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Bible Commentaries

Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Psalms 38


‘A Psalm of David, to bring to remembrance.’

Compare the same description in Psalms 70:0. The thought may be that he wanted to bring to God’s remembrance the sufferers, whom He seems to have forgotten. Or it may refer to the fact that the Psalm would bring sinners to remembrance of their true deserts, were it not for the grace of God. Or it may have in mind that he wants to remember how God was with him in his extremity. Or it may have in mind that the Psalmist wants to bring men to remembrance of their own sinfulness. Consider how the verb is regularly used with reference to penitent self-recollection on the part of sinners. See for example 1 Kings 17:18: Ezekiel 21:24; Ezekiel 29:16; Numbers 5:15.

The Psalm is often described as a ‘penitential Psalm’, because if contains the idea of deep repentance at the thought of sin. It divides into three sections.

1) In the first section he addresses God as ‘YHWH’, the covenant God, the One against Whom he has offended by not walking in accordance with His requirements.

2) In the second he addresses God as ‘Lord’ (Adonai), the sovereign Lord, the One Who rules all the world and those who are in it.

3) In the third he addresses God in terms of ‘O YHWH’ and ‘O Lord (Adonai) my God’, titles given in parallel, thus combining the two names and signifying both his covenant God and his sovereign Lord. And he finally ends the Psalm with ‘O YHWH’, ‘O my God’ and ‘O Lord’ (Adonai), bringing to mind the whole range of what YHWH is as his covenant God, as the God of creation (Psalms 19:1-6) and as his sovereign Lord.


1) The Psalmist describes the chastening that he is experiencing and acknowledges the heinousness of his sin that has brought this chastening on him (Psalms 38:1-8).

2) He looks to his sovereign Lord for help amidst his own desertion by even his friends and loved ones (Psalms 38:9-14).

3) He calls on YHWH his Lord for deliverance from his enemies in view of his own deep repentance and his confidence in the true faithfulness of YHWH, Who is his God and Lord (Psalms 38:15-22).

Verses 1-8

1). The Psalmist Describes the Chastening that He is Experiencing and Acknowledges the Heinousness of His Sin (Psalms 38:1-8 ).

He commences with a prayer that, while God may rebuke and chasten him as he deserves, He will not do it so much in anger as in grieved love (Psalms 38:1). He cannot bear the thought that God could be wholly at odds with him. And he then goes on to describe the experience that he is going through, the depths of his spiritual anguish (Psalms 38:2), his deep sense of sin (Psalms 38:3-4), and the consequent spiritual chastening which he is enduring (Psalms 38:5-8), because of what he has done. It is clear that he is going through a period of deep conviction of sin.

Whether he was actually physical experiencing fever and illness, or was simply describing his spiritual darkness of spirit in similar terms is debatable. But either way it was making him search out his heart before God. He was experiencing the chastening of God for the good of his soul (Hebrews 12:3-11).

Psalms 38:1-2

‘O YHWH, rebuke me not in your wrath,

Nor chasten me in your hot displeasure.

For your arrows stick fast in me,

And your hand presses me sore.

Initially his prayer is to his covenant God, the One Whom he knows watches over him and cares for him. But he does not pray on the basis of a cosy relationship, for he knows that he has sinned, and sinned deeply. He knows that he must thus endure God’s displeasure. He does, however, know that he does it to One Who will welcome his repentance, and has the remedy for his sin. Chastening may be his lot, but he does not want it to turn out to be condemnation.

So as one who is enduring the hand of God pressing heavily on him, and as one who is aware of God’s arrows being fired at him, and ‘piercing his body’, an apt picture of the ways in which God brings home conviction of sin, he yet prays that God will deal with him in mercy and chastening rather than in wrath. Acknowledging fully that he is receiving his just deserts, he does not want to feel that God is dealing with him only in judgment. He accepts God’s rebukes, and God’s manifestation of displeasure, as just, but he wants to be able to see them in terms of the chastening of a stern Father, rather than as evidence that he is cut off from God’s mercy. Let YHWH then remember that He is his God, and not treat him as one for whom there is no forgiveness. Let Him rather have compassion on him in his failure.

Psalms 38:3-4

There is no soundness in my flesh,

Because of your indignation,

Nor is there any health in my bones,

Because of my sin.

For my iniquities are gone over my head,

As a heavy burden they are too heavy for me.’

He describes the state in which he finds himself as God’s chastening strikes home. His chastening may have been spiritual chastening which is being described here in vivid pictorial language, or it may well have included physical illness as one of God’s means of chastening (1 Corinthians 11:30), but either way he is finding it difficult to cope with, not because of the fact of the spiritual pressure or the illness, but because of the deep underlying sense of the sin that was responsible for it. And this is because he is aware of God’s indignation against his sin, and feels totally corrupt. He feels as though his flesh is rotten, and that he has no vestige of life within him, no ‘life in his bones’. (The bones of a man were often seen as representing his inner man). He feels that he is ‘dead in his sin’. Indeed he feels that his iniquities are so heavy that they are weighing him down, and that they are so many that they are overwhelming him. They are flowing over his head as though he were drowning in a river of them. For the truth is that he has seen himself as he really is in God’s sight.

