Psalm 38
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
This has been called one of the penitential psalms. It may be called so without any severe strain of language; and yet its penitential tone is very far removed from that of either the thirty-second or the fifty-first psalm. There is little doubt that there is a sincere acknowledgment of the sin; but here the main stress of the grief seems to be attributable rather to the suffering consequent upon the sin, than to the guilt of the sin itself. And we cannot resist the conviction that an undue reticence (which, alas! often results in an infrequent and inadequate warning against sins of the flesh) has somewhat warped and fettered the remarks of many expositors. For the physical suffering which is here detailed with distressing precision, points to sin as the cause thereof - to that sin which is one of the seriously poisoning influences in our social fabric, and against which no pleadings can be too tender, and no warnings can be too loud. Let us first study the case, and then utilize it.

I. THE CASE STATED. Even before entering into detail, it is obvious that the case is one of intense suffering. The details, however, will show us but too clearly what the suffering was, and how it was accounted for.

1. There had been the commission of sin. Vers. 3-5 give us three terms - "sin," "foolishness," "iniquity. The sin was one which brought about a great deal of:

2. Bodily disorder. Note the following expressions:

(1) My flesh" (ver. 3).

(2) "My bones" (ver. 3).

(3) "My loins" (ver. 7).

(4) "No soundness" (ver. 3).

(5) "No health" (ver. 3).

(6) "Wounds" (ver. 5).

(7) "Ulcers" (ver. 5, Hebrew).

(8) "Offensive" (ver. 5).

(9) "Burning" (ver. 7).

(10) This alternating with deathly coldness (ver. 8).

(11) "Palpitation" (ver. 10).

(12) The frame bent and bowed with the suffering (ver. 6).

(13) "Failing strength" (ver. 10).

(14) "Dimness of sight" (ver. 10).

Surely this puts before us, in no obscure fashion, the terrible physical woe which the writer was enduring.

3. (treat mental anguish.

(1) God's arrows struck very deeply into his soul (ver. 2).

(2) God's hand pressed heavily upon him (ver. 2).

(3) He went abroad as a mourner ver. 6).

(4) He roared - groaned aloud - all the day long.

It may not be always possible to affirm that such and such suffering is the effect of this or that specific sin. But sometimes we can. And it is no wonder if sins of the flesh bring fleshly suffering. It is an ordained law of God that it should be so. Hence the sufferings are rightly regarded as "the arrows of God."

4. In his trouble, lovers and friends stand aloof from him. Even neighbours and kinsmen drew themselves afar off (ver. 11). Earthly friends are like swallows, who come near in fine weather, and fly away ere the weather turns foul.

5. He was laden with reproach, and even beset with snares. (Ver. 12.)

6. He did not and could not reply. To the charges laid at his door he had no justifications to offer, and therefore said nothing (cf. ver. 14, Hebrew). This was so far wise.

7. Though silent to man, he pours out his heart to God. He calls God his God; even though guilt lies heavily on the soul.

(1) He declares the whole case before the mercy-seat (ver. 9).

(2) He confesses the sin (ver. 18).

(3) He deprecates the Divine displeasure (ver. 1).

(4) He appeals for help (ver. 22).

Note: There is a great difference between men who "are overtaken in a fault," and those whose life is one perpetual sin of alienation from God. David lived in an age when lustfulness was scarcely recognized as wrong at all, save where the holy Law of God had gleamed on it with the searching light of Heaven. If David fell into this sin, it was because he was injured by the low conventional standard of his day. If he regarded it as sin, and mourned over it, it was because he was under the educating influence of that Word which was as "a lamp to his feet, and a light unto his path."

8. While David moans his sin as threatening him with destruction and ruin, he looks for salvation in God and God alone. (Ver. 22.) "O Lord my Salvation."

