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Penitential Psalms: The Amazing Psalm 6

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Psalm 6 is a psalm of “firsts,” when compared with Psalms 1 through 5 in the Septuagint English.

1. First mention of substitutionary sin (vs 1) 

  • Psalms 1-3. These carry no thought of sin by the speaker; all is righteousness
  • Psalm 4. Emphasizes the speaker’s righteousness in comparison with his enemies’ sins
  • Psalm 5. Condemns wickedness, extols righteousness, and proclaims God’s welcome to the righteous, among whom the psalmist includes himself
  • Psalm 6. V1–rebuke, wrath, anger mentioned. “Rebuke me not,” etc. While there is no confession of sin, questions about the Lord’s disfavor are strongly implied. This is why I write, “substitutionary sin.” (See also “Penitential Psalms: Psalm 6“)

2. First express mention of weakness (vs 2)b

  • Psalms 1 and 2. All positive toward the righteous speaker
  • Psalm 3. Emphasizes the psalmist’s personal dependence upon the Lord, but there is no confession of weakness; all is trust in the Lord
  • Psalm 4. “Thou has made room for me in tribulation; pity me, and hearken to my prayer” (vs 1) expresses an implication of need in the phrase “pity me” (οἰκτίρησόν με), yet there is no direct statement of weakness
  • Psalm 5. Rejoices in the strength of the Lord for the righteous
  • Psalm 6. Vv 2-7 list the weaknesses and ailments of the speaker. Verse 2 names weakness: “Pity me, O Lord; for I am weak:” (languishing ESV, faint NIV, frail NET, weak KJV)

3. First mention of psalmist’s being diseased 

  • Psalms 1 and 2. Strength and well-being for the righteous man (Ps 1) and King (Ps 2).
  • Psalm 3. Mention of enemies, but with a strong voice that recounts the prior blessings
  • Psalm 4. Spoken from a state of confident well-being (see especially vv 7 and 8)
  • Psalm 5. Speaks predominantly against the wicked while voicing the confident assurance in the Lord of the righteous
  • Psalm 6. Vv 2-7 are a litany of ailments and concerns: bones are vexed (3), soul vexed (3), death in view (5), weariness, groaning, tears (6), troubled eyes, worn out (7)

4. First mention of God’s extensive non-answering of the prayers of the psalmist

  • Psalms 1-2. No prayer
  • Psalm 3 (vs 4) “I cried to the Lord with my voice, and he heard me out of his holy mountain. Pause.”
  • Psalm 4. God answers strongly (vv 1, 3, 6, 7, and 8)
  • Psalm 5.
    • confidence that prayer will be answered (vs 3 )
    • confidence in Lord’s mercy and the psalmist’s own strength in that mercy (vs 7)
    • confidence in blessed outcome for the righteous on account of the Lord’s love of righteousness (vv 11-12)
  • Psalm 6.
    • fear that the Lord is rebuking and angry (vs 1)
    • plea for pity that remains unanswered (vs 2)
    • statement of frustration with the great length of time in which the Lord has not answered, “but thou, O Lord, how long?” (vs 3)
    • request that the Lord would turn back toward him, implying that God had removed himself from the speaker (vs 4), “Return, O Lord”
    • urgency expressed by the psalmist that he is nearing death (vs 5), “For in death no man remembers thee: and who will give thee thanks in Hades?”
    • the Lord finally answers (vv 8-9), “8 …for the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping.  9 The Lord has hearkened to my petition; the Lord has accepted my prayer.”

5. First mention of death and Hades as a possible outcome for the psalmist

  • Psalms 1-2. Pure strength and blessing
  • Psalms 3-5. No thought that the outcome for the psalmist might be death
  • Psalm 6. (vs 5) “For in death no man remembers thee: and who will give the thanks in Hades?”

6. First mention of grief

  • Psalm 1. Blessings to the righteous and judgment to the wicked
  • Psalm 2. Glory for the King and punishment for his enemies
  • Psalm 3. Prayer of strong trust and confidence in deliverance by the Lord
  • Psalm 4. Alternate direct address to the Lord and to the psalmist’s enemies; strong faith in Lord expressed to the enemies; strong confidence in the Lord for his past acts of salvation; also, one short phrase in verse 1, “pity me”
  • Psalm 5. Confident prayer in the orderly way God rules: judgment upon the wicked; blessings and intimacy with God’s righteous followers
  • Psalm 6. While there is no use of words such as lowly, sorrowful, and mourn, there are some poignant descriptions of these: (vs 6) I am wearied with my groaning; I shall wash my bed every night; I shall water my couch with tears; (vs 7) Mine eye is troubled because of my wrath; I am worn out because of all my enemies.

