Life, Hope & Truth

Psalms for the Sick

Are you faithful to God, yet suffering from serious health problems? Does that discourage you? Do you feel that God doesn’t hear? The psalms for the sick offer comfort!

The Psalms are a favorite section of Scripture for many reasons, but have you ever turned to them for guidance when dealing with extreme or lingering illnesses?

Many psalms tell a story of faithful servants of God enduring serious problems. Their message applies to all forms of heavy trials, but especially so to chronic health trials, which are among the most difficult to bear.

The stories these psalms for the sick tell are real—brutally real—and for that very reason, they offer genuine encouragement.

Examples from Psalm 119

For example, consider these phrases found in the well-known Psalm 119 (quoted from the New International Version):

  • “I am laid low in the dust.”
  • “My soul is weary with sorrow.”
  • “My comfort in my suffering …”
  • “Before I was afflicted …”
  • “It was good for me to be afflicted.”
  • “My soul faints with longing for your salvation [rescue].”
  • “My eyes fail, looking for your promise.”
  • “I say, ‘When will you comfort me?’”
  • “I am like a wineskin in the smoke [shriveled up].”
  • “I have suffered much.”
  • “Trouble and distress have come upon me.”
  • “I rise before dawn and cry for help.”
  • “My eyes stay open through the watches of the night.”
  • “Look on my suffering.”

These speak with surprising candor about real struggles experienced by the psalmist. They demonstrate that people can be faithful to God and yet have long, drawn-out trials, including health issues.

Psalm 23 and Psalm 22 give a similar message

Have you ever looked at the 23rd Psalm from this point of view? “He restores my soul” implies that something had drained King David of strength. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have needed to be restored. The NIV reads, “He refreshes and restores my soul (life).” The Voice has: “He makes me whole again, steering me off worn, hard paths.”

Then there is this famous line: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” The NIV has “the darkest valley.” This speaks to the reality of having to face serious trials.

Phillip Keller wrote in A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 that shepherds typically moved their flocks to lowlands in the winter and to the mountain meadows in the summer. To do this, twice a year they had to walk through shadowed ravines and valleys where dangerous predators lurked.

The psalm isn’t just about facing death, but also many other dark valleys that we walk through in the course of everyday life.

Another of David’s famous psalms is Psalm 22, perhaps best known as a messianic prophecy. It begins with the mournful cry, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

In addition to prophesying of Christ, this speaks of David experiencing intense misery. He wrestled with why God had not spared him great pain. The man written of here is physically tormented, sleep-deprived, drained of energy and stripped of any hope of immediate relief.

These are the words of a man suffering pain throughout his body. Every joint aches. Yet the prayer concludes with his mind filled with hope, confident that God was with him.These are the words of a man suffering pain throughout his body. Every joint aches. Yet the prayer concludes with his mind filled with hope, confident that God was with him: “You have answered Me” (Psalm 22:21).

This upswing in attitude hints at the comfort and advice the Psalms offer the sick. Before expanding upon this thought, let’s look at additional messages about suffering servants.

Chronic pain, fatigue, anxiety, insomnia

In Psalm 102, an unidentified psalmist prayed about living through a difficulty without end and stress that seemed to be more than he could bear. One day ran into another, because every day was the same. Pain burned right to his bones. His condition left him without any appetite. This, along with his ailment, had reduced him to skin and bones. (Does this sound familiar?)

Typical of such situations, his sleep was erratic, and he admitted to weeping often. “I wither away like grass,” he sighed to God, pleading, “Do not take me away in the midst of my days” (Psalm 102:11, 24).

Yet, even with his extremely difficult situation, his overall outlook on the future was positive. That clearly comes about after many long, thoughtful, heartfelt prayers.

In Psalm 31, in only a few words, King David is able to convey feelings of torment, having passed the point of being able to cope either mentally or physically. You can see the chronic nature of the ailment, which lasted a period of years. His choice of words, “my bones grow weak” (NIV), is a perfect description of chronic fatigue.

In Psalm 32:3 David again wrote of enduring a chronic ailment in which his “bones grew old” (“wasted away,” NIV)—perhaps describing fatigue or a degenerative disease. The complaint continues, “My energy (vitality, strength) was drained away as with the burning heat of summer” (Psalm 32:4, Amplified Bible).

In Psalm 34 David spoke of fears (verse 4), troubles (verses 6, 17), a broken heart and a contrite spirit (verse 18), and many afflictions (verse 19).

Today people with complexes and anxieties can relate to “fears” and “troubles.” A broken heart could describe depression, as well as the natural reaction to major disappointments. The Hebrew word from which “contrite” is translated means “destruction, a crumbled substance, an object crushed into a powder, or pulverized dust” (Spiros Zodhiates, ed., The Complete Word Study Bible Dictionary, 2003). These few words certainly convey going through rough times!

I want to interject here that these messages take nothing away from God’s promise to heal, from the fact that He has the power to heal, or from the fact that He does heal. See our articles “Divine Healing” and “Scriptures on Healing” for the indisputable biblical teaching on this.

Yet these many psalms attest to the fact that God will also work with His people through times of illness. Because that is so, it is encouraging to review these psalms in times of need.

Depressed, lonely and burdened by guilt

Grief of mind can be as debilitating as any sickness, disease or injury. Solomon wrote in Psalm 72 of victims of violent crime, abuse and fraud. “For he will rescue the needy when he cries for help, the afflicted and abused also, and him who has no helper. … He will redeem their life from oppression and fraud and violence, and their blood will be precious in His sight” (Psalm 72:12, 14, Amplified Bible).

