The previous two psalms — Psalm 36 and Psalm 37 — featured the wicked, the ungodly, those who do not know or love the Lord, but who spend their days doing evil. And so, do you remember what we read in Psalm 36 about the wicked man? He flattered himself too much to detect or hate his own sin; and his words are wicked and deceitful; and he has ceased to be wise or to do good; and all through the day he does what is evil and at night, on his bed, he plots and plans more wicked things to do. And he doesn’t fear the Lord, even though he should fear the Lord and his judgment and turn from his sin. That was Psalm 36.
And Psalm 37 also featured the wicked, because we read how the wicked plot evil against the righteous and, like a wild animal, they gnash their teeth at the Lord’s people. The wicked are ready to attack the righteous and they lie in wait for them. In the end, of course, the wicked will be destroyed. They will not last. But still, in this life, they may prosper and do well; and in this life, they are against the Lord and his people.
So, Psalms 36 and 37 featured the wicked. Today’s psalm — Psalm 38 — features a righteous man. In fact, it’s the prayer of a righteous man, a man who knows and loves the Lord his God. However, this righteous man has sinned against the Lord. You see, it’s not only the wicked who sin, but the righteous sin as well, because though the Lord’s people love the Lord and want to do his will, nevertheless in this life we remain sinners and we sin against the Lord continually.
And from what the psalmist says, it’s clear that the Lord is now rebuking and disciplining the psalmist for what he has done wrong. And it’s clear that the Lord is rebuking and disciplining the psalmist by causing him to suffer illness. Look, for instance, at verse 3, where the psalmist says:
Because of your wrath there is no health in my body.
And not only is the psalmist suffering from this illness, due to him for his sin, but his friends and companions have distanced themselves from him. And to make matters even worse, the psalmist is having to deal with enemies who seek his life. So, he’s suffering from an illness because of his sin. And his friends have deserted him. And his enemies are attacking him. He’s in trouble and he’s in distress. And so, this psalm is another lamentation: the psalmist is crying to the Lord for help because of the trouble he’s in. But he’s well aware that one of the reasons he’s in trouble is because he has sinned against the Lord and the Lord is now disciplining him.
Now, I think we all know that we must never jump to conclusions and say that every illness is caused by personal sin. The book of Job makes that clear, because whereas Job’s friends assumed that God must be punishing Job for some unconfessed sin, the reader knows that Job was a righteous man who hadn’t done anything to deserve his suffering. In fact, the reason he was suffering was because he was a righteous man and the Devil wanted to test his faithfulness. So, the book of Job makes clear that not every illness is caused by personal sin. And the Lord Jesus makes that clear as well in John chapter 9 and the story of the man who was born blind. His disciples wondered who had sinned that this man had been born blind? Was his blindness a result of his own sin or the sins of his parents? And the Lord Jesus was very clear: ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned.’ His blindness was not the result of personal sin.
So, I think we’re all clear that not every illness is caused by personal sin. Of course, if it were not for Adam’s sin in the beginning, there would be no sickness in the world at all. When God made the world, it was all very good. But then Adam and Eve sinned against the Lord. And afterwards, the Lord pronounced a curse on the world and made clear that our life in his world will be marked by sorrow and suffering and it will end in death. So, if it were not for Adam’s sin in the beginning, there would be no sickness at all.
However, the Bible also makes clear that not every illness is caused by personal sin. So, when someone falls ill, we cannot say they must have done something wrong and God is obviously punishing the sick person.
However, the Bible does teach that sometimes, sometimes, illness is caused by personal sin. When believers sin, without confessing it, but continuing in it, the Lord may very well afflict his people with illness. We learn this from 1 Corinthians 11 where Paul the Apostle explained that the reason some of the Corinthian believers were sick and some had even died was because of the way they were dishonouring the Lord’s Table by their sinful behaviour. And the Lord Jesus, after healing the lame man at the pool in Jerusalem, said to him: ‘Stop sinning, or something worse may happen to you.’ That implies that the man’s illness was caused by sin; and the Lord warned him that he will be disciplined again if he continues in his sin. And James, in his New Testament letter, links sickness and sin, because he refers to the believer who is seriously sick and who calls for the elders to pray over him for healing. And James adds: ‘If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.’ The word ‘if’ is significant, because by using the word ‘if’ James is letting us know that illness may be the result of personal sin, but it may not be. But since it may be, since illness may be the result of personal sin, all of us, when we’re seriously ill, should examine our hearts and our lives to see if there is any sin in us which we need to confess and turn from.
Listen to what our church’s Confession of Faith says about this. I’m quoting from chapter 17 and paragraph 3:
God’s people many fall into serious sins and continue in them for a time. The causes are the temptations of Satan and of the world, the corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means provided for their preservation. In this way God’s people incur his displeasure and grieve his Holy Spirit. They lose some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened and their consciences wounded, [they] hurt and offend others, and bring temporal judgments on themselves.
