Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The end of this plaintive poem seems to belong to a different situation from the beginning. At first it sounds like a voice from a bed of sickness, of sickness likely to terminate fatally. But at Psalm 6:8 the tone changes. We hear no longer of sickness; but of enemies and wicked men, and prayer gives place to deflance and triumph. Can then the sufferings described in the former part be of the soul instead of the body? In any other than Hebrew literature we should answer in the negative. But with such passages as Isaiah 1:5-6 before us we feel that no picture of physical pain and disease is too vivid or too personal to express moral evil. Rightly, therefore, has the Church made this the first of the penitential psalms. As the personality of the writer is thus merged we need not attempt to recover it. Perhaps he intended it not only to be merged, but lost in the collective application to the suffering faithful in Israel. The Exile period best suits this confession of national sin. The rhythm is fine and well sustained.
Title. For chief musician and Neginoth, see introduction to Psalms 4 “Upon Sheminith,” Heb., upon the Shemînîth, comp. title to Psalms 12 Margin, on the eighth, which has been very variously understood, and still waits for a satisfactory explanation.
To the chief Musician on Neginoth upon Sheminith, A Psalm of David. O LORD, rebuke me not in thine anger, neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure.(1) O Lord, rebuke me not.—Repeated with change of one word in Psalm 38:1. The sublime thought that pain and sorrow are a discipline of love might be found in these words (as in Psalm 94:12; Proverbs 3:11-12; Jeremiah 10:24; Hebrews 12:3; Hebrews 12:11; Revelation 3:19), did not the context show that the sufferer in this case is praying for the chastisement to be altogether removed.
Have mercy upon me, O LORD; for I am weak: O LORD, heal me; for my bones are vexed.(2) I am weak.—Properly, wither, or waste with disease, or languish, as in Hosea 4:3; Isaiah 16:8.
Vexed.—So LXX. and Vulg. Literally, affrighted. (Comp. Virgil’s gelidusque per ima cucurrit Ossa tremor.)
My soul is also sore vexed: but thou, O LORD, how long?(3) But thou, O Lord, how long?—Comp. Psalm 90:13. This is “belief in unbelief.” Domine quousque was Calvin’s motto. The most intense grief, it was said, could never extract from him another word. In its national form this faith amid despair is shown in Zechariah 1:12. (Comp Revelation 6:10.)
For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?(5) For in death.—As in Psalm 30:9, the sufferer urges as a further reason for Divine aid the loss Jehovah would suffer by the cessation of his praise. The Israelite’s natural dread of death was intensified by the thought that the grave separated him from all the privileges of the covenant with God. (Comp. Isaiah 38:18.) There can be neither remembrance of His past mercies there, nor confession of His greatness. The word translated grave, in exact parallelism with death, is sheôl, or underworld, in the early conception merely a vast sepulchral cave, closed as rock-tombs usually were by gates of stone or iron (Isaiah 38:10; Job 17:16). The derivation of the word is disputed, but the primary meaning appears to have been hollowness. It occurs sixty-five times in the Bible, and is rendered in the Authorised version three times “pit,” and then with curious impartiality thirty-one times “grave,” and as many “hell.” When it ceased to be merely a synonym for “grave,” and began to gather a new set of ideas we cannot ascertain. It was before the time of which we have any contemporary records. But it acquired these new ideas very slowly. Sheol was for a very long time only a magnified grave, into which all the dead, bad and good alike, prince and peasant, went; where they lay side by side in their niches, as the dead do in the loculi of eastern tombs now, without sense of light or sound, or any influence from the upper world (1Kings 2:2; Job 30:23; Psalm 89:48). It is something more than death, put it is not life. The “sleep of death” expresses it. As in Homer’s Hades, the dead are men without the minds or energies of men—“soulless men; so the dead in the Hebrew conception are rephaim, that is, weak, shadowy existences. Indeed, the Biblical representation is even less tolerable than the Greek. Homer’s heroes retain many of their interests in the living world; they rejoice in the prosperity of their friends—their own approval or disapproval makes a difference to those still on earth—and, apart from this continued connection with the upper air, they had gone to a realm of their own, with its sovereign lord, its laws and customs, its sanctions, and penalties. Not so in the Jewish belief—“the dead know not anything”; “there is no wisdom in sheol.” It would be of no use for God to show any wonders among those incapable of perceiving them (Ecclesiastes 9:5-10; Psalm 88:10). They have passed altogether from all the interests and relations of life, even from the covenant relation with Jehovah. (Comp. Isaiah 38:18; Psalm 115:17.) How the Hebrew conscience, helped, possibly, by the influence of foreign ideas, gradually struggled into a higher light on these subjects, belongs to the history of eschatology. The fact that Psalms 6 reflects the earlier undeveloped doctrine, is an argument against any very late date for it.
I am weary with my groaning; all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears.(6) I water my couch with tears.—Comp. Odyssey, xvii. 102:
“Say, to my mournful couch shall I ascend?
The couch deserted now a length of years,
The couch for ever watered with my tears.”—
Orientals indulge in weeping and other outward signs of emotion, which Western nations, or, at all events, the Teutonic races, try to suppress or hide.
Mine eye is consumed because of grief; it waxeth old because of all mine enemies.(7) Consumed—i.e., sunken; literally, fallen away. The LXX. use the same word employed to render vexed in Psalm 6:2. Grief has brought the signs of premature age (Job 17:7; Psalm 31:9, and Note there). (See Homer’s Odyssey, xix. 360, “Quickly do mortals grow old from trouble.”)
Depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity; for the LORD hath heard the voice of my weeping.(8) Depart from me.—After the night of sorrow comes the morning of revived faith and confidence, if not of joy. The poet can turn to address his maligners with the assurance that God has heard his prayer, which in his agony he poured out, as he feared at the time, into deaf and unsympathising ears.
Let all mine enemies be ashamed and sore vexed: let them return and be ashamed suddenly.(10) Let all mine enemies.—Better rendered either by the present or future. The Psalmist with the eye of faith sees the answer to his prayer.
Return—i.e., retire discomfited and in failure.
“My enemies shall all be blank, and dasht
With much confusion: then grow red with shame;
They shall return in haste the way they came,
And in a moment shall be quite abashed.”—