Needless to say, the 38th Psalm is not the cheeriest psalm in the psalmody. It is the psalm of a man who is experiencing great suffering – physically, emotionally and spiritually. And yet as dark it is, this is a psalm that is laced with courageous hope, centered in the Lord. And so it stands as a powerful witness for all believers in Christ of what faith in Christ looks like particularly in times of pain and suffering.
1 O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath!
2 For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me.
3 There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones because of my sin.
4 For my iniquities have gone over my head;
5 like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.
My wounds stink and fester because of my foolishness…”
If the words of verse 1 sound familiar, they should. They’re actually the exact same words that we heard two weeks ago in Psalm 6. “O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger nor discipline me in your wrath.”
Listen to Luther again. “God chastens us in two ways. At times He does so in grace as a kind Father; and at times He does so in wrath as a stern Judge. Now when God seizes a person, the person is by nature weak and disheartened, because he doesn’t know whether God is taking him in hand OUT OF ANGER OR IN GRACE. In fear of God’s ANGER he begins to cry out: “O Lord, rebuke me not in your ANGER, nor discipline me in your WRATH.” “Let it be in GRACE; be a Father, not a Judge.” It’s not that he is asking to go unpunished altogether, for this would not be a good thing, but that he be punished as a dear child by his loving father.”
As we also saw before in Psalm 6, the Psalmist attributes his pain and suffering directly to the Lord. “YOUR arrows have sunk into me, and YOUR hand has come down on me.”
But the very fact that the psalmist feels these arrows so acutely is a good thing and sign that faith is alive in the heart. Luther writes, “It is the sensitive into whose heart God shoots the arrows. From the smug, who have become hardened, the arrows glance off as off a hard stone.”
The psalmist understands THE CLOSE CONNECTION between his suffering and his sin. “There is no soundness in my flesh because of YOUR INDIGNATION; there is no health in my bones because of MY SIN.” “My wounds stink and fester because of MY FOOLISHNESS.”
All pain, suffering and death have their immediate cause IN SIN. When Adam and Eve brought sin into the world, God said, “I will surely MULTIPLY YOUR PAIN in childbearing, IN PAIN shall you bring forth children,” and “cursed is the ground because of you, IN PAIN SHALL YOU EAT OF IT all the days of your life.” (Gen.3:16-17)
THE WHOLE THING STINKS – BUT IT’S NOT UNFAIR. At least not to the Psalmist it isn’t. He does not blame God for being unfair to him.
The “arrows of God” that produce this kind of pain and suffering in a person is His Word of Law that shows us our sin. Luther writes, “For the arrows of God and His angry words MAKE REAL the sin within the heart. This causes restlessness and terror in the conscience and soul and makes the body sick throughout.”
Notice, God’s Law does not CREATE the sin in the heart. It reveals what is already there.
And then Luther makes this astounding statement, “Where this is the case, things are RIGHT WITH MAN…”
Once again we see Luther finding God hidden under pain and suffering, carrying out His good work of giving life and salvation. The pain and suffering of being convicted of sin is actually GOD AT WORK IN SINNERS to turn them to Him.
It is the unbeliever who feels nothing and acts as though nothing is wrong. But the faithful one who longs to please his heavenly Father cringes with pain and guilt and longs to be relieved of it – which he knows can only happen if he confesses his sin to his Father, trusting that God is abounding in steadfast love and always ready to forgive – even as He has already done through Christ.
6 I am utterly bowed down and prostrate;
all the day I go about mourning.
7 For my sides are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.
8 I am feeble and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
9 O Lord, all my longing is before you;
my sighing is not hidden from you.
10 My heart throbs; my strength fails me,
and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.”
Luther describes him like this, “He is like a man who is grief-stricken and ill at ease. He has a sad expression outwardly. He bows his head downward and has no desire to raise his head, to see, hear, or speak, but directs his eyes to the ground. His body cannot bear such terror of conscience. Just as a lion cries out and roars, so it is when the heart is so full of affliction and moaning that it cannot contain itself but breaks forth in miserable wailing.”
11 My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague,
and my nearest kin stand far off.
12 Those who seek my life lay their snares;
those who seek my hurt speak of ruin
and meditate treachery all day long.
13 But I am like a deaf man; I do not hear,
like a mute man who does not open his mouth.
14 I have become like a man who does not hear,
and in whose mouth are no rebukes.”
In addition to the heavy weight of guilt that he is experiencing because of his conscience towards God, his pain and suffering is now compounded by the rejection of his friends.
Just as sin is the root cause of all pain and suffering, we see here that it is also cause of the breakdown of personal relationships. Again, in Genesis we read that before their fall into sin, Adam and Eve were both naked and unashamed. Their relationship was open and free – neither had anything to hide from the other.
But their very first move after their fall was to try to hide themselves from each other. “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” (Genesis 2:7)
Sin always leads to isolation and alienation from others – and it is always most painful when this occurs among friends.
