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Based on the Sermon Series:
Psalms of the Penitent by Rev. John C. Wohlrabe Jr.
Concordia Pulpit Resources: Volume 25, Part 2, Series B, February 22–May 24, 2015
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Jesus said, [John 16:33] “In the world you will have tribulation.” Many times, we think this tribulation is punishment from God. We may think it should somehow be different for God’s children, but it isn’t! You see, God’s children are penitent, and so they see suffering, pain, and sorrow for what it is, the consequence of sin. The penitent sinner relates to David’s words in our text, Psalm 38: “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” (vv 1–2).
Martin Luther wrote:
“This psalm portrays most clearly the manner, words, acts, thoughts, and gestures of a truly penitent heart” (AE 14:156).
So we can say that the disposition of the penitent is faith that clings to the Lord even when the Lord’s hand is heavy upon him.
Psalm 38 reveals to us that even believers will feel crushed by physical pain and spiritual anguish in times of suffering and trial. This anguish is not a sign of unbelief or a weakening faith. Through it all, the Lord calls believers to see such afflictions as a testimony to the evil of sin. He calls believers to accept suffering as a warning and ministration from God, given in love and intended for good. He calls believers to cling to God’s promises and call on him for relief in the time and way that he knows best.
David writes of God’s arrows piercing him and God’s hand coming down heavy upon him. He prays that this not be a rebuke done in anger, nor discipline done in wrath. The arrows of God’s Law have sunk into each of us. Afflictions, suffering, and death are all consequences of sin. Often, we feel as though the suffering we’re facing is God’s direct judgment against specific sins we’ve committed. That’s how David undoubtedly felt. It seems David could never forget his own sins of adultery and murder—how he’d committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband, Uriah. So, when he faced severe pain and anguish later in life, particularly the rebellion of two of his sons, David couldn’t help but think that it might be a punishment from God. I think we all have a tendency to do that in times of extreme suffering and sorrow. Over the years, many people have asked, “God, Why are You punishing me?”
When we review God’s Holy Law, we must admit that it isn’t just big sins that convict us before a holy and righteous God. All our sins of thought, word, and deed are sins against God, sins that warrant his just condemnation. As we said earlier, it isn’t just the sins we know and feel in our heart, but it is also the sins of which we are unaware. Like a mirror shows the grime and dirt we may get on our faces, so the Law reveals our sin. Martin Luther writes: “The words with which God rebukes and threatens in Scripture are arrows. . . . However, only he feels them into whose heart they are thrust and whose conscience is terrified. It is the sensitive into whose heart God shoots the arrows. From the smug, who have become hardened, the arrows glance off as from a hard stone” (AE 14:156–57).
Our sin is more than we can bear. So David writes, “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” (vv 3–4). Sin crushes us, as Luther observes: “That is, heavier than I can bear, as is written in Ps. 65:3: ‘Lord God, the deed of our sin has overwhelmed us; be gracious toward our iniquity.’ Thus our sin treads us underfoot until grace comes, treads sin underfoot, and raises our head above it so that we become master and rule over sin, not sin over us. Those, however, who lie in sin, who are either dead or too holy, do not sense these things. Therefore it is an amazing thing: He who has no sin feels and has it, and he who has sin does not feel it and has none” (AE 14:157).
Sin causes us to stink before God and others, as David writes: “My wounds stink and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning. For my sides are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh” (vv 5–7). Luther writes: “Just as wounds and swellings of the body decay, fester and stink, so also the evil sores of human nature get worse and begin to stink if they are not treated and healed daily with the ointment of grace and the water of the Word of God” (AE 14:158).
