For the director of music. With stringed instruments. According to sheminith. A psalm of David.

This is the first of the ‘penitential’ psalms (Psa  6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143).

Broyles encourages us to think not so much of the circumstances out of which a psalm like the present one was composed, but rather of the circumstances for which it was composed.

Psa 6:1 O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Psa 6:2 Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint;
O LORD, heal me, for my bones are in agony.
Psa 6:3 My soul is in anguish.
How long, O LORD, how long?

The psalmist is almost lost for words, such is his anguish.  Whatever the outward circumstances that prompted this outpouring, he knows that he is liable to God’s ‘anger’ and ‘wrath’.

O Lord – the ‘foes are not the psalmist’s main problem. Rather, the real problem is God!… But if God is the problem, God is also the solution.’ (McCann)

Do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath – Even though there is no explicit confession of sin in this psalm, the psalmist seems to regard his present painful condition as connected with personal transgression.

Rebuke…discipline – ‘God hath two means by which he reduceth his children to obedience; his word, by which he rebukes them; and his rod, by which he chastiseth them.’ (A. Symson)

Bones…soul are parallel rather than contrastive.  They simply represent the whole person, rather than two sides (the physical and spiritual) of human nature.

Heal me, for my bones are in agony – Much of the language of this psalm suggests physical illness, perhaps even to the point of death (cf. v5).  But the key problem might equally be psychological (depression?) or spiritual.  How literal or metaphorical this language is, we cannot be sure.

How long? – This plea underscores not only the duration of the suffering, but also the belief that both it and its relief lie within the control of a sovereign God.

‘For those who suffer, it is not just the physical suffering that causes anguish but also the mental suffering of not knowing how long the anguish will linger.’ (NICOT)

‘Out of this we have three things to observe:-

  1. that there is an appointed time which God hath measured for the crosses of all his children, before which time they shall not be delivered, and for which they must patiently attend, not thinking to prescribe time to God for their delivery, or limit the Holy One of Israel. The Israelites remained in Egypt till the complete number of four hundred and thirty years were accomplished. Joseph was three years and more in the prison till the appointed time of his delivery came. The Jews remained seventy years in Babylon…
  2. see the impatiency of our nature in our miseries, our flesh still rebelling against the Spirit, which oftentimes forgetteth itself so far, that it will enter into reasoning with God, and quarrelling with him, as we may read in Job, Jonas, etc., and here also of David.
  3. albeit the Lord delay his coming to relieve his saints, yet hath he great cause if we could ponder it; for when we were in the heat of our sins, many times he cried by the mouth of his prophets and servants, “O fools, how long will you continue in your folly?” And we would not hear; and therefore when we are in the heat of our pains, thinking long, yea, every day a year till we be delivered, no wonder is it if God will not hear; let us consider with ourselves the just dealing of God with us; that as he cried and we would not hear, so now we cry, and he will not hear.’ (A. Symson, numbering added)

Psa 6:4 Turn, O LORD, and deliver me;
save me because of your unfailing love.
Psa 6:5 No one remembers you when he is dead.
Who praises you from the grave?

Your unfailing love – This is covenant love; the love with which the Lord has bound himself to his people, and they to him.

No one remembers you when he is dead – This is experiential, rather than doctrinal, language.  It is matched by ‘various phrases that highlight the tragedy of death as that which silences a man’s worship (as here; cf 30:9; 88:10f.; 115:17; Isa. 38:18f.), shatters his plans (146:4), cuts him off from God and man (88:5; Eccl. 2:16) and makes an end of him (39:13). These are cries from the heart, that life is all too short, and death implacable and decisive (39:12f.; 49:7ff.; cf. John 9:4; Heb. 9:27); they are not denials of God’s sovereignty beyond the grave, for in fact Sheol lies open before him (Prov. 15:11) and he is ‘there’ (Ps. 139:8). If he no longer ‘remembers’ the dead (88:5), it is not that he forgets as men forget, but that he brings to an end his saving interventions (88:12; for with God to remember is to act: cf. e.g. Gen. 8:1; 30:22).’ (Kidner)

Grogan: the psalmist’s assertion here may reflect an awareness ‘that death would cut him off from worship in God’s house rather than a theological comment on life after death.’

‘Were Yahweh not to intervene, he would lose a worshiper and the speaker would lose God.’ (Broyles)

Wilson (NIVAC) similarly: ‘Unlike the Christian view of heavenly existence after death, there is no chorus of the faithful eternally singing the praises of God around his heavenly throne. Sheol is, by contrast, mute and silent. So the psalmist plays a trump   p 181  card: If God wishes to hear the praises of the faithful, he must keep them alive now, with their voices primed with thankfulness for his deliverance!’

The grave is ‘sheol’, pictured poetically as ‘a vast sepulchral cavern (cf. Ezek. 32:18–32) or stronghold (Pss 9:13; 107:18; Matt. 16:18); but also as a dark wasteland (Job 10:22) or as a beast of prey (e.g. Isa. 5:14; Jon. 2:2; Hab. 2:5)’ (Kidner).

