This psalm is attributed to David. It may portray his suffering from serious illness during the time his son Absalom plotted to seize the throne. Psalm 41 (40, LXX), which is also ascribed to David, speaks of the psalmist’s illness and, in verse 9(10), contains a seeming reference to the treachery of Ahithophel. (2 Samuel 15:31; 16:23) This occurred during the time Absalom continued building up a following for himself, providing some basis for concluding that Psalm 38 and Psalm 41 depict developments from that period.
The composition is referred to as being “in remembrance.” This significance agrees with an ancient Latin translation of the Hebrew Psalter, which reads in commemoratione (“in commemoration” or “in remembrance”). The Septuagint says, “for remembrance concerning the Sabbath.” A number of translators render the expression “for remembrance” to signify a “memorial offering.” In the Contemporary English Version, the words of the superscription are interpretively translated as follows: “A psalm by David to be used when an offering is made.” Because there is a measure of uncertainty about the Hebrew expression thought to mean “remembrance,” the Tanakh uses the transliteration Lehazkir.
Apparently David regarded his affliction as a punishment for sin and therefore pleaded not to experience additional reproof or chastisement while an object of divine anger.
The psalmist experienced intense pain as if God’s arrows had penetrated deep into his body. He felt that God’s hand pressed down hard upon him.
Nothing appeared to be sound or healthy in his flesh, and David attributed this to divine indignation. Because of his sin, his “bones” or entire frame lacked “peace,” being affected by the dreadful sickness that deprived him of well-being.
Apparently comparing the dire consequences of his iniquities to flood waters, the psalmist spoke of his transgressions as passing over his head. They proved to be like a heavy burden, the weight of which was too great for him to bear.
His wounds stank and festered. The psalmist again acknowledged this loathsome condition as being the result of his “folly” or his failure to conduct himself in a divinely approved manner.
Stooped and exceedingly bowed down, the psalmist moved about all day in a state of mourning or sadness. The reference to “all day” suggests that even momentarily he experienced no relief. According to the Septuagint, he “endured distress and was bent down to the end” or completely.
His “loins” were filled with “burning.” This could mean that he suffered from high fever. No part of his flesh was sound or healthy.
Benumbed (“afflicted,” LXX) and greatly crushed, the psalmist “roared” or wailed because of the “groaning” of his heart. This “groaning” could refer to a state of anguish that the psalmist felt deep within himself and that led to his “roaring,” wailing, or loud moaning. Another possibility is that the reference is to his being in an extremely troubled state of mind and “roaring” on account of his distress. “I roar because of the turmoil in my mind.” (Tanakh)
According to the Masoretic Text, the psalmist appealed to God as “my Lord,” suggesting a personal relationship to him as his servant. He was confident that his Lord was fully aware of all his desires or yearnings and that his sighing had not been hidden or escaped God’s notice.
Apparently on account of his distress, the psalmist’s heart palpitated violently or “was troubled” (LXX), and his strength had failed him. The “light of [his] eyes” ceased being with him. This could mean that his eyes had lost their brightness or luster or that his ability to see clearly had been impaired.
Friends and companions “stood [away]” (apparently at a distance) from his “plague,” treating him like an unclean person afflicted with leprosy. Those closest to him, his kinsfolk, stood far off. The Septuagint, however, does not include the word “my plague.” “My friends and my companions from before me approached and stood [possibly meaning that they moved from before him and stood at a distance], and those closest to me stood far off.” The partially preserved text of a Dead Sea Psalms scroll appears to read, “I have become a plague before my friends and companions.” (The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible)
Those seeking his “soul” or life set traps for him (“pressed” upon him, LXX), endeavoring to bring about his ruin. Bent on harming him, they would speak “ruin” (“vanities,” LXX). The Hebrew word for “ruin” is plural, suggesting a variety of schemes designed to effect the psalmist’s downfall. With reference to “deceits,” the schemers are referred to as “meditating” all day long or continually. In this case, both the Hebrew and the Greek terms for “meditate” may be understood as meaning “utter,” and the “deceits” likely included malicious slander.
The psalmist turned a deaf ear to all the vicious attacks launched against him. Like a deaf man, he did not hear; and like a mute man, he did not open his mouth.
He proved to be like a man who heard nothing and remained silent instead of trying to defend himself against false accusations. No expressions of rebuke or reproof came out of his mouth.
He waited patiently on YHWH to come to his defense, confident that his Lord and God would respond to him favorably.
The words that follow the introductory “for I say” constitute the psalmist’s plea that his foes not succeed. He wanted to be shielded from having his enemies rejoice over him on account of his distress. The reference to those “magnifying” themselves (“boasting,” according to one Dead Sea Psalms scroll) could be understood to mean that they would lift themselves above him and that his loss of footing would embolden them to intensify their attacks against him.
The psalmist considered himself to be in a precarious position, “ready for falling” or, according to the Septuagint, “ready for whips.” His “pain” was always before him, indicating that he did not experience any relief from his suffering.
Evidently believing his distress to have resulted from his transgression, he acknowledged his guilt and was “concerned” or “anxious” about his sin. His guilt weighed heavily upon him.
The reference to his enemies living or being alive likely denotes that they were active, particularly in efforts to bring about his downfall. Power was on their side. They were mightier than he, and those unjustifiably hating him continued to increase.
For the good that he had done, they repaid him with evil. They opposed him for pursuing good or doing what was right. The Septuagint reads, “Those repaying bad for good slandered me when they pursued justice.” In this context, “justice” could only denote a perverted view of right. Like the Vulgate, modern translations of the Septuagint commonly represent the psalmist’s pursuit of justice or righteousness as the reason for his being slandered (“slandered me, since I pursued righteousness”). These translations also include words that are bracketed in Rahlfs’ printed text but are not found in codices Vaticanus, Sinaiticus and Alexandrinus (“and me, the beloved, they cast off like an abominable corpse”).
The psalmist concluded with the appeal for YHWH not to abandon him, leaving him without any aid in his dire situation. He pleaded, “O my God, be not far from me” (as if too distant to help).
The threatening situation called for swift divine intervention. “Hasten to my assistance, O Lord, my salvation.” This petition revealed that the psalmist regarded the Almighty as his only hope for deliverance from his perilous circumstances.
Regarding the divine name (YHWH), see Psalm 1.
In verse 3(4), the Hebrew expression “because of your indignation” is “from [the] face of your indignation.” The Septuagint similarly reads, “from [the] face of your anger.” Then, “because of my sin” is “from [the] face of my sin” both in the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint.
In verse 5(6), the Septuagint follows the literal Hebrew for the expression “from [the] face of my folly,” meaning “because of my folly.” In the same verse, the verb “fester” is preceded by the conjunction “and” both in the Septuagint and a Dead Sea Psalms scroll but is missing in the Masoretic Text.
In verse 8(7), Rahlfs’ printed text of the Septuagint has psyai mou eplésthesan empaigmón (my loins were filled with mockings), but fourth-century Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus read psyché mou eplésthe empaigmón (my soul was filled with mockeries). The Masoretic Text has “burning,” not “mockeries.”
In verse 18(19), a Dead Sea Psalms scroll has the plural for “guilt” or “iniquity” and “sin,” whereas the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint have the singular nouns.
In verse 19(20), a Dead Sea Psalms scroll refers to those who were the psalmist’s enemies without cause and who showed their hatred for him by deceiving him.
According to the rendering of The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible of verse 20(21), one of the scrolls reads, “Those who perform evil instead of good plunder me instead of a good thing.”
In the concluding verse, a Dead Sea Psalms scroll adds “for me” after “hasten.”