Theme: The Opening Prayer
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
One thing immediately strikes us about the opening prayer: it is identical (in the Hebrew, almost identical) to the first verse of Psalm 6, which is the first of the penitential psalms. In fact, the two psalms bear very close resemblances. True, Psalm 6 is shorter, only ten verses as opposed to twenty-two. Psalm 38 describes the illness at greater length as well as elaborating upon the desertion by the psalmist’s friends and the scheming of his enemies. But each of these elements is present in the earlier psalm too, which makes me think that they were probably written by David at about the same time and about the same situation. If a chronological order can be determined, it is probably that Psalm 38 comes first, because at the end of it David is praying for God to hear him and help him, while at the end of Psalm 6 he declares that God has.
In each psalm David’s specific prayer is that God will not rebuke him in anger or discipline him in wrath. Does this mean that David does not want to be rebuked or that he is rejecting discipline? Not at all! The emphasis is not upon the discipline but upon the words “anger” and “wrath.” What David is asking is that God not discipline him in anger. And he is asking this because the severity of his illness suggests that this is precisely what God is doing.
Psalm 6 gives us the right direction at this point. For immediately after his appeal to God not to rebuke him in anger or discipline him in wrath, David cries, “Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint” (v. 2). And later in the psalm he adds, “The LORD has heard my cry for mercy” (v. 9). David is not suggesting that he does not deserve the sickness that has come on him. He is not faulting God. He deserves the anger, but he is asking God to show mercy instead. This is always a proper way to appeal to God. It is always right to ask for mercy. We cannot demand it. We have no claim to it. But God is a merciful God, and no one who has cried to God for mercy has ever gone away empty handed. God has never turned a deaf ear to any honest cry.
The next section (vv. 2-8) describes the psalmist’s physical and mental anguish. Physical, because he is suffering. Mental, because he is suffering for sin. The words “because of,” repeated three times in verses 3 and 5, leave no doubt that in David’s mind this was a judicial illness. He was being punished for a serious transgression.
Not all sickness is punishment, however. In fact, most sickness is not. It is important to say this, because physical suffering often depresses us mentally, and in such depressions we are inclined to see connections between our past sins and our present sickness that do not necessarily exist.
We need to remember Job, who was a righteous man and yet suffered. God described Job as “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job. 1:8). In Job’s case, his suffering was a demonstration before Satan that a human being will love God for who God is and not just for what the person can get out of him. Job proved God’s point when he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised” (v. 21).
What is David’s specific prayer in this psalm? Why?
Describe David’s attitude in seeking God’s mercy?
Reflection: Can you recount any recent experiences where you were praying for God to help you in some way, and saw him work in a wonderful way?