This is a striking psalm, and is listed among the penitential psalms. It begins with virtually the same words as Psalm 6, the first of the penitential psalms. But the repentance shown by David here is quite distinct from what many Christians call repentance, and this is something we really need to deal with. The title says that it is a psalm of David, and it is designed “to bring to remembrance.” That means there are some important things here for us to remember.
O Lord, rebuke me not in thy wrath: neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure ” (Ps. 38:1-22).
Think of this psalm as three complaints woven together by means of four prayers. This is the structure that Spurgeon suggests, and I think it is a very good way to organize the psalm. The first prayer is right at the beginning (v. 1). Then we have the first complaint, laid out before the Lord (vv. 2-8). Then we have the second direct request made to God (v. 9). Right after this is the second round of the complaint (vv. 10-14). We then come to the third prayer (v. 15), which is followed immediately by the last complaint (vv. 16-20). The psalm then concludes with the last prayer (v. 21-22).
So the whole psalm is a prayer, but David directly addresses the Lord four times (vv. 1, 9, 15, 21-22). The first prayer asks God to refrain from rebuking or chastening David in wrath or hot displeasure. The assumption here is that David would deserve such a rebuke, but David is asking for mercy. The second prayer says that David’s desire is laid out before God, and that his groaning is not hidden away (v. 9). The third prayer states that David is seeking to take refuge from God in God. It is clear in this psalm that David’s troubles are from God. So where does he turn? To God. He hopes in God, and he knows that God will hear (v. 15). And then the last prayer is a petition — God, do not forsake me, do not be far from me (v. 21). He then asks God to hasten, to hurry up. The Lord is his salvation (v. 22). These are the petitions that hold the complaints together.
David is sick, and he knows why he is sick. God’s arrows are stuck in him, and God’s hand is pressing him hard (v. 2). God’s anger means that there is no soundness in his flesh, and his bones have no rest because of the sin he committed (v. 3). His iniquities have gone over his head like a wave; David is drowning in them (v. 4). He can’t carry them (v. 4). His wounds have putrified because of his folly (v. 5). He is really worked up over his sin (v. 6), and this is because God is working him over. He has a loathsome disease and there is no soundness in his flesh (v. 7). David is feeble and mangled, and he has “roared” because of his unsettled condition.
One of the most striking things about all this is that for David, this is a disease with meaning. In other words, he knows exactly why he is on this sickbed (vv. 3, 5). He is sick because of his sin. Now this creates an interesting question. We know from elsewhere in Scripture that we cannot say that all sickness is the result of sin. But we can say, on the basis of this passage, that some of it is. The entire book of Job is there to show us that we cannot make a tidy and pious one-to-one correspondence between sin and sickness. And the disciples of Jesus erred when they glibly assumed that the man born blind had sinned, or that his parents had (Jn. 9:2). This is too facile. But it is equally facile to assume that we cannot ever make a connection. In some cases, it is easy — sexually transmitted diseases, or problems caused by drunkenness or drug use. In other cases, it may be harder to “prove” the connection, although a mature Christian may still decide to make it.
But there is a second round of sorrows. David says that his heart pants, his strength fails, and the light is fleeing from his eyes (v. 10). Not only is he falling apart, but his former friends and companions have decided that this would be a good time to back away (v. 11). On top of everything else, his enemies decide that this is the time to get out their long knives (v. 12). When they are not speaking awful things, they are thinking up awful things (v. 12). David, either because he could not, or because he would not, refused to answer them (vv. 13-14).
Then there is a third set of griefs. Building up to his last request, David marshals his arguments before God, and there are five of them. He first tells God that He should listen because it is not right that his enemies should get to gloat (v. 16). Secondly, his situation is desperate (v. 17). If God delays His deliverance, it might be too late. Third, David has confessed his sin (v. 18). Fourth, David is drastically outnumbered by his enemies, and God really needs to take up the side of the underdog (v. 19). And last, God needs to take up David’s cause because his enemies are actually motivated by David’s goodness, not his sin (v. 20).
As we meditate on this psalm, it is impossible to consider these words as coming from a person “who never admits he is wrong.” Could we sustain an accusation that David always believes that he could never be wrong? Reading through this psalm, it is obvious that the charge is laughable. We actually might even begin to wonder if David is guilty of a morbid introspectionism.
But his last argument is breath-taking. “These people are my adversaries because I follow that which is good.” David knows that he has sinned, and he also knows that if he gave way to it, abandoned himself in it, his adversaries would welcome him gladly. They are hostile, not because of his sins, but rather because of his repentances. His sins provide them with a cudgel to pound him with, but that is not the reason they are pounding him. They are attacking him because (despite his sins) he loves what is good. And moreover, David knows this.
One man is never wrong about anything, and never humbles himself anywhere. He is right about doctrine, right about restaurant choices, right about petty opinions, right about traffic etiquette, and so on. You can always tell a hard dogma guy, but you can’t tell him much. Then there is the other fellow who is never right about anything, and he is always navel-gazing. He can’t have adversaries because they always have a point. Psalm 38 gives us the biblical alternative — a forgiven sinner with a backbone.