15 million Ukrainian are displaced by Russia's war.
Millions miss a meal or two each day.
Help us change that! Click to donate today!

Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 38

Verses 1-22

Psalms 38:1-22

THIS is a long-drawn wail. passionate at first, but gradually calming itself into submission and trust, though never passing from the minor key. The name of God is invoked thrice (Psalms 38:1, Psalms 38:9, Psalms 38:15), and each time that the psalmist looks up his burden is somewhat easier to carry, and some "low beginnings of content" steal into his heart and mingle with his lament. Sorrow finds relief in repeating its plaint. It is the mistake of coldblooded readers to look for consecution of thought in the cries of a wounded soul: but it is also a mistake to be blind to the gradual sinking of the waves in this psalm, which begins with deprecating God’s wrath, and ends with quietly nestling close to Him as "my salvation."

The characteristic of the first burst of feeling is its unbroken gloom. It sounds the depths of darkness, with which easy-going, superficial lives are unfamiliar, but whoever has been down into them will not think the picture overcharged with black. The occasion of the psalmist’s deep dejection cannot be gathered from his words. He, like all poets who teach in song what they learn in suffering, translates his personal sorrows into language fitting for other’s pains. The feelings are more important to him and to us than the facts. and we must be content to leave unsettled the question of his circumstances, on which, after all, little depends. Only, it is hard for the present writer, at least, to believe that such a psalm, quivering, as it seems, with agony, is not the genuine cry of a brother’s tortured soul, but an utterance invented for a personified nation. The close verbal resemblance of the introductory deprecation of chastisement in anger to Psalms 6:1 has been supposed to point to a common authorship, and Delitzsch takes both psalms, along with Psalms 32:1-11 and Psalms 51:1-19, as a series belonging to the time of David’s penitence after his great fall from purity. But the resemblance in question would rather favour the supposition of difference of authorship, since quotation is more probable than self-repetition. Jeremiah 10:23 is by some held to be the original, and either Jeremiah himself or some later singer to have been the author of the psalm. The question of which of two similar passages is source and which is copy is always ticklish. Jeremiah’s bent was assimilative, and his prophecies are full of echoes. The priority, therefore, probably lies with one or other of the psalmists, if there are two.

The first part of the psalm is entirely occupied with the subjective aspect of the psalmist’s affliction. Three elements are conspicuous: God’s judgments, the singer’s consciousness of sin, and his mental and probably physical sufferings. Are the "arrows" and crushing weight of God’s "hand," which he deprecates in the first verses, the same as the sickness and wounds, whether of mind or body, which he next describes so pathetically? They are generally taken to be so, but the language of this section and the contents of the remainder of the psalm rather point to a distinction between them. It would seem that there are three stages, not two, as that interpretation would make them. Unspecified calamities, recognised by the sufferer as God’s chastisements, have roused his conscience, and its gnawing has superinduced mental and bodily pain. The terribly realistic description of the latter may, indeed, be figurative, but is more probably literal. The reiterated synonyms for God’s displeasure in Psalms 38:1, Psalms 38:3, show how all the aspects of that solemn thought are familiar. The first word regards it as an outburst, or explosion, like a charge of dynamite: the second as "glowing, igniting"; the third as effervescent, bubbling like lava in a crater. The metaphors for the effects of this anger in Psalms 38:2 deepen the impression of its terribleness. It is a fearful fate to be the target for God’s "arrows," but it is worse to be crushed under the weight of His "hand." The two forms of representation refer to the same facts, but make a climax. The verbs in Psalms 38:2 are from one root, meaning to come down, or to lie upon. In Psalms 38:2 a the word is reflexive, and represents the "arrows" as endowed with volition, hurling themselves down. They penetrate with force proportionate to the distance which they fall, as a meteoric stone buries itself in the ground. Such being the wounding, crushing power of the Divine "anger" its effects on the psalmist are spread out before God, in the remaining part of this first division, with plaintive reiteration. The connection which a quickened conscience discerns between sorrow and sin is strikingly set forth in Psalms 38:3 in which "Thine indignation" and "my sin" are the double fountainheads of bitterness. The quivering frame first felt the power of God’s anger, and then the awakened conscience turned inwards and discerned the occasion of the anger. The three elements which we have distinguished are clearly separated here; and their connection laid bare.

The second of these is the sense of sin, which the psalmist feels as taking all "peace" or well-being out of his "bones" as a flood rolling its black waters over his head, as a weight beneath which he cannot stand upright, and again as foolishness, since its only effect has been to bring to him not what he hoped to win by it, but this miserable plight.

