Studies in Unfamiliar Psalms No. 1


Psalm 6

Tonight we begin a new series of evening sermons on the Psalms. The last time we had a series of sermons devoted to the Psalms was in 2003. But there is never need to apologize for preaching the Psalms. As I said in introducing that earlier series of seventeen sermons, some six years ago, we cannot return too often to the Psalter, the hymn book and the prayer book of the church.  As one scholar has put it, the Book of Psalms is the “libretto of the Mosaic ritual.” The libretto are the words that are sung in an opera or cantata or any other work for the musical theater. What he meant by calling the Psalms the “libretto of the Mosaic ritual” is that, while we learn what was done in worship in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, we learn what was said and sung in the Psalms. You have to put the two together in order to have some real idea of a worship service in Israel in the ancient epoch. Well, there being but one Psalter in the Bible, the psalms are also the libretto of Christian ritual in the new epoch.  These are the prayers and the hymns of public worship, either explicitly themselves or as the standard according to which all other hymns and prayers should be composed. But, of course, the psalms have also continued through the ages to be the private devotions of God’s people. They serve as both the public and private expression and communication of faith in real life. The psalms are the public voice of the church, the people of God together. Even those psalms that were born in the most intensely private and individual circumstances of life have, in the Psalter, become hymns for the saints to sing together.  Even David’s prayer of confession after his sin with Bathsheba and against Uriah the Hittite, her husband, is now entitled “For the Choir Director or the Director of Music.”  It has become the church’s hymn for all Christians to sing.

But, at the same time, perhaps precisely because so many of the psalms were born in intensely private and specifically personal circumstances, they continue to shape and to express the private devotion of God’s people. The Psalms, in other words, “have pervaded human life and made themselves felt in the most critical moments of action and suffering…”  [Ker, v]   What a story we could tell, indeed, if we could learn in how many prison cells, on how many scaffolds and pyres, from how many deathbeds, on how many battlefields, from how many valleys of the shadow of death, in how many urgent prayers, and on how many summits of pure joy, it was the psalms that gave voice to faithful hearts.

            “The Book of Psalms, beyond every book of man, and most parts of the book of
            God, can be brought into this connection with life.  We can take passage after
            Passage and write out for it some grief it has comforted, some doubt it has
            solved, some deliverance it has wrought or celebrated.”  [Ker, 9]

We know something of how important the Psalter is because of the great many citations of it in the New Testament. Jesus says that much was written about him “…in the Psalms” [Luke 24:44].  And this is more true than many Christians have realized or appreciated. The Psalter is cited in the New Testament more than any other Old Testament book. But more than this, it is a book full of Jesus Christ the King. It is about him even in many psalms that we have not typically thought of as prophetic or as “messianic” in their meaning or intention. The Psalter is a Christological book, indeed, I think it is probably fair to say it is the most Christological book in the Old Testament. The man who is doing most of the praying in the Psalter, the man whose voice we hear most often in the Psalms, is the King himself, whom we know as Jesus Christ, prophetically embodied and anticipated in the faithful kings of the Old Testament, the kings who wrote the Psalms, David in particular. There is so much that makes sense in the Psalter when we recognize this single fact: that many psalms are, in a very true sense, the prayer of Jesus Christ himself and our prayers only insofar as we are united to him and with him in his mind and heart about the world and about life and about our lives that he does, only insofar as we embrace his cause as our own.

In this and in other ways the Psalter is a repository of doctrine, of the teaching of the Bible, but doctrine as processed through the heart and turned to prayer, the best kind of doctrine there is! If you don’t know how to pray some teaching of the Word of God, it is best that you leave that teaching aside until you do. You cannot really understand and appreciate the teaching of the Word of God until you can pray it, until you can stand on it and make it part of an argument that you are having with your heavenly Father, an argument of faith. These poems and hymns present us with life at the deeper level of the mind and the heart. It would be difficult to know precisely how and why David was, to a peculiar degree, “a man after God’s own heart” if we had only the books of Samuel to go by.  But, when we have his psalms, we meet him and get to know him in a way we cannot from the historical narrative alone. I would say the same thing is true of the Lord Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, and the Gospels. We can only know him to a certain degree from the narrative of his life, death and resurrection; but when we have the Psalms we enter somewhat more into his mind, heart and spirit. Here we encounter David’s heart in the stress and strain of life, his aspirations, his longings, his sorrows over his own failures and those of others, his confidence in the Lord his God, his joy in God’s grace and salvation. Here we meet David as he truly was. Now we understand better the Lord’s statement about David being a man after his own heart.

