March 23, 2010


Psalm 6 – A Deep Depression


(Initial note – some English translations do not number the title verse.)

TEXT

1. For the leader; with instrumental music on the sheminith1. A psalm. Of David.

2. O LORD do not rebuke me in Your anger, do not chastise me in Your fury.
3. Have mercy on me, O LORD for I am wretched; heal me O LORD for my bones are terror-stricken.
4. My being is totally terror-stricken – and You, O LORD, how long!
5. Turn back, O LORD! Rescue my life! Deliver me for the sake of Your faithfulness.
6. For there is no mention of You among the dead; in Sheol, who can acclaim You?
7. I am weary with groaning; every night I flood my bed, drench my couch in tears.
8. My eye is dimmed by vexation, worn out because of all my foes.

9. Get 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 totally shamed and terror-stricken; they will turn back, shamed, in an instant.

Note
1. meaning uncertain – possibly, "eight stringed lute."

COMMENTARY

The early Church included Psalm 6 as one of the seven Psalms of Atonement, and later Jewish tradition made it the lynchpin of the personal entreaty section at the end of the daily morning service (in Hebrew, Tachanun). Both choices reflect the power of this psalm and its appeal.

Suffering Described

Poetry is often best read slowly, allowing each new phrase to enhance and alter what came before. Certainly this is the case with Psalm 6, as we see its meaning unfold bit by bit.

"Rebuke… anger…chatise…fury. " - Verse 2 sets the opening stage of psalm 6, a speaker alone, addressing the LORD. It is He who is the Origin and Cause of the speaker’s distress. “Do not” is the repeated request, referring both to the rebuke and God's anger, and therefore leaving an alluring ambiguity of which is worse—the suffering or its cause.

"Have mercy … for I am wretched; heal me… my bones are terror-stricken, my being… totally terror-stricken." Verses 3–4a both augment and change the focus. The suffering gains detail, but the Lord appears in a different role, as the potential solution. Meanwhile, the speaker's condition is intensified. Twice repeating “terror-stricken” (his bones, his whole person), the speaker uses three slightly obscure phrases, which nevertheless offer a sense of increment. In the eyes of one medieval interpreter, Sforno, these are three separate aspects: loss of wealth, physical affliction and spiritual suffering. While it is equally legitimate to read the three phrases as general repetitions, in either case (comprehensiveness or emphasis) they paint a sharp picture of a broken man.

"And You, O LORD, how long!" - The break into verse 4b is stark and dramatic. The phrase “And You” changes the direction and subject completely, a shift made more blatant by the added address to the LORD by name. Coming after the amplification of the suffering, the verse then gives voice to great pain: “How long?!” (in current vernacular—“Enough already!”).

Enough of what? God is addressed in two roles: as a source of information about the future (How long am I to suffer like this?) and as the source of the problem (How long will You remain angry?). The power of the outburst increases the reader's thirst for greater detail. What is it that has occasioned this desperation?

"Turn back…Rescue my life!... Deliver me… there is no mention of You among the dead…." – The specific requests that follow in verses 5 and 6 are therefore particularly meaningful. Verse 6 is sobering, not because of the concept that the dead do not praise God (this idea is found with some frequency in Psalms), but in its revelation that the speaker sees himself on the verge of death! One imagines varied and differing possible illnesses, which are not clarified (as often happens in Psalms).

"I am weary with groaning… I flood my bed, drench my couch… my eye is dimmed…, worn out …" - The desperation is then intensified in verses 7 and 8. Phrase by phrase, dejection leads to depression, which leads to desolation. As in the previous three phrases in verses 3–4a, the descriptions create a pounding effect, enveloping the reader in the depths of the speaker’s nightmarish world of misery.

A Different Origin of the Speaker’s Problems

"…because of all my foes. Get away from me, all you evildoers." - With verses 8b and 9a, Psalm 6 takes a drastic turn. The cause for these tears is identified as the speaker’s adversaries! The speaker calls out to them to be gone. From presumed illness, easily conceived as the (non-understood, yet attributable) workings of the Lord, the core problem is radically shifted into human hands. Earlier verses, which seemed to speak of illness, beg to be reread. By implication, concern for God’s reputation also resurfaces as basic: as the dead do not praise God, neither is any good done by the suffering of his servant.

"…for the LORD heeds the sound of my weeping, the LORD heeds my plea,…" - Indeed, while in no way diminishing his prior turn to God for help, the speaker now directs his lament toward the enemies and the evildoers themselves. Ostensibly, the content is a profession of the revelation of God’s help. So it is read by most commentators, who all struggle to understand what brought about the shift in circumstance, which is almost total. These commentators wax creative in suggesting various changes of time and circumstance (none of which are detailed in the psalm).

