For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 38. I have four items:
1. The Psalmist is sick in Psalm 38, and evangelical preachers I heard speculated that David may have had a venereal disease, perhaps because his disease appears to be God’s punishment of some sin on his part (see vv 2-4, 18), and, according to these preachers, venereal disease is a consequence of sexual immorality. That sounds rather judgmental, but the same preachers did say that we should not be like Job’s friends, criticizing those who are suffering while they are down. The Psalmist may have been suffering for something that he did, and many people (including myself) experience the consequences of their actions. But, when we are criticized for that, it is good that we can appeal to God.
Some scholars argue that the Psalmist does not have a specific illness in Psalm 38, but that the Psalm is a generic Psalm for all sorts of illnesses, since it mentions a variety of maladies. And the fourth century Antiochian Christian exegete Theodore of Mopsuestia holds that the illness is symbolic of David’s affliction at the hands of Absalom, which was God’s punishment of David for sleeping with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. When the Psalmist talks in v 7 about his loins having a disease, Theodore states that David is saying that his lust is mocking him, presumably because his lust led him to sleep with Bathsheba, which resulted in his punishment by God through Absalom. And, when the Psalmist in v 14 says that he is like a man who does not hear, and that there are no reproofs in his mouth, Theodore relates that to David refusing to answer or kill Shimei, who was badgering David during David’s flight from Absalom (II Samuel 16).
2. In Psalm 38:11, the Psalmist laments that those who love him, his friends, and his kin are all avoiding him on account of his sickness. We see in this Psalm the Psalmist’s feeling of alienation from other people. And yet, the Psalm probably was used in communal worship, as many Psalms were. Erhard Gerstenberger affirms that the community’s confidence in God is being applied to the individual sufferer, which presents a picture of the Psalmist being alone, and yet not fully alone. I think that a lot of churches push people to fit in and to dive into relationships, while disregarding the difficulty that some may have in doing so. There are people who have a hard time overcoming their own personal alienation. And yet, being at a church—or some setting that emphasizes reliance on a higher power and hope that is based on people’s experiences—can hopefully remind even those who feel alienated that they are not fully alone, for perhaps they can draw strength from the stories of others.
3. In my notes, I sum up Peter Craigie’s comments on Psalm 38 as follows: “The Psalmist leaves his desire before God and does not respond to his enemies. The Psalmist prays, even though he thinks God has forsaken him.”
The part about the Psalmist leaving his desire before God is based on v 9, where the Psalmist says that his desire is before God, and his groaning is not hidden from God. This verse was meaningful to me recently, when I was afraid that I might have to pay much more money for tuition than was actually the case. There are some circumstances that I cannot control! But I left my desire before God for him to do with it as he will, and I told God that he was aware of my concerns. I found that to be helpful. I wasn’t sure how the situation would turn out, but I found some comfort in my situation being before God.
The part about the Psalmist not responding to his enemies is based on v 14, the passage where the Psalmist says he does not hear or speak reproofs. That reminds me of an experience on a Christian dating site, where a mentally-unstable woman was wrecking havoc. A Pentecostal man kept posting, “Walk in love—neither approve nor criticize.” I find that to be good advice, not that this particular guy always practiced what he preached (or that I practice that principle as often as I should)! But it’s a noble aspiration—and it’s not utterly impossible for one to do.
And the part about praying to God even when I think God has forsaken me is important, too. I feel that I should continually keep the channels of communication open to God, for talking about my problems with God can make me feel better, and it can also put me in a position to learn something positive, as happens for the Psalmist in many Psalms.
4. In v 20, the Psalmist says that those who return evil for good are his adversaries. Matthew Henry says that this teaches that the wicked hate goodness, even when they benefit from it. When someone does good to me, what is my reaction? That the person is trying to make himself or herself look good, or to puff up his or her own ego? That the person is naive and too “nice” for the real world of sophistication? I should be inspired to love goodness myself, and to help others whenever the opportunity presents itself.