Put those two thoughts together now. The Psalms are a transcript of the believer’s deepest experience of faith and communion with God and the Psalter is shot through with Jesus Christ.  Well that a biblical book should be both things at one time only makes perfect sense.  The meaning of all our life, of all the experiences of our lives, is found in our relationship to Christ our King.  And every true experience of our life, in one way or another, is a reflection of our knowledge of Him, our love for Him, our confidence in Him, our loyalty to Him.  Such are the experiences transcribed in the Psalms.  There is theological and spiritual iron in these hymns and poems and they will strengthen faith as almost nothing else can. As Martin Luther wrote, in the forward to an edition of the Psalms published in 1545:

            “Whoever prays the Psalms earnestly and regularly will soon stop those other
            light and personal little devotional prayers and say: Ah, there is not the juice,
            the strength, the passion, the fire which I find in the Psalms.”

In this series I want to consider psalms that are not so well known to us, to introduce psalms that are typical of the Psalter and teach its wonderful truth in its inimitable way but which we are not as likely to be familiar with. Most serious Christians know some of the psalms; can recognize them even if they can’t immediately identify their number. Psalms 1, 8, 23, 27, 51, 73, 90, 103 and so on are so familiar and so beloved that most Christians have some measure of familiarity with them. But there are, after all, 150 psalms, and many of them are not familiar at all. A most important book of the Bible, the largest part of which is largely terra incognita to us. That is a circumstance needing to be changed!

So, tonight, Psalm 6.

Text Comment

            Psalm 6, like most psalms (116 out of 150), has a title.  In the Hebrew Bible the titles are actually the first verse of the text (or as I will mention later perhaps the last verse of the text) though there is little doubt that they are not original to the psalm.  So in the psalms that have titles, the verse numbering in the Hebrew text is always one off from the verse numbering in the English text which does not include the title as verse one. In some psalms the title’s account of the historical circumstance in which the psalm originated indicates clearly that the title was added perhaps long after the psalm was composed.  The title of Psalm 51 is a case in point.  In the title we find David being referred to in the third person, though the psalm itself is his own prayer of confession. The title, therefore, is clearly an editorial comment. “A Psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.”  Here in Psalm 6 we have no historical information about the origin of the psalm. The titles often, as here, include musical directions that also indicate that the psalm, however it originated, had gained a formal place in the hymnbook of the church. The information in the title, therefore once  again, was not original to the poem.  Nevertheless, the titles are part and have always been understood to be part of the sacred text, they were treated as part of Holy Scripture by the authors of the New Testament and by the Lord Jesus himself and, if they were not written at the same time as the poem was originally written, they are nevertheless very ancient. The technical terminology contained in them was already unintelligible to the 3rd and 2nd century Jews who translated the Hebrew Psalter into Greek when the Septuagint was completed.  They didn’t know what the terms meant and so simply transliterated them into Greek. Those terms have since been simply transliterated into English.  Still today no one knows what a maskil is, or a miktam.  And here, no one knows what “According to ‘The Sheminith’” means. That at least indicates that these terms were placed in the titles of psalms long before the 3rd century B.C.

            In Habakkuk 3, which is a psalm but outside of the Psalter, you also find a title.  “A Prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. According to Shigionoth.”  The last is also a term found in the Psalter and is one of those technical terms that no one is sure of the meaning of.  However, at the end of the psalm we have “For the choirmaster:  with stringed instruments,” the same we have here in Psalm 6. It is true of other ANE hymns that genre, authorship, and historical notations typically come at the head of the poem and musical notations come at the end. That has led some to suggest that the musical notations that one finds in a number of psalm titles really belong to the previous psalm.  So, for example, “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.” which we find here in the title to Psalm 6, some suggest is actually the subscription ending Psalm 5 and only “A psalm of David” is the title for Psalm 6. There are arguments pro and con.  It is a question more interesting than important.

v.1       You may be interested to know that historically there have been thought to be seven penitential psalms in the Psalter and Psalm 6 was regarded to be the first of the seven. That classification is little used any more; there are lots of expressions of penitence in the Psalter, and this is no more a penitential psalm than a number of others. Indeed, there is in Psalm 6 no explicit confession of sin and certainly no specific mention of any particular sin. Nevertheless, it seems that David is conscience struck. He feels the Lord’s displeasure and accepts that he is to blame. But then, when can a Christian not think that?

