The Sin-Bearing Sufferer (Psalm 38)
In Psalm 38, David feels the overwhelming burden of his sin and the corresponding displeasure of YHWH. He feels as if he is a cursed sin-bearer.
1. Awareness of your sin and God’s hatred of it
The psalmist is quite aware of two things: the evil of his own sin, and God’s great displeasure of it. His conscience is extremely stricken with how offensive his sin is to a holy God, and he has a keen sense of God’s chastening hand. Therefore he cries out in verses 1 and 2,
"O YHWH, do not punish me with Your wrath, nor rebuke me with Your burning anger!
Truly, your arrows have penetrated into me, and Your hand has come down upon me."
David is so overwhelmed by the load of his sin that he says in verse 4,
“Because my iniquities have passed over my head, like a heavy burden—they are too heavy for me!”
This word for “burden” (מַשָּׂא) has to do with a load that one carries or bears, but in this case, David no longer can bear the weighty load of his iniquity, which is his guilt. He longs for the burden to be removed—he longs for something or someone else to bear his sin for him!
Verses 3 and 7 are book-ended with the phrase “there is no soundness in my flesh,” referring to his awareness that there is no healthy part within him because of his sin. The intense conviction of his sin and God’s anger against him are felt so deeply in his soul that he uses expressions of physical pain and anguish. Notice the parallel thoughts in verse 3:
There is no soundness in my flesh because of Your indignation,
There is no peace (shalom) in my bones because of my sin.
God’s indignation that is heavy upon David is on account of his sin, and he can feel it in his flesh, in his bones, so that his sides (literally, his "loins") are filled with burning (v. 7). His strength is swallowed up and his heart is throbbing (v. 10). What is happening? In short his body is affected by the soul. As those made in the image of God, humans are physical-spiritual creatures; our physical and spiritual natures are united in one person. When the soul is greatly afflicted, we can feel it on our bones, and vice versa.
Can you identify with the psalmist? Have you ever felt this way before? It is actually a gift from God to have your conscience plagued by a strong sense of your sin, and God’s intense abhorrence of it. This is where the non-Christian differs. Although he or she has a sense of right and wrong which God implanted in them, by the ongoing suppression of truth they sear their conscience. They are dead to God, insofar as they are numb to His hatred of their sin. But the Christian has been awakened to his own evil, and it is a great blessing when God makes us aware of how much He detests our wickedness. The result is that we are driven to an end of ourselves. Thus the psalmist repeats:
v. 6 “I am bowed down, I am bent low to an overwhelming degree (עַד־מְאֹ֑ד)”
v. 8 “I am powerless, and I am crushed to an overwhelming degree (עַד־מְאֹ֑ד)”
As we will see below, awareness of these things are meant to drive us to the mercy of God.
2. Awareness of your isolation and your accusers
The psalmist is also greatly aware of his isolation. As he bears his own sin and God’s displeasure of it, those who used to be close to him – his friends and his companions – are now far off (v. 11).
But the psalmist is not totally alone. There is another group that is near: his persecutors who are pursuing David’s destruction and seeking his calamity (v. 12). They desire to see David’s downfall so that they might boast and exalt over him (v. 16). This is not a small group, but rather his enemies are countless and numerous (v. 19). Ultimately, these enemies seek to capitalize on David’s sin and use it as an opportunity to accuse him (v. 20).
It is striking that “to accuse” in verse 20 is literally “satan” (שׂטן) in Hebrew, which is the root for Satan’s name in Zechariah 3:1-2, as the accuser of the brethren stands before God to accuse His people of their sin. David’s human accusers embodied Satan and his demons' accusations against the people of God.
Perhaps this is the worst part of our fall into sin. Besides feeling isolated from loved ones, the enemy—and his demonic horde, which are many—stand to accuse us before the Righteous Judge. They know (better than us) that God must punish sinners in accordance with His justice. Yet this is the occasion were David waits for YHWH to intervene as his advocate.
3. Awareness of the rescuing, justifying grace of God
How does David respond to these attacks of accusation from his accusers? He “does not open his mouth” (v. 13). Instead, he trusts the Lord to advocate and intercede for him in verse 15:
“Truly, I put my hope in You, O YHWH! You—You will answer, O Lord (Adonai) my God!”
In the prior verses, notice that the psalmist has no answer—no defense—for the accusations and condemnation upon him, both from God, and from his accusers. Thus his only hope is YHWH Himself—that He will answer on his behalf. His hope is that YHWH Himself will be His salvation (v. 22). In this context the word “to answer” means to testify in someone’s defense in a court of law. How then can David put his hope in a holy God who promises He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished (Ex. 34:7)?
The title of this psalm in the very beginning is telling. Notice it says right above verse 1 in your English Bible (although it actually is verse 1 in the Hebrew text), “A Psalm of David, for the Memorial (לְהַזְכִּֽיר) Offering.” The word zachar, means “to cause to remember” or “to acknowledge,” and the word “Offering” is implied.
