What does Psalms 38 mean?
Psalm 38 contains references like those found in Psalm 32: depicting the effects of sin and the pain a believer feels under God's conviction. It's possible this passage was composed in response to David's sin with Bathsheba. He lured her into adultery, impregnated her, then attempted to cover the crime by arranging for her husband to die in battle (2 Samuel 12:7–9). Psalm 51 expresses David's intense remorse for this episode. Here, he described the anguish he feels due to God's corrective rebuke.
This psalm begins with an appeal for God's forgiveness, and a reference to the Lord's rebuke. The first metaphor speaks of David being pierced by arrows. This is symbolic, and it suggests the other complaints areas well. The theme of the psalm is David's intense misery; he feels this because of his sin, for which God's hand is moving against him. David uses imagery of illness, weakened bones, overwhelming burdens, rotting flesh, crippling ailments, mourning, fever, and loss of strength. These symptoms are attributed to the anguish in David's heart (Psalm 38:1–8).
Despite his misery, David knows he has not been abandoned by God. He is experiencing the correction which comes through guilt and shame of sin (Hebrews 12:5–11); this causes his heart to hammer in his chest and his vision to blur. Friends have turned their backs on David, possibly due to his sin, or to his sudden collapse, or both. His enemies would relish the opportunity to take advantage of a scandal. David is all but deaf and mute, making no answer to those who criticize him. This might be because his suffering has rendered him incapable (Psalm 38:9–14).
The other possibility is that David chooses not to answer, out of humility and acceptance of God's will. He is fully aware of his sin. He recognizes that God alone can bring him out of this situation. David makes no demands, but humbly appeals to the Lord. As part of this, he openly confesses his sin and declares his repentance. He ends the psalm with another plea for God's mercy; even in this, he expresses faithful hope that God is his salvation (Psalm 38:15–22).
Psalm 38:1–8 resembles Psalm 32:3–4. In both passages, David describes pain he experiences because of his sin. He recognizes here that his physical suffering has come because of his immoral action. He sees the pain as part of the Lord's disciplining of him. In the moment, his situation seems too much to bear, making him miserable. It's possible Psalm 38 was written in response to David's sin with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:7–9).
Psalm 38:9–14 shows David's sincere humility. He addresses God as "Adonai," meaning "Lord" or "Master." He acknowledges that God knows all about his suffering, then continues to explain his misery. Guilt and conviction have caused him personal anguish. His sin created isolation from friends and relatives. It has given room for his enemies to attack him. In the face of this pressure, David feels entirely helpless.
Psalm 38:15–22 concludes David's plea just as it began: with a prayer. Having described his suffering, he prays now for forgiveness and for the Lord to silence his enemies. He asks God not to forsake him but to help him. His final words reveal his dependence on the Lord for deliverance. He addresses the Lord as "my salvation."
David cries out to God in repentance for his sin. He feels the weight of shame and conviction, as if being pierced by arrows, ravaged by disease, crushed, and blinded. His friends have abandoned him; his enemies plot his demise. All of these have been brought about because of his "iniquity." Throughout this misery, David does not abandon hope. Instead, he confidently calls on the Lord to forgive and rescue him.
Psalm 38 and Psalm 32 are similar. They both express David's deep sense of guilt, his contrition, and his confession. Both psalms refer to the ill effect David's sins exerted on his physical condition. Psalm 38's descriptions seem mostly symbolic, but his anguish is very literal. Likely, the sins in question were adultery with Bathsheba and the arranged murder of her husband (2 Samuel 12:7–9). If so, these themes connect directly to Psalm 51. David asks God to forgive him and heal him.
The book of Psalms is composed of individual songs, hymns, or poems, each of which is a ''Psalm'' in and of itself. These works contain a wide variety of themes. Some Psalms focus on praising and worshipping God. Others cry out in anguish over the pain of life. Still other Psalms look forward to the coming of the Messiah. While some Psalms are related, each has its own historical and biblical context.
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