A psalm of David. A petition.
Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Your arrows have pierced me,
and your hand has come down on me.
Because of your wrath there is no health in my body;
there is no soundness in my bones because of my sin.
My guilt has overwhelmed me
like a burden too heavy to bear.
My wounds fester and are loathsome
because of my sinful folly.
I am bowed down and brought very low;
all day long I go about mourning.
My back is filled with searing pain;
there is no health in my body.
I am feeble and utterly crushed;
I groan in anguish of heart.
All my longings lie open before you, Lord:
my sighing is not hidden from you.
My heart pounds, my strength fails me;
even the light has gone from my eyes.
My friends and companions avoid me because of my wounds;
my neighbours stay far away.
Those who want to kill me set their traps,
those who would harm me talk of my ruin;
all day long they scheme and lie.
I am like the deaf, who cannot hear,
like the mute, who cannot speak;
I have become like one who does not hear,
whose mouth can offer no reply.
Lord, I wait for you;
you will answer, Lord my God.
For I said, ‘Do not let them gloat
or exalt themselves over me when my feet slip.’
For I am about to fall,
and my pain is ever with me.
I confess my iniquity;
I am troubled by my sin.
Many have become my enemies without cause;
those who hate me without reason are numerous.
Those who repay my good with evil
lodge accusations against me,
though I seek only to do what is good.
Lord, do not forsake me;(Ps. 38:1-22 NIV)
do not be far from me, my God.
Come quickly to help me,
my Lord and my Saviour.
This is one of the seven penitential Psalms (6, 32, 38, 51,102, 130, 143). The striking thing about all the Psalms is the graphic reality that grips the Psalmist. His interaction with God demonstrates his realisation of the Lord’s presence. We come away with a view of the inconsistency of the Psalmist but the constancy and faithfulness of God. One of the benefits of working our way through the Psalms is to pick up the moods of the Psalmist. It is doubtful if any person would ever open up so much to reveal such vulnerability. At every turn the Psalmist is running off to God, fearful of his enemy, upset with those who give him a hard time, focusing on his sin, worried about not knowing if God is listening to him or in the mountain tops with joy, exalting and praising. I think today we would say ‘you never know you are with him’, or ‘I wish he wouldn’t wear his heart on his sleeve’, or ‘he tends to overshare’. But if we’re honest is it not encouraging to find that I have met someone like me. Everything that is written is inspired by the Holy Spirit. God wants us to see this and realise that we are not alone in the ups and downs of our emotional, physical and spiritual feelings.
Why do we have penitential Psalms in the collection? They are there to help us find our way back to God. When our eyes are full of tears, we can’t see clearly, when our mind is rushing with feelings of shame and guilt we can’t think clearly. When we’re trying to find others to share the blame or just blaming others for not understanding, or not showing proper empathy for our plight, we find it hard to accept the responsibility. When depression paralyses us and we don’t want to do anything, or when we have allowed our failure to define us, or when we have just resolved to accept that we have failed and accept the status quo, that we don’t get round to coming to God. Maybe we feel if we let time pass, we’ll be able to forget and just move on. When a myriad of thoughts regale us we need a very defined pathway to follow so that we can make our way back to the joy of forgiveness and fellowship with God.
Whatever the sin the Psalmist has committed, his opening confession is that he is at odds with God, he needs to be reconciled. The symptoms he describes sound like an illness but the language is more likely to be figurative describing for us how it feels to have sinned against a holy God, what it is like to be out of fellowship and how it feels to suffer the Lord’s discipline.
The Sovereign hand of God is upon his life, stopping the Psalmist and confronting him with his failure because God wants to forgive him. We live in a blame age. When people point out the faults of others, they vent their anger, fury and frustration but they have no interest in redemption or forgiveness. They want to blame, and they want others to know about it, and the wider the audience the more it satisfies the lust for revenge. The Lord is angry with the Psalmist, but it is not a gratuitous anger, the Lord wants to discipline him to bring him back. The Psalmist feels the wrath of God like the thud of arrows piercing his heart and soul. There is no doubt in his mind that this is the hand of God upon his life. How did it come to this, why did God have to go to such extreme measure to make the Psalmist pay attention? The Lord knows the sense of alienation because God is alienated from the Psalmist because of the Psalmist’s sin, and the Lord wants the Psalmist to feel the full burden of that alienation. Sin is no small matter in the eyes of God. The Psalmist has no longer any joy in life, there is no sense of wellbeing, in his body right through to his bones. We know how the trouble of heart can affect our bodies, how drained of strength we can be, how we can no longer care about attending to our duties. The Psalmist is overwhelmed by guilt, and it has come to the point where the burden is too heavy to be carried. Do we ever feel like that? Maybe we feel the Psalmist has gone over the top and has exaggerated, perhaps a craftsman of hyperbole. But is it that we have become so insensitive to sin that it doesn’t spark that kind of a reaction in us?
