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.

 

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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.