"O LORD.... Remove Your Plague From Me" (Psalms 38-39) July 5-7
Psalm 38 begins a group of four related psalms that closes Book I (i.e., Psalms 38-41). These four psalms are linked by central themes. All are confessions of sin in the midst of troubles—the troubles in at least three of these being serious illness and enemies (while the other, Psalm 40, concerns enemies rising during a time of distress, which could also be related to a time of illness).
As the sicknesses in these psalms are a result of sin on David's part, it is possible that they are all one and the same sickness resulting from the same sin. It could be, as suggested in the Bible Reading Program comments on Psalm 6, that the plague David suffers is the one he prayed to come on him in place of the populace after he sinned in the numbering of Israel (see 2 Samuel 24; 1 Chronicles 21). However, the Bible does not actually say whether or not David was then afflicted. The sicknesses in these psalms could well concern another time. The betrayal in Psalm 41 may hint at the time of national rebellion under Absalom with the assistance of David's friend and counselor Ahithophel (if deep depression contributed to David becoming physically ill at that time, though the Bible does not tell us).
The NIV translation of Psalm 38's superscription refers to the psalm as a "petition." The King James and New King James give the more literal rendering of this verbal phrase (which is also found in the superscription of Psalm 70) as "To bring to remembrance." Though God knows our needs, He nevertheless expects us to remind Him of them in prayer—perhaps to remind ourselves of our need for Him and His help.
David confesses his sin, which he labels foolishness, and asks for relief from God's heavy hand. God chastens him because of His sin (verses 3, 5). Sickness is not always due to a person's sins (see Job 1-2; John 9:1-3). But sometimes it is, as the numerous instances of God sending plague as punishment attests. Proverbs 3:11-12 explains that God's chastening is done out of love—just as a father disciplines his son. The book of Hebrews quotes these verses (12:5-6) and goes on to comment further, explaining how it all works toward a positive outcome (verses 7-11).
The ordeal leaves David weak from festering sores (verse 5) and inflammation (verse 7). He is depressed by guilt (verse 4) and a lack of peace (verse 8). In verse 10, David speaks of his failing strength and the light having gone out of his eyes. We saw similar expressions in 6:7 and 13:3. In its note on 6:7, the Zondervan NIV Study Bible says: "In the vivid language of the O[ld] T[estament] the eyes are dimmed by failing strength (see 38:10; 1Sa 14:27, 29...Jer 14:6), by grief (often associated with affliction: 31:9; 88:9; Job 17:7; La 2:11) and by longings unsatisfied or hope deferred (see 69:3; 119:82, 123; Dt 28:32; Isa 38:14)." This idiom has passed over into English. We sometimes speak of the light, spark or sparkle having left someone's eye—meaning the person has no further sense of joy in living.
Friends and family won't come near David in his illness (verse 11). Enemies conspire against him (verse 12). Isolated and absorbed in his suffering, he has no way to know what's going on and no one to talk to—like a deaf and mute person (verses 13-14). His silence may also be part of a conscious effort to avoid saying something rash or foolish to or before others and thereby sinning further, as he says in the next psalm (39:1-2).
But David hopes in God to hear and answer His prayer (38:15). His silence is only before other people. To God He pours out His heart, confessing his sin and pleading with God to deliver him soon (verses 15-22). Indeed, if the other sickness psalms concern this period, then David had much to say to God as He composed these prayerful hymns.
The middle of the superscription of Psalm 39, which may be part of a postscript to the previous psalm, says "To Jeduthun," referring to "one of David's three choir leaders (1Ch 16:41-42; 25:1, 6; 2Ch 5:12; called his 'seer' in 2Ch 35:15). Jeduthun is probably also Ethan of 1Ch 6:44 [and] 15:19; if so, he represented the family of Merari, even as Asaph did the family of Gershon and Heman the family of Kohath, the three sons of Levi (see 1Ch 6:16, 33, 39, 43-44)" (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, note on Psalm 39 title). The end of the superscription, "A Psalm of David," no doubt goes with Psalm 39.
In this prayer David is "deeply troubled by the fragility of human life. He is reminded of this by the present illness through which God is rebuking him (vv. 10-11) for his 'transgression' (v. 8)" (note on Psalm 39).
As the psalm opens, we see that David has made a determination to not speak aloud, presumably of his anguish, lest this make its way to his or God's enemies. The Expositor's Bible Commentary notes on verse 2 that he "fears that he may be misunderstood or that he may speak irreverently and give occasion to the enemy. For the sake of God, he vowed to be silent in his suffering." Yet verses 8-9 make it appear that David did not want to admit to detractors that his sickness was a result of God punishing him for sin. So the sin he was now guarding against could have been that of defending his reputation against criticism that might have been just (if not coming from hypocrites). Whatever the reasoning, it may help to explain his silence in the previous psalm, especially if it concerns the same illness (see Psalm 38:13-14).
At last, David says that he had to vent his anguish and frustration (verse 3). But it seems that he does the venting to God (verse 4). He begins by basically asking, "Okay, when am I going to die? How much time do I have left?" (as it seemed this could be the end)—and complaining that human life is fleeting, like the few inches of a handbreadth in length and a wisp of vapor in substance (verses 4-6, 11). All that people did seemed so pointless (verse 6). This is the theme running through the book of Ecclesiastes.
Still, David hopes in and prays for God's healing (verses 7, 10, 12-13). He notes that he has lived not as one tied to this world but as a "stranger" or "alien" (a foreigner to this evil world) and a "sojourner" (a traveler or passing guest). And this has not been on his own but rather, as he says to God, "with You" (verse 12). The book of Hebrews says that God's saints "all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland...a better, that is, a heavenly country" (Hebrew 11:13-16; compare 1 Peter 2:11-12). So in saying what he did, David was not only reminding God of his relationship with Him, but he was also expressing his hope in God's Kingdom. If it was time for him to die, he trusted in His future with God.
Yet David is not resigned to death. He still prays that God will remove His gaze so that he may regain strength and not die (Psalm 39:13). This does not mean, as some commentators suggest, that David is praying for God to leave him alone. For on his own David could never recover. Rather, we should understand the terminology in light of Psalm 80:16, which says that God's people perish at the rebuke of His countenance. The idea is that when He gazes on them in anger, they wither and are consumed. So Psalm 80 repeatedly asks that God would cause His face to shine—to smile favorably. David is likewise pleading for God to turn away His angry gaze of judgment—and, as stated in verse 7, he is hopeful that God will.