When we’re surrounded by sickness and evil.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 April 2017

A lot of the “problems” westerners go through are what we call “first-world problems”: If you’re rich and comfortable, little annoyances get exaggerated into big huge crises. Like when your phone battery dies, or the grocery store shrinks your favorite yogurt from 150 grams to 100 and raises the price a nickel, or somebody cut in line at the coffeehouse, or someone misunderstood your latest tweet and got all offended. Now your day is just ruined.

Poor people just laugh at these woes as ridiculous. ’Cause they are.

Parents of teenagers know what I’m talking about. I used to teach grammar, and my kids would write poetry, and sometimes they’d write really awful poems in which they’d bellyache about the “problems” in their largely problem-free lives. Rarely were they legitimate—like not having enough food, like fighting a difficult disease, like child abuse. Just a bunch of first-world problems. This or that kid was mean to ’em. Parents wouldn’t give them the money to waste on toys or clothes or concerts. And who needs good grades when you’re gonna be in the NBA someday? Teenage angst is largely the result of new hormones affecting a young mind that doesn’t yet know how to handle ’em. But kids assume it’s all this other dumb stuff.

Anyway. You want some real suffering, kids, you listen to David ben Jesse. Dude peaked too soon, making his king crazy jealous, forcing him into hiding for years. Once he finally took the throne he had to fight three civil wars—and that’s on top of all Israel’s external foes.

Plus, at the time he wrote this psalm, David apparently hadn’t changed his drawers in way too long, leading to a savage case of crotch rot in verse 7… and that’s the optimistic interpretation. Best I don’t speculate further. But you think your life sucks? David’s really sucked.

Yes, my translation made it rhyme again.

Psalm 38 KWL
0 David’s psalm—something to remember.
1 LORD, don’t correct me angrily, instructing me in heat,
2 because your arrows fall on me. Your strong hand has me beat.
3 My flesh’s instability from your indignant face;
my bones lack peace; my sinning moves your presence out of place.
4 I’ve more misdeeds than height! a heavy, heavy load for me.
5 My wounds all stink and rot thanks to my clear stupidity.
6 I’m twisted, bent way down; I walk in darkness all the day.
7 My burning genitals!—unstable flesh just wastes away.
8 I’m numb. I’m very crushed. My groaning heart through which I’ve cried—
9 My Master, my desires and sighs are obvious. Don’t hide.
10 My heart vibrates. My strength is gone. My eyes’ light: Also gone.
11 My loves and friends both shun my plague. My nearest: Far along.
12 Some want to trap my soul, have me wreak havoc, do what’s wrong.
They meditate on tricks to play upon me all day long.
13 I’m deaf, so I heard nothing. Mouth not open. I stayed mute.
14 Much like a man who doesn’t hear, I’d nothing to refute.
15 I hope in you, my LORD, my Master God. Reply, I plead:
16 I said, “These big shots hope to see me trip on my own feet.”
17 For I expect to fall! It’s like I’m walking on a thorn.
18 My evil I confess; my sinning causes me to mourn.
19 My enemies, alive and strong—and liars—come in droves.
20 Instead of goodness, vice; since I chase goodness, they oppose.
21 Don’t leave me, LORD! I need you here. Please don’t be far away.
22 Save me quick, my Master and my savior—come today!

Did David have an illness?

Some commentators wonder whether David suffered from some particular wasting disease when he wrote this psalm. Ordinarily when we read poetry like this, we take it as poetic hyperbole: The author felt miserable, so he kinda exaggerated all the aches and pains he was going through as part of ordinary life.

But here’s the catch whenever we read and interpret biblical poetry: There are a whole lot of literalists out there. Their mindset, when it comes to interpreting bible, is that because it’s God’s word, and because God always tells the truth, there can’t be anything in the scriptures which resembles what they consider untruth. The key term here is “what they consider”: If they have issues with exaggeration, hyperbole, simile, similitude, or parable, they’re really hesitant to interpret any scripture as having any. Particularly when it comes to End Times visions.

So their fallback position is to assume everything in the bible is literal: Pure, unembellished, straightforward, factual, detailed truth. So when David described himself as suffering from unstable flesh, stinking wounds, numbness, heart problems, being twisted and bent, with his loins on fire, their first assumption: David must’ve had a disease. A really bad one, from the sound of it.

So… did David come down with a case of smallpox? Is there some story, not included in our bibles, where God smote David with leprosy for a time, then miraculously, entirely cured him? ’Cause what David described sounds just awful.

