa 38:11; Job 19:13-14). Those, with whom he has had a good relationship, his kinsmen, stand afar off.

This is the case both literally and figuratively. They literally stand at a distance watching, and figuratively there is distance because they do not want to share in his suffering. They want nothing to do with him and avoid him. This is a bitter pain, even more bitter than the physical pains. Even his closest relatives do not come near him to relieve his pains, but keep a safe distance.

While his friends and family stand at a distance, his enemies come closer and closer (Psa 38:12). He has spoken of his sin in the foregoing. Now he is going to speak about his enemies surrounding him. These enemies will also be spoken of by the believing remnant in the end time. His enemies “seek” his life, they “lay snares” for him. They are treacherously, maliciously out to kill him.

They seek “to injure” him and therefore they “have threatened destruction”, that is, words intended to harm him. And it does not stop there. While he goes in black all day long because he is so miserable, they “devise treachery” against him “all day long”. They are constantly thinking about how to get him out of the way.

Instead of protesting about so much injustice, David keeps himself “like a deaf man” (Psa 38:13). He closes his ears to it and does not hear. He cannot defend himself, for he is defenseless, and he does not want to defend himself, for he knows that he deserves this misery through his sin (cf. 2Sam 16:10-13). Therefore, he is “like a mute man who does not open his mouth”.

This is similar to something said of the Lord Jesus (Isa 53:7). But there is a big difference. The Lord was not “like a mute man” because He was powerless, nor because He was aware of any sin of His own, but because He went through the agony to the cross trusting in God. At the same time, however, the Lord was also aware that He would suffer vicariously for the sins of others (Psa 69:4).

In Psa 38:14, David says again in different words the same thing as in Psa 38:13, emphasizing it a bit stronger (cf. Isa 53:7; 1Pet 2:23). Whatever is said to him, he pays no attention to it and pretends not to hear it. Nor does he respond and keeps his mouth shut. He has no arguments.

Through all the suffering, God does His purifying work with him (Mal 3:3). David does not reproach God about it, but keeps silent. He regards his inner suffering because of his sin as God’s work; he also regards what the enemies do to him as God’s work (cf. Isa 10:5). Therefore, in the next verse he does not address his enemies, but his God.

Verses 15-20


For the third time, David turns to God (Psa 38:15). He realizes that the LORD is at work with him. Through his enemies, he experienced the disciplining hand of the LORD. It is clear to him that this is happening as a result of his sin. That sin he confesses (Psa 38:18). Therefore, he has confidence that the LORD will forgive his sin. The disciplinary rod of God is then no longer needed, and David trusts that the enemy will also disappear.

David himself does not listen to the enemies or respond to them, but turns to God because he knows that God answers. In Psa 38:1 he asked Him not to chasten him in His burning anger. In Psa 38:9, he expressed his desire for Him. Now he tells God that he hopes in Him. He even expresses assurance that God will answer. He calls Him “Lord my God”, that is, the sovereign Ruler, Adonai, of the universe is his all-powerful God.

David does not speak to his enemies, but speaks about them to God. He asks if God will make sure that his enemies will not rejoice over him anyway (Psa 38:16). They will rejoice over him and even magnify themselves against him if his foot should slip. And that risk is high. He is in danger to fall, because he is plagued by his sorrow (Psa 38:17). It is continually before him. He must constantly think of the fact that he is such a great sinner.

He is in God’s presence and there he is overwhelmed by his iniquity (Psa 38:18). He does not cover it up, nor does he excuse himself, but makes it known. He cannot and will not do otherwise. He is troubled by his sin. This tortures him and renders him powerless. This is a sorrow which is according to the will of God (2Cor 7:9).

His distress is increased when he looks at his enemies (Psa 38:19). All seems to be going well for them (Psa 73:2-15). They are living life to the fullest and no one is putting any obstacle in their way, not even God. They even become strong. His enemies are also his haters. God rightly chastens him because he has sinned against Him. But his enemies hate him for false reasons, for he has done nothing wrong to them. They do not diminish in number, but become numerous, while he is without strength and stands alone.

We see David going back and forth between what God does to him and what his enemies do to him, between the pressure of his sins and the pressure of his enemies. This will also be the case with the believing remnant in the future. They must come to realize that the enemies are the rod of chastisement of God. This remains the case as long as there is no assurance of the forgiveness of sins.

Then there is another category: people who repay him evil for good (Psa 38:20). He has done good to them. Prophetically we see this with the Lord Jesus, Who always did good, and yet they have repaid Him evil for good. They turned against him instead of being grateful to him for that and become his opponents. And this, because he follows what is good. The good is to follow the LORD, Who is the Good (cf. Mk 10:17-18). But that reminds his enemies too much of God and they don’t want that. They want to live their own lives. Therefore, they want to silence him forever.

Verses 21-22

Prayer for Help

David is utterly dependent on God. His health, both physical and mental, has failed him; his family and friends are distant; his enemies approach to give him the deathblow. All he can do is flee upward.

David cries out three times in these verses: to the LORD, to his God, and to the Lord. In his distress he begs the LORD, the God of the covenant, not to forsake him (Psa 38:21). We have the promise that He will not desert us nor forsake us (Heb 13:5b). David also appeals to God as “my God”. Surely God is his God, isn’t He? Then He cannot be far from him, can He?

The need is great, the situation very threatening. Help must come from God soon (Psa 38:22). For this he appeals to the “Lord, my salvation”. All his confidence for his salvation, his redemption is placed in the “Lord”, Adonai, the sovereign Ruler. He not only brings salvation, but is his salvation, his redemption. It is not an act, but a Person Who will perform the act of salvation in His time. His name is Jesus, which means “the LORD redeems, saves”.

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Kingcomments on the Whole Bible © 2021 Author: G. de Koning. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of the author
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Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Psalms 38". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.