Study Guide: Psalm 38

Psalm 38 is a lament Psalm but one that is filled with complaints.  However, it is not only filled with complaints, but it is also a Psalm that poses a couple of significant theological questions.   Further, it provides a great ‘whole personed account’ of suffering.

The Flyover

  1. The Psalmist directly addresses the Lord 7 times in this Psalm.  The Psalm begins and ends with a  short two-verse direct address to the Lord.  In verse 1, the word is ‘Lord.’  In verses 21 & 22 the Psalmist uses the word ‘Lord’ as a stand alone address once, ‘my Lord’ once, ‘my Savior’ once, and ‘my God’ once.    He addresses the “Lord” in verse 7.   There is another address to the ‘Lord’in vs. 15: “Lord, I wait for you; you will answer, Lord my God.”
  2. 17/ 22 verses are complaints
  3. While considered a Psalm of Lament, the Psalm is filled with complaints which touch upon his whole being:
    1. Spiritual Health: His primary relationship, i.e. his relation to God, is strained.   He attributes that straining to two interrelated causes. 

      The Psalmist attributes his suffering to God’s wrath, which he readily admits is a result of his own sin.  “Your arrows have pierced me, and your hand has come down on me.” (2)

      These causes (wrath/sin) are individually identified but also inextricably related by use of a chiastic structure.  The chiastic structure functions as a bridge that links the wrath of God to his suffering due to his sin.  Verses 1-3a speak of the wrath of God and then, beginning with 3b, -4, he speaks of his sin (vs. 3)

      (A) Because of your wrath, (B) there is no health in my body
      (B’) there is no soundness in my bones (A’) because of my sin. 

    1. Moral Anguish:  There are several references to his sin, some of which he links to his suffering (and by implication to the wrath of God)  “there is no soundness in my bones because of my sin. My guilt has overwhelmed me” (vs. 4), “My wounds fester and are loathsome because of my sinful folly (5) “I confess my iniquity; I am troubled by my sin” (vs. 18)
    2. General Health: “there is no health in my body; there is no soundness in my bones” (3), “I am bowed down and brought very low, all day long ago about mourning,” (6) “I am feeble and utterly crushed, I groan in anguish of heart (8), “All my longings lie open before you, Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you.
    3. Physical Health: Many of his complaints are of a physical nature: ‘my wounds fester and are loathsome’ (5), “my back is filled with searing pain,” “my heart pounds, my strength fails me; even the light has gone from my eyes” (10), ,”I am about to fall, my pain is ever with me” (17)
    4. Emotional Health:  Because of his anguish, he expresses himself in emotional terms: “I am…brought very low; all day long I go about mourning.” (6) “I groan in anguish of heart.” (8b)  “All my longings lie open before you, Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you.” (9)
    5. Relational Health:  The Psalmist also notes that his relations are marred in this experience.  He mentions two classes of relational brokenness:
      1. Close Relations:  “My friends and companions avoid me because of my wounds, my neighbors stay far away.” (11)
      2. Adversaries:  “Those who want to kill me set their traps, those who would harm talk of my ruin; all day long they scheme and lie.” (12)  “Many have become my enemies without cause; those who hate me without reason are numerous.  Those who repay my good with evil lodge accusations against me, though I seek only to do what is good.” (19-20)
  1. While the Psalm never directly identifies the sin that has brought on this far-reaching suffering, verses 13-14 offer a possible clue.  What does this clue, if it is a clue,  suggest about the identity of the one in such anguish before God, himself, his close relations, and his enemies?
    1. Psalm 135:15-18
    2. Psalm 115:1-8
    3. Psalm 44:9-20
    4. Jeremiah 10:14


1.  What does the writer assume as to the cause of his suffering?  What do you think about his claim?

2.  What theory of justice does the Psalmist seem to be following?

3.  While the writer never directly identifies the nature of his sin, he does seem to drop a hint or two.  Can you figure out what his sin might be?

4.  The Psalmist gives a whole-personed account of his suffering.  What areas of his life are touched by it?

5.  What role does the matter of justice play in this Psalm?  Who does he specify as treating him unjustly?   What part does stigma play in his suffering?

6.  What role does metaphor play in the description of his suffering? Which metaphors of suffering stand out for you?

7. Who is the “I” in this Psalm?