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Penitential Psalms: Psalm 38–Christ’s Passion Speaks Loudly

 

 

Link to Psalm 38(37) English Septuagint Translation

Psalm 38 screams at the reader and begs her to ask, “Why is such a self-declared righteous man being punished so extremely by God? What were his self-declared sins against God, that he receives such wrath?” And finally, “Doesn’t it seem odd that someone who knows he is being oppressed by God for his sins would so mightily press upon God in prayerful request for salvation from his enemies?”

Psalm 38 is nowhere quoted in the New Testament, yet it bears a striking resemblance to Psalm 22, which is one of the Old Testament passages most often quoted in the New (1). The Gospel quotations of Psalm 22 make explicit reference to Christ in his Passion, while the author of Hebrews sees Christ as speaker within the context of Psalm 22:22. If readers perceive Christ as speaker in Psalm 22, wouldn’t the same principles of interpretation allow them to perceive Christ as speaker in Psalm 38? The answer is yes.

Augustine in the 4th century perceived Christ as the speaker of Psalm 22 in its entirety from first to last (3). Making an appeal to consistency, he argues that if Psalm 38:3 is not spoken by Christ, then neither is Psalm 22:1, whose words in verse 1a Christ spoke from the cross, “O God, my God, attend to me: why hast thou forsaken me?” Augustine equates, “The words of mine offences are far from my health,” (Psalm 22:1b, Septuagint) with, “There is no peace to my bones because of my sins,” (Psalm 38:3b, Septuagint). Augustine answers questions 1 and 2 above by his claim that as Christ is the head of the body, when he speaks, he speaks for both himself as head and for the body. The sins he confesses are the sins of the body–i.e., the sins of humankind. God metes out on the cross the just consequences of sin that fell upon Adam when he first sinned in the garden. There God said to Adam, “You shall surely die,” (Genesis 2:16-17).

While many other commentators have many other opinions of who is speaking in Psalm 38, I will jump forward to John Barclay (1795-1826, Scotland), with whom I share a kindred spirit. He writes,

This Psalm also is all spoken in one person, and breathes forth the heaviest pressure and anguish of spirit, supported by the most consummate meekness, patience, and resignation to the will of God: the language is borrowed from the most pungent feelings of one suffering all manner of distress in body, min, character, and estate. That Messiah is the person, is demonstrable from the very face of the whole Psalm, compared with all its parallels cited on the margin with others [Note: The ESV version has many links to Psalm 38 throughout the Old and New Testaments], and read in the light of the four Evangelists: so that nothing more particular needs be said in this place; only the reader may especially consult Psalms vi. xl. lxix. and lxxxviii. with their illustrations (Barclay, pages 186-187).

Robert Hawker (1753-1827) writes upon Psalm 38:1,

And how truly interesting is it to behold Christ with an eye of faith thus praying; and to hear him with the ear of faith thus pleading; when enduring that curse which the law denounced against the sinner, and thus redeeming us from the curse by becoming both sin and a curse for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. Gal. iii. 13.  2 Cor. v. 21. (Hawker, page 284)

And again, concerning verses 2-10:

Let any man read these verses, and then turn to the gospel, and his mind must be led out to remark the striking similarity between what is here said by the spirit of prophecy, and the history of the sorrows and sufferings of Jesus. Reader, turn to some few passages, and then pause over both, in comparing spiritual things with spiritual, and say whether David spake these things of himself, or of some other man? Luke, xxii. 41-44; Mark, xiv. 32-34: (Ibid.)

Concerning verses 11-14:

Who that ever read the prophet’s account of Him, that as a sheep before her shearers was dumb, so he opened not his mouth; or who that ever read the relation of Jesus standing before Pilate, when, amidst all the blasphemy poured upon him, he remained silent, until the unjust judge himself marveled; or who that ever attended to what the apostle hath said of Jesus, that when he was reviled, he reviled not again; who, I say, that ever attended to these things, could hesitate for a moment to behold the Lord Christ in this prophetic description of him? Surely no one that knows any thing of David’s history, will give him credit for this dumbness and insensibility to the reproaches of his enemies. (Ibid.)