v.2       The primary question of interpretation in this psalm is whether king David was actually physically sick when he wrote the psalm or whether “heal me” is simply a way of saying “Deliver me” since he talks about enemies later in the psalm. Is “my bones are troubled” a figure of speech or is it a literal description of his trouble? Again it probably doesn’t make that much difference to the blessing and the benefit there is for us in the psalm. But it is certainly possible that David was sick and was afraid of dying from his sickness and that the enemies he mentions were simply those who would rejoice in his death and take opportunity from it to do harm to his kingdom. Sickness is a significant part of life and there is no reason to think that it would not surface as a subject in the Psalms.

v.3       “Bones” in v. 2 and “soul” in v. 3 probably are a way of saying simply that he is suffering in his entire person.

v.5       Expressions like these lie behind the idea, often heard, that the Old Testament held out no hope of eternal life or of the conquest of death; no prospect of a wonderful life in fellowship with God in the world to come. But the Old Testament and, in particular the Psalms, do hold out the hope of life after death – take, for example, the wonderful verses at the end of Psalm 73 that Pastor DeMass drew our attention to last Lord’s Day evening; there are many others – and that is much more widely admitted nowadays. Indeed if the Hebrew people had no hope of life after death, they were the only people in the ANE who had no such hope. But I do not think we can deny that the OT does not develop the doctrine of the believer’s future with the detail that we have that doctrine developed in the NT. It is a doctrine that was progressively unfolded in Holy Scripture, and, in particular, awaited the resurrection of the Lord Jesus as its historical foundation. The lack of frequent, clear and emphatic pronouncements concerning the believer’s victory over death through the atonement of the Messiah explains why a Jewish party, the Sadducees, could maintain that there was no life after death, though that is certainly not the doctrine of the Old Testament. But, remember that the NT also regards death as an enemy, as a tragedy, and that Paul himself speaks of the groaning and the burden of the soul at the thought of being apart from the body during the time between the believer’s death and the resurrection of his body at the Second Coming of the Lord. What David seems to be conscious of is that death will bring an end to his worshipping life, the life he has known in the sanctuary, the place, as we read so often in his Psalms, he loved most to be.

v.7       Typical of laments, the great measure of his sorrow and discouragement is described. He is beyond simply shaking off his troubles; they have overwhelmed him. So many of us have experienced this sleeplessness that overcomes somebody who is deeply troubled about something: our minds racing, fixated on a problem, depressed and despondent. It is the honesty of the Psalter that has given it its great place in the life of the Christian soul.

v.8       You remember that the Lord cites this text in the famous paragraph of his Sermon on the Mount in which he speaks of those who call him Lord but who did not do the will of his Father in heaven. He will say to them “Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” This reminds us again that David is speaking in his psalms and praying them as the King of Israel.

            As she prayed Hannah wept at the temple in the midst of her misery and then received a word of encouragement from Eli the priest. Perhaps something like that happened here as well to account for the sudden and striking change of mood from v. 7 to v. 8.

v.10     So typical of such psalms, the sun comes out and faith is renewed. The victory has not yet come, but it will and David knows this and rejoices in that certainty. The Lord has heard and has answered and he has but to wait to see how!

Psalm 6 is what the scholars of OT poetry call nowadays an individual lament psalm (Craigie, 91). It has three sections: supplications addressed directly to God in vv. 1-6, a description of his grief in vv. 6-7, and a confession of faith in ultimate vindication, of confidence that his prayers have been heard and answered in vv. 8-10. [Hakham, i, 28]

Now I hope very much that I have permanently inoculated you against some teaching that is abroad in our Reformed world and even in our Presbyterian Church in America that finds the very idea of a lament sub-Christian if not un-Christian, by which is meant that while laments belonged to the ancient epoch, a time of defective revelation and theology, they have no place in the life of believers today. Here is a PCA minister, indeed a theology professor, on the point. He is speaking of Paul’s characterization of the two covenants in Galatians 4:21-31.

“Some may not like Paul’s opinion on the matter. What we must not do is evade the plain teaching of Paul that the Sinai covenant itself, as it was delivered by the hand of Moses 430 years after the Abrahamic covenant, was a different covenant, different in kind, characteristically legal, Gentile-excluding, non-justifying because characterized by works, therefore cursing its recipients and bearing children for slavery. [In my view not a word of that is true but that is what he is saying.] If this doesn’t sound like any bargain, recall that the original Israelites did not consider it a bargain either, and they resisted Moses’s efforts to engage them in it. All things considered, many of the first-generation Israelites, who received this covenant while trembling at the foot of a quaking mountain and then wandered in the wilderness, preferred to return to Egypt rather than to enter covenant with a frightening deity who threatened curse sanctions upon them if they disobeyed. I don’t blame them; their assessment of the matter was judicious and well-considered, albeit rebellious. The Sinai covenant-administration was no bargain for sinners, and I pity the poor Israelites who suffered under its administration, just as I understand perfectly well why 73 (nearly half) of their psalms were laments. I would have resisted this covenant also, had I been there, because such a legal covenant, whose conditions require strict obedience (and threaten severe curse-sanctions), is bound to fail if one of the parties to it is a sinful people.”

