Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 6

Psalm 6

The superscription to this Psalm follows the common format we have seen for most of the Davidic compositions (romz+m!). As with Psalm 4, the note here is that it is to be played on stringed instrument(s) (the presumed meaning of hn`yg]n+). There is an additional musical instruction, tyn]ym!V=h^-lu^ (something like “upon the eight[h]”), the meaning of which remains uncertain. Possibly it indicates something akin to a musical key or mode, or perhaps a voice range (i.e. upper/lower, cf. 1 Chron 15:21); either way, it relates to a particular performing tradition. The same direction is given for Psalm 12.

The conceptual structure of the Psalm is as a petition or prayer to YHWH; I would outline it as follows:

    • Initial address/plea to YHWH (vv. 2-4 [1-3])
    • The basis/reason for the Psalmist’s prayer (vv. 5-8 [4-7])
      —Facing death: plea for rescue/deliverance (vv. 5-6)
      —The sign of his suffering: weeping/sorrow (vv. 7-8)
    • Declaration that YHWH has heard his petition (vv. 9-11 [8-10])

The Psalm generally utilizes a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format throughout, though there are a few places where it alters or is inconsistent (mixed meter). As always, there are serious questions as to whether, or to what extent, the text as it has come down to us ought to be emended to achieve greater metrical consistency.

Verses 2-4 [1-3]

Here the Psalmist addresses YHWH, with these lines (3 bicola, 6 lines) forming the invocation and essential petition:

YHWH, do not judge me with your nostrils,
and do not punish me with your hot (breath)!
Show favor to me YHWH, for I am withering,
heal me YHWH, for my bones are made to tremble;
even my soul is made to tremble (in fear)!
And you, YHWH—until when (will you help)?

The first and third bicola both have 3-beat (3+3) lines; the dual occurrence of the divine name (hwhy, YHWH) in the second bicolon expands the meter to 4-beat (4+4) lines, which has led some commentators to suggest that either (or both) occurrences of the name perhaps should be omitted as secondary. However, the repeated use of the divine name (including twice in the second bicolon) conveys the desperation and despair of the Psalmist, and serves as an effective poetic device. The first two bicola make use of synonymous parallelism, and expresses two different aspects of the suffering the protagonist faces, apparently in the form of some kind of serious disease. In the first couplet, where the parallelism is precise, the idea is clearly expressed that this suffering is the result of YHWH’s anger, according to the basic ancient worldview (much less common today) that disease, etc, is often brought about by divine displeasure or anger. Transposing the Hebrew word order to match our English (left-to-right):

-la^
do not
;P=a^B=
with your nostril(s)
yn]j@yk!ot
judge me
-la^
do not
;t=m*j&B^
with your hot (breath)
yn]r@S=y~t=
punish me

Both the nouns [a^ (lit. “nose, nostril”) and hm*j@ (“heat”) are common figurative ways of expressing the idea of anger. Presumably, the ancient idiom involves the image of a powerful animal (such as a bull) snorting out hot breath. The verbs jk^y` and rs^y`, here translated “judge…punish”, could also be rendered “rebuke…chasten” or “correct…discipline”, giving a much softer sense to the imagery. However, there can be no doubt of the severity involved—YHWH’s rebuke, even if it is meant to discipline or correct the Psalmist, still results in immense suffering.

There is similar parallelism in the second bicolon, the second line of which is picked up in the third bicolon—a kind of step-parallelism that leads to the climactic cry of the final line. The central bicolon of verse 3 [2], with the dual occurrence of the divine name, represents the actual petition of the Psalm, stated clearly, reinforced by synonymous parallelism:

Show favor to me YHWH, for I am withering,
heal me YHWH, for my bones are made to tremble

It is interesting to see how this poetic style allows for the intensity of the thought to build. In the first line, the Psalmist refers to himself generally, with the emphatic use of the pronoun “I” (yn]a*)—”I (am) withering [ll^m=a%]”. The root lma has the basic meaning of “be(come) weak”; the phrase could also be translated “I am exhausted“. The verb lh^B*, in the passive-reflexive, has the sense of “being terrified, frightened”, i.e. trembling with fear/terror. The step parallelism in the overlap of lines 4 and 5 is clear and striking; the Psalmist’s own person (“I”) is now divided into two comprehensive components: (1) his bodily strength (<x#u#, in the plural and usually translated “bones”), and (2) his soul (vp#n#), i.e. the life within his body. So severe is the Psalmist’s suffering that even his soul (his very life) trembles along with his body.

