Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The Psalmist has been suffering from severe and long-continued sickness, which has brought him to the brink of the grave. The most bitter part of his trial is that he feels it to be a token of God’s displeasure; and malicious enemies aggravate his suffering by taunting him with being forsaken by God.
This is the natural view of the Psalmist’s situation. Many however think that the attacks of enemies are his chief and primary ground of complaint, though these have wrought upon him until mental anxiety has produced actual sickness. But it is plain from Psalm 6:1-3 that he is suffering from a direct divine visitation, and that the persecution of which he complains (Psalm 6:7) is a consequence and aggravation of it. Suffering and misfortune were popularly regarded (as we learn from the Book of Job) as evidences of commensurate guilt on the part of the sufferer. Hence when the godly suffered, he became a butt for the scornful taunts of the godless. Cp. Psalms 41.
The title assigns the Psalm to David. Some, wrongly supposing that the hostility of enemies is the chief ground of complaint, would refer it to the time when he was persecuted by Saul: others think that this and some other Psalms were the outcome of a dangerous illness from which he suffered in the interval between his sin with Bathsheba and Absalom’s rebellion. The fact is that here, as in many other Psalms, there is little or nothing to fix the author or even the period to which the Psalm belongs. This however is clear, that the Psalm is the record of a personal experience, not the utterance of the nation in a time of calamity, personified as a sick and persecuted sufferer. Comp. Psalms 30, which is a corresponding thanksgiving.
This Psalm is the first of the seven known from ancient times in the Christian Church as ‘the Penitential Psalms’ (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143). They are all prescribed for use on Ash Wednesday, the 51st in the Commination Service, and the remaining six as Proper Psalms.
The Psalm falls into three divisions:
i. The cry of anguish for relief in suffering. Psalm 6:1-3.
ii. Earnest yet calmer pleading for deliverance, Psalm 6:4-7.
iii. Triumphant assurance of answered prayer and restoration to God’s favour, Psalm 6:8-10.
The title should be rendered as in R.V., For the Chief Musician; on stringed instruments, set to the Sheminith (or, the eighth). See Introd. pp. xxi, xxiv f.
To the chief Musician on Neginoth upon Sheminith, A Psalm of David. O LORD, rebuke me not in thine anger, neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure.1. The emphasis in the original lies on the words not in Thine anger, neither in Thy hot displeasure. The Psalmist pleads that his present suffering exceeds the measure of loving correction (Job 5:17; Proverbs 3:11-12; Jeremiah 10:24; Revelation 3:19). He can only interpret it as a sign that the wrath of God is resting upon him. Perhaps, like Job, he can detect no special sin to account for it. At least it is noteworthy that the Psalm contains no explicit confession of sin, and in this respect it is a remarkable contrast to the kindred Psalms 38, which opens with the same words.
1–3. The Psalmist pleads for mercy, deprecating the severity of God’s visitation.
Have mercy upon me, O LORD; for I am weak: O LORD, heal me; for my bones are vexed.2. Have mercy upon me] Be gracious unto me. See note on Psalm 4:1.
I am weak] R.V., I am withered away, retaining the primary meaning of the word. Cp. Nahum 1:4, where it is rendered languisheth.
heal me] So Jeremiah prays (Psalm 17:14), combining this petition with that of Psalm 6:4. Cp. Job 5:18; Psalm 30:2; Psalm 41:4; Psalm 147:3.
for my bones are vexed] Even the solid framework of the body, the seat of its strength and solidity, is racked and shaken well nigh to dissolution. Cp. Psalm 22:14. ‘The bones,’ in the language of Hebrew poetry, denote the whole physical organism of the living man, as being the fundamental part of it. Hence they are the seat of health (Proverbs 16:24), or of pain, as here. In some passages, ‘the bones’ come to be identified with the man himself, as a living agent. Cp. Psalm 35:10. On the word ‘vexed,’ see note on Psalm 2:5.
My soul is also sore vexed: but thou, O LORD, how long?3. Mind as well as body, the inner self as well as its outer organism, is dismayed. Our Lord appropriates these words, in view of His approaching Passion (John 12:27), using the Greek word (ταράσσειν) employed by the LXX.
how long?] Cp. Psalm 90:13. How pregnant is the aposiopesis! How long wilt Thou be angry? How long wilt Thou hide Thy face and refuse to hear me? Cp. Psalm 13:1.
