Ps. 6: Entering the Text

Andrew R. Davis is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.  He holds a PhD from the Johns Hopkins University and an MTS from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology.

Good poems often seem spontaneous. It feels like we’re catching the poet right as she is pouring out a heartfelt emotion or drawing a sudden insight from something in her everyday life. This is the Romantic ideal we find in poems like William Wordsworth’s “Daffodils,” which invites us to walk beside the poet and share the joy he feels when he stumbles upon the unexpected flowers.  We know, however, that very few poems are wholly spontaneous creations. Rather, poets usually draft and redraft their work, revising their poems many times over. The immediacy we feel is the result of poetic skill; the impression of spontaneity is part of the poem’s art.

This mix of craft and feeling is found also in biblical poetry, and Psalm 6 is a good example.  Simply reading the poem, we are struck by speaker’s anguish. Images such as terror-stricken bones, a tear-drenched bed, and weeping eyes evoke our pity and compassion for the speaker.  Arousing such compassion is the aim of the poem. 

A closer look at the psalm, however, reveals that along with this outpouring of pain and lament is a carefully constructed poem. Consider these structural features:

Stanza 1 (verses 2-6)

Stanza 2 (verses 7-11)

Addressed to God in second person

Speaks about God in the third person

39 total words

39 total words

 

Section 1 (verses 2-4)

Section 2 (verses 5-6)

Section 3 (verses 7-8)

Section 4 (verses 9-11)

24 words

15 words

15 words

24 words

“stricken” (Heb. bhl)

   

“stricken” (Heb. bhl)

“have mercy” (Heb. ḥnn)

   

“plea” (< Heb. ḥnn)

 

These details show that the text of Psalm 6 canonized in the Hebrew Bible is more than an extemporaneous outcry; it is a refined piece of writing that expresses, and aims to evoke in the audience, the desperation and hope of a person in crisis.

A key point to take away from this analysis of Psalm 6 is that poetic artifice doesn’t diminish the emotional and spiritual power of the poem. It may be tempting to suppose that the most genuine expressions of lament (or joy for that matter) are the ones that comes straight from the heart, but countless examples from Jewish and Christian tradition show that, far from constraining the poetry of faith, liturgical or literary rubrics provide a framework for its authentic expression.  Psalm 6, which as early as St. Augustine (d. 430 CE) was part of a group of penitential psalms in Christian tradition, is one such example. Whether we hear it simply as a cry for divine help or analyze its poetic form, the psalm offers us honest words of lament for the times when hardships in our own lives leave us speechless.

Key Term:

  • Sheol in mentioned in verse 6 as a place from where it is impossible to praise YHWH.  Although Sheol is commonly assumed to be Israel’s underworld, the shadowy destiny of all who died, a closer look at biblical references reveal a more nuanced view.  Sheol is not for everyone, but for those cut off from family and from the life-giving worship at the Temple. It is this isolation that makes Sheol such a dreadful place. Others, whose descendants remember their names, continue to live on through this remembrance and avoid the miserable loneliness of Sheol.  

Questions for Reflection:

  • Which words or images in Psalm 6 are most striking to you?

  • How do you imagine the ancient poet pieced this text together?

  • Is this a source you have turned to, or might turn to, in a time of crisis?

  • If you were to write your own version of this psalm, what might it look and sound like? 

 

Text and Translations Psalm 6

לַמְנַצֵּ֣חַ בִּ֭נְגִינוֹת עַֽל־הַשְּׁמִינִ֗ית מִזְמ֥וֹר לְדָוִֽד׃ 

יְֽהוָ֗ה אַל־בְּאַפְּךָ֥ תוֹכִיחֵ֑נִי וְֽאַל־בַּחֲמָתְךָ֥ תְיַסְּרֵֽנִי׃ 

חָנֵּ֥נִי יְהוָה֮ כִּ֤י אֻמְלַ֫ל אָ֥נִי רְפָאֵ֥נִי יְהוָ֑ה כִּ֖י נִבְהֲל֣וּ עֲצָמָֽי׃ 

וְ֭נַפְשִׁי נִבְהֲלָ֣ה מְאֹ֑ד ואת [וְאַתָּ֥ה] יְ֝הוָ֗ה עַד־מָתָֽי׃ 

שׁוּבָ֣ה יְ֭הוָה חַלְּצָ֣ה נַפְשִׁ֑י ה֝וֹשִׁיעֵ֗נִי לְמַ֣עַן חַסְדֶּֽךָ׃ 

כִּ֤י אֵ֣ין בַּמָּ֣וֶת זִכְרֶ֑ךָ בִּ֝שְׁא֗וֹל מִ֣י יֽוֹדֶה־לָּֽךְ׃ 

יָגַ֤עְתִּי ׀ בְּֽאַנְחָתִ֗י אַשְׂחֶ֣ה בְכָל־לַ֭יְלָה מִטָּתִ֑י בְּ֝דִמְעָתִ֗י עַרְשִׂ֥י אַמְסֶֽה׃ 

עָֽשְׁשָׁ֣ה מִכַּ֣עַס עֵינִ֑י עָֽ֝תְקָ֗ה בְּכָל־צוֹרְרָֽי׃ 

ס֣וּרוּ מִ֭מֶּנִּי כָּל־פֹּ֣עֲלֵי אָ֑וֶן כִּֽי־שָׁמַ֥ע יְ֝הוָ֗ה ק֣וֹל בִּכְיִֽי׃ 

שָׁמַ֣ע יְ֭הוָה תְּחִנָּתִ֑י יְ֝הוָ֗ה תְּֽפִלָּתִ֥י יִקָּֽח׃ 

יֵבֹ֤שׁוּ ׀ וְיִבָּהֲל֣וּ מְ֭אֹד כָּל־אֹיְבָ֑י יָ֝שֻׁ֗בוּ יֵבֹ֥שׁוּ רָֽגַע׃

Psalm 6 New Jewish Publication Society Translation (NJPS)

1 For the leader; with instrumental music on the sheminith. A psalm of David. 

2 O LORD, do not punish me in anger, do not chastise me in fury. 

3 Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I languish; heal me, O LORD, for my bones shake with terror. 