The final despairing question, the outcry of the Psalmist is terse and direct, and is aimed squarely at God: “And you, YHWH—until when [yt*m*-du^]?”. Readable English requires that the line be filled out, i.e. “until when (will you help)”, “how long (must I wait)”, etc.

Verses 5-8 [4-7]

As indicated in the outline above, the heart of the Psalm represents an exposition of the petition in verse 3, describing the suffering and despair of the Psalmist—i.e. the reason for his prayer, and the need for YHWH to act—from two points of view. The first involves the idea that the Psalmist, in his suffering (from disease?), is in danger of death. Above all else, death would separate him from the relationship with YHWH, who is the giver and preserver of life. This destruction of the covenant bond (through death) is emphasized in these lines:

Turn (to me), YHWH, take away my soul—
make me safe for the sake of your goodness!
For in death there is no memory of you;
in Sheol who gives out (praise) to you?

When the Psalmist asks YHWH to “take away” (vb. Jl^j*) his soul, this must understood in the sense of “pulling it away” from the point of death, or “snatching it away” from the jaws of death. The verb uv^y` in the Hiphil here expresses the other side of this deliverance—having pulled his soul away from death, YHWH is to “make it safe”, “bring it to safety”, i.e. saving/preserving it. Implicit in the expression “for the sake of your goodness” (;D#s=j^ /u^m^l=) is the idea of covenant loyalty between YHWH and His people, those who have themselves remained faithful to the covenant. In other words, it is a reminder of this bond and the responsibilities of YHWH to protect those loyal to him.

One must be cautious about reading two much into verse 6 regarding Israelite views of an afterlife (or lack thereof). However, generally in the Ancient Near East, the realm of death (i.e. where the dead reside, Job 30:23; Prov 5:5; 7:27, etc) was seen as a dark, shadowy place, and those who dwelt there had only a limited sort of existence. This is the basic idea expressed here in the Psalm. On the term loav= (š®°ôl, Sheol), which occurs here for the first time in the Psalter, I discuss the significance of it briefly in a supplemental article.

In the remaining two bicola (vv. 7-8), the imagery shifts to the sign of the Psalmist’s suffering, expressed in terms of weeping, crying, groaning, etc. The meter and organization of the Psalm as we have it suggests that the first two words of verse 7 represent a partial line, which, if correct as it stands, likely represents a point of transition from vv. 5-6:

I gasp (weary) with my groaning
in all (the) night my (place) of stretching swims,
with my teardrops I dissolve the frame of my (bed);
my eye is worn (away) from (this) agitation,
it is passing (away) with all (that is) pressing me.

Leaving out the initial two words, vv. 7-8 are a pair of 3+3 bicola, using synonymous parallelism to express the Psalmist’s suffering. The first bicolon makes for a bit of colorful hyperbole—he is weeping so much that his couch/bed is drowning (and dissolving!) in the sea of tears. This idiom, of weeping upon one’s bed, is known both in the Old Testament (Ps. 4:6; Gen 43:30) and Canaanite literature of the period (Kirta I, col. 1:28-30).