For those who may feel uncomfortable attributing the confession of sin to the lips of Christ, Hawker writes this of verse 18:

Let not these words stagger the faith of the believer in considering them as spoken by Christ. As the sinner’s Surety, he was truly made sin for his people, so the scripture declares, yea, also a curse for them. Hence, in the eye of the law, Christ and his seed are one. Gal. iii. 13.  2 Cor. v. 21. (Ibid.)

Samuel Horsley (1733-1806) is bold in proclaiming,

Many parts of the psalm, however, have so striking a reference to the case of our Lord in the days of his flesh, that I cannot but think the whole belongs to him, and that he (the humanity of Christ) is the sick persecuted suppliant. If the sickness may typify generally his humiliation, as I think it may, and the heat which rages in the sick man’s loins, the fiery trial of wrath which he endured in the garden of Gethsemane, when his distress, though principally mental, discovered itself in dreadful symptoms in his body; if this interpretation of the sickness be admitted, there is not a sentence nor a word in the whole of this extraordinary composition which is not applicable to our Lord as man, with more strictness and propriety than to any other person. (Bishop Horsley, page 95, published posthumously in 1815 by the author’s son.)

Again, Andrew A. Bonar (1810-1892) addresses the incongruity of confessed sin by one whom Scripture declares righteous, when he writes:

The difficulty in the way of supposing it used by the Lord Jesus, as descriptive of his feelings and state, when he took on our guilt by imputation, is not at all greater than in some passages of Psalms xl. and lxix., which almost no one doubts to be his utterances. (Bonar, 129)

Finally, the editors of The Orthodox Study Bible (2008) write that Psalm 38 (37 LXX),

“reveals the great love of Christ for mankind in His sufferings and death on the cross, especially v. 18: For I am ready for wounds, and my pain is continually with me. And although He was ‘separate from sinners’ (Heb 7:26) and ‘knew no sin’ (2Co 5:21), yet out of His great compassion for sinners, He prays this prayer in a relative sense as though He were one of them. Thus, He takes the place of sinners as one of them, and intercedes to the Father for their salvation in the midst of His sufferings and death on the cross.”

The fact that I’ve included so few current references to the voice of Christ praying Psalm 38 is a sad reflection on the distance today’s evangelical churches and biblical academicians generally have moved away from the centrality of hearing Christ pray the Psalter. The third question stated in the opening paragraph above is, “Doesn’t it seem odd that someone who knows he is being oppressed by God for his sins wo0uld so mightily press upon God in prayerful request for salvation rom his enemies?” The answer is simple once we identify the speaker as Christ who prays this prayer. We are not at all surprised to hear the substitutionary Lamb of God asking his Father that his enemies not triumph over him.

What about the Penitential Nature of Psalm 38?

Psalm 38 is third in the series of seven traditional penitential psalms (4). The first verses of Psalms 38 and 6 are identical in the Septuagint (Greek). Even though the speaker in Psalm 38 attributes his suffering to his sin, he does not repent in the strict form of asking for forgiveness (5). Bruce Waltke, James Houston, and Erika Moore write:

Psalm 38 is truly a great piece of literature. The psalmist enables his reader to feel his eventual numbness from his unremitting pain by his unrelenting verbal depictions of them. No psalm depicts sickness in such an extended, numbing way. As the psalmist can endure no further suffering, neither can his audience endure further reading about them. (Waltke, page 134)

Psalm 38 is complex, however, because in the center of this prayer to God the psalmist shifts his focus from describing his pain to describing his enemies. The psalmist’s concern over his enemies continues nearly to the end of the poem. While Craig C. Broyles writes that the actions of his enemies, like those of his friends, are a reaction to his sickness (Broyles, 186), verse 20 (LXE) states otherwise, “They that reward evil for good slandered me; because I followed righteousness.” As indicated in the opening paragraph above, the self-proclaimed righteousness and goodness of the psalmist adds further complexity to this “penitential” psalm. 

For those who explore the Septuagint, verse 17(18 LXX) provides an eye-catching difference from the Masoretic text within the context of the New Testament narrative:

Mark 15:15: and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. (ESV)

Septuagint (Greek): Because I am ready for scourges, and my pain is ever with me. (NETS, Albert Pietersma, ed.)

