The Penitential Psalms as a Counterinsurgency Field Manual


February 19, 2021

Psalm 38

To the tune of “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” C.M. Sing it at

1 Lord, don’t rebuke me in Your wrath,
in anger don’t chide me;
2 Your arrows pierce me and Your hand
is heavy upon me.

3 Because of Your great wrath, I’m sick;
my bones are weak from sin;
4 My guilt o’erwhelms me like a weight,
too deep to bear within.

5 My wounds, they fester loathsomely,
because of sinful pride;
6 I am bowed down, brought very low;
and mourn all day inside.

7 My back is filled with searing pain;
in me no health is found;
8 I’m feeble and crushed utterly;
my anguished groans abound.

9 My longings lie before You, Lord;
and You hear all my sighs;
10 With pounding heart, my strength fails me;
the light’s gone from my eyes.

11 My friends and neighbors stay away,
because they see my lot;
12 Foes set their traps and seek my life, 
and all day long they plot.

13 I’m like the deaf who cannot hear;
like mute, who cannot speak;
14 I’m like the one who does not hear, 
whose mouth no words can speak.

15 I wait for You, O Lord my God;
and You will answer me;
16 For I said, “Do not let them gloat;
exalt themselves o’er me.”

17 For I am just about to fall;
always my pain’s within;
18 So I confess iniquity;
I’m troubled by my sin.

19 Too many are my enemies, 
who hate me without cause; 
20 They pay me evil for my good;
and slander without pause.

21 O Lord, do not forsake me now, 
and be not far from me;
22 O Lord, my Savior, hear me now;
come quickly to help me.


Do you remember those days in our recent national history when we thought the war in Iraq was over? President George W. Bush, dressed in fighter pilot garb, landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier. After stepping out of the Navy S-3B fighter jet to great fanfare, he gave a speech while standing in front of a massive banner, which read: “Mission Accomplished.” In the sense that the sovereignty of Saddam Hussein’s rule of Iraq had been defeated and temporarily transferred into the hands of the United States, yes, mission accomplished. No one seemed to realize the real war hadn’t even started yet. The rule of Saddam had been cancelled, and yet this cancelled rule retained a form of rogue power and presence. It became known as the “insurgency.” The United States, in cooperation with Iraqi police, began a war of a completely different order, known as the “counterinsurgency.” General David Petraus wrote what is now famously known as the Counterinsurgency Field Manual. When we place our faith in Jesus Christ as Savior, we are saved from the penalty of sin. In other words, any sin on the ledger of our lives—past, present, and future—is cancelled. The debt is paid in full by the atoning work of Jesus through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of God. The trouble with cancelled sin is that it retains a form of rogue power and presence. Recall a verse of Charles Wesley’s most celebrated hymn, “O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”:

He breaks the power of canceled sin;
He sets the prisoner free.
His blood can make the foulest clean,
His blood availed for me.

Are you seeing the analogy? Justification by grace through faith is mission accomplished, in the sense that the sovereignty of Satan’s rule has been defeated and transferred into the hands of Jesus Christ. But the real war against the insurgency of sin is only getting started. What we need is a counterinsurgency field manual. And that’s precisely what Song 38, and others like it, offer us. The great reformer John Calvin once said of the Psalms that they are an anatomy of all parts of the soul. Today’s psalm, Song 38, offers us one of the seven penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143). They are songs designed to help us repent and believe the gospel. The greatest impediment to our believing the gospel beyond mere assent to its truth is the sin believers continue to carry within them. The penitential psalms offer us a counterinsurgency field manual for the war against the insurgency of sin.

Ask Yourself. Share with Another.

Can you in any way identify with Song 38? Do you have any sense of the power of cancelled sin in your life? If not, you’d better be on the lookout for roadside bombs. Pray for the Holy Spirit to reveal the reality of your inner life, not for condemnation, but for the sake of deep change. Prepare yourself, though; it will awaken in you a holy discontent for more of God than you presently know. Trust that. Obey the promptings. It’s the way that leads to life. And don’t forget to sing.

For the Awakening,
J.D. Walt

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WHAT IS THIS? Wake-Up Call is a daily encouragement to shake off the slumber of our busy lives and turn our eyes toward Jesus. Each morning our community gathers around a Scripture, a reflection, a prayer, and a few short questions, inviting us to reorient our lives around the love of Jesus that transforms our hearts, homes, churches, and cities.

Comments and Discussion

One Response

  1. Open my eyes Lord ,so I may see thee clearly. Search me, know me and show me what lies deep within. For I know that I am sinless in your eyes, and yet we both know that I fall short of your glory. Open my eyes to see the things that separate me from thee. Through your love and mercy grant me a spirit of repentance, so that I may always share in your glory.

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