Friday, November 11, 2011

Psalm 38 – Beseeching God in Sorrow

“O Lord, all my longing is known to you; my sighing is not hidden from you. My heart throbs, my strength fails me; as for the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.” ~Psalm 38:9-10 (NRSV).

This penitential psalm, the third one after Psalms 6 and 32, is a sad indictment that is so often true to life. Four words fit perfectly: sin, suffering, sorrow, and sighing. There appears to be a connection between the psalmist’s (David) sin, the depth of suffering and sorrow felt because of that sin, and the sighing despondency of his forlorn figure.

A carefully composed prayer, not a hastily arranged plea, it digs deeply into the detail of the lament. The psalmist clearly feels judged by God, connecting again sickness with suffering for judgment. We would not quickly make this assertion; that our sicknesses are caused because of our sin.

There are seven discrete sections of this psalm.

1. Plea for Respite

The opening two verses speak directly of judgment at the hand of God. None of us really wants to admit that the Lord punishes us by judgment. The truth is, however, we are judged; always for our benefit, ultimately.

2. Lament for Failing Health

Verses 3-4 feature the psalmist’s lament for failing health; physically in verse 3, and psychologically in verse 4.

It’s clear that both physical and mental impoverishment is felt. There is no soundness of flesh, no health in the bones, and this or some other reason produces depression.

3. Descriptions of Desperation

The next four verses give us a hint of how far life has descended into Sheol.

Following the pattern of verses 3-4, verses 5-7 repeat the analysis of the physical ailment and imposition, and verse 8 explores the psychological and spiritual dilemma.

As a collective, verses 3-8 prove the link that physical injury and illness may quickly manifest itself in psychological injury and illness.

4. The Enemy Enters

It has taken until midway through this psalm before other protagonists enter the scene—they only add to the burden felt by the psalmist.

There are those who would be friends, but they stand aloof, not doing anything to help (verse 11). At these sorts of times we know, quickly, who our friends are. Following in verse 12 is the first mention of those schemers who seek to hurt David.

5. A Reflection On His Incapacity

Verses 13-16 come back, for a time, to the earlier dissertation of dire introspection, but with the first signs of confident trust (verse 15). The psalmist promises to wait upon the answer of the Lord. This is the most confident verse in the entire psalm.

For this situation there must be prayer.

6. Definite Remorse

A precondition for mercy is the readiness of genuine penitence; David confesses his sin, however brief it is here (verse 18).

What goes with his remorse, though, is a comparison between the psalmist and those others reviling him unfairly. Compared with others, the psalmist sees himself more righteous, though not perfect.

7. Finally a Plea Hid in Declaration

As with so many of the lament psalms there is a brief, albeit confident, declaration of confidence in the Lord. Although this one falls short of complete confidence, and makes its claim out of a plea.


When we feel weak we are still strong enough to cry out to the Lord for help. Whether our problems are self-inflicted or not matters little; the issue of the broad judgment of God will turn if we repent.

There is infinite comfort knowing the direct connection between the God of life and our lives. Sometimes this connection speaks to us as negative consequences. We can always rest assured, however, that God holds our lives, indeed all of life, in the palm of his hand.

No matter the depth of our wrongs against others and, therefore, God, we can know the forgiveness of unconditional grace. We thank Jesus for that.

God’s grace is sufficient even in recovering from the vastness of the humiliation of our sin. Grace bequeaths forgiveness as we crush of our pride in the Spirit’s sponsorship, through the resources of humility. We thank Jesus for that.

© 2011 S. J. Wickham.

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