PRAYER OF A SUFFERING PENITENT
The chapter heading here is the one found in the superscription, which also names David as the author. As Delitzsch observed:
“The occasion was David’s adultery (2 Samuel 12:14); and Psalms 6; Psalms 38; Psalms 51; and Psalms 32 form a chronological series. Here, David is distressed both in mind and in body, forsaken by his friends, and regarded by his foes as one who is cast off forever. The fire of divine anger burns within him like a fever; and the divine withdrawal as it were rests upon him like darkness.
The authorship of this psalm, despite its being numbered among the Penitentials, is declared by some to be uncertain.
“Jeremiah has been suggested as the author of this psalm”; but this appears to us as utterly unacceptable. As Baigent noted, “In Jeremiah there is no consciousness of sin,” such as is found in the author of this psalm. We have already noted that Delitzsch accepted the Davidic authorship; and Rawlinson tells us that Canon Cook did also.
Barnes summed up this question, declaring that, “The psalm purports to have been written by David, and there is no reason to doubt that it was composed by him. There is no tradition to the contrary, and there is nothing in the psalm inconsistent with that supposition.”
In spite of Barnes’ remarks above, it appears to us that there is one problem connected with the proposition that David is the author. That is the matter of the terrible disease which is so often mentioned in this psalm. The Scriptures do not record elsewhere any reference to David’s ever having suffered from such a malady as that which is described here.
This problem disappears if we interpret the description of disease here as “figurative,” which of course is possible. Ash noted, for example, that, “`Wounds’ in Psalms 38:5 may be either literal or figurative.”
Spurgeon categorically rejected the proposition that any physical disease whatever is described in the psalm.
“I am persuaded that the description here does not tally with any known disease of the body. It is very like leprosy, but it has certain features which cannot be found in any leprosy ever known, either by ancient or modern writers. The fact is, it is spiritual leprosy, an inward disease, which is here described.”
Several scholars have divided the psalm into three parts; but we prefer to use the more detailed divisions suggested by Dahood: (1) “The illness described (Psalms 38:1-10); (2) the reaction of others (Psalms 38:11-16); (3) a summary of Psalms 38:1-10 (Psalms 38:17-18); (4) a summary of Psalms 38:11-16 (Psalms 38:19-20); and (5) the conclusion (Psalms 38:21-22).”
THE ILLNESS DESCRIBED
“O Jehovah, rebuke me not in thy wrath;
Neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure.
For thine arrows stick fast in me,
And thy hand presseth me sore.
There is no soundness in my flesh because of thine indignation;
Neither is there any health in my bones because of my sin.
For mine iniquities have gone over my head:
As a heavy burden they are too heavy for me.
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 disquietude of my heart.
Lord, all my desire is before thee;
And my groaning is not hid from thee.
My heart throbbeth, my strength faileth me:
As for the light of mine eyes, it also is gone from me.”
THE REACTION OF OTHERS
“My lovers and my friends stand aloof from my plague;
And my kinsmen stand afar off.
They also that seek after my life lay snares for me;
And they that seek my hurt speak mischievous things,
And meditate deceits all the day long.
But I, as a deaf man, hear not;
And I am as a dumb man that openeth not his mouth.
Yea, I am as a man that heareth not,
And in whose mouth are no reproofs.
For in thee, O Jehovah, do I hope:
Thou wilt answer, O Lord, my God.
For I said, Lest they rejoice over me:
When my foot slippeth, they magnify themselves against me.”
“My lovers” (Psalms 38:11). Barnes tells us that the meaning of the Hebrew here is, “An acquaintance, a companion, or a friend.” In this context it refers to David’s supporters.
As Kidner observed, “It is ironical that the more desperately a person needs the support of friends and loved ones the less likely he is to receive it”! As Rawlinson put it, “The stricken deer is deserted by the rest of the herd.”
“I am as a deaf man … as a dumb man … as a man that heareth not” (Psalms 38:13-14). Deafness and muteness are clearly figures of speech in this passage; and it is quite likely that the same metaphorical meaning of maladies mentioned previously in the same passage is intended.
“In whose mouth are no reproofs” (Psalms 38:14). The marginal alternative for `reproofs’ here is `arguments.’ indicating that David was in no mood whatever to attempt any self-justification.
“O Jehovah … O Lord … my God” (Psalms 38:15). There are three different names for God in this single verse, indicating, as Kidner observed, that, “David knew God by name (Yahweh) and by covenant (my God), and as Master and Savior (Psalms 38:22b).”
RECAPITULATION OF PS. 38:1-10
“For I am ready to fall, and my sorrow is continually before me.
For I will declare mine iniquity;
I will be sorry for my sin.”
“Mine adversaries, etc.” (Psalms 38:19-20). The fact that David’s enemies were multiplied against him and threatening to destroy him was a source of the utmost anxiety on David’s part. This is reason (4).
“Because I follow the thing that is good” (Psalms 38:20). The only thing anyone has to do to earn the hatred of unregenerated humanity is merely to “do good.” David found it so; and Christians of all ages can attest the truth of his experience. “Cain slew his brother Abel. And wherefore slew he him? Because his works were evil, and his brother’s righteous.” (1 John 3:12).
“For I am ready to fall” (Psalms 38:17). He is at his row’s end. His power to go onward is about exhausted. If God does not help now, he is doomed. This is reason (1).
“My sorrow is continually before me” (Psalms 38:17). My grief is overwhelming me. This is reason (2).
“I will declare mine iniquity” (Psalms 38:18). David here promises to make a full and open confession of his wrongdoing, which he most certainly did in the Penitential Psalms which are accredited to him in the Bible. This is reason (3). Another will appear in the following verse.
A RECAPITULATION OF VERSES 11-16
“But mine enemies are lively and strong:
And they that hate me are wrongfully multiplied.
They also that render evil for good
Are adversaries unto me, because I follow the thing that is good.”
“Forsake me not, O Jehovah:
O my God, be not far from me.
Make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation.”
Again we have in this verse that triple name for God which we noted in Psalms 38:15. The logic, the skill, the persistence, and the earnest urgency of this prayer have been the marvel of all who ever studied it. [~’Elohiym] is the all-powerful Creator; Jehovah is the covenant God of Israel, and Lord is the personal Master whom all of God’s people are pledged to serve, to honor, and to obey.