The Literary Study Bible explains that Psalm 38 is a penitential psalm, “a variation on the conventional lament psalm” in which “the poet defines a dire crisis and asks for God’s deliverance. But the twists on the lament form are these: the speaker’s antagonist is not an external enemy but himself; the threat is not physical threat or slander but spiritual guilt; the petition is to be delivered not from a threat to life or political oppression but from peril of soul.”
In other words, a penitential psalm is about waiting for God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness is part of God’s love, which He has promised to those who confess and repent (see 1 John 1:9).
But in what sense do we wait for it? Forgiveness is part of the process of God’s ongoing work in our lives. Sin’s effects are not undone instantaneously, nor are God’s grace and forgiveness instantly in full control in our lives.
While waiting, David felt cut off from his relationship with God by the guilt of his sin (vv. 1–2, 18). He felt the sting of God’s righteous discipline for his “sinful folly” (v. 5). He felt lonely, since his friends were avoiding him, and vulnerable, since his enemies were trying to take advantage of the situation (vv. 11–12, 19–20). It was all too much to bear, to the extent that many interpreters see in the psalmist’s words evidence of a physical ailment as well (vv. 3–10). But what David was primarily doing in this psalm was expressing intense grief over his sin (vv. 6, 8, 18).
Even while describing his feelings in such terms, David waited in hope and faith. He had absolute confidence that God would answer (v. 15). “Come quickly to help me, my Lord and my Savior” (v. 22).
When we know our troubles are a result of our sin, it can be a depressing blow to our pride. But in these times we can discover all the more quickly what was always true—that God’s grace and forgiveness are our only hope! If this is your situation, use the words of Psalm 38 as your own personal prayer to your Lord and Savior today.