The Memorial Offering is likely connected to the occasion described in 1 Chronicles 16:1-4 when David had the Ark of the Covenant brought into the tabernacle, and they offered whole burnt offerings and peace offerings to the LORD. “Then David appointed some of the Levites as ministers before the Ark of YHWH to acknowledge (same word, לְהַזְכִּיר) and to thank and to praise YHWH, the God of Israel.” (1 Chron. 16:4). So glorious was this occasion of bringing up the Ark of the Covenant into God’s dwelling place that David saw fit to ordain worshippers to acknowledge who YHWH is in His faithful, steadfast love. Moreover, “acknowledging” and “remembering” the Name of God is what God Himself commanded to be done when He first revealed His special covenant Name, YHWH, to Moses:
God also said to Moses, “Say this to the sons of Israel, ‘YHWH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, He has sent me to you. This is My Name forever, and this is My Memory (זִכְרִ֖י) from generation to generation.’ (Ex. 3:15, my translation)
What does all this have to do with David’s prayer for YHWH to intercede for him before his accusers, as he is aware of his sin and God’s anger against him? In short, David is looking outside of himself to the character and provision of YHWH to graciously provide an offering and sacrifice that would satisfy and absorb all of God’s displeasure, and so vindicate David before his enemies. And this psalm, inspired by the Spirit of Christ (1 Pt. 1:11), was written for all God's people to sing and pray it regularly before Him,
What is most stunning is that God gave Himself to be this provision of grace “by sending His own Son, in the likeness of sinful flesh as a sin offering (when) He condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). It is not just because we have the New Testament that we can tell this is the case. But the very words used for David the guilty sin-bearer in Psalm 38 appear to be used and applied to the righteous sin-bearer in Isaiah 53. It is as if Isaiah had Psalm 38, among other passages, before him when he composed it.
We can't help but notice that what is true of the guilty sin-bearer in Psalm 38, is also true of a righteous sin-bearer in Isaiah 53:
“My wounds (חַבּוּרָה) stink and fester because of my foolishness” (Ps. 38:5)…“I am powerless, and I am crushed (דּכא)” (Ps. 38:8).
“But He was pierced through on account of our transgressions; He was crushed (דּכא) on account of our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and by means of His wounds (חַבּוּרָה) we are healed. (Isa. 53:5)
“My friends and my companions stand far off because of my plague (נגע)” (Ps. 38:11)
“Yet we ourselves considered Him plagued (נגע), stricken by God and afflicted.” (Isa. 53:4b)
“But I am ready to fall, and my pain (מַכְאֹב) is continually before me.” (Ps. 38:17)
“He was despised and rejected by men; A man of pains (מַכְאֹב), and familiar with sickness…However, He Himself bore our sickness and He carried our pains (מַכְאֹב).” (Isa. 53:3-4)
The Son of David became the righteous sufferer, who was also accused by accusers. Yet in His case, unlike David (and you and I), He was completely innocent. How did He respond before His accusers? Twice Isaiah 53:7 has the identical phrase from Psalm 38:13, “He did not open His mouth.” Why was the perfectly righteous Son of God silent before His accusers, who ultimately put Him to death on a cross? One, because He was bearing our sin, and if He spoke up, He’d have to say our names. And two, because (like David) He trusted God the Father to vindicate Him—that is, to justify Him by raising from the dead. But in His case, His vindication was not being acquitted of any guilt, for He had none! Rather, as a righteous sin bearer, He endured on our behalf the wages of sin, which is death (Rom. 6:23). Since He had no sin, His resurrection was His vindication, that is, His justification, by His Heavenly Father declaring Him “not guilty” but righteous. "He was justified by the Spirit" (1 Tim. 3:16). Since He bore the full indignation of God toward our sins, He has been raised from the dead for our justification, as well (Rom. 4:25). Out of love for us, it pleased YHWH to crush Him, when He made His Son’s soul sick by becoming the ultimate trespass-offering (Isaiah 53:10). The justification of the One is counted for “the many.” No wonder then Isaiah 53:10 prophecies that “the Righteous One shall declare the many to be righteous, since He bore their iniquities.”
In conclusion, let us cry out to YHWH when His hand is heavy upon us because of our sin. Let us rejoice that our Father disciplines those whom He loves, and respond like David:
“I confess my iniquity, and I am sorry for my sin” (Ps. 38:18).
Let us more so rejoice that we do not have to bear the ultimate judgment for our sin—the full displeasure and wrath of God in hell. But this is only because of the Righteous Sin-Bearer, the greater David, who identified with our sin in order to become the ultimate Memorial Offering on the cross.
As His repentant worshippers, we can pray and sing Psalm 38 as we look back to the sin-bearing of the Lamb of God. When He comes again, our Lord Jesus will bring us into His heavenly temple, where as His holy priests we will acknowledge His Name for an eternal Memorial.
Listen to the song "I'm the Problem" (feat. Shai Linne and Rev. Lance Lewis) on acknowledging and confessing your sinfulness, as you look outside yourself to God's answer, Jesus Christ.