Psalm 6- How Long, O LORD

Paris Psalter, folio 136v  'Reproched de Nathan a David, David penitent

Paris Psalter, folio 136v ‘Reproched de Nathan a David, David penitent

  Psalm 6

<To the leader: with stringed instruments; according to The Sheminith. A Psalm of David.>
O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath.
 2 Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing;
O LORD, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
 3 My soul also is struck with terror, while you, O LORD– how long?
 4 Turn, O LORD, save my life; deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love.
 5 For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can 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 eyes waste away because of grief; they grow 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 supplication; the LORD accepts my prayer.
 10 All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror;
they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame.
 

We will never know the situation that any particular Psalm is spoken originally from, except perhaps in cases where the Psalm itself gives us clues. Psalm 6 cries out in terms that reflect in turn a sense of alienation from God’s steadfast love, physical ailment or illness, anxiety and depression, and persecution by enemies and it is possible that all of these were afflicting the Psalmist at one particular moment or that the Psalmist may have used language and memory of these experiences to speak to the distress they feel in the moment as they cry out to the LORD. The Psalmist views their life as resting in the LORD’s hands and begins the appeal directly to God, crying out the name of the LORD. The Psalmist appeals for God’s graciousness not for the Psalmists own merit or worthiness but out of God’s hesed (steadfast love). In language that appears frequently through the psalter, the Psalmist speaks of their anguish and asks for God to end it. God’s anger may not be the only struggle of the Psalmist but it is the decisive one, for God’s anger is what the Psalmist is crying out for God to set aside so that they may be healed and their enemies may be put to shame.

The Psalmist cries out ‘how long’ and pleads for God to turn and relieve the poet’s suffering. Whether the poet is literally suffering in their bones (vs. 2) soul (vs. 3) and eyes (vs.7) there is a connection between external stresses and physical symptoms. As Rolf Jacobson aptly states, “anguish can dehumanize a sufferer, so that one’s sense of self is reduced to pain in one’s bones, body skin.” (Nancy de Clarisse-Walford, 2014, p. 105) Crying out how long while a traditional cry of lament also may indicate that the “pain described is no longer bearable and the speaker is at the breaking point. The intent of the phrase is to mobilize YHWH in a moment of desperate need.” (Brueggemann, 2014, p. 48) And perhaps if the question how long can be answered the Psalmist can endure until the LORD’s anger has passed.

This is one of the first Psalms we deal with the anger of God in relation to the faithful one, the Psalmist who cries out in lament. God’s anger is a necessary corollary of God’s love or as Jim Nieman, my preaching instructor years ago put it, “God’s anger is not the opposite of God’s love, God’s indifference would be the opposite of God’s love.” God’s love is not a sweet sentimentality to the Psalmist or throughout the Bible. God may care for and love me, but God also loves my neighbor and when my actions result in suffering or death to my neighbor then God’s anger arises from that love. Yet God’s steadfast love is always stronger than God’s anger and God’s anger is always connected to that love. (Nancy de Clarisse-Walford, 2014, p. 107)

The Psalmist trusts that in going to the LORD in lament that the Psalmist words are heard. Faith is far more than an optimistic state of mind for the Hebrew people, it is an active calling upon God to act according to God’s steadfast love precisely from the position of suffering. Even though God’s ways may be unknowable at times and mysterious there is still potent power in crying out to the LORD and that God actively hears and intervenes in their lives and in their world. And from my own experience it is often these times of questioning and suffering and anguish where later we can see the faith of the one who endures and cries out deepened. It is a fuller faith that trusts in a God who is present in the midst of the times of joy and the times of tears. A life which can endure the times where our bed is flooded with tears because we know in God’s mysterious time that God’s steadfast love will show itself and that God’s steadfast love will last longer than the suffering or the anger.  That eventually the LORD does hear the sound of the Psalmist, ancient and contemporary, weeping and that the LORD does act upon these pleading words.

One final note on the Psalm in verse 5 where it mentions “for in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?” In ancient Israel there is not yet a hope for a resurrection of the dead or anything more than a shadowy existence in the afterlife. Thinking about the resurrection is something that emerges much later and is up for debate at the time of Jesus. In the New Testament this will be a part of the disagreement between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. At the time the Psalms are written they are written with a very earthly understanding of God’s blessings and God’s anger. God’s steadfast love was a worldly reality that unfolded in the ways God took care of God’s people (or disciplined God’s people) and this may be hard for us to approach in the same way today in a secular world where we no longer think of unseen forces moving on our world but part of the Christian and Jewish understanding of reality is that God does act upon our world. For Christians it becomes a part of the Lord’s Prayer when we pray, ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

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