Augustine. Exposition on the Book of Psalms. Schaff, Philip (editor). New York: Christian Literature Publishing Col, 1886. Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers: Series 1: Volume VIII. Re-published 2014, Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle electronic edition, ISBN-13: 978-1-78379-372-3.
The subscription of Psalm 38 has to do with remembrance. Augustine reads it as recollection of the Sabbath. This strikes him as a surprise, since the Psalm speaks of his mourning and troubles. However, apart from knowledge of our need, the festal times have no attraction for us (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322209).
Verse one begs God not to rebuke or chasten. Augustine draws a distinction between the two, seeing a rebuke as penalty and chastening as correction. The former does not bring restoration, as the latter does (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322217). He observes that cleansing by fire may be unpleasant but it is not a final condemnation.
The suffering David expresses is due to the wrath of God. He has been struck by God’s arrows and pressed hard by God (v. 3). Augustine sees this as the pain and suffering endured by all humanity as a result of Adam’s sin (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322233). He also notes there may be a double meaning in the statement. God’s Words are sometimes referred to as arrows, and they do serve to call our attention to our sin (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322241).
In verse 3b, Augustine notes that some interpreters have taken the verse as spoken by Christ. Augustine states clearly that Christ himself had no sin, but the Psalmist attributes the pain to his own sin. Certainly Christ’s suffering was due to sin, but not his own sin (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322243). However, Augustine maintains that the Psalms speak at length of Christ. For this reason he does assert the sin as being the sin of the world which Jesus assumes, therefore that it is rightly Jesus’ own sin (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322261).
By Psalm 38:7, we read that God’s anger has stripped the Psalmist’s soundness from his flesh. God’s anger crushes us. We cannot face it (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322267). At this point, Augustine backtracks to verse four, speaking of a difficult statement. “Mine iniquities have lifted up my head” (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322272). He takes this “lifting up” as a sign of arrogance, not honor. It is our sin which raises our head as boasters. In verse five, not only is this man wounded, but his wounds smell. They are festering. Augustine compares this to the Christian as the sweet smell of life in Christ (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322283). As a result, in verse six, the same person who was lifted up is now bowed down. The signs we might use to exalt ourselves are used by God to humble us. This leads to mourning, even on a Sabbath festival (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322295). Augustine concludes that some sort of mourning is appropriate for us as long as we live on earth. “For true soundness is no other than immortality” (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322306). He sees this life as illusory, but still able to distract us from eternal reality. This eternal reality, Augustine says, is Christ, the Truth (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322314).
In comparison to the eternal reality of Christ, in verse eight, Augustine recognizes that we will all find ourselves “feeble” and “bowed down” (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322328). He recalls Paul’s vision of himself, caught up to heaven, faced with things that cannot be spoken, but which affirm God’s majesty even when unspoken (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322338). Our expressions of the unutterable normally take the form of “groaning of the heart,” as we are grieved and troubled in this world. Verse nine emphasizes that we wish to express our desires before God (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322352). We do this in prayer, though sometimes that prayer is a groaning we barely understand. Augustine recognizes and affirms that we often pray wrongly. Yet we continue in prayer and learn that God is able to correct our prayers (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322371).
Verse 10 brings us again to the issue of our troubled heart. Augustine can list many reasons that we would be troubled, valid reasons (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322375). Our courage fails in the face of trouble. This trouble, according to verse 11, also comes from our friends, not only our enemies. Here again Augustine speaks of Christ’s intimate understanding of our sin and of the hardships we face (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322388). Although we may fear and even depart from seeking God, in verse 12 we read that a failure to seek the Lord often results in hostility to God. We may find ourselves looking for wrongdoing on the part of God. However, we will not find it (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322417). Augustine observes that, in verses 13-14 the proper response to such activity is to treat it as an accusation not worthy of mention.
Verse 15 expresses dependence on God. He is the judge and defender. Augustine recognizes that with Christ in charge, we can stand up to all the accusations made against us (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322444). There may be trial and even scourging (v. 17). But this does not indicate failure or defeat. Augustine points out that God’s people will receive correction, but that his opponents may not. The reality is not in the scouraging but in the inheritance of eternal life (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322459). Augustine sees the pain and suffering we endure is due to sin as something which drives us to repentance and trust, receiving God’s forgiveness (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322484).
Verse 19 draws a distinction between the suffering of God’s people and the well-being of His enemies. Augustine illustrates the concept with other passages speaking to the prosperity of those who do not believe (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322490). Their actions of evil toward God’s people are notable. But Augustine is clear that they will not escape punishment in the end. Jesus, in his death, took the penalty of death for all who believe. He will not forsake His people. The very cry of weakness coming from the Christian asks God to show himself as strong, what He particularly does (v. 22) (Augustine Psalms, loc. 322529).