Thus in Paul’s words he could say, ‘in me, that is in my flesh, there is no good thing, for to will is present with me, but how to do what is good I cannot discover’ (Romans 7:18). And he really meant it. That is why he feels totally lost and unworthy, even though he knows in his heart that a merciful God will offer him hope.

Note the two contrasts, ‘because of Your indignation --- because of my sin’. Both are bringing home to him the poverty of his spiritual condition, something which he now describes in more detail.

Verses 5-8

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 disquietness of my heart.’

He is so overwhelmed by his sense of sin that he sees himself as wounded, with wounds that are putrefying and becoming loathsome. And he knows that all this because of his own folly. He does not try to hide from the truth. He has been very foolish, and now he is being made conscious of his own utter unworthiness. Thus he feels within himself a terrible pain at the thought of how sinful he is, and the result is that he is utterly bowed down by it to the earth. All day long he mourns over his sin, unable to obtain a sense of being forgiven, and his very loins are filled with a sense of burning as though gripped with fever (which, in fact, he may well have been). He feels that his flesh is unsound, and he feels continually faint and sore bruised. To him at that moment it is as though he cannot escape from his sin, and as though there can be no forgiveness for it (although happily, deep within him, he knows that there is such forgiveness, simply because of the compassion and mercy of God. That is why he is praying). Thus he groans within himself because his heart is so disquieted. He is a man filled with a sense of his own unworthiness. Such is what happens to a man or woman when they come to a full awareness of the truth about themselves.

Some who have known such a sense of their sinfulness will recognise the picture only too well. Others may not have experienced such a deep sense of sin. But all must recognise that the pictures are describing the truth about our sins, whoever we are, whether we are conscious of it or not.

Thus we see that sin:

· Results in our inner beings being unsound and unhealthy (Psalms 38:3).

· Results in our being loathsome and corrupt because of our foolishness (Psalms 38:5).

· Results in the destruction of our inner peace and confidence because of what we are (Psalms 38:6-8).

And this is true of us all even when we do not ourselves sense its awful effects. Men love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil (John 3:19). They do not want to be reminded of their sinfulness. But those who do the truth come to the light, even when it reveals to them what they are, because by coming to the light they can have their sins dealt with, while at the same time manifesting their true condition of heart.

So as we come to His light (1 John 1:5-6) our sinfulness must be recognised by us all, some to a greater extent than others, although happily in our case being then followed by thankfulness that the blood of Jesus Christ God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7). For the Psalmist that experience of such forgiveness still lies ahead.

Verses 9-14

2). He Looks to His Sovereign Lord Amidst Even the Desertion of His Friends and Loved Ones (Psalms 38:9-14 ).

Up to this point the Psalmist’s emphasis has been on his own personal state. It is his state of heart that is the concern of his covenant God. But now he turns his thoughts outwards towards the outer world and its attitude towards him, and it is therefore to his ‘Sovereign Lord’ (adonai) that he now looks, the One Who rules over the affairs of men (although still as the One Who loves him and is concerned about him).

He knows that his Lord knows what is happening to him, and he reminds Him of the number of people who are against him, even those whom he knows should be there to support him, all adding to his sense of sin. And they have deserted him and he is left friendless apart from his Lord. However he refuses to condemn them. Indeed he will not even rebuke them, for he knows that YHWH his Sovereign Lord is with him, and He will be his help.

Psalms 38:9-10

‘Lord, all my desire is before you,

And my groaning is not hid from you.

My heart throbs,

My strength fails me,

As for the light of my eyes,

It also is gone from me.

Almost at the end of his tether he yet knows that his Lord is aware of his situation. It is this that sustains him. He can say to Him, ‘You know the way that I take’ (Job 23:10), and be aware that it is true. For he is confident that his Sovereign Lord knows all his desires, and is aware of all his groanings. He recognises that God is aware how fast his heart is beating, and that God knows that his strength is failing him. Indeed God must surely recognise that the light has gone from his eyes and that he is, as it were, struggling in the darkness.

Psalms 38:11-12

‘My lovers and my friends stand aloof from my plague,

And my kinsmen stand afar off.

Those also who seek after my life lay snares for me,

And those who seek my hurt speak mischievous things,

And meditate deceits all the day long.’

He knows that God is aware that his friends and relations have deserted him. That those who had professed to love him, including even his own kinsmen, are standing at a distance, not wanting to be associated with him because they see him as a political hazard, or even as being plague-ridden (whether really or symbolically). No one is ready to step in, in order to protect him. No one wants to be involved in a ticklish situation. It is an experience that many a man of God engaged in controversy has had to face when others have been fearful of standing with him.

