Psalm 38 might be designated “The Penitent’s Plea.” It is the cry of a man who is distressed and broken-hearted because of his sin, and who comes to God acknowledging his guilt and looking to Him for forgiveness.
Over the first four verses we might write the word “Conviction.” We have the expression here of a convicted soul, of a man who is not trying to make excuses for his sins. As long as you find a person endeavoring to excuse his sins and failures, you will know that the plowshare of conviction has never gone in deep enough. When King Saul was faced about his sin by Samuel he said, “I have sinned: yet honour me now, I pray Thee, before the elders of my people, and before Israel” (1 Sam. 15:30). In other words, Oh yes, I have done wrong, but make something of me in the eyes of the people. There is no evidence there of real conviction. When a man is truly convicted he stops making excuses and stops seeking honor for himself. And so in these four verses we listen to the Psalmist pouring out the feelings of his heart which is broken because of his sin.
“Oh Lord, rebuke me not in Thy wrath: neither chasten me in Thy hot displeasure. For Thine arrows stick fast in me, and Thy hand presseth me sore.” What a mercy it is when one falls into sin—and such sin as David fell into—that God does undertake to deal with him, that the sharp arrows of the Almighty do pierce his soul, and that the hand of God is heavy upon him, making him feel the weight of his guilt. He continues, “There is no soundness in my flesh because of Thine anger; neither is there any rest in my bones because of my sin.” He realizes he is righteously exposed to the anger of God. Sin demands punishment We may try to excuse it, but God is “of purer eyes than to behold evil” (Hab. 1:13). God is never going to save one sinner and leave that sinner’s sin unpunished. If He does not punish it on the sinner, it must be punished on the sinner’s Substitute. And that is what took place on Calvary. At the Cross the Lord Jesus bore the judgment. The old hymn says,
“He bore on the tree the sentence jot me,
And now both the surety and sinner are free.”
“For mine iniquities are gone over mine head: as an heavy burden they are too heavy for me.” It is the voice of a convicted sinner.
Over verses 5 to 14 we may write the word, “Humiliation.” As he continues looking into his own heart, as he continues dwelling upon the sin that has crushed his life, he is bowed down before God in a sense of deepest humiliation. “My wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness. I am troubled; I am bowed down greatly; I go mourning all the day long. For my loins are filled with a loathsome disease: and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and sore broken: I have roared by reason of the disquietness of my heart.” Although feeling in his body and in his spirit the effects of his sin and knowing that God is dealing with him because of that sin, he realizes that there is no one else to whom he can turn for deliverance but to the very God that is afflicting him.
“Lord, all my desire is before Thee; and my groaning is not hid from Thee. My heart panteth, my strength faileth me: as for the light of mine eyes, it also is gone from me. My lovers and my friends stand aloof from my sore; and my kinsmen stand afar off.” There is a sense in which the Lord Jesus entered into that. Though He was the absolutely holy One, when He took the sinner’s place He could use such language as this. He could say, “My lovers and My friends stand aloof from My sore; and My kinsmen stand afar off. They also that seek after My life lay snares for Me: and they that seek My hurt speak mischievous things and imagine deceits all the day long.” But now David, because he knew that he deserved what he was receiving, and Jesus, because He was taking our place and was accepting the judgment due to our sins as though He had deserved it, could use the words of the next two verses, “But I, as a deaf man, heard not; and I was as a dumb man that openeth not his mouth. Thus I was as a man that heareth not, and in whose mouth are no reproofs.” It is a great thing to come to the place where you have no fault to find with anybody but yourself. Many of us spend so much of our time finding fault with other people. We can see other people’s faults and can magnify their sins, but we are so unconscious of our own faults and sins. When people accuse us we get so indignant and forget that if our worst enemies knew all that we know about our own hearts and the sins of our own lives, they would say far worse than they do say. David here bows his head before God and has nothing to say because his own conscience is accusing him worse than any of them.
From the 15th to the 20th verse we have his confession. “For in Thee, O Lord, do I hope: Thou wilt hear, O Lord my God. For I said, Hear me, lest otherwise they should rejoice over me: when my foot slippeth, they magnify themselves against me. For I am ready to halt, and my sorrow is continually before me. For I will declare my iniquity; I will be sorry for my sin.” And you know what God says elsewhere, “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Prov. 28:13). David says he will not try to cover it up, “I will declare my iniquity; I will be sorry for my sin. But mine enemies are lively, and they are strong: and they that hate me wrongfully are multiplied. They also that render evil for good are mine adversaries; because I follow the thing that good is.” Once they blamed him for his sin; now they blame him for turning to God and professing to find in Him forgiveness.