Then, he pours himself out with the monotonous repetition so natural to self-pity, in a graphic accumulation of pictures of disease, which may be taken as symbolic of mental distress, but are better understood literally. With the whole, Isaiah 1:5-6, should be compared, nor should the partial resemblances of Isaiah 53:1-12 be overlooked. No fastidiousness keeps the psalmist from describing offensive details. His body is scourged and livid with parti-coloured, swollen weals from the lash, and these discharge foul-smelling matter. With this compare Isaiah 53:5, "His stripes" (same word). Whatever may be thought of the other physical features of suffering, this must obviously be figurative. Contorted in pain, bent down by weakness, dragging himself wearily with the slow gait of an invalid, squalid in attire, burning with inward fever, diseased in every tortured atom of flesh, he is utterly worn out and broken. {same word as "bruised," Isaiah 53:5} Inward misery, the cry of the heart, must have outward expression, and, with Eastern vehemence in utterance of emotions which Western reticence prefers to let gnaw in silence at the roots of life, he "roars" aloud because his heart groans.

This vivid picture of the effects of the sense of personal sin will seem to superficial modern Christianity exaggerated and alien from experience; but the deeper a man’s godliness, the more will he listen with sympathy, with understanding and with appropriation of such piercing laments as his own. Just as few of us are dowered with sensibilities so keen as to feel what poets feel, in love or hope, or delight in nature, or with power to express the feelings, and yet can recognise in their winged words the heightened expression of our own less full emotions, so the truly devout soul will find, in the most passionate of these wailing notes, the completer expression of his own experience. We must go down into the depths and cry to God out of them, if we are to reach sunny heights of communion. Intense consciousness of sin is the obverse of ardent aspiration after righteousness, and that is but a poor type of religion which has not both. It is one of the glories of the Psalter that both are given utterance to in it in words which are as vital today as when they first came warm from the lies of these long dead men. Everything in the world has changed, but these songs of penitence and plaintive deprecation, like their twin bursts of rapturous communion, were "not born for death." Contrast the utter deadness of the religious hymns of all other nations with the fresh vitality of the Psalms. As long as hearts are penetrated with the consciousness of evil done and loved, these strains will fit themselves to men’s lips.

Because the psalmist’s recounting of his pains was prayer and not soliloquy or mere cry of anguish, it calms him. We make the wound deeper by turning round the arrow in it, when we dwell upon suffering without thinking of God; but when, like the psalmist, we tell all to Him, healing begins. Thus, the second part (Psalms 38:9-14) is perceptibly calmer, and though still agitated, its thought of God is more trustful, and silent submission at the close takes the place of the "roaring," the shrill cry of agony which ended the first part. A further variation of tone is that, instead of the entirely subjective description of the psalmist’s sufferings in Psalms 38:1-8, the desertion by friends and the hostility of foes, are now the main elements of trial. There is comparative peace for a tortured heart in the thought that all its desire and sighing are known to God. That knowledge is prior to the heart’s prayer, but does not make it needless, for by the prayer the conviction of the Divine knowledge has entered the troubled soul, and brought some prelude of deliverance and hope of answer. The devout soul does not argue "Thou knowest, and I need not speak," but "Thou knowest, therefore I tell Thee"; and it is soothed in and after telling. He who begins his prayer, by submitting to chastisement and only deprecating the form of it inflicted by "wrath," will pass to the more gracious thought of God as lovingly cognisant of both his desire and his sighing, his wishes and his pains. The burst of the storm is past, when that light begins to break through clouds, though waves still run high.

How high they still run is plain from the immediate recurrence of the strain of recounting the singer’s sorrows. This recrudescence of woe after the clear calm of a moment is only too well known to us all in our sorrows. The psalmist returns to speak of his sickness in Psalms 38:10, which is really a picture of syncope or fainting. The heart’s action is described by a rare word, which in its root means to go round and round, and is here in an intensive form expressive of violent motion, or possibly is to be regarded as a diminutive rather than an intensive, expressive of the thinner though quicker pulse. Then come collapse of strength and failure of sight. But this echo of the preceding part immediately gives place to the new element in the psalmist’s sorrow arising from the behaviour of friends and foes. The frequent complaint of desertion by friends has to be repeated by most sufferers in this selfish world. They keep far away from his "stroke," says the psalm, using the same word as is employed for leprosy, and as is used in the verb in Isaiah 53:4 ("stricken"). There is a tone of wonder and disappointment in the untranslatable play of language in Psalms 38:11 b. "My near relations stand far off." Kin are not always kind. Friends have deserted because foes have beset him. Probably we have here the facts which in the previous part are conceived of as the "arrows" of God.