Septuagint: For I am ready for plagues (footnote in text: scourges), and my grief is continually before me. (Brenton)

Septuagint: For I am ready for wounds, And my pain is continually with me. (Original translation of St. Athanasius Academy in  The Orthodox Study Bible.)

Masoretic (Hebrew):  For I am about to stumble, and I am in constant pain. (NET)

Greek for “scourges”: μάστιγας

Definition: μάστιξ, μαστιχος, ἡ, a whip, scourge ) [Hebrew שזט Strong’s 07752] 1 Kings 12:11,14; Prov. 26:3): Acts 22:21; Heb. 11:36; metaphorically, a scourge, plague, i. e. a calamity, misfortune, especially as sent by God to discipline or punish (Ps. 88:33 (Ps. 89:33) (Thayer, Lexicon)

When placed in the context of the entire psalm, verse 17 (18 LXX) adds an important detail to the Passion of Christ.

Summary

Psalm 38 is much more than a “penitential” psalm. In it, we as readers find a strikingly complete first person narrative of the Passion of Jesus Christ. As the surrogate for the human race, Christ confessed the sins of his people, even while maintaining his own righteousness. We see his physical sufferings, his friends and family standing passive and aloof, the attacks of his enemies, and his utter reliance and trust toward God his Father.

As we the readers immerse ourselves in this psalm, we come to experience with the psalmist the great, great love which the triune God bears for his children–us. God is a personal God in an extreme sense of that word. He himself, by becoming one of us and dying a sacrificial death on the cross for us, bears the full weight of the burden each one of us owns. “See what sort of love the Father has given to us: that we should be called God’s children– and indeed we are!” (1John 3:1 NET)

A Personal Plea

If anyone who is reading this has not in your whole life turned to God and said something like, “Hi. Here I am, and this is who I am. Would you be my friend?” then I ask you, won’t you stop reading and thinking right now, turn to God, introduce yourself to him, and ask him for his presence with you? He’ll do all the rest. Jesus Christ will be the best friend you will ever have in your whole life.

__________

1 Psalm 32:1-2 is quoted in Romans 4:7-8, Psalm 22:1 is quoted Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34; Psalm 22:18 in John 19:24, Matthew 27:35, Mark 15:24, and Luke 23:24; and Psalm 22:22 in Hebrews 2:12.

2 Compare Psalm 32:3 (LXE) and Psalm 38:13-14 (LXE); Psalm 32:4 (LXE): “For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: I became thoroughly miserable while a thorn was fastened in me. Pause.” and Psalm 38:2 (LXE): “For thy weapons are fixed in me, and thou hast pressed thy hand heavily upon me.” In this verse the verbs “fastened” and “fixed” are translations of the same Greek word, ἐμπήγνυμι–to stick in.

3 Augustine, Expositions of the Psalmspage 191.

4 The seven penitential psalms are: 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143.

Waltke, Houston, and Moore, The Psalms as Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary, page 133.

 

 

Penitential Psalms: Psalm 32–Grace

 

There is one thing about Psalm 32 (31 LXX) upon which everyone agrees: it is a psalm about grace. The Apostle Paul quotes Psalm 32:1-2 in Romans 4:7-8.

1 Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and who sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin, and in whose mouth there is no guile. (Psalm 32:1-2 LXE, Septuagint in English, Brenton) 

7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;
8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Rom 4:7-8 ESV)

Paul in Romans pronounces grace–pardon for sin apart from works. He uses the example of Abraham, who received God’s blessing of righteousness on the basis of his faith. Paul extends the promise which God gave Abraham to all believers who follow his example of placing their faith in God. For Paul, placing one’s faith in God means placing faith in the God who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead.

22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.”
23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone,
24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord,
25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (Rom 4:22-25 ESV)

Paul argues in all of Romans 4 that God extends the grace of righteousness to Gentile believers on account of their faith in his Son, rather than on account of their racial birth. And who cannot hear the roar of joy surging like a great wave that encompasses all people around our globe? Besides being penitential, Psalm 32 is well known as a psalm of thanksgiving. The Greek Orthodox Church reads this psalm to new believers as they emerge from the waters of baptism. (See The Orthodox Study Bible.)

