The Grammar of Repentance: Psalm 38

November 5, 2017

A note to readers: Today’s post is part of a Sunday Voice Series by Dr. Timothy C. Tennent, a close friend, mentor and colleague of mine. He serves as the President of Asbury Theological Seminary among other posts he holds across the global church. This Sunday Voice Series will cover the Psalms, beginning to end, by focusing on a Psalm each Sunday. I can’t tell you how excited I am for his interest in contributing here. This will be a huge blessing to us all.

Psalm 38 (NIV)

1 Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
    or discipline me in your wrath.
Your arrows have pierced me,
    and your hand has come down on me.
Because of your wrath there is no health in my body;
    there is no soundness in my bones because of my sin.
My guilt has overwhelmed me
    like a burden too heavy to bear.

All my longings lie open before you, Lord;
    my sighing is not hidden from you.
10 My heart pounds, my strength fails me;
    even the light has gone from my eyes.
11 My friends and companions avoid me because of my wounds;
    my neighbors stay far away.
12 Those who want to kill me set their traps,
    those who would harm me talk of my ruin;
    all day long they scheme and lie.

17 For I am about to fall,
    and my pain is ever with me.
18 I confess my iniquity;
    I am troubled by my sin.
19 Many have become my enemies without cause[b];
    those who hate me without reason are numerous.
20 Those who repay my good with evil
    lodge accusations against me,
    though I seek only to do what is good.

21 Lord, do not forsake me;
    do not be far from me, my God.
22 Come quickly to help me,
    my Lord and my Savior.


This is the third of the seven penitential psalms (Psalm 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143).  This psalm, as with the first two, reveals David’s deep anguish before God over his sins.  It is important to notice how the language of this psalm of repentance has filtered down into the liturgies we have inherited in the church. In this psalm, David describes that he feels weighed down by his sins, saying “your hand has come down upon me” (vs. 2). His health is suffering because of his sin. David says, “There is no health in my body; my bones have no soundness because of my sin” (vs. 3). Finally, he says the guilt he is experiencing has become “a burden too heavy to bear” (vs. 4).

If your church uses the historic liturgy for the confession before communion, please notice how the language of this psalm has found its way into our services. The liturgy says, “Almighty and most merciful Father, we have wandered and strayed from your ways like lost sheep (this is from Isaiah 53:6 and Psalm 119:176) . . . we have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things that we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.” This final phrase comes directly from Psalm 38:3 and 7.

The liturgy goes on to say, “We earnestly repent, and are deeply sorry for these our wrongdoings; the memory of them weighs us down, the burden of them is too great for us to bear.” This phrase comes from Psalm 37:4. In short, the psalms have always been the prayer book for the people of God. As noted on the earlier penitential psalms, they provide the basic grammar of the repentant life, which should be one of the deepest marks or badges of the Christian life.

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