7. First mention of enemies having some success 

  • Psalm 1. The wicked have nothing but God’s judgment
  • Psalm 2. The wicked rebel with no success whatever. God laughs and scorns them
  • Psalm 3. There are large numbers of enemies; no outcome mentioned
  • Psalm 4. No thought is given that the enemies have any success throughout the long duration of their obstinance
  • Psalm 5.
    • Verse 9 contains a detailed description of the wicked and their acts;
    • there are supplications (vs 10) and statements of confidence (vv 4-6) that the Lord will destroy the enemies (See Psalms 1 and 2)
    • there are descriptions of God’s love for righteousness (vv 4, 6, 8) and his blessings for the righteous (vs 10)
    • there is no mention of any enemy success
  • Psalm 6. Vs 7b “I am worn out because of all my enemies. 8 Depart from me, all ye that work iniquity; for the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping.” Note: The lengthy descriptions of the psalmist’s woes in verses 1-7a does not state that the enemies are the cause of this grief; it could be the Lord himself. The enemies are not mentioned until verse 8.

8. First mention that the Lord appears to be angry with the psalmist and may be punishing him

  • Psalms 1-5. Contain no mention of anything but the goodness and favor of the Lord toward the psalmist and the righteous, of whom he is one
  • Psalm 6. Clearly refers to the wrath and anger of the Lord toward the psalmist, either actual or suspected. The psalm opens with these words, “O Lord, rebuke me not in they wrath, neither chasten me in thine anger” (vs 1). It continues with, “3 My soul also is grievously vexed: but thou, O Lord, how long? 4 Return, O Lord, deliver my soul:”
  • Note: Although the readers’ suspicions are aroused in Psalm 6 that the Lord himself may be punishing the psalmist, the reader cannot be certain. Other psalms spell out the Lord’s wrath upon the psalmist directly and clearly. See, for example, Psalm 88:7-8.

9. First mention of physical nearness of enemies to the psalmist individually

  • Psalm 1. No direct enemies per se; rather the wicked generally, who displease the Lord
  • Psalm 2. Enemies are a large distance away, far removed from the authoritative, all-powerful King
  • Psalm 3. Multitudes of enemies, but arrayed as in a battle. The psalmist is not alone, and God is near.
  • Psalm 4. God is near and supportive of the psalmist. The scene is like an oration to crowds.
  • Psalm 5. The psalmist appears to be in a private sanctuary in prayer; many enemies but none in physical proximity
  • Psalm 6. The enemies are close by: “Depart from me, all ye that work iniquity; for the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping” (vs 8). “Let all mine enemies be put to shame and sore troubled: let them be turned back and grievously put to shame speedily” (vs 10).

10. First extended length of intense petition by the psalmist for himself

  • Psalms 1-2. No petitions, none necessary
  • Psalm 2. Personal enemies arise; psalmist asks why? (vs 1); one direct petition (vs 7), “Arise, Lord; deliver me, my God:”
  • Psalm 4. None
  • Psalm 5.
    • Vv 1-2 “hearken…attend…attend”
    • Vs 8 “lead me…make my way plain”
    • Vs 10 “judge them…cast them out”
    • Vs 11 “let all that trust in thee be glad in thee”
  • Psalm 6. Vv 1-4 “rebuke me not…neither chasten me…pity me…heal me…how long?…return…deliver…save”

Comments

The most amazing feature of this and so many other psalms is how the psalmist, in spite of his difficult trials and seeming abandonment and possible punishment by the Lord himself–how the psalmist continues to quietly and submissively turn to the Lord in complete trust and utter dependence upon his goodness and ultimate favor. (We might call it God’s love.) There is no doubt and certainly no anger. This is how the “righteous” so often mentioned in Psalms love out their faith.

Secondly, when searching through the Psalter for the messianic prophecies announced by Jesus himself to the two Emmaus disciples (Luke 24:25-27) and the gathering of his eleven and others back in Jerusalem (Luke 24:44-48), it is important to remember that although these disciples had walked and talked with Jesus for nearly three years, they had completely missed the references to him, his death, and his resurrection in Psalms and their other Scripture. They needed to be taught by Jesus explicitly and directly. Where are those teachers today?

Except for direct quotations in the New Testament, I believe that our 21st century church has lost sight of the vast quantity of messianic prophecy contained in the Psalter. This is to a large extent the result of scholars having atomized, or separated out into tiny pieces, individual verses and phrases within the psalms. It is also the result of having quenched the great interpreter, the Holy Spirit, with the icy disbelief of academia. The result is that Psalms, and indeed Old Testament Scripture generally, ceased to be looked upon as a unified whole. The art and learned skill of reading Scripture side by side with other Scripture, comparing Scripture with Scripture, became invalidated and lost.