Let’s take a look at Psalm 32 (31 LXX).

LXE Psalm 32:1 <<A Psalm of instruction by David.>> Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin, and in whose mouth there is no guile.
3 Because I kept silence, my bones waxed old, from my crying all the day.
4 For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: I became thoroughly miserable while a thorn was fastened in me. Pause.
5 I acknowledged my sin, and hid not mine iniquity: I said, I will confess mine iniquity to the Lord against myself; and thou forgavest the ungodliness of my heart. Pause.
6 Therefore shall every holy one pray to thee in a fit time: only in the deluge of many waters they shall not come nigh to him.
7 Thou art my refuge from the affliction that encompasses me; my joy, to deliver me from them that have compassed me. Pause.
8 I will instruct thee and guide thee in this way wherein thou shalt go: I will fix mine eyes upon thee.
9 Be ye not as horse and mule, which have no understanding; [but thou] must constrain their jaws with bit and curb, lest they should come nigh to thee.
10 Many are the scourges of the sinner: but him that hopes in the Lord mercy shall compass about.
11 Be glad in the Lord, and exult, ye righteous: and glory, all ye that are upright in heart. (Psa 32:1-11 LXE)

A second point of agreement concerning Psalm 32 among commentators is its use of dialogue. After multiple readings, many readers will be able to recognize that more than one person speaks within its lines. Changes of tone, subject, and shifts between singular and plural help delineate the various speech boundaries within the psalm.

Identifying speakers in a psalm can be tricky. The reader must be alert, noticing large and small cues. She must draw upon her knowledge of God and his ways, based upon her reading of all of Scripture. Not surprisingly, while nearly everyone recognizes dialogue and change of speakers in Psalm 32 (31 LXX), there is not consensus concerning who speaks which lines.

Here is how I break it out:

Psalm 32 (31 LXE): A Readers Theater Interpretation

Chorus of the Congregation: 1 Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin, and in whose mouth there is no guile.

Christ to God: 3 Because I kept silence, my bones waxed old, from my crying all the day.
4 For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: I became thoroughly miserable while a thorn was fastened in me. Pause.
5 I acknowledged my sin, and hid not mine iniquity: I said, I will confess mine iniquity to the Lord against myself; and thou forgavest the ungodliness of my heart. Pause.

Chorus of the Congregation: 6 Therefore shall every holy one pray to thee in a fit time: only in the deluge of many waters they shall not come nigh to him.

Christ to God: 7 Thou art my refuge from the affliction that encompasses me; my joy, to deliver me from them that have compassed me. Pause.

God to his Christ: 8 I will instruct thee [singular in LXX] and guide thee [singular in LXX] in this way wherein thou [singular in LXX] shalt go: I will fix mine eyes upon thee [singular in LXX].

God to the Congregation: 9 Be ye [plural] not as horse and mule, which have no understanding; but thou [added by translator] must constrain their jaws with bit and curb, lest they should come nigh to thee [singular].

[My Interpretation: Be ye [plural] not as horse and mule, which have no understanding. It is necessary to constrain their jaws with bit and curb, or they won’t come near you [singular impersonal required by context of a single person managing the horse.]

Chorus of the Congregation: 10 Many are the scourges of the sinner: but him that hopes in the Lord mercy shall compass about.
11 Be glad in the Lord, and exult, ye righteous: and glory, all ye that are upright in heart.

What makes Psalm 32 a psalm about the substitutionary atonement of Christ?

The key is found in verse 6, “Therefore shall every holy one pray to thee in a fit time…” What is the logic behind this statement, specifically the conclusion, introduced by the word “therefore,” that “every holy one” should pray to God while he may be found? What warrant is there to jump from the example of one sinner (verses 3-5) to an entire group? And what is the warrant to move from the example of a sinner to “every holy one?”

The latter difficulty can be explained by the NET translation. Where the Septuagint uses “every holy one,” (πᾶς ὅσιος), NET translates the Masoretic text as “faithful follower.” I believe that within the context of the Psalter this is a fair translation. Verse six states that “holy ones,” or “faithful followers,” i.e., those who have been forgiven (vs 1), should now call upon the Lord for protection whenever trouble comes upon them as a flood.