It has taken some time for the consequences of the Psalmist’s sin to catch up with him, and now he is overwhelmed and engulfed in a flood of guilt. The Psalmist uses language that should leave us feeling disgusted. Smell the odour of festering wound. A wound has been infected and a dirty bandage is removed and the air is pungent with the grossest, acrid scent. That is the metaphor that the Psalmist reaches for. ‘My wounds fester and are loathsome.’ This is a wound in his soul. How could he go into God’s presence smelling like that? The smell of his sin is only eclipsed with the foolishness of it. How could he have done this terrible thing? His head is bowed, broken and brought low, daring not to look anyone in the face. His back aches with searing pain. Back pain can be debilitating, to the point where you don’t want to eat, think or read, and pain in itself can weary you. The Psalmist is worn out, and there is no health in his body. His sin has found him out, but he needs to be more than sorry for the consequences of his sin, he needs to be sorry for the root cause, the sin itself. A total paralysis of soul overcomes him and crushes him, so that all he can do is groan and only groan quietly within his heart.
The Psalmist doesn’t know what to say to God, he can’t find the words to frame any confession, or explore any pathway back to God. His heart and soul, the ebb and flow of his desire for forgiveness competes with the will to just give up. All the contradictions of his heart lie open before the Lord. The longing is not yet a longing for forgiveness, it is just a mix of sighs that show no constructive direction. The Psalmist is not setting out a strategy for recovery, he is just sinking deeper down in his state of helplessness. One positive step is that he has opened his heart to the Lord, and he acknowledges that the Lord is aware of everything. The beating of his heart marks time as insight fails him. John Calvin has a quite perceptive comment to make about our prayers:
Nay, even in the prayers which we offer up when our minds are at ease, we experience too well how easily our minds are carried away, and wander after vain and frivolous thoughts, and how difficult it is to keep them uninterruptedly attentive and fixed with the same degree of intensity upon the object of our desire. If this happens when we are not exercised by any severe trial, what will be the case when we are agitated by violent storms and tempests which threaten a thousand deaths, and when there is no way to escape them?
It is one thing to know that the Lord sees it all, but now the friends, companions, neighbours and enemies have realised his downfall. Those who were close to him and perhaps could have helped him, cannot cope with the outburst of emotion. How would they begin to help him? So they avoid him because his behaviour is unpredictable, and who knows what he might do or say? His enemies are opportunists, they don’t care about his recovery, redemption or forgiveness, they just spot an opportunity to finally bring him down. When he is down, let us kick him. It is a terrible sight to watch a group of people feed ideas off each other as they plot to pounce on someone who has sinned.
The extent of his emotional paralysis is described by claiming that he is not able to hear, nor can he speak. With no friends, and aggressive enemies, he describes himself as blind, deaf and mute. How he had regressed into isolation. He wants to be left alone yet he complains that his friends have left him. He is silently absorbed in his suffering.
There is only one hope and that is in the Lord his God. If he is going to move forward, he will need the Lord to come and lift him. The Psalmist resolves to wait for the Lord to answer him. His foot has slipped, he has gone wrong, but why do other sinners delight in his slip? He is about to fall; there is nothing within to merit salvation, and the pain he has variously described is ever before him. He confesses his sin and iniquity. He is now troubled not so much by the consequences of his sin, though that remains, but he is troubled because of the sin itself. Those who mock him because of his downfall also mocked him when he attempted to do good. He has given them cause now because he has slipped, but even when there was no cause, they hated him.
The Psalmist calls out three times to the Lord, do not forsake me, don’t remain far away, come quickly. He finally addresses God as God his Saviour. It is salvation and redemption that he needs.
Lord God help us not to ignore our sin for so long that You have to take these dreadful measures to bring us back to You. We know that You have invested heavily and ultimately in securing our redemption through the blood of Your Son Jesus Christ. It is no light matter for us to sin and remain at a distance from You. Lord be pleased in the name of Jesus Christ to forgive all our sins. Amen
After finishing writing this meditation, I left the study to go to the house for lunch. I picked up a book review of the last book that Roger Scruton wrote entitled ‘Wagner’s Parsifal: The music of Redemption.’ (Philosopher, Roger Scruton had been sacked by the government in April 2019 from his role as housing advisor over some remarks that he had made which people claimed were Islamophobic. Not everyone agreed with that assessment. The New Statesman has published the interview in full so that everyone can make their own mind up.). Scruton was a professed atheist and didn’t believe in sin. His idea of salvation was achieving the humanist idea of compassion, as seen in the tale of Parsifal’s redemption from the corrupting bondage of erotic love to the way of compassion. Coming from reading Psalm 38 to this book review was quite a shocking experience, especially when you realise that Scruton died aged 75 on 12 January 2020. One can only hope that he found the true path of redemption before he died.