In the last two verses he expresses his confidence, “Forsake me not, O Lord: O my God, be not far from me. Make haste to help me, O Lord my salvation.”
Psalm 39 closes this series of fifteen Psalms by bringing before us in a very vivid way the contrast between human frailty and divine power, human sin and divine holiness. The first six verses seem to stand together and the Psalmist shows the utter emptiness of life without God. I trust that everyone of us realizes that. The old hymn is true:
“I tried the broken cisterns, Lord,
But ah, their waters failed.
E’en as I stooped to drink they fled
And mocked me as I wailed.”
But at last the blessed Lord in grace took us up and we found the difference of the life in fellowship with God.
The pleasures lost I sadly mourned,
But never wept for Thee,
Till grace my sightless eyes received
Thy loveliness to see.
“Now none but Christ can satisfy,
None other name for me;
There’s love and life and lasting joy,
Lord Jesus, found in Thee.”
So here we find this Old Testament believer—and it was David himself—learning the same lesson, the emptiness of life without God; and then the fullness of life when one knows God and lives in fellowship with Him. Look at those first six verses, “I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me. I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; and my sorrow was stirred. My heart was hot within me; while I was musing the fire burned.” God wants us to muse. To muse is to think, and God is seeking to get men to think. The prodigal never took a step toward his father until he sat down to think. We read, “He came to himself.” The devil tries to keep people from musing, from thinking. Take that word so common today, “amusement.” People are amusement crazy. The devil has all kinds of schemes to amuse people. Cut that word up, “Muse”—to think. “A-muse”—not to think. The “A” there is the negative, and it simply means this, to stop thinking. That is why the theaters are crowded; that is why people love the dance; that is why people go to all these ungodly things of the world—to keep from thinking. If the devil can keep people from thinking, he will have them all doomed and damned eventually. But God wants us to think. His Word is a challenge to us to think. David says, “I thought on my ways.” Now he is musing, “Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am.” It is a good thing to meditate along that line. People do not like to think of death; they do not like to think of an abrupt termination of life.
“Life at best is very brief,
Like the falling of a leaf,
Like the binding of a sheaf,
Be in time.
Fairest flowers soon decay,
Youth and beauty pass away,
Oh, ye have not long to stay,
Be in time.”
People do not like to be reminded of the shortness of life. David says, I sat down to think of it: how frail I am; how short a time I may have here, but I want my life to tell for the Lord; I want to do my very best for God. “Behold, Thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before Thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.” What a pitiable thing to have no hope beyond this life!
Beginning with verse 7 and going on to the end of the Psalm he changes to the other side of things and shows us that everything worth-while is found in God Himself. “And now, Lord, what wait I for? my hope is in Thee.” I know that things of this world can never satisfy this poor heart of mine, but my hope, my confidence, and my trust are in Thee. “Deliver me from all my transgressions: make me not the reproach of the foolish. I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because Thou didst it.” When discipline came because of sin, he bowed his head and said, it is all right; it is the hand of God, and I deserve it. I accept it and trust it may be blessed to me, but if it please God to give deliverance, I will rejoice in His goodness.
“Remove Thy stroke away from me: I am consumed by the blow of Thine hand. When Thou with rebukes dost correct man for iniquity, Thou makest his beauty to consume away like a moth: surely every man is vanity. Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry; hold not Thy peace at my tears: for I am a stranger with Thee, and a sojourner [a pilgrim].” I have only a little while to spend in this world, God help me to spend it for Thee, is what he is saying. Help me to live so that when I leave this scene behind I will realize it was well worth-while that I was permitted to glorify Thee when I was down in the world.
“O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more.” That Hebrew expression translated, “spare me” is a significant one. Literally it might be rendered, “Look away from me, that I may recover strength.” Do you remember in another place we read, “Look upon the face of Thine anointed,” and so we link that with this, for as David realizes his own weakness, his own frailty, his own infirmity he exclaims, “Look away from me,” for he sees that there is nothing in him to commend him to God. If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?” (Psa. 130:3). There would be nothing but eternal judgment for me, but look away from me: look on the face of Thine anointed and accept me in Him. And that is exactly what God does. “He hath made us accepted in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6).