But why? Why does the text say, “therefore”? I see two possibilities. In the first, the logic of the psalm may be stating that because one sinner has been forgiven, God will likewise forgive all sinners. A second possibility states that because God has forgiven this particular sinner, therefore, all believing sinners (faithful followers now made holy) will be forgiven and have access to the help of God through prayer.

The answer to the question of which possibility is the correct one depends upon the identity of the speaker of verses 3-5, who also speaks in 7. This speaker would likewise be the singular “man,” a singular male in the Septuagint, referred to in verse 2. Verse 1 is plural; verse 2 is singular. Verse 6 encapsulates these two verses. The many are blessed because of God’s forgiveness to the one. “Therefore…” But who is this one?

First, “Blessed is the man …” of verse two is identical to the opening words of the Psalter in Psalm 1:1 (μακάριος ἀνήρ). The singular male of Psalm 1:1 is considered by this author and by many others to be Christ. Pilate said of him, “Behold, the man…” In that case, Pilate says, “Behold the human being.” Christ was crucified as the head of the human race. (See the prior post, Penitential Psalms: 32–How Could Christ Pray the Words of a Sinner?”) In the Psalter, however, Christ is not a generic human being, as some translations would have it. He is a particular male, a single person, a real flesh and blood man who prays to God. Psalm 32:1-2 in the Septuagint distinguishes between the many (32:1) and the one male (32:2). This one male is the speaker of verses 3-5, which are closed off with a break, Selah. Verse 6 is the result (“therefore”) of verses 3-5.

Second, verses 3-4 in the Septuagint have some most remarkable words, which if taken literally, provide clues to the identity of the speaker.

3 Because I kept silence, my bones waxed old, from my crying all the day.
4 For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: I became thoroughly miserable while a thorn was fastened in me. Pause.

Others have pointed out the similarity of these words to those of Psalm 38, which is a veritable portrait of Christ’s crucifixion. The Greek verb (LXX) for “fastened,” Psalm 32:4, “a thorn was fastened in me,” is identical to the Greek verb (LXX) for “fixed” in Psalm 38:2, “For thy weapons are fixed in me, and thou hast pressed thy hand heavily upon me.” Further,  Psalm 32:3 states, “Because I kept silence,…” All four gospels make a point of the silence of Christ during his trial.

Once we know that Christ is the speaker of the personal prayer portion of Psalm 32 in verses 3-5 and 7, then the rest of the psalm begins to fall into place. For example, we know that verse 9 cannot be God addressing the speaker of the prayer, because God would never address his Son that way. Verse 8, on the other hand, beautifully illustrates God’s love for his Son.

What turns this psalm from penitential to joyful thanksgiving is the presence of the chorus, made up of believers. Because one man died confessing the sins of others, because God did not impute, or count that sin against him as an individual, then all those for whom Christ died now have free access to God through him. We know that God did not impute sin against Christ (or count it against him, reckon it against him), because God raised him from the dead. If Christ had been guilty, he would have merited his punishment and remained dead. But Christ himself was righteous. We know from his resurrection that God was pleased with him. Because of Christ’s victory, believers are blessed to have their transgressions forgiven, their sins covered. God’s mercy is a cause for thankfulness and rejoicing, which is what the congregation does in the final verse. The psalm opens and closes with God’s mercy for the sinner in view.

Conclusion

Craig C. Broyles writes that Psalm 32 “forms a combination of features unlike any other psalm,” (Broyles, 161). I don’t know about you who are reading this blog, but often, when I first read a psalm, I am left flat, almost without response. I think to myself, “I have nothing to say about this psalm.” But God has blessed me with persistence. God rewarded Jacob with a new name after he wrestled with him all night. Reading the Psalter is often like this biblical story. Many times it is only after wrestling with a psalm, seeking to understand, asking God, delving into the details, reading again and again, that I come to a deeper appreciation of the wisdom of God in how he connects Scripture with Scripture. It is true that these are ancient words and that we as today’s readers must seek to translate them into our own experience. But the treasure of meeting with God through the words of a psalm is so worth the effort. I pray that you will be encouraged to do some digging of your own.

 

 

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