Like the friends of Job, it may be that the Psalmist’s friends wanted to draw out the particular sin that was responsible for his dilemma. In our gospel reading for this coming Sunday, we will hear that when Jesus ‘saw’ a man born blind, his disciples will ask Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).
Or it may have been that his friends simply didn’t have the patience to bear with and be with him through this. His pathetic condition may have made them ‘too uncomfortable.’
Rather than lashing out against them – the Psalmist remains silent – as though he were deaf and mute.
15 But for you, O LORD, do I wait;
it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.
16 For I said, “Only let them not rejoice over me,
who boast against me when my foot slips!”
Luther writes, “These are the words of a true and strong faith, which in time of trouble lets everything else go and clings to the Word and grace of God, and does not doubt that God will hear and help him. Yet he does not prescribe to God the time or manner but simply says: “You will answer. And I will wait. I will hope and continue to hope.”
“Would to God that they would not rejoice over me if I fall. For I feel as though my feet are slipping out from under me. This is why I put my hope in you. This trouble has FORCED ME to put my trust in you. If I should slip and they should boast in my fall, then I would be forever mocked and they will have prevailed. I am fearful about this because then Your Word also would be a mockery.”
“This is how a troubled person worries and frets because the wicked fare so well. He thinks that they will continue to do so, while he is completely ruined. But God does not permit this. If they do prosper so that they think they have succeeded, He casts them down and makes the righteous joyful.”
17 For I am ready to fall,
and my pain is ever before me.
18 I confess my iniquity;
I am sorry for my sin.
19 But my foes are vigorous, they are mighty,
and many are those who hate me wrongfully.
20 Those who render me evil for good
accuse me because I follow after good.”
Luther writes, “The heart that must suffer one affliction after another speaks and thinks: ‘O God, there is no end of trouble! When one stops, another begins. I see I am made for trouble and must always be miserable.” But as the psalmist says elsewhere, “many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.”
“I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin.” The psalmist neither denies nor tries to cover up his sin. “In other words,” says Luther, “such affliction is not unjust.” Or as we said, ‘it stinks –but it’s not unfair.’
The psalmist then appeals to God for help against his ‘foes’ who are vigorous, mighty and many. They hate him, turn the good he wills to do to evil and accuse him of being a fool for following after good.
So, the question then is, who are these ‘foes’ that are so ‘vigorous and mighty?’ They may certainly be those so-called ‘friends’ of his who have now turned against him. And as we will see in a moment, this is precisely how they appear when we apply this Psalm to Jesus.
But for us, it could certainly be these ‘foes’ are the ‘OLD sinful ADAM’ in each of us. As we heard Paul famously describes the internal shouting match that goes on inside of him – “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Romans 7:21-23)
21 Do not forsake me, O LORD!
O my God, be not far from me!
22 Make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation!”
The whole issue is put into God’s hands. His final plea is that the Lord, whom he calls “my God” and “my salvation,” would not reject him or forget him or go far away from him – but remain near to him and help him and ultimately, deliver him.
As we have read through this 38th Psalm, it has been hard to avoid the image of Jesus Christ superimposed upon it all. In fact, we hear this psalm as ‘more perfectly prayed’ from His lips than from either David’s or our own.
When Jesus is flogged by Pilot’s soldiers and stood before the crowd who mock him and ridicule him and call for his crucifixion – it is He who cries to the Father, “there is no soundness in my flesh and no health in my bones.”
But towards His ‘foes’ he is “like a man who does not hear, and in whose mouth are no rebukes.” Instead He says, “Father, forgive them.”
It’s Jesus, for whom God’s ‘arrows” are not figurative but cold, hard steal, SUNK into His hands and feet and side. But unlike the way that we must pray this prayer, He cannot pray “because of my sin…” or “Because of my foolishness.” He is perfectly innocent. It is for OUR SIN and OUR FOOLISHNESS that the Father’s “hand has come down on HIM.”
The Psalmists words fit so perfectly in the mouth of Christ:
For I am ready to fall, and my pain is ever before me.
But my foes are vigorous, they are mighty, and many are those who hate me wrongfully.
Those who render me evil for good accuse me because I follow after good.”
But it is not for His iniquity but for yours and mine. It is not His sin that He is sorry for. It is yours and mine.
It is Jesus who cries out from the cross to His Father, “Do not forsake me, O LORD! O my God, be not far from me!” But who is forsaken and abandoned by His Father nevertheless.
We dare never underestimate the danger we are in when our “foot slips” and “we are ready to fall.” On the cross, we see where that fall ends in Him who took the fall for us all.
He is the ‘faithful man’ whose hope remains steadfast in the Lord His God in all of His suffering and pain for our sin. He is the one who cries out, “Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation.” And on the 3rd day, the Lord did just that.