II. THE CASE UTILIZED. Here is evidently a psalm which is one of a number that contain a rehearsal of the writer's private experience. They profess to be that, and therefore, unless some good reason to the contrary is shown, we rightly assume that they are that. The expositor who desires to deal faithfully with all the psalms, and with the whole of each psalm, will often find himself between two opposite schools. On one side, there are those who would enclose every psalm within the limits of a naturalistic psychology; while there are others who seem to regard every psalm as referring directly or indirectly to Christ. But while the second and forty-fifth psalm. can by no means be accounted for by a rationalistic psychology, so this thirty-eighth psalm can by no means be applied to the Messiah directly or indirectly. Let us not select facts to fit a theory; but study all the facts, and frame the theory accordingly. In this personal moan and groan we have:

1. Suffering following on sin. Of what kind the sin was there can be little question. And if we wonder that David could fall into such sin, we may well ask - What can be expected of a man who had six wives (2 Samuel 3:2-5)? The Law of God might, indeed, be the rule of his life, but he was injured and corrupted by falling into the conventionalisms of his day; and hence in his private life he came far short of his own professed ideal. Is not the like incongruity between the ideal and the actual often seen even now?

2. If it was owing to "conformity to the world that David thus sinned, it was because he had before him God's revelation of the evil of sin that he was so bowed down under a sense of the guilt thereof. The revealed Law of God stood high above the level to which he had attained; hence a shame and self-loathing on account of sin, which would nowhere else have been known.

3. Smarting under the sense of guilt, David yet tells God all. He knew God to be one pardoning iniquity, transgression, and sin;" and hence the burdens of sin and guilt, as well as of care, were laid before the mercy-seat (Psalm 32:5).

4. At times, however, words fail; then the desire and the groaning are perfectly understood. (Ver. 9.) Who does not understand something of this that knows anything of the "energies of prayer"? There are "groanings which cannot be uttered." As there are "songs without words," so are there "prayers without words." For the grief consequent upon sin may be, and often is, aggravated by the desertion of those friends who will smile on us when we are prosperous, and will turn their backs on us when adversity comes. But, even so, it is an infinite mercy to be shut up to God, and to let the heart lie "naked and opened" before One who will never misunderstand, and who will never forsake us.

5. For our God is "Jehovah our Salvation. That is his revealed name, and to it he will ever be true. See how gloriously the sure mercies of David" are set forth in Psalm 89:26-33. God is "a just God, and a Saviour" (Isaiah 45:21). Hence we should never let our consciousness of guilt drive us from him; rather should it always make us "flee unto" him "to hide us."

6. Hence only those who have the light of God's revelation can possibly have any gospel for men smarting under the guilt of sin. We do not know any one passage in Scripture in which the combination is more remarkable of a man whose sin has brought deepest shame and agony upon him, and who yet is laying hold of God under that beautiful, that matchless name, "my Salvation" (ver. 22). Very often, indeed, the word "salvation" in the Old Testament means mainly, if not exclusively, temporal deliverance. Here, at any rate, it cannot be so limited; for the salvation required to meet the case of woe thus laid before God must be one which includes cancelling guilt, purifying from corruption, and healing disease. And that revelation of God as our Salvation which was made in germ to the Hebrews, is disclosed more fully to us under Christ. He is "made wisdom from God unto us, even righteousness, sanctification, and redemption; that (according as it is written) he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 1:30, 31). In the very volume where sin is dealt with most seriously, it is also treated most hopefully; and the very revelation which cries with trumpet-power, "All have sinned," also cries, "Look unto me, and be ye saved." - C.

The preacher saith, "In the day of adversity consider" (Ecclesiastes 7:14). We should "call to remembrance" -

I. THE HAND OF GOD IN AFFLICTION. Our afflictions may be various, and have various causes. But we should look higher than mere human instrumentality, or the action of natural laws. We should acknowledge the hand of God (ver. 2). What a change this makes l It soothes our resentments. It calms our fears. God sees all. He knows how we suffer. He who has stricken us can heal our wounds. He who has "pressed us sore" is able to pour joy into our hearts.

