Sickness and Divine Punishment in the Psalms

I’ve been reading a lot of the Psalms for work in the past six or seven days, and I’ve noticed that physical sickness – despite how ridiculous this sounds to modern readers – is often associated with the Lord’s disfavor, and healing with the Lord’s favor. Enemies often mock the narrator, pointing out that his God must not care enough to heal his chosen one, and sometimes sickness even leads to the desertion of friends. In Psalm 41, for instance, the narrator says, “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, / who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me” (RSV). Being deserted by friends in a time of sickness seems so counterintuitive. Wouldn’t friends gather more closely and become more supportive during times like these? One would think so. But, this being a Davidic psalm and as such being associated with a position of leadership, it makes me wonder if, in a culture where sickness is associated with divine punishment, would a friend’s desertion during a leader’s sickness be akin to the crew of a ship growing mutinous when they fear their captain is lost or misguided? Did they believe that being associated with a person whom God has clearly singled out for punishment would possibly bring further punishment on them? Guilty by association? I don’t know, but it makes me wonder what kind of social customs might have been in place that would lead friend to desert friend. Could divine punishment be passed along like a contagion carries a sickness? It might depend on the context, whether the narrator is asking to be vindicated in light of his innocence or is asking for forgiveness in light of his iniquity. In other words, is a friend’s desertion an indication of further disfavor with the Lord, or is it an actual betrayal, a sign that the narrator’s status in the eyes of the Lord is really the important factor? On top of all this, I’m sure that sickness and divine punishment had more social ramifications than they do today. Exclusion from the community would have been the worst thing next to death. Sickness equaled physical exclusion; divine disfavor equaled spiritual exclusion. The latter is a metaphor for the former. Just some thoughts.


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