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What Luther Says

Psalm 38: 'Do Not Forsake Me, O Lord' ... 'O Lord, My Salvation!'

Psalm 38 is rightfully called "A Prayer In Time of Chastening (Do Not Forsake Me, O Lord)" and as someone who is simultaneously a saint and a sinner (simul justus et peccator) I want to be sure to prayerfully consider it myself.

I know fully well that the Lord will chasten me for my sins (Deuteronomy 8:5; Proverbs 3:12; Job 33:19; Hebrews 12:5-10; 1 Corinthians 11:32) even though I also know that "there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1) just as we've discovered together before.

Psalm 38 is comforting in the sense that it portrays a God who loves us so much that He is willing to chastise us as needed (Proverbs 3:11-12; Hebrews 12:6-11).

Psalm 38 (ESV)

O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath! 2 For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me.

3 There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. 4 For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.

5 My wounds stink and fester because of my foolishness, 6 I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning. 7 For my sides are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. 8 I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart.

O Lord, all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you. 10 My heart throbs; my strength fails me, and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me. 11 My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my nearest kin stand far off.

12 Those who seek my life lay their snares; those who seek my hurt speak of ruin and meditate treachery all day long.

13 But I am like a deaf man; I do not hear, like a mute man who does not open his mouth. 14 I have become like a man who does not hear, and in whose mouth are no rebukes.

15 But for you, O Lord, do I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer. 16 For I said, “Only let them not rejoice over me, who boast against me when my foot slips!”

17 For I am ready to fall, and my pain is ever before me. 18 I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin. 19 But my foes are vigorous, they are mighty, and many are those who hate me wrongfully. 20 Those who render me evil for good accuse me because I follow after good.

21 Do not forsake me, O Lord! O my God, be not far from me! 22 Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation!

Psalm 38 is 1 of 7 "Penitential Psalms" and Jewish tradition has the second half of the Psalm as a liturgical prayer that accompanied the offering of Azkarah (memorial; Leviticus 24:7; Psalm 70:1). In short, David knows he has sinned and attributes his suffering to God's wrath.

We instantly see God's displeasure at sin (Psalm:1-11) and then the psalmist's sufferings and prayers (Psalm 38:12-22). If we were to categorize things even further, we find the Lord's discipline (verses 1-2), heavy iniquities (verses 3-4), my sinful condition (verses 5-8), alone in my suffering (verses 9-11), my foes (verse 12), deaf and mute (verses 13-14), waiting for the Lord (verses 15-16), confession (verses 17-20), and a plea for help (verses 21-22).

The title of this Psalm is literally "To Cause To Remember" (see Psalm 70). The psalmist either (1) reminds God of his plight so that He might act, or (2) reminds himself and the community of his historic predicament so that both he and they would fervently pray in similar contexts of acute suffering.

David felt as if he had been forgotten of his God, and, therefore, he recounted his sorrows and cried mightily for help under them. Interestingly enough, a similar title is given to Psalm 70 ("O Lord, Do Not Delay"), where in like manner the psalmist pours out his complaint before the Lord.

David prays to be delivered from his deserved punishment from God (Psalm 38:1). He prays for God's mercy to replace His heavy hand of wrath.

In fact, prayer surrounds a core of intense lament here (Psalm 38:2-20). In many ways David's laments parallel those of Job. David's perspective is that his painful plight is due, at least in part if not wholly, to his personal sins. 

Personally, I like how verse 2 has "your arrows" because the language reminds us of the Divine Warrior motif; on God as Archer (Deuteronomy 32:23; Job 6:4; Job 16:13; Psalm 7:12; Lamentations 3:12-13; Ezekiel 5:16).

May we all relate to David's acknowledgement of "my foolishness," or his culpable ethical folly (Psalm 38:5; Psalm 69:5). David views this as the reason for the divine chastisements of Psalm 38:3.

David's argument as to why God should hear his plea is found in Psalm 38:2-8. Here we find a description of the totality of his affliction. All is not right between David and the Lord and the illness is punishment for sin as we see that God may chastise us physically (Psalm 38:3).

