Psalm 38 – Did King David have Gonorrhea?

No one is beyond God’s love.

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.

My wounds fester and are loathsome
    because of my sinful folly.
I am bowed down and brought very low;
    all day long I go about mourning.
My back is filled with searing pain;
    there is no health in my body.
I am feeble and utterly crushed;
    I groan in anguish of heart.

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.

13 I am like the deaf, who cannot hear,
    like the mute, who cannot speak;
14 I have become like one who does not hear,
    whose mouth can offer no reply.
15 Lord, I wait for you;
    you will answer, Lord my God.
16 For I said, “Do not let them gloat
    or exalt themselves over me when my feet slip.”

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;
    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 psalm is a perfect example of why translations get contentious.  So, in my NIV translation, v. 7 reads “my back is filled with searing pain, there is no health in my body.”  But, in other translations, including the King James, RSV (basically the Catholic Bible), and American Standard Version (and maybe some others, those are just the three I checked), it reads along the lines of: “For my loins are filled with a loathsome disease; there is no soundness in my flesh.”  Based on which translation you read, we just went from a thrown back to gonorrhea.

Which one is “right?” I don’t know.  Going through some different translations, I’ve also seen v. 7 complain of not the back or loins but sides, insides, or no specific part of the body at all, just that the writer is “burning with fever.”  Is it possible David (the attributed author of the Psalm) had an STD?  Sure, he had at least eight wives, for a start.  Also, some venereal diseases can be spread through non-sexual contact-if you come in contact with someone else’s blood, for example, so it’s possible he picked something up during warfare.  I’ve also seen hypothesis that David had arthritis, which would certainly cause his back to be filled with searing pain, and can even attack your eyes-v. 10 says “even the light has gone from my eyes.” Another suggests David had diabetes, which can cause cascading health problems if not managed properly, including pain and vision problems. Maybe poor King David had all three.

Whatever his ailment, there are two lessons we can learn from this Psalm: first, prayer isn’t always pretty.  This is one long lament.  This one is a little more organized, but some of these lament psalms are pretty all over the place, which just makes them more genuine, in my opinion. When in distress, especially physical distress, who among is at their most coherent? Certainly not me!  But we don’t need to be.  God understands even our unspoken prayers, the ones we don’t even realize we’re praying. “I groan in anguish of heart / All my longings lie open before you, Lord, my sighing is not hidden from you,” vv. 8-9 say.  In other words, we have no secrets from God, he even understands our wordless sighs.  Taking time out for dedicated prayer is a wonderful practice, but don’t feel like that’s the only way to speak to God.  We can pray to him anywhere, anytime, in any way.  I whisper quick little prayers of exasperation pleading for help and patience (sometimes interlaced with more than a few f-bombs, I’ll admit) trying to get two uncooperative children out the door or any time the dogs get loose.  So like I said, prayer isn’t always pretty – but doesn’t that make it more approachable, and, in turn, God more approachable?

The second lesson is, no one is beyond God’s love.  David is a murderer, adulterer, and afflicted with serious physical problems-whatever they may be.  But he is also beloved by God.  God gave David a kingdom and extended David’s line even unto Jesus Christ himself.  In fact, Son of David is one of Jesus’ special designations.  Remembering no one is beyond God’s love is a hard lesson to keep in mind, because I find the beliefs and actions of so many people – people who call themselves Christians – to be absolutely repugnant and counter to what I believe true Christian teachings are.

But there is the double-edged sword, if you will, of that exact belief: If I believe God is above all about love, even if I think someone is not loving, I am required to be loving to them.  As I’ve said before, “loving” is not the same as giving everyone a free pass.  Even here, David recognizes this, as he believes he is being physically punished for sins of the spirit.  I get uncomfortable blaming physical ailment upon people’s “sins,” because many good people are sick through no fault of their own. As an aside, all this talk of “guilt” and “sinful folly” backs up the possibility that this affliction, is, indeed, an STD, if David is mourning his sin of coveting another’s wife (or wives).  But the point is God’s own beloved David had his fair share (or more) of rebuke and misery.  If someone is acting in a way that is harmful to others (say, promoting hate-speech against Muslims or other non-Christian groups), I will speak and act against them.  I will not, however, condemn them.  If possible, I will try to show them the error of their ways, lead by example in my own life, and, should they have a change of heart, I will rejoice with them.

I haven’t even touched upon the fact that it is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.  So I will quickly, in closing.  Lent is a season when we remember Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, resisting temptation.  I just recently learned that “Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lencten, meaning spring.  Spring is certainly a time of hope and renewal, and some may think it seems weird that such a somber period in the liturgical calendar comes at such a time in the year.  But, we also have the saying “April is the cruelest month,” and as a farmer, I now know why that is so, and why Lent occurs now. Early spring is one of the leanest times of year, something we forget in the age of supermarkets and year-round peaches.  Historically, early spring is when winter stores of food are lowest.  And while the earth is greening, there is still little in the way to harvest.  We wait in anticipation for the renewal of the Earth and the return of our Savior, watching the ground come back to life but unable to yet partake of it’s bounty.  Now is the perfect time to consume a little less, spend a little more time in prayer, and work on building a world worthy of Jesus’ resurrection on just a few short weeks.  Whether or not you practice giving something up during Lent (some years I do, some years I don’t), I do hope you’ll spend a little more time with God, even if it is just starting with praying for your lost car keys.  Remember that you are worthy of God’s love and can always talk to God, even if it isn’t pretty.