I suggest that it is possible to interpret that the circumstances have not changed. The poem is a unit, and verse 9 resonates with irony. Just as one hears Shakespeare’s Lear weeping as he cries out “You think I’ll weep? No, I’ll not weep” (II:4, end), so here in Psalm 6 we hear a classic counter-protestation. His statement to his enemies—to the effect that (damn it all!) God has heeded his plea (emphasized by repetition of the word “heed”)—serves ultimately to highlight the unhappiness of the speaker’s situation and his profound dejection. Somewhere deep inside, the speaker cannot believe the very words he has just uttered.

The last verse is directed to an anonymous audience, which tempts the reader to hear the words directly. This similarly allows the previous, penultimate, verse (10) to be understood in two ways, one directed to the evildoers (as was verse 9) and one to this anonymous audience (as verse 11), and both should be understood. The last two verses, if read independently of the psalm, are a statement of an assured faith in God’s protection, even a celebration. (It is so read many commentators!) However, in the context of the psalm, they are a searing reminder of the tension between conviction and reality, a tension that dominates the desolation of this person of faith, who lives in trying personal circumstances, whatever the details of those circumstances might be. This tension is magnified several times over in light of the psalm’s earliest paradox, when the speaker both accuses God of being the source of his problems and asks that He resolve them. (This duality is reflected in numerous other places in the Bible – a natural bi-product of its monotheism),

It is no wonder that this psalm has been included in many Jewish liturgies as the lynchpin of the section that reflects desperate calling out to God (Hebrew – Tachanun). The psalmist offers us a tragic, tense situation filled with insight into the suffering of a person of faith.

The Problem

It is indeed the suffering that is paramount. However, those (many) interpreters who see this as a near-death psalm of illness (e.g., Seybold) are being too literalistic. (The contention is that the mention of death implies that the speaker is critically ill.) The psalm reads otherwise. In the late shift to his enemies, the speaker has opened up the poem. The source of the problems is less specific (we do not know who these foes are) but is all the more powerful for that. These others are out there, making his life a hell on earth. His physical pain, which dominated the early part of the psalm, is now seen to be the result of his interaction with others, their precise acts undefined. In modern terms, these would possibly be the speaker’s creditors, his competitors, his partners undermining him, his supervisors threatening his livelihood, a mayor unable to function owing to his own town council, a politician losing his grip on his party, or the like. This is the essence. The speaker is in deep depression, causing palpable torturous effects, all caused by his interpersonal tensions. (I further suggest this is the reason for the emphasis in verse 7 on nighttime—he does not want these others to see that he is crying, and naturally one gives freer expression to these pains alone at night.)

The glory of this description of his depression is in its focus on the feelings of the speaker. The concentration is further highlighted by a semi-independence of verses 7 and 8. Verse 6 is still addressed to God, but the text does not further attest to such address, leaving verse 7 and 8 either as the end of that address to God, or direct address, as the reader hears this description of the depression as directed to him or her, granting it drama and authenticity. That authenticity, of course, rests primarily on the truth it reflects, on the dramatic and accurate presentation of a desperate and depressed person. In the end, this desperation grants the fear of death an even more ominous implication than physical illness.

However, just as we may not read the last two verses only out of context of the whole poem, in the final analysis, there remains in those verses an articulation of assurance that does typify a person of great faith. The interplay of that element with the previously detailed desperation is left to the reader to contemplate.

* * * * * * * *
Additional Notes on Language

As several commentators have pointed out, the poet uses words to great effect. There are seven imperative verbs directed to God in the opening plea, seven being a Biblical indication of completeness.

Repetitions are used effectively. (Numbers refer to verses.) (On the emphasis implied by the double use of “terror-stricken” within 3–4a and of “heed” in 9–10, see above.) The speaker asks that his enemies be “terror-stricken” (11) as his bones and he were “terror-stricken” (3–4) with “totally" used in both contexts. His foes will “turn back" (11), because God has “turned back” (5). The doubled claim that his enemies will be “shamed” (11) only strengthens the desperation of that verse (as above)

Many point out a pun at the end of the last verse: they shall “return” to be “abashed” (the latter used twice). These two verbs represent reverse root orders in Hebrew (sh-o-b, b-o-sh).

Schaefer sees the final word (one word in Hebrew) “in an instant” in verse 11 as the sought response to “How long?” in verse 4.

As indicated, the meaning of sheminith in the title is uncertain. From the root indicating "eight," it is commonly understood to refer to an appropriate instrument. One reader, noting that the eighth verse of content (verse nine in the Hebrew) marks the sharpest break in the psalm, suggests there maybe an implied pun pointing to that verse. In the one other psalm in which the term appears (Psalm 12), there is also a radical break before the ninth verse, which there is the last verse, meaning there are exactly eight verses of content.



The author of these essays is Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at psalmblog@gmail.com.

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