Psalm 38

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Let’s resurrect last year’s series on the Penitential Psalms. I welcome the learned comments of Neil or any others who wish to add to this brief essay.

The third of these psalms, the 38th, is an individual lament for healing. The psalmist adheres to the ancient understanding that personal misfortune followed as a consequence from sin. This includes illness as described here:

1O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger,
or discipline me in your wrath.
2For your arrows have sunk into me,
and your hand has come down on me.

3There is no soundness in my flesh
because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones
because of my sin.

This prompts a general confession of sin:

4For my iniquities have gone over my head;
they weigh like a burden too heavy for me.

The second section details the physical suffering of the psalmist, which is compounded by the alienation of the community:

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

9O Lord, all my longing is known to you;
my sighing is not hidden from you.
10My heart throbs, my strength fails me;
as for the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.
11My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction,
and my neighbours stand far off.

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

In the third section, the psalmist has completed the lament and stands before God without excuses. This whole psalm strikes me as such an apt description of substance abuse: the consequences reach to the physical, the emotional, and the interpersonal. The addict stands before God having hit utter bottom. The addict is not so passive so as to avoid inserting a prayer against those who would criticize further:

13But I am like the deaf, I do not hear;
like the mute, who cannot speak.
14Truly, I am like one who does not hear,
and in whose mouth is no retort.

15But it is for you, O Lord, that I wait;
it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.
16For I pray, ‘Only do not let them rejoice over me,
those who boast against me when my foot slips.’

The fourth section continues the petition to God: a confession of weakness, of personal sin, another appeal against the gloaters, and a final call to God

17For I am ready to fall,
and my pain is ever with me.
18I confess my iniquity;
I am sorry for my sin.
19Those who are my foes without cause are mighty,
and many are those who hate me wrongfully.
20Those who render me evil for good
are my adversaries because I follow after good.

21Do not forsake me, O Lord;
O my God, do not be far from me;
22make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation.

You might be surprised to learn that Psalm 38 does not appear in the Lectionary for Mass. It does appear as a suggested “song” for the scrutinies, to be sung after the exorcism prayer and before the dismissal of the elect.

A good antiphon would be verse 9, touching upon the newcomer’s longing for God. Some suggested verses to set to music would include 1-2, 4, 15, 17-18, 21-22.

Thoughts from music ministers, composers, liturgists, or Scripture scholars?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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