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.
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.”
2 thoughts on “Penitential Psalms: Psalm 6”
More interesting and inspiring to learn these verses from the Bible. I am just a beginner of theology. Thanks for the mail.
Thank you Nelson. I very much appreciate your encouragement. Always remember Paul’s words as applicable to all Christian learning, “And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. (1Corinthian 2:13) In Jesus’ own words, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13 ESV) Blessings in your studies!