Psalm six is a good example of a psalm of lament. There is a pattern here that shows us what a life of faith looks like when times are difficult. It begins with genuine honesty: “I’m struggling. This is rotten. I feel awful.” Then as David, we ask for help: “Deliver me Lord! Be gracious to me! save me!” And then finally, we trust that God does indeed hear our prayers, and will certainly take notice of them. We don’t minimize what we are feeling. But at the same time, we trust and acknowledge that God is more powerful than all things, including our struggles, and we entrust ourselves to him, resting in the faith that he loves us and will deliver us in his way and time. We are honest, but we also cling to God in faith, and that requires that we trust him even when we don’t yet see how he will make it right.
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PSALMS #3: PSALM SIX
I know that some of you prefer to read these messages, rather than listen to the audio version. I myself typically prefer to read something, rather than listen to it, if there is a choice. Also, I’m a writer, so I love it when people like to read.
Even so, every so often it seems to me that the Holy Spirit moves me in a special way when I’m preaching one of these messages, a way that doesn’t quite show up in the written version. This message is one of those times. So, I’m encouraging you to listen to the audio version. If you have time, I’d be thrilled if you read it first, and then listen, and then tell me what you think, because maybe my perception about this is wrong. In any case, I do encourage you to listen this time.
Let’s get a couple of “technical” details out of the way, before we jump into Psalm 6. Some Bibles have created titles for various psalms. For psalm six, the ESV has “O Lord Deliver My Life” written in bold type. This is not part of the text of the actual Bible – it is a title added by the publishing company. There is however, something written in Hebrew before the psalm begins:
“To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments; according to The Sheminith. A Psalm of David.”
These words are not really part of the psalm itself, but they are technically in the text of the Hebrew Bible. Clearly, as with many psalms, they were added by the time the book of psalms was gathered together. Just a reminder: “of David” could mean that David himself wrote the psalm. It could also mean that it was written “in the tradition of David’s psalms.” For simplicity’s sake, I’m just going to refer to the writer as David.
“The Sheminith,” means something like “the eighth,” or “to the eighth.” Some people speculate that it refers to an eight-stringed instrument. Others suggest it is a musical instruction having to do with scales/octaves (there are eight whole-steps in a musical octave). This shows us that at some point, psalm six was probably used musically, probably in worship.
One more little note that is helpful when we read the Old Testament in English. The name of God that God revealed to Moses is “YHWH” which we usually pronounce “Yahweh,” (there are actually no official vowels in Hebrew). The Hebrew people, however, would not say “Yahweh” for fear of taking God’s name in vain. So instead, when they saw “YHWH” in the text of the Bible, they would read it out loud as “Adonai,” which can mean “Lord.” As a result of this tradition, most English Bibles translate “YHWH” as “LORD.” So when you see “LORD” as in this psalm, the Hebrew word is actually “Yahweh.” Also, sometimes the name given to God in the Hebrew text is: “Adonai YHWH.” In those cases it is usually translated “the Lord God.” (Just for additional confusion, the term “Jehovah” is what you get when you combine the Hebrew letters in “YHWH” with the vowel sounds of the Hebrew word “Adonai.”) I say all this, however, so that you can see that David is using the personal name for God – Yahweh – as he prays. He is praying specifically to the God of Israel, and he calls him by his special, personal name.
I chose this psalm because it is a good representative of a type of psalm that we might call “a prayer for help” or “a lament.” There are many other psalms that are similar to this one in both language and structure. Also, this is one of the shorter ones of its type, so it’s easier to cover the whole thing in one sermon.
Before we “analyze” this psalm, take a moment to feel it first. This is one important thing about the psalms – they weren’t written primarily to “teach” but rather to engage us at the level of heart and soul. So, let it engage your heart and soul. Feel what the psalmist feels. Enter into his experience and relate it to your own life. If you want to, speak the words out loud yourself as a prayer, thinking about your own life as you do so. If you can’t relate personally, think about someone you know who might relate to this psalm. (If you’re really stumped you can think of me: I felt very much like the writer of this psalm several times while working on this message). Before you do that, pause for prayer, and ask the Lord to speak to you through this scripture today.