Sin causes us to despair and fear God’s wrath and anger, even the possibility of being forsaken by God. David cries out, “Do not forsake me, O Lord! O my God, be not far from me!” (v 21). If we were to hear only the word of God’s Law, we would most certainly be crushed. Fortunately, the Law is not God’s last word. The Law leads us to repentance. The penitent confesses his or her sin in true sorrow. Luther writes: “These are true signs of real repentance for sin, just as the publican in the Gospel did not dare raise his eyes (Luke 18:13) but considered himself evil and bowed down to the ground, more with his heart than with his body” (AE 14:158). David does just that: “For I am ready to fall, and my pain is ever before me. I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin” (vv 17–18). Yet David, as a true penitent, has something more. Despite the suffering, pain, and sorrow he endures, he still has hope in the Lord.
Fear of God’s wrath turns to patient waiting for God’s deliverance in faith. And so faith in God’s deliverance is also a vital part of the disposition of the penitent. Franz Delitzsch, a Lutheran theologian and Hebrew scholar, observed: “True repentance has faith within itself, it despairs of itself, but not of God” (Delitzsch, 25). The penitent ultimately trusts that affliction is done as God’s loving discipline and not in wrathful judgment. The penitent trusts that in God’s good time and for his good purpose, he will grant deliverance. So, even in his anguish, David proclaims, “But for you, O Lord, do I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer. . . . Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation!” (vv 15, 22). Luther writes about David’s response: “These are words of a true and strong faith, which in time of trouble lets everything else go and clings to the Word and grace of God, and does not doubt that God will hear and help him” (AE 14:160).
The penitent knows God will answer. During David’s time of suffering, he faced the challenges and rebuke of many adversaries. But he writes that he was like a person who is deaf and mute. He did not listen to their attacks, nor respond to them (vv 13–14). Instead, he waits for the Lord: “It is you, O Lord my God, who will answer” (v 15). The penitent clings to God’s promise of deliverance alone. Luther writes: “For God’s help is not where man’s help is, nor even where there is no persecution of man, nor where man is not against himself. For God is not a Father of the rich but of the poor, widows, and orphans. The rich He has left alone (Luke 1:53). ‘O God of my salvation,’ that is, that I seek no help or salvation either in myself or in anyone else, but only in Thee” (AE 14:163).
The penitent knows God’s deliverance in Christ. David had God’s promise of one who would sit on his throne forever. Yet this royal descendant would also be David’s Lord. He would be born of a woman, yet he would be the Son of God. And he would endure more suffering and pain than we could ever imagine. Jesus was crushed by the burden of our sins as he went to the cross. Jesus stood mute before his detractors as he was struck, spit upon, mocked, beaten, whipped, and crucified. Jesus was forsaken by God the Father on Calvary so we would not be forsaken by God.
We have the example of the penitent thief on the cross. Luther writes: “The poor malefactor on the right alone steps over the rock of offense and dares to call Christ, who hangs on the cross at his side, a Lord and King. . . . Therefore, he believes that Christ is the Lord of another and an eternal life. This faith and this confession, found, as it was, in the midst of a world that despaired of Christ and hated Him, must have been indeed a great and exquisite faith—a glorious confession” (Sermons on the Passion of Christ, trans. E. Smid and J. T. Isensee [Rock Island: Augustana, 1956], 184–85; used by permission).
The penitent prays for God’s deliverance, not primarily for relief, although relief of suffering is not abandoned. The penitent prays for deliverance, that God will be glorified. The penitent knows his weakness. Like David, the true penitent acknowledges that he is always ready to fall. The penitent also knows that pain, suffering, and death are consequences of sin and are always present in a fallen world. Yet the penitent knows God’s salvation in Christ and the promise of eternal life in heaven through faith. Like David, the penitent makes this good confession known to others, that God will be glorified.
In Psalm 38, God shows us that the afflictions we face in life are a powerful testimony of the awfulness of our sin. Our dear Lord has called us to accept even these sufferings as his warning, given in love and intended for our good. Our good and gracious God thereby leads us to repentance and a firm faith in his deliverance through Jesus Christ, our Lord. May God grant us this disposition—the disposition of a true penitent. Amen
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