Fortunately, beginning with courageous pioneers such as the great Brevard Childs (Childs, Bibliography), some very few scholars began fighting for a return to the unity and wholeness of Scripture. (See my Annotated Bibliography for a listing and description of those authors whom I have found.) Additionally, some highly esteemed preachers never denied the Holy Spirit as Interpreter, nor left the unity and wholeness of Scripture. These are also listed in the Annotated Bibliography just referenced. The few whom I have found include Patrick Reardon, Andrew A. Bonar, John Barclay, and Arthur Pink. I’m sure there are others. I believe that today we are seeing the tide turning, as more and more scholars boldly come forth to announce the dialogues inherent in the Psalter. These are authors such as Matthew W. Bates, Richard Hays, and Michael Cameron. As I press forward in my studies here in my isolated and tiny citadel, I continue to discover others.

However, the greatest teacher of Scripture is the Holy Spirit, sent for this very purpose. All believers have access to the Holy Spirit. Readers, please never forget that Christians like you and me, the rank and file of early, non-educated lay persons, determined collectively what scholars today call “The Rule of Faith.” It is this standard of measurement, the combined and sifted shared beliefs of the earliest church, as indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who passed on orally and shared as written epistles, what eventually became the canon of New Testament Scripture. It is the rank and file Body-of-Christ members who establish and maintain what the church believes today. Each Spirit indwelled cell contributes to the whole.

I write this by way of encouragement to others to “keep on keeping on” in your search for what Jesus told those two blessed Emmaus disciples. It wasn’t just for them that he unlocked (“hermeneuticked” is the Greek word) what the Old Testament prophecies, including Psalms, said about himself. He meant it for us all.

Penitential Psalms: Psalm 6

If Psalm 6 were taken out of the blue sky, that is, without centuries of commentary and church tradition behind it, I would not identify in it the theme of repentance in response to God’s wrath, simply because there are no words of repentance in it. Nor is there confession or mention of sin.

By comparison, Psalm 51 is confessional and repentant. In it we read,

2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!

3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.
(ESV)

We find nothing like this in Psalm 6. Rather there are pleas asking for mercy to be proffered without the offer of repentance. Now some might say that God’s anger or wrath implies sinfulness. This may be so where context supports such a reading, but this is not the case with Psalm 6. Notwithstanding the issue of context, implicit is not as strong as explicit.

The psalmist in Psalm 6 clearly has an open relationship with God and trusts him. He appears surprised that God has not answered him sooner, or quickly. The activities of his enemies contribute to his difficulties. However, by the end of the psalm, God has answered. And yet, there is no mention of forgiveness. God comes to the psalmist’s aid with neither repentance nor forgiveness having been exchanged.

In comparing the opening verse of Psalm 6 with an identical opening in Psalm 38, Craig C. Broyles writes, “the absence of any confession of sin in Psalm 6 [is] all the more striking. It does not draw an inevitable connection between sin and sickness; it simply prays…” (Broyles, 63).

One element Psalm 6 manifests in abundance is sorrow. Mournful phrases include:

  • Psalm 6:2 Pity me, O Lord; for I am weak: heal me, O Lord; for my bones are vexed. (LXE)
  • Psalm 6:3 My soul also is grievously vexed: but thou, O Lord, how long? (LXE)
  • Psalm 6:5 For in death no man remembers thee: and who will give thee thanks in Hades? (LXE)
  • Psalm 6:6 I am wearied with my groaning; I shall wash my bed every night; I shall water my couch with tears. (LXE)
  • Psalm 6:7 Mine eye is troubled because of my [sic] wrath; I am worn out because of all my enemies.
    (LXE, English Septuagint)

In the sense of being a sorrowful (πένθος, penthos) psalm, Psalm 6 is penitential. It is the source of the sorrow that is questioned. Is it sorrow for the psalmist’s own unstated sin (which would force the reader to assume it), sorrow caused by the sins of others, who are explicitly stated enemies (vv 7-8, 10), or the wrath of God (vv 1, 3-4). Clearly, the psalm supplies evidence only for the latter two.

Yet church tradition since at least Gregory of Nyssa classifies this psalm as penitential, in the sense of confession for sins committed. According to Bruce Waltke (48), Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-394) “notes that the terms ‘confession’ and ‘praise,’ while linguistically distinct, were morally in conjunction. By confession we depart and separate from evil things, and by praise we embrace the grace of God to receive all benefits.” (Waltke, 48).

