George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 1

Psalm 38

1. Structure

A penitential psalm, every bit as powerful and moving as Psalm 51. In vv. 1-11, the emphasis alternates between “my sin” and “my suffering”.

And then:


2. Title

The psalm hardly needs to be titled of David. Could anyone else match this spirituality and penitence?

The added phrase to bring to remembrance opens up two interesting possibilities:

In Hebrew this expression is frequently associated with the Name of the Lord; that is, to remind the psalmist and the worshipper (and Jehovah!) of His lovingkindness in the forgiveness of sins.
Very differently, this is associated with the trial of the bitter waters, which an allegedly unfaithful wife might be called upon to face (see esp. Num. 5:15; cp. also Psa. 38:7 with Num. 5:22).

When the psalm is read as an expression of deep penitence regarding the Bathsheba/Uriah episode, and the judgment which came on David through Absalom’s rebellion, many a phrase takes on fuller meaning.

3. David’s illness

Alternative verses — 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11 — use the language of desperate illness. Some students are inclined to read these passages in an altogether figurative way. This is possible, but difficult. It seems much more likely that not only did David lose four members of his own family as a direct result of his sin, but that also he himself was punished physically by God. For further details about this, see 41:3,4; 51:2,7,9 and the notes in those places. A careful pondering of these alternate verses suggests that this affliction of David may have been leprosy, the sin-disease. (The word “sore” or “stroke” — v. 11, mg. — is used of leprosy 54 times in Lev. 13 and 14.) Psalm 51:2,7 uses the language of leprosy cleansing. [It would almost appear that this became a family weakness for some generations after David as well: affecting Asa (2 Chron. 16:12), Jehoram (21:19), Joash (24:25), Uzziah (26:19), and Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:7).]

4. Details

The second negative is omitted in Hebrew, yet implied (see 9:18, note).
For thine arrows stick fast in me. In Hebrew there is a close connection between the words for “to shoot arrows” and “to teach”, especially in the sense of discipline.
For mine iniquities are gone over mine head: as an heavy burden they are too heavy for me. This idea of sin as a burden occurs in Isa. 1:4, and the suggestion of leprosy in vv. 5,6 there, as though the sin of Judah was mirrored in the afflictions of the righteous Hezekiah. But consider —in a Messianic sense — Matt. 11:28-30: Christ bore our burdens in being smitten with the “leprosy” of a sin-nature.
I am bowed down greatly. That is, to the limit (Hebrew).
The light of mine eyes. Contrast the young David, “fair of eyes” in 1 Sam. 16:12, mg.
I, as a deaf man, heard not. The first half of 2 Samuel 15 causes the reader to wonder how Absalom was able to make such painstaking preparations for rebellion without David knowing about it and taking preventive action. His sickness explains all this. And 2 Sam. 16:11,12 shows that the king saw this bitter experience as a well-deserved retribution from God.

As a dumb man that openeth not his mouth. David’s reaction to Shimei’s cursing: 2 Sam. 16:10,11.
My sorrow is continually before me. That is, my sin over which I sorrow: cp. Psa. 51:3.
I will be sorry for my sin. Here LXX reads “worry”.
RSV correction: Those who are my enemies without cause.
They also that render evil for good (35:12). At first sight this seems out of place regarding David — until it is recalled how he had forgiven Absalom the murderer (2 Sam. 14:21-33).

Adversaries is the familiar satan — here (as often elsewhere) plainly referring to mortal men!

Because I follow the thing that is good. True of David in his penitence and submission. But what a contrast with my sin....mine foolishness (vv. 3,4,5).

The subscription identifies Jeduthun, “the king’s seer” in 2 Chron. 35:15, who is also known as Ethan (1 Chron. 6:44; 25:1-3). Compare Psalms 61, 76, and 89.

5. Messiah

Can it be that the penitential psalms are the only exceptions to an over-all Messianic reference throughout the Psalter? Yet even here, in a less direct sense, the words are relevant as descriptive of the burden of “sin” which Jesus bore on behalf of those he came to save (Isa. 53:4,6; 1 Pet. 2:24). But more than this, the very fact that Jesus shared this cursed human nature of ours and knew in himself the power of temptation (“in all things made like unto his brethren”: Heb. 2:17; 4:15; etc.) must at times have induced a sense of self-loathing such as this and other psalms describe.

“Jesus could say this [v. 3] when realising fully, as he did, that there could be no freedom from temptation so long as he was of flesh and blood nature....Until the crucifixion, there could be no release from these impulses” (H. Sulley). Nevertheless (thanks be to God!) he won invariable and continuous victories against the great enemy Sin.

Thine arrows stick fast in me. The nails of crucifixion?
A heavy burden....too heavy for me. The burden of “sin-nature”.
Wounds is s.w. “stripes” in Isa. 53:5.
No soundness in my flesh. “Sin-nature” again.
All my desire is before thee. The closeness of Father and Son.
My lovers and my friends....stand afar off. Luke 23:49. Compare also Psa. 31:11; 88:1,18.
They that seek after my life lay snares. The priests, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees all sought, constantly, to catch Jesus in his words.
A dumb man that openeth not his mouth is parallel with Isa. 53:7 (cp. Matt. 26:63; 1 Pet. 2:23).
As a man that heareth not, and in whose mouth are no reproofs. Matt. 26:62,63.
Hear me, lest otherwise they should rejoice over me. The intensity of his prayer in Gethsemane.
I am sorry for my sin. In any number of passages, “sin” may mean, by metonymy, the “sin-nature” which we bear (and which Jesus bore). Was Jesus “sorry” for this? The Hebrew da’ag may signify anxiety or anxious thought (cp. 1 Sam. 9:5: “take thought” is s.w.). Did Jesus take anxious thought to conquer the nature he bore? Of course.
They that render evil for good. See on Psa. 35:11-14.
O Lord my salvation.
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