In Psalm 38, the writer acknowledges his sin and the fact that he is being disciplined by God. He asks God not to rebuke him, or perhaps to finish rebuking him, since there is no doubt in the writer’s mind that he is suffering God’s righteous discipline. The psalmist also says that, although his punishment is deserved, he has enemies (God is not one of them!) who unjustly hate him. He asks for God’s help to deliver him from these enemies. This psalm is remarkable because it combines all of these themes, sin, discipline, God as companion, injustice, and prayer for deliverance, all at the same time. We should understand from this psalm that we can understand seasons of our lives as being a mixture of all these factors.
O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath! For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me. There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.
Psalm 38:1-4 (ESV)
For eighteen verses the psalmist carries on this way. He acknowledges that his sin is great, overwhelming, and impossible to bear. And look! See how he trusts in God even in the midst of punishment for sin which he readily acknowledges! He does not charge God with injustice. He does not declare his own innocence. He does not question the character of God.
All Christians experience the discipline of God in their lives, as Hebrews 12 tells us.
And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.
Hebrews 12:5-8 (ESV)
If you want to understand your life, you must understand these things! The discipline that we experience is not the wrath that he will pour out on his enemies in the day of judgment. But it may make us cry. He disciplines us because he loves us.
He also disciplines us because we have done something wrong. God will teach us at any time, but he only rebukes us when we are wrong. We must be prepared to hear rebuke from his lips as well as to hear a “well done.” It is those times when we think we have done well that we most need his discipline.
God is continually patient with us. His wrath has departed from us because Christ has taken the blow. But even though we are destined to be just like Christ, we do not always show his character. At times a soft word is not enough to change our stubborn hearts. We may endure painful discipline from God.
In the eighteenth verse of Psalm 38, the writer confesses and apologizes for his sin. Immediately afterward, he mentions how his enemies (not God!) mistreat him.
I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin. But my foes are vigorous, they are mighty, and many are those who hate me wrongfully. Those who render me evil for good accuse me because I follow after good.
In our lives we will experience the righteous discipline of God, which is for our benefit. We will also experience injustice. Both may come at the same time. We should understand that both discipline and injustice will be at work in our lives.
The discipline of God does not overturn his love, his mercy and his fellowship with us. It is not the same as the destructive wrath which he will pour out on his enemies in the final judgment. Notice how the psalmist speaks of God’s close presence even in the midst of his suffering.
I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart. O Lord, all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you.
Psalms 38:8-9 (ESV)
He confesses and relies upon the companionship of God even as he endures discipline because of his sin. Because he does not waiver in his faith, he is able to close the psalm by calling on God’s deliverance.
Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation!
Psalm 38:22 (ESV)
Abraham Lincoln must have meditated upon such things as he considered what purposes of God might be at work in permitting the destructiveness of the American Civil War. He did not claim to be a prophet, but he reasoned from the scripture and quoted the Lord Jesus in his second inaugural address. The section I quote here begins by pointing out how both North and South worshiped the same God.
In this speech, our sixteenth president showed a great ability to reason from the scriptures, as well as a willingness to consider and accept the discipline of God. I see nothing amiss in his reasoning here. He rightly pointed out the error of the Confederates seeking to unjustly hold other men as slaves. And he showed great wisdom in not taking adopting an attitude of moral superiority, saying“let us judge not, that we be not judged.” Perhaps he understood the teaching of scripture that there is no judgment we can render against another man that we are not, in principle, guilty of ourselves.
Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Abraham Lincoln, second inaugural address
Would to God that all Americans understood such things! But I’m afraid it’s closer to the reality that our country understands none of these principles. Our nation so greatly needs the light of the gospel of Christ, especially in a time of increasing turmoil such as we are now experiencing.
Christians must not turn away from the truth of God’s discipline. If you have ignored it, I pray you will reconsider. We each need it in order to understand our own lives. We may also need it to understand the times in which we live.