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Psalm 38

Wracked by pain and guilt

A David psalm. For remembrance.

Don’t rebuke me, Yahveh, in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
2 For your arrows have sunk into me
and your hand has come down hard on me.
3 There isn’t a single part of my body
your anger has left unscathed
my sin having ravaged me to the bone.
4 My sins have piled up over my head
weighing me down like an unbearable burden.
5 Thanks to my folly
my sores have become putrid and reek.
6 I’m twisted—doubled over—
as I mope my way through each long day.
7 My gut is a raging inferno
leaving my entire body a mess.
8 Numb and utterly crushed
I howl because of my groaning heart.
9 All my longings lie open to you, Lord
and you hear my every moan.
10 My heart has been blown open
my strength fails me
and the light of my eyes has gone out.
11 My friends and relatives
want nothing to do with me or my plight.
My neighbors all give me a wide berth too.
12 Those who seek my life lay snares
those who wish me ill threaten destruction
and spend every waking hour
planning their betrayal.
13 But like the deaf, I hear nothing
and like the mute, I say nothing.
14 I’m like one who
hearing nothing that’s been said
has no way to reply.
15 I wait for you, Yahveh.
It’s you who will answer them, O Lord, my God.
16 Because I’ve prayed
that those who preen and puff when my foot slips
won’t have the joy of seeing me fall.
17 For, fighting constant pain
I’m about to collapse.
18 I acknowledge my guilt
and grieve over my sin.
19 My enemies are alive and well
those who hate me for no reason multiply.
20 Those who pay back my good with evil
denounce me for doing good.
21 Don’t forsake me, Yahveh—
don’t avoid me, my God.
22 Come quickly to help me
my Lord and my salvation!

While scripture rejects the notion that all sickness is caused by sin, God sometimes uses sickness to discipline us. And here David is clear that his sin is the cause of his illness, which has left him in agony, a physical wreck. His sickness has also led to his being both shunned by those who should support him and targeted by many unscrupulous enemies, keen to take advantage of his weakness. Devastated and depressed, he’s stares through vacant eyes, unable to see any good around him.

Though David never names his sin, he describes his many symptoms.[1] He’s in such bad shape that his friends and family distance themselves from him as a loser who deserves God’s wrath. Like a deaf mute, he doesn’t answer his enemies, but waits for God to answer. Despite his pain, he’s comforted to know that God knows all his longings and hears his moaning.

Overwhelmed by the load of his sin, David owns it all, tells God he’s sorry for it and asks him for help. He begs him not to abandon him to his enemies. Thus, even having sinned and suffering God’s discipline, David believes the grace of his divine deliverer will have the last word.

Lord, when you discipline me for choosing my way over yours, help me to know you’re still my gracious deliverer, ready to forgive. Help me to humbly acknowledge my sin, forsake my rebel ways and trust your grace to give me a fresh start and restore me to fellowship with you. Amen.


[1] Not knowing the specific situation that gave birth to this psalm, we can’t possibly say what’s literal and figurative in David’s descriptions. But in any case, given the poem’s richly evocative nature, I believe we’re better off resisting that impulse, embracing the open-endedness of David’s words.

Why Yahveh?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and occasionally transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Modern translations, likewise, either translate or transliterate it. While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it is more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. I’ve chosen to transliterate it to root it more firmly in the biblical story as the name—meaning the “self-existent One”—that God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. This name set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it in order better to hallow it. In transliterating it, I follow the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard. He advocated transliterating it as Yahveh—pronounced yah·vay—arguing that following the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish than Yahweh.
May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Robert Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.