So, when believers fall into serious sins and continue in them, without confessing them, we may bring temporal judgments on ourselves. Not eternal judgment, because the Lord Jesus has delivered his people who trust in him from eternal punishment. However, we may bring temporal judgments on ourselves. Temporal judgments are for the time being only which God uses in order to discipline his people for their good. And one of the temporal judgments we can bring on ourselves for continuing in serious sin is illness.
And that’s what’s happening in this psalm. The psalmist is a believer, one of God’s people. But by sinning against the Lord his God, he’s brought temporal judgments on himself. And in the psalm, he’s turning to the Lord in prayer and he asks the Lord to save him. So, having said that by way of introduction, let’s turn to the psalm.
Verses 1 to 4
And in verses 1 to 4, he turns to the Lord in prayer and he asks the Lord not to rebuke him in his anger or to discipline him in his wrath. He’s asking for relief from his troubles, because it’s as if the Lord’s arrows have pierced him and it’s as if the Lord’s hand has come down on him. He’s depicting the Lord as an enemy soldier, who is attacking him with arrows and fists. And he complains that there’s no health in his body and his bones have no soundness in them. When he refers to his bones, he’s referring to his whole being. So, it seems to him that no part of his body is well and healthy, but this sickness is all through his body.
And look at verse 3, because he ascribes his illness to the wrath of God and to his own sin. So, sickness is not always the result of personal sin, but it’s clear to the psalmist that in his case his sorrow and suffering and sickness is the result of his own personal sin. ‘My guilt has overwhelmed me’, he says in verse 4. When he refers to his guilt, he perhaps not only means his guilt, but also the suffering which he was experiencing as a result of his guilt. So, the suffering because of his guilt is overwhelming. It’s like a flood, which threatened to wash him away. It’s like a burden which is too much to bear, but which is pressing down on him.
Verses 5 to 10
And in verses 5 to 10, he describes his sorrow and suffering in more detail. He refers in verse 5 to his wounds which are festering and loathsome. The ESV translation says his wounds stink. And while we do not know what kind of wounds these were, he tells us in the same verse that they have been caused by his sinful folly. So, he knows he has done wrong and the Lord is disciplining him. He is bowed down because of his illness and all day long he goes about mourning. He’s bent over because of pain presumably; and the idea of mourning conveys his sorrow and grief over his illness. His back is filled with searing pain; and again he says there is no health, no soundness, in his body. He feels feeble and crushed and he groans in anguish of heart. According to verse 10, his heart pounds. One of the commentators describes this as palpitations: so his heart is beating rapidly because of his distress or illness. And his strength has left him and even the light has gone from his eyes. So, instead of being bright and alert, his eyes have become dark.
So, he’s describing his sorrow and suffering and the anguish he’s feeling. And he’s describing it to the Lord, because this is part of his prayer. This is part of his lament. And according to verse 9, he knows that his longing for relief lies open to the Lord and his sighing is not hidden from him. The Lord knows what he’s going through and how he is suffering. And so, he laments before the Lord and brings his prayer to God.
Verses 11 and 12
I said at the beginning that to make matters worse, not only was he suffering because of his illness, but he’s been abandoned by his friends. And so, he tells us in verse 11 that his friends and companions avoid him because of his wounds and his neighbours stay far away. Perhaps they’re appalled because of what has happened to him and they cannot bear to look at his stinking and festering wounds. And that’s not all, because not only have his friends abandoned him, but there are enemies who seek his life. Instead of showing him mercy, they are taking advantage of his illness to attack him when he is too weak to defend himself. His enemies talk about and plan his ruin and all day long they plot how they can deceive him.
So, the psalmist is suffering illness from the Lord because of his sin. And his friends have turned away from him and his enemies have turned to attack him.
Verses 13 to 22
But look now at verses 13 and 14 where he tells us he’s like a deaf man who cannot hear and he’s like a mute who cannot speak. Instead of hearing and speaking, he’s waiting for the Lord to answer him. And I think what he means is that he’s not defending himself against his enemies, but he’s entrusting himself into the hands of the Lord his God. Instead of accusing his enemies of wrongdoing, he’s trusting in the Lord to intervene on his behalf. So, despite his sin, he still trusts in the Lord to help him and to protect him from his enemies. ‘Don’t let them gloat over me’, he prays in verse 16. ‘Don’t let them exalt themselves over me.’ He’s asking the Lord to deliver him and to vindicate him.
According to verse 19, his enemies are vigorous. They are strong. And there are many of them. But their hatred towards him is without reason. Isn’t that interesting? Though the psalmist has sinned and done wrong in the sight of the Lord, so that the Lord is now disciplining him for what he has done, nevertheless he hasn’t done anything to his enemies. According to verse 20, he has only done good to them, but they have repaid his goodness with evil. He has tried to pursue what is good, but they have slandered him. So, his enemies are against him. And he’s asking the Lord to vindicate him.
But look what else he does. In verse 18 he confesses his iniquity to the Lord. And in verses 21 and 22, he asks the Lord not to forsake him or to remain far off from him, but to come quickly to help him and to save him. He wants the Lord to save him from the sickness he’s suffering because of his sin. And he wants the Lord to save him from his enemies who hate him without reason.