And meanwhile his enemies are laying snares in order to entrap him. And they have as their aim the taking of his life. He knows that they are slandering him, and speaking mischievous things about him. That lies and false rumours abound on their lips. And he is aware that all day long they plan their deceitful tactics in order to discredit him. It is clear that they are out to get him, no matter what evil methods they have to use.

Verses 13-15

‘But I, as a deaf man, hear not,

And I am as a dumb man who opens not his mouth.

Yes, I am as a man who hears not,

And in whose mouth are no reproofs.

For in you, O YHWH, do I hope,

You will answer, O Lord my God.’

But the Psalmist refuses to be alarmed. He is not concerned by their lies and deceit, so his ears are deaf to their subtle words and calumnies. He will say nothing in his own defence, as though he was a man who had heard nothing, and had therefore nothing to reprove, or to plead in his own defence. While they may rail at him he will not retaliate against them. (This may suggest that had he wished to do so he could have gained vengeance on them). And why is he behaving in this magnanimous way? It is because his confidence is in his covenant God, and because he is confident that his Sovereign Lord will answer him in his need, and will bring him through his trial. All his attention is on his God, and thus his ears are deaf to all else.

Verses 15-22

3). He Calls on YHWH his Lord for Deliverance from his Enemies in View of his Own Deep Repentance and his Confidence in the True Faithfulness to Him of YHWH, his God and Lord (Psalms 38:15-22 ).

As we have seen Psalms 38:15 concludes his previous thoughts and makes sense of them. But it also prepares the way for his further thought, and so we include it again here. It is because his hope is in his covenant God, and because he is sure that his Sovereign Lord will answer him, that he has such confidence in spite of his sin and his desertion by those around him. And we should note also that at the root of his confidence is the fact that, in spite of his admitted sinfulness, he basically follows the thing that is good (Psalms 38:20). Thus he knows that, while he may have been weak and foolish, his God knows that the set of his heart is true (Psalms 38:20). It is because God knows the underlying state of his heart that he can have such confidence in His mercy.

Psalms 38:15-18

For in you, O YHWH, do I hope,

You will answer, O Lord my God.’

‘For I said,

Lest they rejoice over me,

When my foot slips,

They magnify themselves against me.

For I am ready to fall,

And my sorrow is continually before me.

‘For I will declare my iniquity,

I will be sorry for my sin.

And it is because of his confidence that YHWH is with him, and that his Sovereign Lord and God will answer him, that he can stand there without fear. That is why he can speak lightly of men rejoicing over him when his foot slips. For he knows that they will never really be able to rejoice over his final downfall because his God is with him.

Nevertheless at present they speak boldly against him with their accusations, thinking that they really are about to bring about his downfall. They are sure that YHWH is on their side. But there is something that they are overlooking, and that is his genuine repentance before YHWH. For while they are making themselves so big against him and are ‘strutting their stuff’, he on his part is humbling himself before his God. He is openly declaring his iniquity, and expressing regret for his sin. Thus he is sure that in the end they can only fail, because God will be on his side.

Psalms 38:19-20

But my enemies are lively, and are strong,

And those who hate me wrongfully are multiplied.

Those also who render evil for good, are adversaries to me,

Because I follow the thing that is good.

Nevertheless his enemies appear lively and strong. And now we come to the nub of the matter. While his enemies are lively and strong, those who hate him wrongfully are numerous, and they include among their number those who render evil for good. This reveals the fact that in the last analysis all their hatred is directed at him because he follows ‘the thing that is good’ (literally ‘for my following of good’). Now we know why he is confident that through YHWH he will triumph. It is because he is the one who alone is upholding YHWH’s truth and righteousness. He alone has the good of all in his mind. How then can YHWH not step in on his side?

Psalms 38:21

‘Forsake me not, O YHWH,

O my God, be not far from me.

Make haste to help me,

O Lord, my salvation.

And so he finishes his Psalm by calling confidently on his covenant God to help him, and not to forsake him. It is in this that his assurance lies, that YHWH at least will not forsake him. So although his friends and relatives might stand afar off from him (Psalms 38:11), and his enemies might act against him, he knows that God will not be far from him, and that He will act for him. Indeed, he is confident that He even then stands there ready to help him.

That is finally why he knows that he can call on Him to make haste to help him as the One Who is Sovereign Lord, and especially as the One Who is Lord over his very much needed deliverance. He is the Lord, his salvation. And he knows therefore that his request will be answered. For his sovereign Lord is also his Saviour, He is his salvation, and his salvation is thus wholly of the Lord. And in view of that it cannot therefore fail.

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Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Psalms 38". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". 2013.