In Psalm 38 David wrote of poor health, chronic fatigue and anxiety from an overwhelming sense of guilt. “I am bent over and greatly bowed down; I go about mourning all day long. For my sides are filled with burning, and there is no health in my flesh. I am numb and greatly bruised [deadly cold and completely worn out]; I groan because of the disquiet and moaning of my heart” (verses 6-8, Amplified Bible).

David could see where his actions brought on some or all of his suffering on this occasion. That didn’t change the depth of his misery. Whether caused by personal sin, the sins of others, disease, accident or genetics, physical suffering is still physical suffering! And, therefore, these are words that can nourish our souls when we are hurting. David talked with God often and long, pleading his case, seeking the health God will always give—a healthy spirit.

Facing debilitating health can cause overwhelming discouragement. A different psalmist spoke of this in Psalm 42. Any believer whose health prevents him from attending worship services and fellowshipping with people of like mind will identify with these words.

“My heart is breaking as I remember how it used to be: I walked among the crowds of worshipers, leading a great procession to the house of God, singing for joy and giving thanks amid the sound of a great celebration!” (Psalm 42:4, New Living Translation).

Every time his spirit falters, the person needs to dig into the Scriptures and pray, so that God can restore his faith.The psalmist then scolded himself for feeling low. The self-reproof is repeated, showing the cyclical nature of the sadness and depression common to a believer dealing with a chronic condition. Every time his spirit falters, the person needs to dig into the Scriptures and pray, so that God can restore his faith.

A threefold message

A common thread begins to show in Psalm 13. It speaks of another trial that has also gone on for a long time. David’s life literally hung in the balance. And there is a sense of despair in his words as he wrestled with concerns that God had abandoned him.

It wouldn’t be unusual for anyone to be depressed under similar circumstances. But, eventually, his spirit and courage recovered the hope and trust that God was with him.

“How long, O Eternal One? How long will You forget me? Forever? How long will You look the other way? How long must I agonize, grieving Your absence in my heart every day? How long will You let my enemies win?

“Turn back; respond to me, O Eternal, my True God! Put the spark of life in my eyes, or I’m dead. My enemies will boast they have beaten me; my foes will celebrate that I have stumbled.

“But I trust in Your faithful love; my heart leaps at the thought of imminent deliverance by You. I will sing to the Eternal, for He is always generous with me” (The Voice).

Herein is a threefold theme that is threaded through all the psalms about suffering chronic illnesses:

  1. Some of God’s servants truly suffered physically.
  2. Their trials went on and on to the point that they wondered if God heard their cries.
  3. God restored their faith, even if not always their physical health.

These themes of the psalms for the sick are all encapsulated in Psalm 6.

The first part of the theme, how greatly he suffered: “I am faint … my bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. … I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow” (NIV).

These might seem to be overly dramatic expressions—until you’ve been in the same place.

The second part of the theme, his suffering was chronic: “Have mercy on me, LORD, … heal me, LORD. … How long, LORD, how long? Turn, LORD, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love” (verses 2-4, NIV).

The plaintive tone also indicates that David has been dealing with his troubles for a long time—that God did not provide immediate relief. David even sensed that the possibility of death was very real. He reasoned with God about this: “Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave?” (verse 5, NIV).

I believe that these few words are just a summary of many heartfelt prayers poured out to God, often with tears. A person doesn’t have this type of prayerful discussion with God after only a few days of feeling poorly. It indicates a trial of long duration. The prayer is truly a wringing of the heart.

Naturally, David would be tempted to doubt whether God had heard those cries. And the words echo the thoughts and fears of many believers who have struggled long with a major health crisis.

The heart is revived

Now, let’s look at the third part of the theme, that God restored the spirit of the faithful sufferer. We sense courage and strength in the psalmist’s words: “The LORD has heard my weeping. The LORD has heard my cry for mercy; the LORD accepts my prayer. All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish; they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame” (verses 9-10, NIV).

By the way, this and many other psalms contain references to enemies. In the culture of the day, that would include political and military opponents, but also devastating health issues. For the purposes of this article, I am focusing only on the latter.

Psalm 6 doesn’t say that all the enemies were defeated, but rather that the enemies will be beaten. And it doesn’t say when. It doesn’t say that God relieved David of his physical suffering. But Psalm 6 is plain about the fact that David’s faith was renewed. He had full confidence that God was with him, regardless of circumstances. David was assured that God would see him through. His faith and hope had been revived.

God sometimes rescues believers in crisis exactly the way we would like—restoring them to full physical strength and function. He has the power to do that with any illness or injury! But, in His unique wisdom and love, God sometimes allows a health issue to continue to plague us. That is because He has a greater purpose in mind. (What possible reason could God have? We address this in a series of articles in this section of our online library: “Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering?”).

God rescues the spirit

Even then, God always rescues the spirit if people faithfully trust Him. They might well have to endure in prayer. But God will bolster the inner man and give him hope, regardless of “enemies” that he may see. God enables him to face whatever he must.

Finally, notice this promise about how God is with the needy: “The LORD will strengthen him on his bed of illness; You will sustain him on his sickbed” (Psalm 41:3, emphasis added). The fact that he is still on the bed means that the illness is chronic. It is very clear that God can be with a faithful person, when he might be tempted to think otherwise by looking only at what he can see.

I am grateful that God allowed these servants of His from thousands of years ago to experience serious trials, trials such as you and I experience today. I am also grateful that God inspired these servants to write their true feelings in the form of prayers or songs. It shows us that God can be with a faithful person, even while he or she endures pain. That God never leaves His faithful servants alone.

When you face protracted troubles that threaten your health—or even your life—read these psalms for the sick. Make them your prayers. Take your fears and concerns to God like the psalmists did. God will revive your spirit too!

About the Author

Cecil Maranville

Cecil Maranville is a minister of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association. He works with the responses to questions our readers send to this website.

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