This view makes many assumptions concerning what is not explicit within the psalm itself. Gregory and other church fathers of his era (c 335-394) began with the hermeneutical assumption that Psalm 6 was primarily about David, since its superscription says “by” or “of” David. A further assumption by these men is that the psalm was written with reference to David’s sins of adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband, as recorded in 2 Samuel 11:1-12:25 (Ibid., 47). However, other interpretations of Psalm 6, as represented by accompanying illustrations in printed Bibles, were present alongside Gregory’s and continued until the end of the fifteenth century. These included topics such as the Last Judgement and Christ enthroned (1 Costley, Clare).  But beginning in the sixteenth century and well into the eighteenth, the church, including Protestants, increasingly viewed Psalm 6 as a penitent confessional by David. David’s sin with Bathsheba even became the symbol of the entire Psalter (2 Ibid).

Here lies the determiner: one’s primary hermeneutical assumptions. There is a major difference of interpretation concerning Psalm 6, as with many or most of the psalms, depending upon whether David as David the man is in view or whether Christ is in view. Jesus himself and the apostolic fathers who personally saw and talked with him, including the Apostle Paul, did not teach that the psalms were primarily about David.

First, Jesus taught his disciples that the Psalms and other Old Testament scripture were written about himself (Luke 24:44). Then Peter, in one of his early speeches directly after Pentecost, as recorded in Acts 5:17-36, claims that Psalm 16:8-11 and 110:1 specifically were written prophetically with the risen Christ as their subject, rather than David, who was a simply a human mouthpiece. Finally, Paul interpreted Psalm 16 as being primarily about Christ, as written through David in the role of prophet. In reference to Psalm 16, Matthew W. Bates writes concerning Paul’s statement in Romans 15:9, “…Paul was not interested in David as the ascribed speaker, but rather David was a vehicle through whom the Spirit spoke…For Paul, David as a specific man is not very relevant…” (Bates, 302). This same attitude of Paul toward all Old Testament Scripture is again revealed in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10 and 10:11. For Paul to live, including his reading of Scripture, meant Christ, “For to me to live is Christ…” (Philippians 1:21 ESV).

A 19th century author who views Psalm 6 as being not about David and his sin with Bathsheba but about Christ in his mission and passion is Andrew A. Bonar, who writes, “David may have been led by the Holy Ghost to write it … But surely he meant to tell of One greater than David,—‘the Man of sorrows.’ … We may suppose every word used by Him in some of those nights which He passed in desert places, or in the garden of Gethsemane” (Bonar, 21).

Bonar points out certain similarities of wording found in Psalm 6 and spoken by Christ or found in other portions of the New Testament. For example, when the psalmist cries out, “Lord, rebuke me not in thy wrath,” Jesus prays, “Father, if it be possible, remove this cup from me.” When the psalmist laments, “My soul is sore vexed,” Bonar hears the voice of Christ entering the garden and confiding to his disciples, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.” He points out that the author of Hebrews presents Christ with “strong crying and tears to Him who was able to save him from death,” which corresponds to Psalm 6, “In death there is no remembrance of thee; in the grave, who shall give thee thanks?” (Ibid).

Likewise, John Barclay (1826) finds similarity between Psalm 6:8, “Depart from me, all ye that work iniquity; for the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping,” and Matthew 7:23 and 25:4, in which Christ foretells his actions as judge of the world (Barclay, 109). Of Psalm 6:2 Robert Hawker (1753-1827) writes, “David had a large portion of sorrow in himself, in his family and kingdom. But the beauty of the Psalm is as it beholds Christ in his strong crying and tears, when taking upon him our nature, and becoming sin for the church, that the church might be made the righteousness of God in him. If we eye the Redeemer as the sinner’s surety, we shall then enter into a right apprehension of what he saith under the divine chastisement for sin” (Hawker, 178).

Psalm 6 is numerically the first psalm in which God’s wrath falls upon the speaker himself. This fact is important, since Christ’s atoning death and resurrection is a major theme of the Psalter. In Psalm 6 the speaker does not represent himself as having sinned, yet he perceives God’s wrath upon himself. Psalm 6 therefore introduces the substitutionary atonement of Christ.

The next post will explore Psalm 6 itself in detail.

 

_______________

1 Costley, Clare L. 2004. “David, Bathsheba, and the Penitential Psalms*.” Renaissance Quarterly 57, no. 4: 1235-1277

2 Costley (see footnote 1) writes, “Thus, sixteenth-century European Books of Hours and eighteenth-century American primers alike linked penitential and catechetical practices to the first steps in literacy – and they tied penance, catechesis, and reading to an image of a naked woman and an adulterous king.”