Open and secret enemies laying snares for him, as for some hunted wild creature, eagerly seeking his life, speaking "destructions" as if they would fain kill him with their words, and perpetually whispering lies about him, were recognised by him as instruments of God’s judgment, and evoked his consciousness of sin, which again led to actual disease. But the bitter schooling led to something else more blessed-namely, to silent resignation. Like David, when he let Shimei shriek his curses at him from the hillside and answered not, the psalmist is deaf and dumb to malicious tongues. He will sneak to God, but to man he is silent, in utter submission of will.

Isaiah 53:7 gives the same trait in the perfect Sufferer, a faint foreshadowing of whom is seen in the psalmist; and 1 Peter 2:23 bids all who would follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth, like Him open not their mouths when reviled, but commit themselves to the righteous Judge.

Once more the psalmist lifts his eyes to God, and the third invocation of the Name is attended by an increase of confidence. In the first part, "Jehovah" was addressed; in the second the designation "Lord" was used; in the third, both are united and the appropriating name "my God" is added. In the closing invocation (Psalms 38:2-3) all three reappear, and each is the plea of a petition. The characteristics of these closing verses are three: humble trust, the marshalling of its reasons, and the combination of acknowledgment of sin and professions of innocence. The growth of trust is very marked, if the first part, with its synonyms for God’s wrath and its deprecation of unmeasured chastisement and its details of pain, be compared with the quiet hope and assurance that God will answer, and with that great name "my Salvation." The singer does not indeed touch the heights of triumphant faith; but he who can grasp God as his, and can be silent because he is sure that God will speak by delivering deeds for him and can call Him his Salvation, has climbed far enough to have the sunshine all round him, and to be clear of the mists among which his song began. The best reason for letting the enemy speak on unanswered is the confidence that a mightier voice will speak. "But thou wilt answer, Lord, for me" may well make us deaf and dumb to temptations and threats, calumnies and flatteries.

How does this confidence spring in so troubled a heart? The fourfold "For" beginning each verse from 15 to 18 (Psalms 38:15-18) weaves them all into a chain. The first gives the reason for the submissive silence as being quiet confidence; and the succeeding three may be taken as either dependent on each other, or, as is perhaps better, as coordinate and all-assigning reasons for that confidence. Either construction yields worthy and natural meanings. If the former be adopted, trust in God’s undertaking of the silent sufferer’s cause is based upon the prayer which broke his silence. Dumb to men, he had breathed to God his petition for help, and had buttressed it with this plea, "Lest they rejoice over me," and he had feared that they would, because he knew that he was ready to fall and had ever before him his pain, and that because he felt himself forced to lament and confess his sin. But it seems to yield a richer meaning, if the "For’s" be regarded as coordinate. They then become a striking and instructive example of faith’s logic, the ingenuity of pleading which finds encouragements in discouragements. The suppliant is sure of answer because he has told God his fear, and yet again because he is so near falling and therefore needs help so much, and yet again because he has made a clean breast of his sin. Trust in God’s help, distrust of self, consciousness of weakness, and penitence make anything possible rather than that the prayer which embodies them should be flung up to an unanswering God. They are prevalent pleas with Him in regard to which He will not be "as a man that heareth not, and in whose mouth there is no reply." They are grounds of assurance to him who prays.

The juxtaposition of consciousness of sin in Psalms 38:18 with the declaration that love of good was the cause of being persecuted brings out the twofold attitude, in regard to God and men, which a devout soul may permissibly and sometimes must necessarily assume. There may be the truest sense of sinfulness, along with a clear-hearted affirmation of innocence in regard to men, and a conviction that it is good and goodwill to them, not evil in the sufferer, which makes him the butt of hatred. Not less instructive is the double view of the same facts presented in the beginning and end of this psalm. They were to the psalmist first regarded as God’s chastisement in wrath, His "arrows" and heavy "hand," because of sin. Now they are men’s enmity, because of his love of good. Is there not an entire contradiction between these two views of suffering, its cause and source? Certainly not, but rather the two views differ only in the angle of vision, and may be combined, like stereoscopic pictures, into one rounded, harmonious whole. To be able so to combine them is one of the rewards of such pleading trust as breathes its plaintive music through this psalm, and wakes responsive notes in devout hearts still.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.
Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 38". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".