Psalm 6 is a typical lament psalm. Over half of all the psalms fall into this category and I think that they are the most remarkable feature of the biblical faith (see the article provided here on ‘the lament psalms’). Here there is a candidness that expresses an intimacy with God that is truly moving. In these psalms we see the covenant relationship tested and indeed as it is tested we see it manifested in its most passionate form. Here the psalmist reaches out desperately for God and in this there is a powerful revelation of man’s absolute need for God. These psalms are particularly notable for their interaction between joyful confidence and in God and the deathly grief which occasions the psalms themselves. Possibly the most astounding aspect of many of the laments is their movement out of sorrow into joy. Some of the most jubilant expressions of praise in the book of psalms are found at the end of lament psalms. This is a feature of this psalm and the journey of the psalm itself to this point is a profound example of the kind of prayer that is appropriate for the covenant relationship.
Psalm 6 is, in particular, a penitential lament. The early church included this one in a small collection of psalms used in their worship for times of penitence and repentance (the collection included also psalms 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143). I think they were using it correctly. The first verse records the cries of a heart truly broken before God, so much so, that we might even find it quite disturbing. We are told in the subtitle that the writer is David but we do not know the occasion of its writing. We can however attempt a general reconstruction of the situation. David is in the midst of profound suffering here. From within and from without he is tormented. His body is racked with pain (vs. 2) and he is tormented outwardly by enemies (though we do not know who) (vs. 7). But what dominates his cries is the agonising consciousness of God’s displeasure toward him and he sees all his suffering as God’s chastisement upon him. Here is a man in supreme anguish. It is not that God has abandoned him because he sees his suffering as being from God. The hand of God is, as it were, striking him hard. The problem for David is not the absence of God’s love but the presence of God’s anger. God is still present. Many people find it hard to see God portrayed in these ways. It seems they would prefer to see God as one who is never angry and always loving. Indeed God is always loving. And this is why he gets angry. The words of the proverb apply here:
My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline
and do not resent his rebuke,
because the LORD disciplines those he loves,
as a father the son he delights in.
(Prov. 3:11,12. This is quoted in Hebrews 12:5, 6)
To be chastised by God is something that only the privileged children of God will benefit from. When God is angry with others he judges them by simply giving them up to their sin (see Romans 1:18ff). And so these are the words of one who is suffering but not lost. God’s chastisement is harsh here and we should note that God here has used the greatest ills of human existence upon David: sickness, adversary, and inward torment. We should note also that David expects that he may even die unless God relents. And so he makes a desperate appeal. I think that this appeal is the climax of the lament. Here David speaks in the boldness of faith. He presents an argument before God like a barrister before a judge. He is acting here like the Canaanite woman who argued her request with Jesus and was commended for her faith (Matt. 15:21-28). David’s argument is a good one. He first appeals to the unfailing love of God (vs. 4). The term here is indicative of the particular covenant love of God and David is cautiously reminding God of his promises. But as if this were not a strong enough appeal David comes up with an even better argument. He appeals to the glory of God. Can God receive glory from a dead man? (vs. 5). Can a dead man remember God and give him praise? What glory does God get from the lips of a dead man? He knows that the highest concern of God in all things is the glory of his name. He knows that the love of God is defined by God’s unyielding desire to show his glory to his people. So he climaxes his case with this appeal. And he is right ‘ he wins the day. It is easy to imagine what God might be saying in the presence of angels in response to David’s prayer here. It might have as Jesus said to the Canaanite woman: ‘You have great faith! Your request is granted’ (Matt. 15:28). When I say, ‘he wins the day,’ I mean that his faith responds and overcomes the trial. He does not despair but trusts that God simply must save him for the sake of his glory. There is a sense in which David’s argument was most effective in building his own trust in God. Such a trust is the very thing that God has bound himself to respond to by covenant. It is not so much the prayer that God answers as much as the trust which is expressed in the prayer. A prayer without trust is a waste of time. God is not interested in words. He wants to relate on a deeper level that that. Trust is the defining relational element of our kinship with God. I think that God would say to many of us as he implicitly said to the Canaanite woman: ‘why should I answer you?’ He wants to activate not just words from our lips but a trusting passion in our hearts.
The psalm ends, then, in a faith-confidence that transcends David’s pain and sees his enemies fleeing before him. It is a wonderful vision. David may even have been healed right there and then as he prayed. We cannot know exactly what happened there in between the end of verse 7 and the beginning of verse 8, but one thing is for sure: his prayer was answered by God. The hand of God now embraces his son again and David moves into the kind of joy that can only begin in lamentation. His enemies are as good as destroyed and he is restored. The change is sudden and marvelous. It is the most exciting characteristic of the psalms and it is evidence that we should expect something to happen when we pray. Not all the lament psalms end like this (see Psalm 88), but all lamenting certainly ends in rejoicing, . . . eventually. This is a biblical promise: ‘ Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy’ (Psalm 126:5).