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1. “Title of the psalm.” This psalm is inscribed “To the chief Musician on Neginoth upon Sheminith.” On the meaning of the phrase “Chief Musician on Neginoth,” see the notes at the title to Psalms 4:1-8 : The phrase “upon Sheminith” occurs here for the first time, and modifies the meaning of the title. The word Sheminith - שׁמינית shemı̂ynı̂yth - means properly “the eighth,” and corresponds exactly to our word “octave,” the eighth. It means in modern music an interval of seven degrees, or twelve semitones. It contains five full tones, and two semitones. It is supposed by Gesenius (Lexicon) here to denote “the lowest and gravest notes of the scale, sung by men, the modern bass or basso.” The word occurs, in the musical use, in 1 Chronicles 15:21, in enumerating various names of musicians, “Mattithiah, and Elipheleh, etc., with harps on the Sheminith to excel;” margin, “or eighth.” It is also found in the title to Psalms 12:1-8 : It does not elsewhere occur in reference to music in the Scriptures. It is probably not possible now to ascertain the precise meaning of the word as applicable to ancient music, and it is not important. The phrase “upon the octave” would properly be the true rendering of it; and this was doubtless quite intelligible at the time. It would be difficult to explain many of the musical terms now in use, after the lapse of two or three thousand years. If the term, however, was used, as is supposed by Gesenius, to denote the bass, its meaning is not difficult. It would then mean that the psalm was designed to be sung, accompanied with the instruments designated by “Neginoth,” and with the voices appropriate to this “octave” - the bass voices. The usual bass voice might be supposed to be adapted to the sentiment in the psalm.
2. “The author of the psalm.” The psalm purports to have been written by David, and there is nothing in the psalm to lead us to doubt the truth of this representation. It may be assumed, therefore, to be his.
3. “The occasion on which the psalm was written.” In the, running title in the English version this psalm is called “David’s complaint in his sickness.” It is hardly necessary to say that these running titles were prefixed by the translators, and that there is nothing in the Hebrew that corresponds with this. Still, this has been a very prevailing tradition as to the occasion on which this psalm was composed. Dr. Horsley prefixes this title to it: “A penitential prayer in the character of a sick person,” and in the exposition of this psalm supposes that the suppliant is a mystical personage, and that the object is to represent the feelings of a penitent under the image of such a personage, or that “the sick person is the believer’s soul laboring under a sense of its infirmities and anxiously expecting the promised redemption; the sickness is the depravity and disorder occasioned by the fall of man.” Luther entities it “A penitential prayer (Bussgebet), for the health of the body and the soul.” DeWette regards it as the prayer of one oppressed or in trouble, under the image of a sick person; and in this opinion Rosemnuller concurs. Others regard it as a psalm composed in view of sickness, and suppose it was written in consequence of sickness brought upon David in consequence of the rebellion of Absalom. Indeed, there has been a pretty general concurrence among expositors in the sentiment that, as the two previous psalms were composed in view of that rebellion, so this was also. Calvin supposes that it was not composed specifically in view of “sickness,” but of some great calamity that brought David to feel that he was near the borders of the grave, and that was thus the means of bringing the sins of his past life impressively to his remembrance.
In this uncertainty, and this want of positive testimony as to the occasion when the psalm was composed, it is natural to look to the psalm itself, and to inquire whether there are any “internal” indications which will enable us to determine with any degree of probability the circumstances of the writer at the time of its composition. The psalm, then, has the following internal marks as to the occasion on which it was composed:
I. The writer was in the midst of enemies, and in great peril on account of them. “Mine eye is consumed because of grief; it waxeth old because of all mine enemies,” Psalms 6:7. “Depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity,” Psalms 6:8. “Let all mine enemies be ashamed and sore vexed,” Psalms 6:10. We cannot be mistaken, then, in supposing that this was at some period in the life of David, when his numerous enemies pressed hard upon him and endangered his life.
