Psalm 6

Dear Reader,

Here is my translation:

“Lord, do not in your anger reprove me; and do not in your wrath chasten me.

Pity me, Lord, for I am weak; Heal me, Lord, for my bones are dismayed.

And my soul is very dismayed, but you, Lord, how long?

Return, Lord, rescue my soul; Save me because of your loving-kindness.

For there is no remembrance of you in death; in Sheol who will praise you?

I am wearied in my groaning;

I make my bed swim all night; with my tears I melt my couch.

My eye wastes away from vexation; it grows weak because of all my foes.

Depart from me, all workers of iniquity; For the Lord heard the sound of my crying.

The Lord heard my supplication; The Lord takes up my prayer.

Let all my enemies be ashamed and very dismayed; Let them turn and be ashamed at once.”

The writer of this Psalm seems to be suffering from some illness. He is weak. He complains of his bones (v.2). He lies in bed weeping (v.6) . And he fears approaching death (v.5). I am always struck in passages like this how bold the psalmist is. He does not hesitate to cry out to God or to appeal to His own desire for His glory and praise (v. 5).

A few notes on specific words:

1. The word I have translated as “soul” in verses 3 and 4, which is nephesh in Hebrew, can have a few different meanings. Perhaps that is because we have no exact English equivalent. Often it can just mean “me” or “myself.” Sometimes it refers to one’s life. I do not think the Old Testament has the sense of a soul as a separate entity so I hesitate to use the word because of the connotations it has for us. Perhaps a better translation would be “life-force.” The nephesh is essential  and integral to the person. It has to do with breathing for it is by breath that a man lives and gets his character, just as God breathed in Adam to give him life.

2. I am struck by the “how long” in v. 3. It is as if the psalmist starts to say something more coherent, but then all he can manage is “how long?” In our times of distress, our prayers are often the least articulate. And yet the most powerful.

3.The word I have translated “loving-kindess” in v. 4 is the Hebrew hesed. It is usually defined as God’s covenant love or faithfulness. It is the love He bears us because of His covenant with His people. When the psalmist appeals to it, he is reminding God of His covenant and calling Him to be faithful to it.

4. The same word, which I have translated “dismayed”, occurs at the beginning and end of the Psalm. At the beginning, it is the psalmist who is dismayed. The word is used of his bones and his soul (see note #1). At the end, it is the enemies who will be dismayed.

5. In verse 2, I have translated the Hebrew hen as “pity.” You will often find this word translated as “be gracious” or in its noun form “grace.” Grace is a loaded term though. It is hard to think of it without all its later theological connotations. Instead I think it is God’s pity the psalmist is calling for here. It is the cry in particular of the one is deep distress. It is the cry of the poor, weak, or oppressed to the one with the power to help.

I am not very pleased with the psalter versions of this psalm. Here again is my version of verses 1 through 3:

“Lord, do not in your anger reprove me; and do not in your wrath chasten me.

Pity me, Lord, for I am weak; Heal me, Lord, for my bones are dismayed.

And my soul is very dismayed, but you, Lord, how long?”

Here is how 6A reads:

“Lord, do not chasten me in wrath.

Be gracious, Lord — I waste away!

Lord, heal my bones and troubled soul;

O Lord, how long will You delay?”

You will see that half of verse 1 has been omitted. I know it is  a  close repetition of the first half, but that is how Hebrew poetry works. You can’t just start omitting parts. In v.3, “will you delay” has been added. Though I don’t think this is ideal, I can understand that something seems to be missing. I still maintain though that it is a better psalm, the cry is more plaintive, without adding anything (see note 2 above). Which brings me to one point I would like to make: We must not try to be better writers than the psalmists. Some thing don’t work well in English and we have to adjust for those. But these psalms are God-breathed. That is why we sing them. We must not substitute our judgment for His. Which brings me back to the word I have  translated “dismayed” (see note 4 above). It repetition is missed in 6A.

The other selection, 6B, does a bit better with dismayed. It translates the word “troubled” and it does appear in v. 2 (one time, not twice as in the psalter) and again in v.10. I like dismayed because it seems a little more unusual and colorful than “troubled” and therefore I think it’s repetition might be more obvious to one singing the psalm. Beyond this, however, I think 6B does even worse than 6A. Here is how it renders vv.1-3:

“Be gracious, Lord, rebuke me not in wrath,

Nor in Your anger, for I waste away;

My bones, my soul are troubled –heal me, Lord!

How long, O Lord, how long will You delay?”

Starting at the end of this passage, we see that v.3 has been broken up such that the first part of it is included with v.2. Again the depth of the psalmist’s cry has been long I think. Verses 1 and 2 have been combined so that the psalm no longer begins with God’s anger but with the cry for graciousness (or pity in my translation). I think this is a mistake. There is movement through the psalm. It begins with the wrath of God, moves on to the psalmist’s cry, and then goes on to God’s hearing and the enemies destruction. I think changing the order loses something here.

To understand a psalm, we must take time. What seems repetitious to us is usually not. Word choice is not irrelevant. If a word appears at the beginning and end of a psalm we should note this. It probably means something. The order things come in is also important. Hebrew is a very narrative language. Its poems tell stories and we need to expect that and look for it. We need to ask ourselves, what is changing here? What movement is there? We need to take the time to sit with a psalm and understand it.


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