This is wrong, wrong, wrong, on so many levels. It certainly represents a profound misunderstanding of Paul in Galatians 4. I won’t take time to prove that to you, but you will discover if you read that text that Paul is there contrasting unbelieving Israel with believers, not OT saints with NT saints. What is more, the NT says times without number that the faith represented in the Psalms and in Moses is the faith of the New Testament. Paul calls it the Gospel. This, of course, has been confirmed a million times by Christians who have instinctively found their own faith expressed and confessed in the Psalter. What is more, the threatening of God and his wrath is repeated just as clearly and sometimes in exactly the same language as the threats that were delivered at Mt. Sinai, for example at the end of Hebrews 12, “Our God is a consuming fire, therefore, let us come near to him in reverence and awe.” But the fact of the matter is you find lament in the New Testament as surely as in the Old. You don’t find psalms of lament because the Bible has only one Psalter, just as it has only one book of Proverbs and one Song of Songs. The NT doesn’t repeat everything; it simply completes the story.

What of a text like 2 Corinthians 2:4? Paul is writing to his believing friends in Corinth about all the worry he had felt because of their spiritual misbehavior.

“For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love I have for you.”

Surely Paul could have written a lament and in fact he probably did in the secret places of his heart. He had all the makings of one in those circumstances. Or, better, what of a text like Hebrews 5:7, concerning the Lord Jesus himself:

“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.”

That sounds very much like the prayer David prayed in Psalm 6, with much of the same agony of emotion, and much of the same effect. Was Jesus himself praying as he did because he was stuck in some works-oriented religion? The idea is preposterous! The fact of the matter is, as we have recently read in Romans 8, the whole world groans and will continue to groan and the sons and daughters of God along with it, so long as we live in this sin poisoned world, so long as we carry about death with us our own flesh and those we love carry it about with them, and so long as the consummation of our salvation has still not yet come. If Jesus was a man of sorrows, his followers will certainly be as well. And if Christians are, as Paul says they are, “sorrowful but always rejoicing,” we can well expect that they will express the sorrow as well as the joy, as David did here in this great psalm. Indeed, such a remark mocking Israel’s laments, such laments as this one in Psalm 6, could only be written I think by an American who makes a lot of money and has been largely insulated from life’s woes. Try selling that view of the Bible in Darfur to a Christian mother whose children have been stolen from her or who must watch her babies slowly die from malnutrition, their little stomachs distended, and their lips cracked and sore. What about David’s troubles, what about his sorrow and anguish and worry, what about his faith in God is different from what faithful Christians experience in this life today?

What are we to say of the great laments that have been written by Christians in the ages since Pentecost? What of Richard Baxter’s lovely lament written after the death of his much beloved wife Margaret after 19 years of marriage? What of C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed written to express how he was flooding his bed with tears after the death of his wife Joy Gresham. And what of Robertson McQuilken’s beautiful lament, his mourning in print over the loss of his wife Muriel who died of Alzheimers. His book, A Promise Kept: A Story of Unforgettable Love is well worth your reading, but you will weep when you read it unless you are of very hard heart. Google Robertson McQuilken and that book and listen to the announcement that he made to the faculty and student body of Columbia Christian University in Columbia, S.C. when he announced his resignation necessary to care for his wife.

In other words, it is as proper for a Christian to say nowadays “the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping,” as it was for David to say the same thing a thousand years before the incarnation of the Son of God. The spiritual world in which he lived is the same spiritual world in which we live today. No wonder the Lord told us that those who mourn will be blessed. There are sorrows and deep feelings of sadness and worry that go with the territory of living for Christ and yearning for holiness in this world of sin and death and having to live with hearts as divided as ours are.

I know that many of you have great sorrows and that there is heaviness to your hearts that you do not ever entirely escape it. I know something of this myself though I am sure I do not fully grasp the sorrow that some of you live with night and day. Well, take your consolation from these facts. First, that such sorrows have marked the lives of God’s people from the beginning and will to the end. They did in the life of David, a man after God’s own heart. That is what is so heartening and consoling about the Psalms. We find that we are not alone, have never been alone in the heaviness of our hearts. We wonder if our sorrows are directly related to our own sins. David wondered the same! All of this is our life and there is very little that can be done about it.