4 My whole being is stricken with terror, while You, LORD—O, how long! 

5 O LORD, turn! Rescue me! Deliver me as befits Your faithfulness. 

6 For there is no praise of You among the dead; in Sheol, who can acclaim You? 

7 I am weary with groaning; every night I drench my bed, I melt my couch in tears. 

8 My eyes are wasted by vexation, worn out because of all my foes. 

9 Away from me, all you evildoers, for the LORD heeds the sound of my weeping. 

10 The LORD heeds my plea, the LORD accepts my prayer. 

11 All my enemies will be frustrated and stricken with terror; they will turn back in an instant, frustrated.

 

Psalm 6 New International Reader's Version (NIRV)

For the director of music. According to sheminith. A psalm of David to be played on stringed instruments.

1 Lord, don’t correct me when you are angry.

    Don’t punish me when you are very angry.

2 Lord, have mercy on me. I’m so weak.

    Lord, heal me. My body is full of pain.

3 My soul is very troubled.

    Lord, how long will it be until you save me?

4 Lord, turn to me and help me.

    Save me. Your love never fails.

5 Dead people can’t call out your name.

    How can they praise you when they are in the grave?

6 My groaning has worn me out.

    All night long my tears flood my bed.

    My bed is wet because of my crying.

7 I’m so sad I can’t see very well.

    My eyesight gets worse because of all my enemies.

8 Get away from me, all you who do evil.

    The Lord has heard my weeping.

9 The Lord has heard my cry for his mercy.

    The Lord accepts my prayer.

10 All my enemies will be covered with shame and trouble.

    They will turn back in shame. It will happen suddenly.

 

Read more about the PsalmSeason here & subscribe for email updates.

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

"99.8% of U.S. deaths are of the unvaccinated. If you heard of an airline of that percentage dying, whereas a 0.02% on another, you’re switching flights." -- Dr. Jimmie Smith, Macon-Bibb County Health Department, Georgia.
As a scholar of religious studies, I frequently use critical race theory as a tool to better understand how religion operates in American society.
Inspired by their faith, four LDS students built new study resource that has revolutionized how hundreds of thousands of aspiring physicians study for their exams. "It really started because we just wanted to help people," one said.
We're now in one of the holiest seasons of the year for one of smallest and oldest religions in India -- one with a long history in the United States.
Organizing on-campus vaccination clinics, calling thousands of students, hosting informational webinars with medical experts – these are some of the ways in which IFYC’s Faith in the Vaccine Ambassadors (FIVA) have been raising awareness around the COVID-19 vaccine on campuses and high-need communities across the nation.
Last year's winners, listed below, created a range of initiatives, from virtual retreats and criminal justice initiatives to book clubs and racial equity workshops.
Religious objections, once used sparingly around the country to get exempted from various required vaccines, are becoming a much more widely used loophole against the COVID-19 shot.
What will the campus chapel, and the chaplaincy, look like more than a century from now? Let the adventure begin.
The issue is not the presence of religion in the public square. Instead, the question before us is how to express those religious commitments within in a pluralistic society.
We don’t know what the year 5782 – as it is in the Hebrew calendar – has in store for any of us. But we have the power to act in a way to do right by each other and bring a little more peace and love and joy into this profoundly broken world.
The following interview features Dr. Toby Bressler, senior director of nursing for oncology and clinical quality at the Mount Sinai Health System and vice president of the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association.
Part of what I found so beautiful about our conversation is that we both agree that American pluralism is not simply a pragmatic solution to the challenge of a diverse democracy, it is also a kind of sacred trust that God intends us to steward.
After 9/11, there was increased intentionality in widening interfaith relations to include a broader number of faith groups and discussions. Twenty years later, it is not unusual to see interreligious conferences, joint advocacy efforts and disaster relief teamwork involving faith groups ranging from Adventists to Zoroastrians.
Twenty years later, we at IFYC, like so many others, collect the shards of memory, recollecting, reconstituting the trauma and horror of that day. And the sacredness is in doing so together.
As we approach this significant anniversary of 9/11, we must work to infuse the day with purpose and pluralism. Pay it Forward 9/11 is bringing people together to do 20,000 good deeds for the 20th anniversary.
In the first month since 9/11, The Sikh Coalition documented over 300 cases of violence and religious discrimination against Sikhs in the U.S. and has since grown to become the largest Sikh advocacy and civil rights organization in the country.
“If you were to quiz these students on what happened on 9/11, they think they knew what happened, but nobody really explained it to them,” Lisa Doi said. “I had to think through, how do you teach this history to somebody who doesn’t really remember it?”
My prayer is that for as long as we remember 9/11, that we will take time to listen to the stories of loss that break our hearts, and join together in finding ways to heal the division, violence and hate that continue to tear apart our world.
It has been 20 years, but the pain of that day is still present in so many places.
20 years after the 9/11 attacks, four remarkable people took profound suffering, loss and grief and “somehow managed to not center enemies. What can we learn from that? How can that be a teaching to the culture?”
Now the entire planet is our garden, and Rosh Hashana is our chance to remember that we are all descended from the original gardeners — that we are here, each of one us, to tend our chosen plots as best we can.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.