It is recorded of Calvin in his last painful illness that he uttered no word of complaint unworthy of a Christian man; only raising his eyes to heaven he would say Usquequo Domine (Lord, how long?) for even when he was in health, this was a kind of watchword with him, in reference to the troubles of the brethren (Vita: Opp. Tom. 1).
Return, O LORD, deliver my soul: oh save me for thy mercies' sake.4. Return] For Jehovah seems to have abandoned him. Cp. Psalm 90:13.
O save me for thy mercy’s sake] R.V., save me for thy lovingkindness’ sake. Jehovah declares Himself to be “a God … plenteous in lovingkindness and truth, who keeps lovingkindness for thousands” (Exodus 34:7-8), and the Psalmist intreats Him to be true to this central attribute in His own revelation of His character.
4–7. He renews his prayer, and in a calmer tone, reasons with God.
For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?5. A further plea. There can be no gain in his death. Nay, Jehovah will be the loser by it. For man is created to praise God, and God delights in his praise. But in the state to which man passes at death, he can no longer gratefully call to mind His goodness (Psalm 145:7), or celebrate His praise.
Here, as in Psalm 30:9, Psalm 88:10-12, Psalm 115:17 (cp. Isaiah 38:18 ff.; the Book of Job; Ecclesiastes 9:5; Ecclesiastes 6:10); we meet with that dreary despairing view of the state after death, which the Hebrews shared with the rest of the ancient world. They did not look forward to annihilation, but to a dreamy, shadowy, existence which did not deserve the name of life. The dead, they thought, were cut off from all activity and enjoyment, and worst of all, from the consciousness of God’s presence, and from that communion with Him, which is the essence of ‘life’ (Psalm 30:5). It is hardly possible for us who live in the light of Christ’s Resurrection (2 Timothy 1:10), to realise what the lifelong slavery to the fear of death (Hebrews 2:15) meant to the faithful Israelite, and the bold struggles of his faith to break the fetters. See Introd. p. xciii ff.
in the grave] It is far better, with the R.V., to retain the Hebrew word Shěôl to denote the abode of the departed. It is the O.T. equivalent of Hades, by which it is rendered in the LXX. It was thought of as a vast subterranean abyss, where all alike were gathered; a place of gloom and silence, but withal of rest, however joyless, for its shadowy denizens have no more power to do harm than good. “There the wicked cease from troubling; and there the weary be at rest.” Cp. Job 3:13-19; Isaiah 14:9 ff. See Oehler’s O.T. Theology, § 78.
I am weary with my groaning; all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears.6. I am weary with my groaning] So Baruch complained, Jeremiah 45:3, R.V. Cp. Psalm 69:3.
all the night] Rather, every night. His sorrow is of long continuance, and knows no respite.
Mine eye is consumed because of grief; it waxeth old because of all mine enemies.7. Mine eye Is wasted away because of provocation;
It is waxed old because of all mine adversaries.
With the first clause comp. Psalm 31:9. The look of the eye is a sure indication of the state of health, mental and bodily. The word rendered adversaries means literally them that distress me. Cp. Psalm 7:4; Psalm 7:6; and the cognate words in Psalm 3:1, Psalm 4:1.
Depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity; for the LORD hath heard the voice of my weeping.8. Depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity] Words used by our Lord, Matthew 7:23.
8–10. The cloud breaks. Heaviness is turned to joy. With a sudden inspiration of faith the Psalmist realises that his prayer is heard, and predicts the speedy confusion of his enemies.
The LORD hath heard my supplication; the LORD will receive my prayer.9. Twice he repeats the confident assertion of faith, that Jehovah has heard his prayer, and with equal confidence adds the assurance that He will accept it favourably, and not reject it. Cp. 1 John 5:14-15.
Let all mine enemies be ashamed and sore vexed: let them return and be ashamed suddenly.10. It is better to render the verbs as future:
All mine enemies shall be ashamed and sore vexed;
They shall turn back, they shall be ashamed in a moment.
The ‘dismay’, which he had felt to be a token of divine displeasure (Psalm 6:2-3), is now retorted upon those who took a malicious delight in his misfortunes. When God returns to His servant, his assailants are repulsed in sudden and ignominious defeat. Cp. Psalm 35:4; Psalm 35:26, Psalm 56:9, Psalm 83:17.