II. He was crushed and broken-hearted on account of these trials; he had not strength of body to bear up under the weight of accumulated woes; he sank under the burden of these troubles and calamities, and was brought near to the grave. There were many and formidable external foes who threatened his life; and there was, on some account, connected with this, deep and crushing “mental” anguish, and the result was actual and dangerous sickness - so that he was led to contemplate the eternal world as near to him. It became a case, therefore, of real sickness caused by unique outward troubles. This is manifest from such expressions as the following: - “I am weak; heal me: my bones are vexed” Psalms 6:2. “In death there is no remembrance of thee; in the grave who shall give thee thanks?” Psalms 6:5. “I am weary with my groaning; I water my couch with my tears: mine eye is consumed with grief,” Psalms 6:6-7. This is such language as would be used by one who was crushed and broken-hearted with grief, and who, unable to bear up under the weighty load was laid, as the result of it, on a bed of languishing. It is not uncommon that outward troubles become too great for the feeble human frame to bear, and that, crushed beneath them, the body is laid upon a bed of languishing, and brought to the borders of the grave, or to the grave itself.
III. The psalmist expresses a feeling which is common in such cases - a deep anxiety on the subject of his own sin, as if these calamities had come upon him on account of his transgressions, and as a punishment for his sins. This is implied in Psalms 6:1 : “O Lord, rebuke me not in thine anger, neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure.” He looked upon this as a “rebuke” from God, and construed it as an expression of “hot displeasure.” This is the prompting of natural feeling when one is afflicted, for this inquiry spontaneously arises in the mind, whether the affliction is not on account of some sin which we have committed, and is not to be regarded as proof that God is angry with us. It is an inquiry as proper as it is natural, and David, in the circumstances referred to, seems to have felt its full force.
Taking all these considerations into view, it seems probable that the psalm was composed during the troubles brought upon David in the rebellion of Absalom, and when, crushed by the weight of these sorrows, his strength gave way, and he was laid on a bed of languishing, and brought near to the grave.
4. “The contents of the psalm.” The psalm contains the following points:
I. A plea of the author for mercy and compassion in trouble, under the apprehension that God was rebuking and punishing him for his sins, Psalms 6:1-2. His deep sufferings, described in the following verses, had, as remarked above, led him to inquire whether it was not on account of his sins that he was afflicted, and whether he ought not to regard his sorrow as proof that God was displeased with him for his sins.
II. A description of his sufferings, Psalms 6:2-7. He had been crushed with sorrow, and had become “weak;” his very “bones” were “vexed;” he was drawing near to the grave; he was weary with his groaning; he watered his couch with his tears; his eye was consumed with grief. These sufferings were partly bodily and partly mental; or rather, as suggested above, probably his mental sorrows had been so great as to prostrate his physical frame, and to lay him on a bed of languishing.
III. The assurance that God had heard his prayer, and that he would triumph over all his enemies, and that all his troubles would pass away, Psalms 6:8-10. Hope breaks in suddenly upon his afflicted soul, and, under this exulting feeling, he addresses his enemies, and tells them to depart from him. They could not be successful, for the Lord had heard his prayer. This sudden answer to prayer - this happy turn of thought - often occurs in the Psalms, as if, while the psalmist was pleading, an immediate answer to prayer was granted, and light broke in upon the darkened mind.
O Lord, rebuke me not in thine anger - As if God was rebuking him by the affliction which he was bringing upon him. This is the point on which the attention of the psalmist is now fixed. He had been apparently contemplating his afflictions, and inquiring into their cause, and he was led to the conclusion that it might be for his sins, and that his trials were to be interpreted as proof that God was angry with him. He speaks, therefore, of God as visiting him in his “anger,” and in his “hot displeasure,” and pleads with him that he would “not” thus rebuke and chasten him. The word “rebuke” here, like the word rendered “chasten,” properly refers to the reproof of an offender “by words,” but may also be used to denote the reproof which God administers by his providential dealings when he brings judgment upon anyone for his sins. This is the meaning here. The psalmist did not apprehend that God would openly “reprove” him for his sins; but he regarded his dealings with him as such a reproof, and he pleads that the tokens of the reproof might be taken away. The whole language is that which indicates a connection between suffering and sin; the feeling which we have when we are afflicted that it must be on account of our sins.
Neither chasten me - A word denoting substantially the same thing; used here in the sense of “punishing.”