“At first sight, it appears that the patient has almost every disease in the book,” commented Peter Campbell Craigie in his Psalms volume of the Word Biblical Commentary. Craigie 303 No, Craigie wasn’t one of those scholars who took David literally. His attitude was if David was actually suffering the illnesses he described, he’d be in no condition to pray, much less write, this psalm. Craigie 304 Maybe after God cured him—but you notice he never mentioned any such miracle. That’s not the point anyway. David’s illnesses are metaphor, meant to compare his sinful condition, his then-current forms of suffering, to a whole bevy of icky diseases. Ps 38.3 Sin is sickness, y’know. Causes death ’n everything. Ro 6.23

No, it’s not unreasonable to figure David ran into other people who suffered these various maladies. Didn’t necessarily suffer them himself. As a soldier he’d seen injuries, plus what happened to people when injuries weren’t properly treated. He’d hidden in caves, so he knew all about being “bent down” and walking “in darkness all the day.” Ps 38.6 He was an emotional guy, so he knew about depression—numbness, feeling crushed, groaning, sighing, and so forth. Ps 38.8-9 He watched fearful people avoid lepers and other forms of ritual uncleanliness. Ps 38.11 These weren’t unfamiliar ideas. It’s just unlikely they were all piled at once upon one man.

(Still fun to make “should’ve-changed-your-undies” jokes about it, though.)

But back to the sin idea. Sin twists us every which way, and in many similar ways to what David described. Makes us offensive, drives people away, and yet we’re often oblivious as to why, and think it’s other people’s fault for being offended. Makes us unstable. Drains our strength and ability. Sucks the joy out of our lives—the meaning behind “my eyes’ light.” Ps 38.10 (There are commentators who claim that’s a euphemism for sexual ability, but that’s not at all the way the other authors of scripture used the term.) Sin can smite us like disease.

Not to get sidetracked, but a lot of the ancients believed disease was God’s punishment for sin. Jn 9.2 It’s not, Jn 9.3 but there are still way too many people who firmly believe so.

Surrounded by backstabbing bullies.

Okay. If the disease talk is all hyperbole, what about the second part of the psalm, where David discussed all the evildoers who were just waiting for him to trip up? More hyperbole? To a point, yes. Because not everybody who surrounded David was itching to watch him fail.

Remember, David had some good people around him at all times. Before Saul chased him off, there was Jonathan. Afterward, when he went into hiding, everybody who was in any kind of trouble flocked to him, 1Sa 22.2 and yeah, some of them were likely in trouble because they were trouble. But among them were also a lot of good guys, people who loved David so much they’d even fulfill his whims at great risk to their own lives. 2S 23.13-17 Guys who devoutly followed the LORD, same as David. (Some, like Uriah, followed the LORD way better than David.) Once David became king, of course he had to deal with difficult politicians, who might find it better for them if David fumbled, who might even back David’s opponents and enemies for a time. But David still always had his loyal friends around him, working for him.

Regardless, no doubt David felt encircled by hate and evil sometimes. Lots of us do. When people are awful to us, and our friends’ advice and comfort just doesn’t feel like enough… basically it feels like we’re covered in wounds and sores, and no medication seems to work. You know, just like all David’s disease talk in the first part of this psalm.

And that’s when we cry out to God. That’s why this is a psalm we need to remember. Feeling low? Pray this.

Unlike certain other psalms, David didn’t declare God does rescue him, or has rescued him in the past and therefore is likely to do it again. And no, that doesn’t automatically mean David wrote this as a young man, before he’d racked up enough testimonies so he could point to God’s past victories in his life. Sometimes that’s simply not the message an author is going for in this psalm. But he did in other psalms. He wrote a bunch, y’know.

David’s confidence in God is expressed by the fact he believed God was still interacting with him, Ps 38.1 still listening, still able to rescue him. And it’s bluntly stated too: “I hope in you, my LORD, my Master God.” Ps 38.15 David may not always have felt he could detect God; Ps 38.9 he may not always have felt God’s nearness nor presence. Ps 38.21 But if he didn’t believe God listened, he wouldn’t have bothered to write God a psalm.

And if we don’t believe God listens, we won’t bother to pray God a psalm. Or do any kind of praying. Okay, maybe to hypocritically show off, but that’s about it. David’s motive, in comparison, was to express his frustration—but also his hope in God his savior. We gotta do likewise.