II. THE CONNECTION OF SIN WITH AFFLICTION. If there is suffering, there must have been sin. We may not be able to trace the connection; and we may greatly err and wound others cruelly if we say that certain sufferings are the result of certain sins. But, while we are not to judge others, we should judge ourselves. Our sufferings ought to bring our sins to remembrance. And the more strictly we scan our lives, and the more severely we search our hearts, the more will our sins increase, till their pressure and weight become intolerable, and we cry out, "They are too heavy for me" (ver. 4).

III. THE INADEQUACY OF ALL HUMAN AID IN AFFLICTION. Affliction is a great revealer. It not only shows us much as to ourselves, but also as to others. It proves who are true and who are false; who are worthy and who are unworthy; who may be trusted to stand by us, and who will wax cold and forsake us, "having loved this present world." Job bitterly complained of his friends: "Miserable comforters are ye all." The psalmist was still more sorely tried: "My lovers and friends stand aloof from my sore" (ver. 11). Even when true and willing, our friends can do but little for us in our greatest straits. Counsel is good. Sympathy is better. Generous aid is better still. But the best of all, the only help that goes to the root of the matter, is when some true friend, like Jonathan, "strengthens our hands in God."

IV. THE DIVINE RESOURCES OF THE GODLY IN AFFLICTION. There is prayer. The disciples in trouble came to Jesus and told him all. So we may pour out all our heart to God (ver. 9). There is compression. It is a marvellous relief to bring our sins to God (ver. 18). The burden that is too heavy for us will fall off when we cast ourselves as humble penitents at the foot of the cross. There is renewed consecration. Whatever comes, we must hold fast to our hope. Every danger and strait, every great fear that pales the face and makes the heart grow faint, should lead us to the renewal of our vows, and the reinvigoration of our purpose to "follow only what is good" (ver. 20). Above all, there is refuge in God. From the beginning, and all through, the psalmist is with God, confessing, pleading, appealing; and in the end he gathers up all the desire of his heart in the earnest cry, "Forsake me not, O Lord! O my God, be not far from me! Make haste to help me, O Lord my Salvation!" (vers. 21, 22). Thus he found comfort; and so may we also. Jerome said, "If any sickness happen to the body, we are to seek for the medicine of the soul;" and the true and only Physician of the soul is Christ. - W.F.

Supposed to be one of David's penitential psalms.


1. Dread of God's further anger. Guilt makes a man full of fear and apprehension (ver. 1).

2. His sin was realized as an intolerable burden. (Ver. 4.) A load that he was unable to carry; or a great wave passing over his head and threatening to overwhelm him.

3. His sin was an enfeebling and disquieting sorrow. (Vers. 6, 8.) Continual, unintermittent, that made life one lasting agony.

4. Mental suffering brought on great bodily suffering and prostration. Body and mind react upon each other when any great trouble comes upon us; and we are reduced to the deepest pitch of misery.


1. His friends are alienated, and refuse him any comfort. (Vers. 10, ]1.) When we feel forsaken of God and man, then our cup of agony is full, This was our Lord's experience at the Crucifixion.

2. His enemies also seek to give him his death-blow. (Vers. 12, 19, 20.) They endeavour to take advantage of his fall to ruin him and take his life. How bad men "rejoice in the iniquity" of the righteous!

3. Conscious of sin, he is obliged to be silent. (Vers. 13, 14.) Consciousness of guilt makes him unable to refute the false charges of his enemies. Of what avail is it to speak when we are deeply self-condemned? This is an aggravation of our punishment, when we cannot defend ourselves. before our foes.


1. If God did not hear him, his enemies would rejoice over him. For he himself was so weak that he had no strength to contend with them (vers. 16, 17).

2. He will earnestly repent and confess his sin. (Ver. 18.) This is our only way of restoration to the favour of God or man. Repentance is the earnest turning away from the sin with sincere loathing of mind.

3. An imploring cry for speedy rescue. (Vers. 21, 22.) When we feel as on the brink of death, we do not think of "God's time;" we are impatient for deliverance, and we cry for present help in our time of trouble.

LESSON. Think into what straits and suffering a man's sins have power to bring him, and what his opportunity of salvation is in Christ. - S.

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