In thy hot displeasure - literally, “in thy heat.” We speak of anger or wrath as “burning,” or “consuming.” Compare Genesis 39:19; Numbers 11:33; Deuteronomy 11:17; Psalms 106:40; Job 19:11; Job 32:2-3; Psalms 2:12.
Have mercy upon me, O Lord - That is, be gracious to me; or, show me compassion. This language may be used either in view of sin, of suffering, or of danger. It is a cry to God to interpose, and remove some present source of trouble, and may be employed by one who feels that he is a sinner, or by one on a bed of pain, or by one surrounded by enemies, or by one at the point of death, or by one who is looking out with apprehension upon the eternal world. It is commonly, indeed (compare Psalms 51:1), a cry to God in view of sin, pleading for pardon and salvation; but here it is a cry in view of trouble and danger, outward sorrow and mental anguish, that had overcome the strength of the sufferer and laid him on a bed of languishing. See introduction to the psalm, Section 3.
For I am weak - The original word here, אמלל 'ûmlal, means properly to languish or droop, as plants do that are blighted, Isaiah 24:7, or as fields do in a drought, Isaiah 16:8, and is here applied to a sick person whose strength is withered and gone. The condition of such an one is beautifully compared with a plant that withers for lack of moisture; and the word is used in this sense here, as referring to the psalmist himself when sick, as the result of his outward and mental sorrows. Such an effect has not been uncommon in the world. There have been numberless cases where sorrow has prostrated the strength - as a plant withers - and has brought on languishing sickness.
O Lord, heal me - This is language which would be properly applied to a case of sickness, and therefore, it is most natural to interpret it in this sense in this place. Compare Isaiah 19:22; Isaiah 30:26; Job 5:18; Genesis 20:17; Psalms 60:2; 2 Chronicles 16:12; Deuteronomy 28:27.
For my bones are vexed - The word “vexed” we now commonly apply to mental trouble, and especially the lighter sort of mental trouble - to irritate, to make angry by little provocations, to harass. It is used here, however, as is common in the Scriptures, in reference to torment or to anguish. The bones are the strength and framework of the body, and the psalmist means here to say that the very source of his strength was gone; that that which supported him was prostrated; that his disease and sorrow had penetrated the most firm parts of his body. Language is often used in the Scriptures, also, as if the “bones” actually suffered pain, though it is now known that the bones, as such, are incapable of pain. And in the same manner, also, language is often used, though that use of the word is not found in the Scriptures, as if the “marrow” of the bones were especially sensitive, like a nerve, in accordance with what is the common and popular belief, though it is now known that the marrow of the bones is entirely insensible to suffering. The design of the psalmist here is to say that he was crushed and afflicted in every part of his frame.
My soul is also sore vexed - The word “soul” here is used in the sense in which it is commonly with us, as denoting the mind. The idea is, that his sorrows were not merely those of the bodily frame. They had a deeper seat than even the bones. His mind, his soul, was full of anguish also, in view of the circumstances which surrounded him, and which had brought on these bodily afflictions.
But thou, O Lord - This is a broken sentence, as if he had commenced an address to God, but did not complete it. It is as if he had said, “Here I suffer and languish; my sorrows are deep and unmitigated; as for thee, O Lord” - as if he were about to say that he had hoped God would interpose; or, that his dealings were mysterious; or, that they seemed strange or severe; but he ends the sentence by no language of complaint or complaining, but by simply asking “how long” these sorrows were to continue.
How long? - That is, how long wilt thou leave me thus to suffer? How long shall my unmitigated anguish continue? How long will it be ere thou wilt interpose to relieve me? The language implies that in his apprehension it was already a long time - as time usually seems long to a sufferer (compare Job 7:2-4), and that he was constantly looking out for God to interpose and help him. This is language such as all persons may be inclined to use on beds of pain and languishing. It seems indeed long to them now; it will, however, seem short when they look back upon it from the glories of the heavenly world. Compare 2 Corinthians 4:17-18.
Return, O Lord, deliver my soul - As if he had departed from him, and had left him to die. The word “soul” in this place is used, as it often is, in the sense of “life,” for in the next verse he speaks of the grave to which he evidently felt he was rapidly descending.
O save me - Save my life; save me from going down to the grave. Deliver me from these troubles and dangers.