But, second, take this consolation. The Lord hears the weeping of his people. He knows their sorrows and he feels them himself. As he says in Isaiah, “In all your afflictions, I was afflicted too!” Our Savior was a man who cried. He knows what it feels like to have a very heavy heart and to be deeply worried about someone or something. It is this consolation that God’s people have found so helpful when almost nothing else seemed helpful at all.

Here is Samuel Rutherford.

“Tears have a tongue, and grammar, and language that our Father knoweth. Babes have no prayers for the breast, but weeping; the mother can read hunger in [the tears]. Words are but the body, the garment, the outside of prayer; sighs are nearer the heart-work.” [Trial and Triumph, 66-69]

Here is Saint Teresa: “Tears gain everything.” Here is John Calvin: “Tears and prayers are our weapons.” Here is a Scottish pastor: “The groan or sigh is the prayer most pleasing to God, for there is the least of self in it.” Here is Augustine: “We do not come to God upon our feet, but upon our affections.”

In other words, given our sin and given the world in which we live; given the sins of others and the effects they have upon us; we do not need fewer laments, we need more! We need more of the spirit of Psalm 6. We need more couches drenched with tears and eyes grown weak with sorrow. Here is Lancelot Andrewes, a 16th and early 17th century English Reformer and the translator of the King James Bible, in his immortal Private Devotions, saying what I guess is virtually the exact reverse of what most Christians hear from their pulpits nowadays.

“I need more grief, O God; I plainly need it. I can sin much, but I cannot correspondingly repent. O Lord, give me a molten heart. Give me tears; give me a fountain of tears. Give me the grace of tears. Drop down, ye heavens, and bedew the dryness of my heart. Give me, O Lord, this saving grace. No grace of all the graces were more welcome to me. If I may not water my couch with my tears, nor wash Thy feet with my tears, at least give me one or two little tears that Thou mayest put into Thy bottle and write in Thy book.” [Private Devotions, 172-174 as summarized in Whyte, Bunyan Characters, iii, 196]]

There is something very holy, very right, and very important about tears shed for the right reasons, for genuine sorrows, all the more for the sorrows that are true sympathy with someone else or true grief for our own sins. God takes note of them because he made us to weep. Isn’t that an extraordinary thing to consider? Mark Twain says human beings are the only creatures that blush or need to, but it is also true that human beings are the only creatures who weep and have reason to and our Savior proves it by being a man of sorrows and tears himself.

But then we also take away from Psalm 6 the wonderful fact that tears are not the end of the matter they are the means to the end. They must come, we must mourn, but we also know the joy and confidence of certain victory. We know this not only because the Lord hears prayer, as we read in vv. 8 and 9, but because he has vanquished all our enemies, all that have power to darken our lives. He has not granted us that vindication in its finality or its perfection, but he has shown us that it is only a matter of time.

The fact that the victory is not fully revealed is not nearly so important as the fact that it is certainly coming. We cannot tell from the expressions of David in Psalm 6 whether some part of the Lord’s deliverance had already arrived by v. 8. It seems not likely because in v. 10 the verbs are put in the future tense. His enemies will be ashamed; they shall turn back…”

The fact that Christ may not come for many years, centuries or even millennia ought not to diminish the impact of that coming upon our souls – upon our thinking about life and our about our circumstances – any more than the fact that it has been 2000 years now since he hung upon the cross and came alive out of the tomb. Those long ago events have a moral and spiritual weight and have tremendous power in our hearts and lives and so ought the certainty of the consummation of his great salvation. The great fact about me and about you, about every Christian, is that we are positioned between these two revelations and manifestations of the Son of God. Behind us Christ dying; before us Christ coming again. We endure, the Scripture says, “seeing him who is invisible.” [Heb. 11:27]

Well so did David and that is what he has expressed so beautifully in this great psalm: his living consciousness of the Lord and the effect of that consciousness upon him. First he took his trials to him and then from him he received his confidence that all was and would be well. Whether we are talking about the fortunes of the kingdom of God in a larger sense – the corporate life of the psalms as the hymnbook of the Christian church – or of the individual circumstances of a private Christian – the personal use of the psalms – the message is the same. God cares for us in our trials and he will deliver us. Are there any two things more important for us to know in this dying world? I don’t think so.