Psalm 38 – A Psalm of Lament
As I drove home from Melbourne yesterday I was listening to ABC Radio National, as I do. During the 9am news broadcast they cut in with a breaking story about Paris. At that stage of the day nothing was known for certain. Their European correspondent couldn’t confirm any details. They thought there were between two and four people who had been killed. By the time I got home that number was over a hundred with another two hundred injured.
What do you say in the face of a terrible tragedy like that? National leaders were struggling to find suitable words. In fact mere words do not seem sufficient. During the week we commemorated Remembrance Day. At 11am, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, people around the world stand in silence for a minute, because words cannot express the grief we feel in the face of immense loss.
But it’s not just grief on a global scale that leaves us speechless. The same is true when we face tragedy. The pain might not be as widespread, but it is deep and personal. Which of us here has not at times found ourselves at a loss for words to express our grief? It might be in response to pain or illness. Some of us here have been hurt by a failed relationship, or at the hands of others. And which of us hasn’t been affected by the death of a loved one? It might be it a friend or parent, or a child or spouse. How can we put our pain into words? And what can we say to others who are suffering in some way?
There are plenty of platitudes that we can wheel out, like:
Everything happens for a reason
She’ll be right
Time heals all wounds
The problem is these sayings are a load of crap. They don’t really help us express our grief. There are those who think the Bible is full of clichés like these, or just nice good stories. But the Bible isn’t afraid to plummet the depths of despair or to explore the dark places of human life. And the book of Psalms contains songs that are far better at expressing our pain and grief than any blues or country music song! In fact, perhaps more than any other book in the Bible, the Psalms give voice to the cries of our heart.
There are Psalms which are corporate laments, songs to sing in times of national or international crisis. In the face of national tragedy and global injustice they cry out:
3O LORD, how long shall the wicked,
how long shall the wicked exult?
4They pour out their arrogant words;
all the evildoers boast.
5They crush your people, O LORD,
and afflict your heritage.
6They kill the widow and the stranger,
they murder the orphan,
7and they say, “The LORD does not see;
the God of Jacob does not perceive.”
– Psalm 94:3-7
Other Psalms express deep personal cries of lament. And they ask the hard questions we’re sometimes too afraid or too timid to. They don’t pull any punches! (Ps. 44:23-24)
23Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
Awake, do not cast us off forever!
24Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction & oppression?
The Psalms don’t just ask hard questions, they provide answers, most of the time. And they show us that it’s safe to pour out our hearts to God, to express our grief, our sorrow, our mourning, our anger to him, because as other Psalms show, he feels these things too! There’s no problem to big, no pain too raw to pour out to God. We see that most clearly in Jesus. When he hung on the Cross, as he took on all the sins and the suffering of the whole world, what did Jesus say?
‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’
Where did he find these words? In Psalm 22:1!
This morning we’re looking at Psalm 38 and it shows us another reason for lament. When we looked at Joy, Psalm 148 showed us that our greatest joy is in praising God. Last week, we saw in Psalm 27 that our greatest Yearning should be to be with God, to be in his presence. Psalm 38 shows us our greatest grief comes from being separated from God because of our sin. When we rebel against God, and his rule over our world and every aspect of our lives, we cut ourselves off from him. The pain that comes from that is worse than any other tragedy we might experience. It’s this pain that caused David to write Psalm 38.
As we briefly look at this Psalm today, I want to point out a number of features about what it teaches us about how we should lament over our sins.
But first a caveat. The Bible teaches us that all suffering is the result of sin, of the broken and fallen world we live in. This is not the way God intended it to be. Such is not life! Or at least such was not meant to be life, in God’s good plan. Some suffering is the clearly the result of some specific failure in our relationship with God, for instance if we overwork and become ill. David attributes his suffering to some particular sin in Psalm 38, possibly the whole thing with Bathsheba and Uriah.
But we can never know for certain. And the Bible cautions us against working backwards to say this suffering must be the result of that sin. That’s the mistake Job’s friends made. That’s the mistake that Jesus’ friends made in John 9 when they asked, ‘Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Neither but this has happened that you may know the work of God.’ Suffering is sometimes the result of the more general fact that we fail in our relationship with God or that we share in the failure of our communities.