For thy mercies’ sake -
(a) As an act of mere mercy, for he felt that he had no claim, and could not urge it as a matter of right and justice; and
(b) in order that God’s mercy might be manifest, or because he was a merciful Being, and might, therefore, be appealed to on that ground.
These are proper grounds, now, on which to make an appeal to God for his interposition in our behalf; and, indeed, these are the only grounds on which we can plead with him to save us.
For in death - In the state of the dead; in the grave.
There is no remembrance of thee - They who are dead do not remember thee or think of thee. The “ground” of this appeal is, that it was regarded by the psalmist as a “desirable” thing to remember God and to praise him, and that this could not be done by one who was dead. He prayed, therefore, that God would spare his life, and restore him to health, that he might praise him in the land of the living. A sentiment similar to this occurs in Psalms 30:9, “What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise thee? shall it declare thy truth?” So also Psalms 88:11, “Shall thy loving-kindness be declared in the grave? or thy faithfulness in destruction?” So also in Isaiah 38:18, in the language of Hezekiah, “The grave cannot praise thee; death cannot celebrate thee; they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth.” See the notes at that passage. A similar sentiment also is found in Job 10:21-22. See the notes at that passage. In regard to the meaning of this it may be remarked
(a) that it is to be admitted that there was among the ancient saints much less light on the subject of the future state than there is with us, and that they often, in giving utterance to their feelings, seemed to speak as if all were dark beyond the grave.
(b) But, though they thus spoke in their sorrow and in their despondency, they also did, on other occasions, express their belief in a future state, and their expectation of happiness in a coming world (compare, for example, Psalms 16:10-11; Psalms 17:15).
(c) Does not their language in times of despondency and sickness express the feelings which “we” often have now, even with all the light which we possess, and all the hopes which we cherish? Are there not times in the lives of the pious, even though they have a strong prevailing hope of heaven, when the thoughts are fixed on the grave as a dark, gloomy, repulsive prison, and “so” fixed on it as to lose sight of the world beyond? And in such moments does not “life” seem as precious to us, and as desirable, as it did to David, to Hezekiah, or to Job?
In the grave - Hebrew, בשׁאול bishe'ôl, “in Sheol.” For the meaning of the word, see Isaiah 5:14, note; Isaiah 14:9, note; Job 7:9, note. Its meaning here does not differ materially from the word “grave.”
Who shall give thee thanks? - Who shall “praise” thee? The idea is that “none” would then praise God. It was the land of “silence.” See Isaiah 38:18-19. This language implies that David “desired” to praise God, but that he could not hope to do it in the grave.
I am weary with my groaning - I am exhausted or worn out with it. That is, his sorrows were so deep, and his groaning was so constant, that his strength failed. He became “faint” under the weight of his sorrows. All persons in trouble have experienced this effect - the sense of weariness or exhaustion from sorrow.
All the night make I my bed to swim - That is, he wept so much that his bed seemed to be immersed in tears. This is, of course, hyperbolical language, expressing in a strong and emphatic manner the depth of his sorrows.
I water my couch with my tears - The word here rendered “water” means to melt, to flow down; then, in the Hiphil, to cause to flow, to dissolve. The sense here is, that he caused his couch to “flow” or “overflow” with his tears. We would say, he “flooded” his bed with tears. This verse discloses the true source of the trials referred to in the psalm. It was some deep mental anguish - some source of grief - that exhausted his strength, and that laid him on a bed of languishing. No circumstances in the life of David better accord with this than the troubles which existed on account of the ungrateful and rebellious conduct of Absalom, and it is most natural to refer it to this. Many a parent since the time of David has experienced “all,” both mental and bodily, which is here described as a consequence of the ingratitude and evil conduct of his children. The tragedy of “Lear” turns entirely on this.
Mine eye is consumed - The word here rendered “consumed” - עשׁשׁ ‛âshêsh - means properly to fall in, to fall away, and is applied here to the “eye” as pining or wasting away from care, anxiety, and sorrow. Tears were poured forth from the eye, and it seemed to be exhausting itself in this manner. The meaning is, that it had grown “dim,” or that its sight began to fail, like that of an old man, on account of his troubles. Many have understood the word here rendered “eye” as referring to the “countenance;” but it is doubtful whether the word ever has this signification; and at any rate the common signification, referring it to the “eye,” best suits this connection.