While we cannot say every illness is caused by our own personal sin, nevertheless this psalm teaches us that illness may be caused by our own personal sin. And since, in this case, the psalmist’s illness was caused by his own sin, he does what we must do whenever we sin against the Lord: he confessed his sin before the Lord.
And that’s what you must do whenever you sin against the Lord. If you trust the Lord and consider yourself one of his people, then you love the Lord and want to do his will. However you’re still a sinner and you therefore sin against him continually in this life. But when you sin, instead of ignoring your sin and treating it as unimportant as the wicked do, you must go to your Heavenly Father in prayer and confess your sin and ask for his forgiveness. If you do not confess your sin, and if you continue in it, you may very well bring temporal judgments on yourself which the Lord will use to discipline you.
And so, in order to avoid his discipline and in order to avoid temporal punishments, you must confess your sin to him and turn from it. And the good news of the gospel is that God is gracious and merciful and he will not treat you as your sins deserve and he will not repay you according to your iniquities, but he’s willing to pardon your sins and to forgive you for what you have done wrong. He’s able to forgive you and to remove your sins from you as far as the east is from the west for the sake of Christ the Saviour, who is the only mediator between God and sinners and the one who bore the punishment you deserve when he died on the cross in order to reconcile you to God and to make a lasting peace for you with God.
God is able to forgive you for the sake of Christ the Saviour. And, in fact, what David describes for us in this psalm foretells the suffering of the Saviour who took your place. Now, unlike the psalmist, the Lord Jesus never did anything wrong. He never once sinned against his Heavenly Father, but he obeyed his Father in all things. However, the Lord Jesus became one of us so that he could suffer the anger and wrath of God on our behalf. On the cross, the wrath of God fell on him; and in body and in soul he suffered the judgment of God when he bore the punishment we deserve in order to satisfy the justice of God in our place.
Like the psalmist, he was pierced, but he was not pierced for his own sins, but for yours. Like the psalmist, he was crushed, but he was not crushed for his own iniquities, but for yours. Like the psalmist, he was wounded, but he was not wounded for his own transgressions, but for yours. Like the psalmist, the Lord’s friends and companions abandoned him, because didn’t his disciples flee whenever he was arrested? And like the psalmist, the Lord was surrounded by enemies who hated him without cause, because he only ever did good to them. But they hated him and they accused him. And like the psalmist, he did not open his mouth to complain or to accuse his enemies, but he silently bore the wrath of God for your sake so that by believing in him you may have forgiveness and peace with God. And like the psalmist, the Lord Jesus was vindicated, whenever his Father raised him from the grave and exalted him to the highest place, far above all his enemies and every power that stood against him.
And if you trust in the Lord Jesus as the only Saviour of the world, who died but who was raised, then you can rejoice, because God will pardon you for all your sins for the sake of Christ who suffered and died for you. As soon as you become aware of your sin, and confess it, he will pardon you. And he will not hold your sins against you and he will not turn his back on you in his life. Even if your friends abandon you and even if your enemies attack you, God the Father will be with you to help you and to protect you and to keep you. He will not forsake you or stand far off from you, but he will come quickly to help you and to deliver you from your troubles. Though the Devil may accuse you and remind you of your sins, and though the people around you may remind you of your shortcomings and failings, and throw them in your face, the Lord your God promises to remember them no more. He will forgive you, if you confess your sins to him.
When I kept silent, David wrote in another psalm, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. Then I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’; and you forgave the guilt of my sin. That’s all you have to do: confess your sins and he will forgive you for the sake of Christ; and he’ll fill you with the joy of sins forgiven. And even if there is some sin in your life which you have continued in for a long time, without confessing it and without turning from it, and because you’ve continued in it, you’ve brought temporal judgments on yourself and the Lord has been disciplining you, well, if you even now confess it, he will not hold it against you. He will not hold it against you, because he’s been waiting for the time when he can be gracious to you and when he can restore your joy once more.
And then, when that day comes and you are made to stand in the presence of the Lord to give an account of your life, you need not fear the day of judgment, because Christ the Saviour has paid for your sins in full. He bore the wrath of God in your place. And so, on the day of judgment, the Lord your God will clear you of all charges and he will bring you into his presence to enjoy everlasting life in the new heavens and earth. And there will be no more sin in his presence. And there will be no more sickness. And there will be nothing to cause you pain or anguish of heart and there will be nothing to make you groan. You will never be abandoned by your friends and there will be no enemies to hurt you. The former things — all the sin of this life and all the sorrow and trouble and misery of this life — will have passed away. And there will be nothing but perfect peace and rest forever. That’s what God has in store for you and for all who trust in his Son. In this world, while we go on sinning because we’re sinners, there may be illness and there may be tears and there may be trouble. But our Heavenly Father is able to use these things for our good, to show us our sins so that we can confess them and turn from them and discover all over again his grace and his mercy and his infinite patience. He’s able to use all these things for our good as he leads us along the narrow way that leads eventually to everlasting life in his presence.