Now, ready? Read the psalm:
1O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath. 2 Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing; heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled. 3 My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O LORD—how long? 4 Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love. 5 For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise? 6 I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. 7 My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes. 8 Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping. 9 The LORD has heard my plea; the LORD accepts my prayer. 10 All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled; they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment.
I think this particular psalm was probably written by David himself, so I’ll call him “him,” or “David.” Obviously, David is experiencing some kind of pain and suffering, possibly physical. Certainly, he is also experiencing turmoil of the heart, because he says so pretty plainly.
In the ESV, it says, “Be gracious to me LORD, for I am languishing.” We don’t often use the word “languishing” any more, which is a shame, because it’s a great word. It means “slowly wasting away,” or “slowly falling apart.” David’s life is slowly coming apart. In short, he is suffering. Some people assume that the main problem is sickness, because he asks God to heal him, and he mentions his bones. But the Hebrew word for heal, like the English one, can mean physical healing, as well as emotional or spiritual restoration, or even cultural restoration (as in “Lord, heal our country.”)
We know that David was a man of faith, and even if it wasn’t David who wrote this, the words of the psalm itself express faith in God. So I think the first thing to engage with is this: The life of faith sometimes involves suffering, pain and inner turmoil. David was not somehow “out of faith,” when he wrote this. He addresses the psalm to God, and clearly believes that God alone is the source of all deliverance, help and salvation. Someone with no faith would not talk to God, certainly not the way David does here. Even so, he is miserable as he writes this, and he does not pretend otherwise.
This brings me to a second point: People of faith should be honest about where they are physically, emotionally and mentally. Frankly, a lot of Christians in America are terrible about this. In fact, some seem to believe that if you admit you are struggling, that amounts to a lack of faith. I’ve met many people who have really tough stuff going on in their lives, and they say things like: “Well, it’s not ideal, but I’m just believing things are going to turn around.”
They seem to think that if they admit that they are having a hard time, it somehow means that they are letting God down; they apparently believe it indicates a lack of faith, or weak faith, to say: “Life is really hard right now.” They think faith means always thinking positive thoughts, or always looking on the bright side.
However, I’d say it’s the other way around. If you can’t be honest with yourself, God and others, you probably don’t have much faith. You think God is so fragile, he can’t handle it if you are unhappy. Or maybe you believe that God will only come through for you if you show the right attitude, and it seems to me that means you have faith in your own actions more than in God. Maybe it’s a kind of faith in your own faith, if you know what I mean. You might be putting your trust in the fact that you are saying the right kinds of things, and maintaining the right kind of positive attitude. But that is not faith in God.
Even more troubling, some people believe they can control God by always sounding like they have faith (though they wouldn’t describe it as controlling God, that’s what they are trying to do). In other words, they think that if they never acknowledge the negative, it motivates God to “honor” their “faith.” Again, this is a sort of faith in your own actions and attitudes, more than faith in God.
The same people often claim things like: “we speak things into existence.” So they are afraid of saying something negative, because then maybe the negative thing will happen to them. This is superstitious garbage, but unfortunately it is taught by many prominent ministers who use those ideas to make themselves a lot of money from fearful people.
In contrast, right here in the psalm, we find David, the greatest King of Israel, the one who is known as a man after God’s own heart saying: “I’m falling apart. My soul is in turmoil. I’m soaking my sheets every night with my tears. I am so grieved, I can hardly see any more.” If David, the true man of God, wasn’t afraid to say such things, we shouldn’t be either. I think real faith requires that kind of honesty, and if we avoid it, it is because of fear, not faith.
