Psalm 38 - New American Bible, Revised Edition
The Seven Penitential Psalms
During times when we wish to express repentance and especially during Lent, it is customary to pray the seven penitential psalms. The penitential designation of these psalms dates from the seventh century. Prayerfully reciting these psalms will help us to recognize our sinfulness, express our sorrow and ask for God’s forgiveness.
We are featuring here the newly released translations of the seven penitential psalms from the New American Bible, Revised Edition with reflections and discussion questions from Graziano Marcheschi, M.A. D.Min.
Psalm 38: Audio | Commentary
Prayer of an Afflicted Sinner
1A psalm of David. For remembrance.
2LORD, do not punish me in your anger;
in your wrath do not chastise me!a
3Your arrows have sunk deep in me;b
your hand has come down upon me.
4There is no wholesomeness in my flesh because of your anger;
there is no health in my bones because of my sin.c
5My iniquities overwhelm me,
a burden too heavy for me.d
6Foul and festering are my sores
because of my folly.
7I am stooped and deeply bowed;e
every day I go about mourning.
8My loins burn with fever;
there is no wholesomeness in my flesh.
9I am numb and utterly crushed;
I wail with anguish of heart.f
10My Lord, my deepest yearning is before you;
my groaning is not hidden from you.
11My heart shudders, my strength forsakes me;
the very light of my eyes has failed.g
12Friends and companions shun my disease;
my neighbors stand far off.
13Those who seek my life lay snares for me;
they seek my misfortune, they speak of ruin;
they plot treachery every day.
14But I am like the deaf, hearing nothing,
like the mute, I do not open my mouth,
15I am even like someone who does not hear,
who has no answer ready.
16LORD, it is for you that I wait;
O Lord, my God, you respond.h
17For I have said that they would gloat over me,
exult over me if I stumble.
18I am very near to falling;
my wounds are with me always.
19I acknowledge my guilt
and grieve over my sin.i
20My enemies live and grow strong,
those who hate me grow numerous fraudulently,
21Repaying me evil for good,
accusing me for pursuing good.j
22Do not forsake me, O LORD;
my God, be not far from me!k
23Come quickly to help me,l
my Lord and my salvation!
* [Psalm 38] In this lament, one of the Penitential Psalms (cf. Ps 6), the psalmist acknowledges the sin that has brought physical and mental sickness and social ostracism. There is no one to turn to for help; only God can undo the past and restore the psalmist.
a. [38:2] Ps 6:2.
b. [38:3] Jb 6:4; Lam 3:12; Ps 31:11; 64:7.
c. [38:4] Is 1:5–6.
d. [38:5] Ps 40:13; Ezr 9:6.
e. [38:7] Ps 35:14.
f. [38:9] Ps 102:4–6.
g. [38:11] Ps 6:8; 31:10.
h. [38:16] Ps 13:4.
i. [38:19] Ps 32:5; 51:5.
j. [38:21] Ps 109:5.
k. [38:22] Ps 22:2, 12, 20; 35:22.
l. [38:23] Ps 40:14.
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Prayer of an Afflicted Sinner
We often use metaphors to describe sin and its effects on us. Metaphors give a shape and sound to sin. They make it visible and tangible and help us recognize and name the insidious impact it has on us. Because the diagnosis had not yet been made, the ancients couldn’t use the most powerful metaphor for sin we have today: cancer. But they surely knew enough of the malignancy we call sin to speak of it as a sickness that robs the body of “health” and “wholesomeness.” They understood that sin gets deep inside us, penetrating even to the bone. They realized that sin spreads, that it’s a silent killer moving often undetected to the farthest reaches of our beings, making itself at home as it consumes its home from the inside out.
Today, we don’t speak so graphically about sin. We tend to psychologize it, even explain it away. We see ourselves more as victims than as sinners; as wounded, misunderstood nice-guys and gals who are doing the best we can. We don’t sin; we just make mistakes.
But that’s not the way the psalmist saw it. He makes no excuses and seeks no place to hide. He knows that sin has taken up residence inside him. The evidence of sin’s effects is all around him: his body is failing; his mind is troubled; his spirit is in turmoil. And in addition to this internal misery, he’s also afflicted from without. “Enemies” set traps and lie in wait, and his friends and neighbors shun him.
All this the psalmist sees as God’s punishment. But the punishment is not arbitrary or random. No, it flows directly from his actions. The situations in which he finds himself were not knotted together by God the way an overlord might fashion a whip to chastise a rebellious servant. The psalmist knows he’s the one who made the whip, tied the knots, and attached the bone chips that will tear his flesh when he is flogged with the consequences of his own free choices.
But let us not forget the psalms are prayers, not the rantings of hopeless sinners. The psalmist has shut his mouth and raised his arms in surrender because he lacks a remedy for all his ills. He has no excuses and can make no self-defense. And so he turns to the only place he can: the merciful God to whom he can say in confidence, “Do not forsake me… /help me,/ my Lord and my salvation!” That’s the genius of the psalms. The goodness of God shines all the brighter when human frailty is not hidden but openly admitted. It’s when we face the darkness of our sin, that the light of God’s merciful love shines brightest.
Questions for Reflection:
Do you agree that sin is often psychologized? What are the negative effects of such an approach?
In what ways is the quality of God’s mercy watered down if we don’t recognize the full extent of our own sinfulness?
The Lord’s Prayer exhorts us to forgive as we are forgiven. Do you find it easier to ask for mercy or to give it?
Are you comfortable with the very graphic, earthy language of the Psalms? Could you write your own psalm expressing your pain and need to the Lord?