Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 38 (Part 1)

Psalm 38

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 3, 5, 7, 9-11, 13, 17-24)

This Psalm has 22 verses, which suggests an alphabetic pattern, even though it is not an actual acrostic poem; this could, however, explain why it follows Ps 37, which is an acrostic (cf. the previous studies). The 22-verse format came to be associated specifically with poems of lament (cf. the poems in the book of Lamentations), and that is certainly the case here.

The Psalm has a rather clear two-part structure: in the first part (verses 2-11), the Psalmist describes his suffering from a serious illness, while the second part (vv. 12-17ff) presents the response of people to his condition. In the final portion of the second part (vv. 18-23), all the main themes of the poem are summarized and recapitulated, closing with a plea to YHWH for healing and deliverance.

In terms of its poetic rhythm, the Psalm generally follows the 3-beat (3+3) couplet format. Any significant deviations will be mentioned in the notes.

The superscription marks this as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”. The precise meaning of the additional direction ryK!z+h^l= is unclear. If parsed as a Hiphil infinitive (of the verb rk^z`), it would mean “to cause to remember, to bring to remembrance”, but whether this relates to the performing tradition, or to the content (and purpose) of the poem, is uncertain. The same expression occurs in the superscription of Ps 70.

Verses 2-11 [1-10]

Verse 2 [1]

“YHWH, in your displeasure do not decide (against) me,
and in your hot (anger) do (not) discipline me!”

The initial couplet involves a plea to YHWH, that He would not act in anger against the Psalmist. Illness was often viewed as the result of the deity’s anger or displeasure against humankind, and, in a monotheistic context, this specifically means the anger of the Creator Deity El-YHWH. The two verbs are jk^y` and rs^y`; the first implies the handing down of a legal judgment (“decide [against]”), while the second refers to a punitive or corrective action (“chastise, discipline, rebuke,” etc). The parallelism of the lines is filled out by a pair of modifying prepositional expressions: “in your fierce (displeasure) [[x#q#]” and “in your hot (anger) [hm*j@]”. The experience of illness by the protagonist leads to the realization that YHWH may be angry with him, and he hopes to forestall any (further) judgment that might come as a result of the Divine anger.

The meter in this opening couplet is 3+2; however, the addition of a second negative particle (la^), attested in some manuscripts, would balance things somewhat in the second line.

Verse 3 [2]

“For your arrows have come down in(to) me,
and (so) your hand has come down upon me.”

Assuming the repetition of the verb tj@n` (“go down, descend”) in both lines is original (cf. Kraus, p. 410), it is meant to give double emphasis to the Psalmist’s experience of suffering (from illness). The image of “arrows” shooting into a person is a fitting metaphor for the coming of pestilence and disease, and occurs frequently in ancient Near Eastern thought (e.g., Deut 32:23; Job 6:4, etc). In the setting of Israelite monotheism, these “arrows” have to come from YHWH, even if by way of divine intermediaries (i.e., Angels/spirits with authority to bring disease). In Job 16:12-13, God is said to send “archers” against the person, shooting the arrows of illness. In Canaanite (Ugaritic) tradition, the personification of burning plague (Ršp, cp. Hebrew [v#r#) is similarly referred to as an archer (cf. Dahood, p. 235).

In the second line, it is clear that it is YHWH who is acting against the Psalmist, with “your hand” parallel to “your arrows”. Moreover, it is the hand (and forearm) that is specifically in focus when the archer draws back his bow. Strength of hand/arm is required, and it is YHWH’s divine power that creates and brings pestilence and disease upon humankind.

Verse 4 [3]

“There is no completeness in my flesh from (the) face of your curse,
there is no fullness in my bones from (the) face of my sin.”

The couplet has an expanded 4-beat (4+4) meter which gives to it a special weight, and may be intended to express, poetically, the burden that the Psalmist feels. The parallelism is precise, with each line beginning with the negative particle /ya@ (“there is no”), functioning in a verbal (or adverbial) sense. There is also the common prepositional expression yn@p=m! (“from [the] face of,” i.e., before), emphasizing the reason for the protagonist’s suffering. Let us consider the main points of parallelism:

    • “there is no [/ya@]
      • completeness [<t)m=]
        fullness [<olv*]

        • in my flesh [yr!c^b=B!]
          in my bones [ym^x*u&B^]
      • from (the) face of [yn@p=m!]
        • your curse [;m#u=z~]
          my sin [yt!aF*j^]”

The pair of nouns <t)m= / <olv* denotes wholeness, completion, health. Since there is none of this in the Psalmist’s body, he is clearly in a state of physical weakness and debility. The noun <x#u# literally refers to the strength in a person’s limbs; however, in the plural it often specifically connotes the bones, and so I have translated it conventionally here, as a proper parallel with “flesh” (i.e., flesh and bones).

