Theme: Looking to God
From this psalm we learn how to approach God for mercy, knowing that he hears us and will answer our prayers to his glory.
Scripture: Psalm 38:1-22
Psalm 38 is listed among the penitential psalms because of its confession of sin in verses 3-5 and 18.1 David, who is identified as the author in the title, does not actually name his sin in this psalm but rather asks for mercy and help from God because of the terrible sickness, loneliness and isolation he has experienced because of it. He says that God sent the sickness “because of his sinful folly” (v. 5). The psalm is actually a lament, or simply a prayer. Peter C. Craigie says, “Psalm 38 is a prayer… evoked by the experience of sickness and the consequent sense of alienation from both God and fellow human beings.”2
Here are two introductory questions:
1. Is the psalm written by David? The only real objection to David being the author is that it describes a very poor state of physical health on the writer’s part, and we do not have anything like this recorded of David in the Old Testament. But that is a very inadequate argument. It amounts to the expectation that the Bible owes us an account of every time David got sick or at least every time he got seriously sick, and there is no reason why it should do this. I have argued elsewhere that serious illness was certainly more frequent in ancient societies than today, when we have wonder drugs and modern medicine, and that would make it so commonplace that there would be no reason to mention it or even think twice about it unless it had some bearing on an important historical event. David was certainly sick many times in his life. So the only thing unusual about this description is that he sees his illness as a punishment by God for his sin.
2. What is the psalm’s outline? It can be handled in a variety of ways. The psalm begins and ends with prayers for God’s mercy and help. In between it describes the psalmist’s experience, which in turn can be divided into a description of the illness itself followed a description of the sense of isolation it produced. The latter part also speaks about enemies.
But there is another way of looking at the psalm, which Charles Haddon Spurgeon suggests and which I have found helpful. That is, in addition to the opening and closing prayers, there are also prayers in verses 9 and 15. So the psalm is actually one in which David repeatedly alternates between describing his condition and praying. Spurgeon says, “The psalm opens with a prayer (v. 1), continues in a long complaint (vv. 2-8), pauses to dart an eye to heaven (v. 9), proceeds with a second tale of sorrow (vv. 10-14), interjects another word of hopeful address to God (v. 15), a third time pours out a flood of griefs (vv. 16-20), and then closes as it opened, with renewed petitioning (vv. 21, 22).”3 I like this outline because David seems to take a step forward in faith and increased calmness of spirit with each glance in God’s direction.
Why don’t we hear about David’s terrible illness anywhere else in the Bible?
Review the outline for this psalm.
1The complete list of these includes Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143.2Peter C. Craigie, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 19, Psalms 1-50 (Waco, TX: Word, 1983), p. 302.3C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 1b, Psalms 27-57 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968), p. 198.