 

Psalm 6: Enter God’s Wrath

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Continuing the quick descent from the bright and confident promises of Psalms 1 and 2 to the sufferings expressed in Psalms 3-5,  Psalm 6 adds a further element: God’s wrath upon the righteous speaker. Psalm 2:4-5 and 9-12 reveals God’s wrath against the wicked; here we see that wrath causing the Righteous One to suffer.

Psalm 6:1 To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments; according to The Sheminith. A Psalm of David.

O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath.
2 Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing; heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled.
3 My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O LORD– how long?
4 Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love.
5 For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?
6 I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.
7 My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes.
8 Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.
9 The LORD has heard my plea; the LORD accepts my prayer.
10 All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled; they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment. 5 The arrogant cannot stand in your presence. You hate all who do wrong;

I. How do we know that the speaker of Psalm 6 is righteous?

A. We take a canonical, devotional view that presupposes all the psalms to be united with all Scripture and that unless otherwise directly noted, the first person singular speaker of all the psalms is none other than Messiah, the Son of God, God’s appointed King. By definition, God is righteous, and his Son is righteous, even during his incarnation as a human (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Discussion: First, can the above statement be proven from the Psalms themselves or other Scripture? In a legal sense, no. But neither can it be disproven. This is why commentaries are written. They all take a different point of view. The presuppositions stated in point A above can be reasonably and intellectually defended and demonstrated with quantities of biblical evidence, which is what the several posts in this blog are all about. But no person can provide an airtight proof one way or the other that the Psalter is largely spoken by Christ.

The world of biblical academia has not changed from Jesus’ day to our own. In the gospels, many conversations between Jesus and the “lawyers” of the law, the scribes and Pharisees, record Jesus’ attempts to pierce through combative academics to reach the hearts of people. I believe it safe to say that God does not care about a person’s intellectual understandings about his Word. God wants faith (Hebrews 11:6). Faith is like insight or like solving a mathematical word problem: there comes a point when a step must be made, no matter how small, over a gap that human logic and reason cannot bridge. God as Creator designed it to be so. Belief in God comes by his grace alone.

Second, taken on an individual basis, some psalms, such as Psalm 2, demonstrate the presence of Christ more readily than others. On the other hand, without faith, it appears impossible that a psalm such as Psalm 6 could be proven to speak words of Christ. However, as shown in prior articles on Psalms 1 and 2, it is literarily reasonable to suppose that all the psalms in the Psalter are about Christ or spoken by him. Therefore, it is not necessary to continually prove and demonstrate this point for each and every psalm. Over the five decades since Brevard Childs wrote his boldly conversation-opening book Biblical Theology in Crisis, academia has permitted a greater interconnectedness among the various portions of Scripture, including both the Old and New Testaments. (See, for example, works by Matthew W. Bates.)

B. Even though Psalm 6 is listed as the first of seven penitential psalms by the early church (The seven penitential psalms are 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143, C. Hassell Bullock, 207), no sins are mentioned (Craig C. Broyles, 63). Robert S. Hawker explains this feature.

“But the beauty of the Psalms is as it beholds Christ in his strong crying and tears, when taking upon him our nature, and becoming sin for the church, that the church might be made the righteousness of God in him. If we eye the Redeemer as the sinner’s surety, we shall then enter into a right apprehension of what he saith under the divine chastisement for sin.” (Hawker, 178, Psalm 6:2)

C. In spite of the wrath of God being displayed against the speaker (vss 1-3), God hears and responds to the psalmist’s cry for mercy and delivers from the grave and from a multitude of enemies (vss 8-10). Within the body of Psalms, God never comes to the aid of his enemies, but always favors the righteous. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

II. What does Psalm 6 add to the Psalter?

The psalms are prophetic. Their main purpose, or one of their main purposes, is to prophesy of the Christ. For the first time in the Psalter, Psalm 6 reveals the theme of God’s wrath against his Son, his Messiah, his King (if the reader connects this psalm with Psalm 2). Psalm 6 also reveals God’s deliverance after wrath.

III. Why read Psalms this way?

Why does this writer invest so much of her time and energy to communicate that the Psalms contain the words of Christ and of God his Father to him? For one reason only: to encourage the reader to pick up the Psalter in a quiet moment of devotion, to lay all academics aside, to ask God to speak to her personally, and to hear in a life-changing way the heart of God expressing itself in love for her the reader through the sacrificial death of his Son on the cross on her behalf: to experience God’s love for you, the reader.

I personally find that reading a psalm out loud when no one is present and there will be no opportunity for interruption is a good way to hear the voice of God through these living words.

 

 

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