There are two reasons cited for the Psalmist’s illness. The first relates to God: “your <u^z~.” The noun <u^z~ is difficult to translate here in context, while still preserving the poetry of the line. It fundamentally  refers to an angry reaction, and, specifically, something spoken; it would best be rendered here as “denunciation”, but the makes for awkward poetry. The translation “curse” fits the rhythm of the line much better, and provides a straightforward parallel with “sin”.

The second reason, indeed, for the Psalmist’s illness is sin: “my sin“. In the ancient world, disease and illness were often thought to have come about because of something wrong (i.e., sinful) that a person had done (cf. John 9:2, etc). From a traditional religious (and theological) standpoint, God’s anger is aroused by human sin, and the heat of this divine anger is often seen as manifest in the burning effects of disease and pestilence (cf. on the term [v#r#, above).

Verse 5 [4]

“For my twisted (deed)s have gone over (upon) my head,
like a heavy burden they are (too) heavy f(or) me.”

This couplet also has an expanded meter (properly 3+4) that, again, suggests poetically something of the burden (aC*m^) that the Psalmist feels. In verse 3[2], the protagonist felt the weight of God’s hand upon him; now it is the weight of his own sins that he experiences (note the parallelism in v. 4[3] above). He claims that they are “heavy from me”, which, translated into English idiom and comparative syntax, means “too heavy for me (to bear)”.

Verse 6 [5]

“My wounds come to stink (and) are ooz(ing),
from (the) face of my foolishness!”

Here the protagonist’s sins are characterized ruefully as “foolishness” (tl#W#a!). The same prepositional expression (“from the face of”, i.e., in the face of, because of) from v. 4[3] is used again to express the reason for his suffering. The image of festering wounds may be meant to depict the symptoms of an actual illness, or it may simply be a general point of reference that includes the idea of punishment (i.e., bruises, stripes) for sin (cp. Isa 1:5-6). The meter of this couplet is 3+2, providing an interesting counterbalance to the irregular 3+4 rhythm of the previous verse.

Verse 7 [6]

“I am bent, bowed down, until (I reach the) very (end),
all the day (long) I walk about dark (with mourn)ing.”

The complete and all-encompassing experience of suffering is described vividly in this couplet. In the first line, he bends over and goes down (presumably from pain), practically to the very ground. The general expression da)m=-du^ (“until [the] very [last/end, etc]…”) is intentionally open-ended, and is meant to convey an intense and extreme situation.

In the second line, the man is upright, and able to walk about; however, he has the demeanor and appearance of someone in mourning, looking dark and ashen-faced. This may be meant to imply a condition that places him in danger of death. In any case, like a mourner, there is no joy of life for the Psalmist in such a condition.

Verse 8 [7]

“For my loins are filled with roasting (heat),
and there is no completeness in my flesh.”

The second line repeats the statement from the first line of verse 4[3] (cf. above), referring to a lack of physical health. This is juxtaposed with the specific (and demeaning) point of suffering described in line 1: a burning, fever-like condition that is located in the loins. The root hl*q* can signify a drying out, due to heat (i.e., the translation “roasting” above), possibly with the specific idea of the genitals shriveling and withering. This may be a particularly shameful way of indicating a lack of health and vitality.

Verse 9 [8]

“I am weakened and broken until (the) very (last),
I moan, groaning (deep in) my heart.”

The Psalmist’s weakened and debilitating condition (vb gWP) has left him “crushed” (vb hk*D*), in his spirit as much as in his body. With apparently little hope, he is left to moan/groan deep in his heart. The reading in the Qumran MS 4QPsa of the first word in line 1 (agpn) is unclear and may represent a scribal error (cp. MT ytwgwpn). By comparson, the LXX here reads “I am ill-treated” (e)kakw/qen), so there does seem to be some textual uncertainty at this point.

Verse 10 [9]

“My Lord, all my longing is (there) in front of you,
and my sighing (surely) is not hidden from you.”

The Psalmist points out the obvious: that YHWH is aware of his suffering. Indeed, this must be so, since God has brought about the very illness that has led to his debilitating condition. However, by drawing attention to this situation, the Psalmist hopes to gain the sympathy and favor of YHWH.

Verse 11 [10]

“My heart moves, my strength has left me,
and (the) light of my eyes it also is no more to me.”

The verbal form rj^r=j^s= is peculiar; if it derives from the root rj^s* (“move/go around”), then the idea may be that the sick man’s heart is fluttering or palpitating. Parsing this as a rare Pealal form would tend to confirm such an image, since it can be used to describe quick/rapid and repeated movements (cf. GKC §55e). For a different explanation, see Dahood p. 236.

Based on the parallel with the phrase “my strength has left me”, perhaps the proper sense is that the man’s heart has moved away from him. In any case, the usually stout heart is no longer stable or a source of strength. Similarly, the strength of his vision (“light of my eyes”) is also gone. The manner of expression here is a bit awkward, but this may be intentional, with the wordiness of the line perhaps meant to convey the sense of affliction—i.e., the awkwardness of visually disabled person groping about. Again the negative (privative) particle /ya@ is used to emphasize the lack of health: “it is no more for me”.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol 16 (1965).
References marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

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