It waxeth old - It seems to grow old; it experiences the effects commonly produced by age in blunting the power of vision. This is not an uncommon effect of grief and sadness. Even while I am writing this I am called in my pastoral visitations to attend on a young lady lying on a bed of languishing, and probably of death, one of whose symptoms is a quite diminished, and indeed almost total loss of vision, as the effect of trouble and disease.
Because of all mine enemies - From the trouble which they have brought upon me. The reference here, according to the interpretation proposed of the psalm, is to Absalom and those who were associated with him. Their conduct had been such as to bring upon David this overwhelming tide of sorrows.
Depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity - Referring, by the “workers of iniquity,” to his enemies, as if they now surrounded him, and calling on them “now” to leave him, since God had heard his prayer, and they could not be successful in their purposes. This is an indirect but most emphatic way of saying that God had heard his prayer; and the sentiment in this verse is strongly in contrast with the desponding state of feeling - the deep and dreadful sorrow - indicated in the previous verses. Light broke in suddenly upon him; his prayer had come up before God, and, in some way, he was assured that it would be answered. Already he sees his enemies scattered, and his own cause triumphant; and in this exulting feeling he addresses his foes, and commands them to leave him. This is, therefore, a remarkable and striking proof that prayer may be heard, even while we are speaking to God (compare Isaiah 65:24); that the assurance may be conveyed suddenly to the mind that God will hear and answer the prayer which is addressed to him; and also a beautiful illustration of the effect of this on a mind overwhelmed with trouble and sorrow, in giving it calmness and peace.
For the Lord hath heard - That is, my prayer has ascended before him, and I am certain that he regards it favorably, and will answer it. “In what way” he had this assurance he does not inform us. As he was an inspired man, we may suppose that the assurance was given to him directly by the Holy Spirit. “We” are not to expect the “same kind” of assurance that our prayers are heard; we are to look for no revelation to that effect; but there may be “as real” an intimation to the mind that our prayers are heard - as real “evidence” - as in this case. There may be a firm confidence of the mind that God is a hearer of prayer now coming to the soul with the freshness of a new conviction of that truth; and there may be, in trouble and sorrow, a sweet calmness and peace breathed through the soul - an assurance that all will be right and well, as if the prayer were heard, and such as there would be if we were assured by direct revelation that it is heard. The Spirit of God can produce this in our case as really as he did in the case of David.
The voice of my weeping - The voice of prayer that accompanied my weeping, or the voice of the weeping itself - the cry of anguish and distress which was in itself of the nature of prayer.
The Lord hath heard my supplication - Repeating the sentiment in the previous verse, to express his assurance and his joy. Nothing is more natural in such circumstances than to dwell on the joyous thought, and to repeat it to ourselves, that it may make its full impression.
The Lord will receive my prayer - As he has done it, so he will still do it. This allays all fears of the future, and makes the mind calm. The state of mind here is this: “The Lord has heard my prayer; I am assured that he will do it hereafter; I have, therefore, nothing to fear.”
Let all mine enemies be ashamed - Be so brought to see their folly that they shall be ashamed of their conduct. The wish is that they might be brought to see their own guilt - a wish certainly which it is right to cherish in regard to all evil-doers.
And sore vexed - Compare the notes at Psalms 5:10. The same Hebrew word is used here which occurs in Psalms 6:2-3, and rendered “vexed.” It is a word which denotes trouble, trembling, consternation; and the meaning here is, that the psalmist prayed that they might be confounded or disconcerted in their plans - a prayer which is certainly proper in regard to all the purposes of the wicked. No one should desire that the purposes of the wicked should prosper; and not to desire this is to desire that they may be foiled and overcome in their schemes. This must be the wish of every good man.
Let them return - Turn back, or be turned back; that is, let them be repulsed, and compelled to turn back from their present object.
And be ashamed suddenly - Hebrew, “In a moment;” instantaneously. He desired that there might be no delay, but that their defeat might be accomplished at once. As it was right to pray that this might occur, so it was right to pray that it might occur without delay, or as speedily as possible. The sooner the plans of sinners are confounded, the better.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 6". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12