The second bicolon describes the effect of this weeping/sorrow on the Psalmist’s eyes (and his entire body) using two verbs, vv^u* and qt^u*, which produce a nice alliterative effect. The former verb has the basic meaning of being worn (or wasting) away; the latter verb the idea of passing away, here in the sense of growing old, approaching death, etc. Most likely there is a conceptual parallel between the prepositional phrases su^K^m! and yr*r=ox-lk*B=. The root suk carries the basic idea of something agitating, disturbing, provoking, etc; the common root rrx similarly of something tight, pressing in, creating stress, etc. Thus the phrases “from (this) agitation” and “with all (the thing)s pressing (on) me” would both refer to the suffering and distress experienced by the Psalmist. However, it should be noted that Dahood, in his commentary (p. 38), reads the second line differently, parsing MT lk as a verbal form (“complete, finish”) and understanding yrrx in the sense of “inner (organ)s” (cf. Akkadian ƒurru, Ugaritic ƒrrt). According to this interpretation, the bicolon would exhibit a different sort of parallelism, something like:

my eye is worn (away) from (this) agitation,
my heart [i.e. inner organ] is made old with wearying.

This reading, however, ignores both the formal parallelism of the line and the foreshadowing that would result between “the (thing)s pressing on me” and the oppressors/opponents mentioned in vv. 9ff.

Verses 9-11 [8-10]

The final 3 bicola form the conclusion to the Psalm, expressing the hope (and expectation) that YHWH will answer the Psalmist’s prayer, and heal/deliver him. The meter is mixed here, but could be made more consistent, to a 3+3 and/or 4+3 format with slight emendation. The sudden reference to “trouble-makers” and “enemies” seems rather out of place in the context of vv. 2-8, but may be an indication that the apparent setting of suffering due to physical disease should not be taken too concretely, but rather as a more general symbol of suffering and distress. There is also the very strong possibility—even likelihood—that the imprecation against the wicked is meant to demonstrate and confirm the Psalmist’s righteous loyalty to YHWH (for more on this, cf. the prior study on Psalm 5).

Turn (away) from me, all (you) making trouble!
for YHWH has heard the voice of my weeping—
YHWH has heard my (plea for His) favor,
YHWH (has) received my petition (to Him).
Let all (those) hostile (to) me find much disgrace and terror,
let them turn (away), finding disgrace and sudden (destruction)!

The language is difficult, and, to some extent, rather obscure. Given the metrical consistency and awkwardness, it is possible that the text is corrupt here at one or more points. In particular, the sense of the final bicolon (v. 11) is a bit unclear. Some commentators would omit the second Wbv)y@ (“let them find disgrace”) as a scribal duplication; however, in spite of the metrical tension, it gives an effective emphasis to the imprecation in these lines. The verb lhb was translated as “tremble (i.e. from fear/terror)” in vv. 3-4; here it seems better to render it in terms of the actual terror that the wicked will experience. It is possible that the verb bWv (“turn”, essentially synonymous with rWs in v. 9) in the final line could be understood as “return”, in the sense of humankind returning to the earth (i.e. the grave), as in Job 1:21; 30:23; 34:15; Eccl 3:20f; 12:7, etc (cf. Dahood, p. 39).

The final word is difficult, and may be intended to close the Psalm on a harsh and discordant note (as appropriate for the fate of the wicked). There are three different ugr roots attested in Hebrew, and the relationship between them is not entirely clear. Here ugr is usually understood as a noun (but with adverbial force) with the basic meaning “(in) a moment”, i.e. “suddenly, at once”. However, there appears to be a traditional association of ugr with death and destruction (e.g., Num 16:21; Job 21:13; 26:12; Psalm 73:19). Dahood (p. 39) goes so far as to see the noun ugr (ug^r#?) here as a synonym for the place of death itself (i.e. Sheol), based on formal parallels with Ps 9:18 [17] and 31:18 [17]:

“Let the wicked turn (away) [WbWvy`] into Sheol” [9:18]
“Let the wicked find disgrace [Wbv)y@], let them … into Sheol” [31:18]

I have tried to capture this close association between ugr and death/Sheol parenthetically in my translation above: “…finding disgrace and sudden (destruction)”.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S. J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 16 (1965).