With that caveat in mind, in Psalm 38 David cries out to God but he doesn’t complain about the suffering he’s going through. Look at the start of the Psalm. He’s not crying out for God to take away all his pain. He’s just asking that God would be merciful as he judges him. That he would discipline, but gently not out of wrath.
Next, David shares in graphic detail the consequences of his sin. He describes the suffering he’s going through in very vivid images. It might be that David’s actually ill, that he is physically suffering at this point and describing some malady, a wasting away.
But it could be a psychological, emotional or spiritual pain that he’s describing in verses 3-8. I know when I’ve sinned, when I’ve hurt others by my words or actions, when I’ve failed to do what is right, I feel sick in my stomach. When I know I’ve done something that God has called us not to do, my guts feel all wrenched up, I feel utterly spent and crushed. I feel the burden of my sins and like David, at times they weigh like a burden too heavy for me.
David feels that weight, it drives him too his knees. He’s bowed down, even prostrate before God. Which is handy, because it puts him in the perfect position to pour his heart out to God. Which he does day and night, all day long he mourns before God. His grief and sorrow is so great that even David struggles to find words to express it to God. In verse 8 he says he can only groan. His heart cries out, but he can find no words to express his lament. But still, he pours himself out before God, all his tears, all his longings and sighs. He holds nothing back, he hides nothing from God, who can see it all anyway. God can see into his heart and God hears the cries of his heart.
That’s all David can do, because no one else will listen. From verse 11 we see that all his friends and companions have pulled back. At the moment when he most needs them to come near, to give him a hug, to be an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on, they abandon him. Instead they’ve all taken a big step back. They don’t want anything to do with him in his wretched state. Even Job, covered in sores, sitting on top of junk pile, had friends who came near, not that they were much help! There’s no one left for David to turn to but God.
It’s ironic in a way isn’t it? Who has David offended? God. Who does he turn to? God. When we offend someone, we don’t often go to them looking for sympathy or for help. We don’t expect compassion from one we’ve wronged. But that’s how big, how loving, God is. He wants to forgive us if we confess, if we acknowledge our sins, if we repent. He’s slow to anger, quick to forgive as we’re told over and over in the Psalms (86:15; 103:8; 145:8). He’s the one who loves us, who has shown compassion in Jesus. God’s the only one standing by David.
Actually, David’s not entirely alone. His friends might’ve stepped back, but his enemies have drawn near! Though they’re only looking for an opportunity to trip him up. But in the way he responds, David gives us a model of how to handle conflict. How does David deal with it? While those who seek his life speak evil of him, he’s like one deaf and mute. That’s not to say he’s giving them the cold shoulder or putting his hands on his ears saying ‘I can’t hear you!’ In the face of conflict, David’s chosen not to retaliate. He doesn’t raise his voice in anger against them. He doesn’t respond tit for tat. In fact, he does what Jesus says to do, and turns the other cheek.
The Psalms expect people to say and do nothing to the people who have wronged them. Instead the Psalms encourage us to speak to God about these people. The protest and lament of the Psalms give people opportunity to express their anger, but to do so to God rather than to the people who might deserve it. And then they ask us to trust in the God who judges and who shows mercy. (Notice that all he asks is that his enemies might not see him stumble and fall, not that God will smite them!)
Next the Psalm teaches us to engage in true confession. He doesn’t just cry out ‘woe is me!’ Nor does he say, ‘I feel really bad that I’ve done the wrong thing.’ He is sorry for his sin and he tells God. But he commits to turning his life around. He is determined to follow after good (and God). That’s what true confession is. David acknowledges his sin, failure or shortcoming, waywardness and stupidity, falling short of the goodness and glory of God, a positive but twisted activity outworking of a mind gone awry. But his plea is that God nevertheless relives the pain and suffering. He seeks mercy from God.
And that’s exactly what he’s confident of finding. He’s confident that God will comfort him.
21Do not forsake me, O Lord;
O my God, do not be far from me;
22make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation.
In the end, in the midst of his pain, his lament and mourning, he does the only thing he can. He waits upon God to give him strength and comfort.
This Psalm, although it’s a lament for suffering based upon sin, is a prayer that anyone undergoing suffering could use to express their pain, their trust, their repentance, their plea for God’s help. No matter what’s causing us to be downcast, no matter what’s behind our distress. Whatever the storms, the trials or the pain or suffering, we can turn to God. Even if the cause of our pain is the pain we’ve caused God, we can turn to him.