‘The conception of death and the afterlife implicit here is that of the OT in general (with the exception of some of the later writings, which reflect the beginning of eschatological thought). The state of the dead is not differentiated with respect to good and evil persons; there is no clear distinction here between heaven and hell. Sheol was conceived as a kind of underworld; the word is translated in G as hades (ᾄδῃ). In Sheol, persons were believed to exist in a form of semi-life, at rest, yet not in joy, for they had not the fullness of life which made possible the richness of relationship with the living God. Death was thus to be dreaded. The psalmist feared death, for in the state of Sheol there would be neither memory of God, nor the praise and worship of God.’ (Craigie & Tate, WBC)

‘Churchyards are silent places; the vaults of the sepulchre echo not with songs. Damp earth covers dumb mouths.’ (Spurgeon)

Craigie & Tate remark on the difficulty that modern believers have in entering into the thought-world of psalms such as this one.  We have what the psalmist did not have, namely, a clear belief in a life lived in God’s presence beyond the grave.  Such a belief began to emerge in the later writings of the OT, developed during the inter-testamental period, and was still in dispute (between the Sadducees and the Pharisees) in NT times.  For the psalmist, this present life terminates with death, and beyond lies the shadowy, large-unknown experience of Sheol.  Sickness in the present life is, in some ways, an anticipation of Sheol.  If praise and rejocing are difficult in times of sickness, in Sheol they are impossible.

Psa 6:6 I am worn out from groaning;
all night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
Psa 6:7 My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
they fail because of all my foes.

This is the language of extreme anguish and exhaustion.  No coherent prayer is possible, only groaning.  Even the foes who would normally have roused David to action only serve to crush his spirit (Kidner).  And yet this human extremity proves to be God’s opportunity.  What appears to be rock-bottom is, in fact, a turning point.

Spurgeon observes: ‘Conviction sometimes has such an effect upon the body, that even the outward organs are made to suffer. May not this explain some of the convulsions and hysterical attacks which have been experienced under convictions in the revivals in Ireland? Is it surprising that some souls be smitten to the earth, and begin to cry aloud; when we find that David himself made his bed to swim, and grew old while he was under the heavy hand of God?’

All night long – it is at night that ‘when darkness, silence, and the cold forebode the loneliness of the grave.’ (Broyles)

My foes – ‘The pirates seeing an empty bark, pass by it; but if she be loaded with precious wares, then they will assault her. So, if a man have no grace within him, Satan passeth by him as not a convenient prey for him; but being loaded with graces, as the love of God, his fear, and such other spiritual virtues, let him be persuaded that according as he knows what stuff is in him, so will he not fail to rob him of them, if in any case he may.’  (A. Symson)

Psa 6:8 Away from me, all you who do evil,
for the LORD has heard my weeping.
Psa 6:9 The LORD has heard my cry for mercy;
the LORD accepts my prayer.
Psa 6:10 All my enemies will be ashamed and dismayed;
they will turn back in sudden disgrace.

The key now shifts from minor to major.  In fact, as Broyles remarks, there are two major shifts at this point: from despair to confidence, and from addressing the Lord in the first person to referring to him in the third person.  Broyles thinks that these shifts are best explained liturgically.

Away from me, all you who do evil – this might be understood in terms of repelling an attack.  David can speak to his enemies (although we need to suppose that they were actually present) with absolute confidence, knowing that victory over them, though yet future, is assured.  Alternately, it might indicate a refusal to associate with evil and evil-doers.

The Lord has heard my weeping – ‘What a strange change is here all of a sudden! Well might Luther say, “Prayer is the leech of the soul, that sucks out the venom and swelling thereof.” “Prayer,” saith another, “is an exorcist with God, and an exorcist against sin and misery.” Bernard saith, “How oft hath prayer found me despairing almost, but left me triumphing, and well assured of pardon!”‘ (Trapp)

‘Repentance is a practical thing. It is not enough to bemoan the desecration of the temple of the heart, we must scourge out the buyers and sellers, and overturn the tables of the money changers. A pardoned sinner will hate the sins which cost the Saviour his blood. Grace and sin are quarrelsome neighbours, and one or the other must go to the wall.’ (Spurgeon)

As far as we can tell, there has been no change yet in David’s circumstances.  What has changed is his perception that God has heard and accepted his prayer.

‘Many of the mournful Psalms end in this manner, to instruct the believer that he is continually to look forward, and solace himself with beholding that day, when his warfare shall be accomplished; when sin and sorrow shall be no more; when sudden and everlasting confusion shall cover the enemies of righteousness; when the sackcloth of the penitent shall be exchanged for a robe of glory, and every tear becomes a sparkling gem in his crown; when to sighs and groans shall succeed the songs of heaven, set to angels harps, and faith shall be resolved into the vision of the Almighty.’ (George Horne)

Wilson (NIVAC) remarks that some readers accuse the psalmists of ‘always whining’!  Where, they ask, is the joy of believing?  And it is not only casual readers who avoid dwelling on these seemingly more negative writings: modern hymn-books and liturgies often do the same.  But, as Wilson says, we must begin by recognising that these psalms are all a part of God’s inspired word to us. Following Wilson, we may identify three themes as they emerge in this psalm:

  1. living in a disordered world.  Life is difficult and dangerous, but we are right to push against this, and ask God to bring good out of evil.
  2. bargaining with God.  This is apparent in v5f, where the psalmist argues that he is more use to God alive than dead!
  3. rejecting the evildoers (distancing himself from those who would undermine his faith and obedience).