Psychological and physical effects of David's sin are described for us in Psalm 38:5-8. While Psalm 38:4 may not be a confession, it is most certainly a sober acknowledgement. Sin is (1) a tyrant that constantly draws the sinner toward evil, while (2) simultaneously pushing downward, more and more increasing the pressure of sin, which (3) can result in bodily penalties and evils that go beyond our capacity to cope or turn back (Jeremiah 10:19).

Psalm 38:5 demonstrates how sin corrupts the whole body, doesn't it?

"The sores are pride and the inborn sickness and remains of original sin. For that reason man is now swollen by nature and automatically stinks, that is, he creates scandal and is dissolved with festering..."

*- Luther's Works (10:178)

David is unable to raise himself to an upright position and suffers such pain that he mourns all his waking hours (Psalm 38:6). The word "sides" in Psalm 38:7 is variously translated as back, loins, or side and we see that no small affliction affects his tender flesh. Such a feeling of desolation attacks his whole being (Psalm 38:8).

And yet, all hope is not lost! The Lord hears his groaning and does not abhor or despise David's words ("sighing is not hidden"; Psalm 38:9). The penitent confesses his sins and asks for Absolution.

We also learn that those near and dear to him had abandoned him to his adversity, adding insult to injury (Psalm 38:11-14). Here is the betrayal of his false friends described for us. The Psalmist's friends move before him to contemplate their decision. Then they place themselves at a distance. Christ's friends did the same thing, didn't they?

"To those who wished to be near [Christ's] exaltation, yet thought not of His humility, He answered and said to them, 'Can you drink of the cup that I shall drink of?' ... They 'drew nigh' in the body, but 'stood afar off' in their heart."

*- Augustine
A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series I (8:107-8)

Psalm 38:12 depicts a courtroom scene, where false witnesses condemn an innocent victim. We then read of David's non-response to his persecutors in Psalm 38:13-14.

Like a deaf mute, David relies on God to answer his accusers (Psalm 38:15; 1 Samuel 25:32-39). Hearing and answering false charges is futile when faced with prearranged accusation and damning false witness (Matthew 26:57-68).

However, the ultimate example of non-response to tauntings and torturings may be seen in the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53:7 (1 Peter 2:23). Although he had confessed personal sins, he remained legally innocent in comparison with his persecutors (Psalm 38:19-20).

By the time we reach Psalm 38:17, death seems imminent. David confesses his sin (Psalm 38:18), but is also dismayed that people he had not wronged were attacking him. Despite their blatant wickedness, his foes seem to go unpunished too.

"[My enemies] are well off: they rejoice in worldly prosperity; while I am suffering, and 'roaring with the groaning of my heart' ... This is their life; this life they praise; this they set their hearts upon: this they hold fast to their own ruin."

*- Augustine
A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series I (8:110)

But this is not about them. It's about David and, by extension, about us and our response to sin before a holy and righteous God.

By the end of the Psalm we see David's greatest fear (Psalm 38:21) contrasted with his greatest hope (Psalm 38:22). "O Lord, my salvation!" is such a beautiful pronouncement that deliverance comes only through Almighty God.

To summarize, I like how Rev. Donavon Riley put it.

The 38th Psalm is a psalm of prayer in which the psalmist laments over sins, on account of which his conscience despairs and is greatly afflicted and can see nothing but God’s arrows, that is, God’s anger, threats, death and hell. These sorrows consume marrow and bone, strength and fluids. They disfigure the appearance and the complexion and alter one’s total understanding and demeanor. To truly feel one’s sins and despair over a guilty conscience is the torture above all torture. Moreover, outward persecutors add to this “comfort,” pursuing the righteous in their conscience and boasting that God is with them and against the righteous. And because God here holds back His comfort, this terror in the heart follows, that God is angry with them on account of their sins.

But for all that, the psalmist teaches us to hold fast and not despair. He teaches us to arm ourselves with prayer against their boasts, to lay claim to God’s promise and take hold of it to the proper end, namely, that we be godly and righteous before God. Then the comfort of faith will flow again. Likewise, we, too, should pray and not despair in any anxiety, even though we are sinners and feel sharply the burden and assault of our sins.