Considering all the negative feelings that are expressed, Psalm Six might be called a kind of lament. Bible commentator Rolf Jacobson says this:
Lament is not the absence of faith or an expression of faith being tempted into despair. To lament is to speak precisely from the position of faith, from a position which recognizes that the Lord hears the cries of those who suffer and is not indifferent to them. To lament is to lay claim to God’s hesed with the faithful expectation that the Lord will vindicate the lowly.(The New International Commentary, Old Testament: Book of Psalms, psalm 6. I will explain the term “hesed” shortly)
Now, having made that point, I stand by it. I have something else to say also, not to contradict what I’ve just written, but to explain it, and add to it. There are some folks who are not afraid to be honest when they are struggling. They own the fact that their hearts are sad and troubled. But some of those people forget what else is in this psalm. They end up making their own troubles the dominant thing, the main thing. They own their struggles but they forget the lesson here about trusting God. They say: “I am troubled. End of story.” They make everything about their struggles, rather than about God. But that’s not how David approaches his problems at all. He owns his struggle, but he also trusts God.
Where do we see David trusting God? In the very first line, David asks God for mercy and grace. In verse four, he prays for deliverance. In verses 8-10, David expresses confidence that God has indeed heard his prayer, and will answer him in due time.
So that is the next piece I think we ought to pay attention to. We should not only be honest about our struggles, but we should also make our problems submit to our faith. What I mean is, we should say, “I’m struggling. This is rotten. I feel awful.” Then as David, we ask for help: “Deliver me Lord! Be gracious to me! save me!” And then finally, we should trust that God does indeed hear our prayers, and will certainly take notice of them: “The Lord accepts my plea, the Lord has heard my prayer (verse 8).” We don’t minimize what we are feeling. But at the same time, we trust and acknowledge that God is more powerful than all things, including our struggles, and we entrust ourselves to him, resting in the faith that he loves us and will deliver us in his way and time. We are honest, but we also cling to God in faith, and that requires that we trust him even when we don’t yet see how he will make it right.
I want to focus on verse four for a minute. This is the heart of David’s prayer:
4 Turn, O LORD, deliver my life;
save me for the sake of your steadfast love.
There are two key words in Hebrew here that are worth knowing for all Christians. The first is “turn,” which, in Hebrew, is sub (pronounced “shoob”). It means to turn around, to change course. In many contexts, it means “to repent.” David is asking the Lord to change the whole course of events, to turn everything around. Sub is a powerful word, and, as I say, it’s worth knowing for the future. The point here is that David is not asking for just a minor adjustment. He’s asking God to change the whole course of the future. In other words, David feels he is close to dying, and he wants God instead to save his life. It is important to realize that for David, whatever he’s struggling with is a very big deal, and he needs a major intervention from God.
The second word comes at the end of the verse. In the ESV it is translated “steadfast love.” The Hebrew word is hesed (pronounced heh-sed, except use a faint clearing-of-the-throat sound with the first ‘h’). In some ways, it is the agape of the Old Testament, but some of the shades of meaning are slightly different. I might define hesed as unconditional, everlasting love that expresses itself by acting on behalf of the one who is loved. God’s hesed is found in his covenant to care for his people faithfully.
When David asks God to save him, he gives this reason: “for the sake of your hesed.” It is connected to God’s covenant with his people. This is important. David is saying “help me because you have promised to be my God. Help me because you are loving by nature.” Not: “Help me because I’m showing my faith by being positive and minimizing negative words.” Not:“help me because I need it,” or “help me because I ask it,” and certainly not “because I deserve it.” Instead, it is: “help me, because that would be according to your own character and your own promise to your people.”
Many people, when they are struggling, try to make bargains with God. “God, if you just help me now, I’ll give up this, or I’ll do that.” That is never the way of faith. In reality, we have nothing to bargain with. God doesn’t need anything from us. When he wants us to give up something, or start doing something else, it is always for our own benefit, not his. Instead, our only hope, as David knows, is to give up on trying to offer God anything, and appeal to God’s own character, and to the love that he showed us in Jesus Christ. And when we cry for help, we know for certain that God does love us, and that he does have our best interests at heart. We know it because Jesus gave up his own life, and went through unimaginable suffering to save us. Though we may not understand what he is doing, we always have a solid basis to trust God’s love for us.
David ends his lament in faith. He trusts that the Lord has heard his prayer. He declares to his enemies that God is his God, and will indeed come through for him. I think this psalm encourages us to be honest, but also to have faith, as David did.
Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today.