The battle with sin that we fight each day seems to be a hopeless situation. Knowing what it does in our lives, and recognizing that it will send us to an eternity of torment, there is nothing we can do to be delivered from it. The psalmist shows us where there is deliverance. He calls to the LORD, the God of His salvation. In our battle with sin, like the psalmist, we have the LORD Jesus Christ, who defeated sin and earned our victory over it. Calling to Him each day we have our deliverance through our LORD Jesus Christ.


When I think about Psalm 38, I think about how the Lord chastises His children in order to turn them from temptation and sin and to keep them safe and faithful to Him.

I think about how sin that is not confessed becomes a burden on our bodies and souls and causes great despair. The Law, as a guide, accuses us and shows us our sin (Romans 3:20; Romans 7:7).

Psalm 38 is another place where we see that God's divine will is ultimately for our good as believers.

In a Lutheran layman's terms, "O Lord, my salvation!" (Psalm 38:22) is the beautiful confession that through the healing balm of the Lord's mercy, there is deliverance and Absolution.

O Lord God Almighty, we are in Your hands. You pronounce us sinners, and we accept the truth of Your Word. May we be quick to confess our sin. Thank You for leading us to this confession through Your Law and promises. Keep us alive, O blessed and faithful Redeemer, for in You alone do we trust. Amen.

NOTE: As you know, I am a newly converted Confessional Lutheran who recently escaped American Evangelicalism. That being said, please contact me ASAP if you believe that any of my "old beliefs" seem to have crept their way into any of the material you see published here, and especially if any of the content is not consistent with our Confessions and Lutheran doctrine (in other words, if it's not consistent with God's Word, which our Confessions merely summarize and point us back to) so that I can correct those errors immediately and not lead any of His little ones astray (James 3:1). Finally, please be aware that you might also discover that some of the earlier pieces I wrote on this blog back in 2013 definitely fall into that category since I was a "Lutheran-In-Name-Only" at the time and was completely oblivious to the fact that a "Book of Concord" containing our Confessions even existed. In addition, there are some entries that are a little "out there" so-to-speak since the subject matter was also heavy influenced by common Evangelical concerns/criticisms that aren't that big a deal for us Lutherans. I know that now and I'm still learning. Anyway, I decided to leave those published posts up on this website and in cyberspace only because we now have this disclaimer and only to demonstrate the continuing work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in my life (Hebrews 12:2; Philippians 1:6). Finally, please know that any time we engage in commenting on and/or interpreting a specific portion of the holy Scriptures, it will always follow the verse-by-verse notes from my Lutheran Study Bible unless otherwise noted. Thank you for stopping by and thank you in advance for your time, help, and understanding. Grace and peace to you and yours!


About JKR

Christian. Husband. Father. Friend.

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Thank you for visiting A Lutheran Layman! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question since we do not exercise censorship. We've seen a similar policy with other blogs and it's worth repeating: Please act as if you're a guest in my home, and we'll get along just fine. I think anyone would agree that the kind of back-and-forth that is characteristic of blogs/chat forums and social media is becoming tiresome for all of us. Still, we should confess, edify, and love (and contend and defend when needed). Bottom line? Search the Scriptures! Apply Acts 17:11 to anything and everything you find here and, if you do happen to disagree with something you find here (which is certainly ok), or think I'm "irresponsible" and "wrong" for writing it, then please refute my position by supporting yours with Scripture and/or the Confessions. I don't think that's an unreasonable request, especially for those who identify themselves as "Christians" here, right? Besides, Proverbs 27:17 tells us "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another" and 2 Timothy 3:16 says, "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." If you have an opinion that's great, I welcome it, but try to support it using God's Word. I mean, if the goal here is to help us all arrive at the truth of God's Word (myself included), then it should be easy to follow through on this one simple request (I'm talking to all you "Anonymous" visitors out there). Grace and peace to you and yours!

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