THE theme and progress of thought in this psalm are very common, especially in those attributed to David. A soul compassed by enemies, whose hate has all but sapped the life out of it, "catches at God’s skirts and prays," and thence wins confidence which anticipates deliverance and victory. There are numerous variations of this leitmotif, and each of the psalms which embody it has its own beauty, its own discords resolved into its own harmonies. The representation of the trouble of spirit as producing wasting of the body is also frequent, and is apparently not to be taken as metaphor, though not to be pressed, as if the psalmist were at once struck with the two calamities of hostility and disease, but the latter is simply the result of the former, and will disappear with it. It is needless to look for a historical occasion of the psalm, but to an ear that knows the tones of sorrow, or to a heart that has itself uttered them, the supposition that in these pathetic cries we hear only a representative Israelite bewailing the national ruin sounds singularly artificial. If ever the throb of personal anguish found tears and a voice, it does so in this psalm. Whoever wrote it wrote with his blood. There are in it no obvious references to events in the recorded life of David, and hence the ascription of it to him must rest on something else than the interpretation of the psalm. The very absence of such allusions is a fact to be dealt with by those who deny the accuracy of the attribution of authorship. But, however that question may be settled, the worth of this little plaintive cry depends on quite other considerations than the discovery of the name of the singer or the nature of his sorrow. It is a transcript of a perennial experience, a guide for a road which all feet have to travel. Its stream runs turbid and broken at first, but calms and clears as it flows. It has four curves or windings, which can scarcely be called strophes without making too artificial a framework for such a simple and spontaneous gush of feeling. Still the transitions are clear enough.
In Psalms 6:1-3 we have a cluster of sharp, short cries to God for help, which all mean the same thing. In each of these the great name of Jehovah is repeated, and in each the plea urged is simply the sore need of the suppliant. These are no "vain repetitions," which are pressed out of a soul by the grip of the rack; and it is not "taking the name of the Lord in vain" when four times in three short verses the passionate cry for help is winged with it as the arrow with its feather. Two thoughts fill the psalmist’s consciousness, or rather one thought-the Lord-and one feeling-his pains. In Psalms 6:1 the Hebrew makes "in Thine anger" and "in Thine hot wrath" emphatic by setting these two phrases between the negative and the verb: "Not in Thine anger rebuke me; not in Thy heat chasten me." He is willing to submit to both rebuke and chastisement; but he shrinks appalled from that form of either which tends to destruction, not to betterment. There are chastisements in tenderness, which express God’s love, and there are others which manifest His alienation and wrath. This psalmist did not think that all Divine retribution was intended for reformation. To him there was such a thing as wrath which slew. Jeremiah has the same distinction, [Jeremiah 10:24] and the parallel has been made an argument for the later date of the psalm. Cheyne and others assume that Jeremiah is the original, but that is simple conjecture, and the prophet’s conspicuous fondness for quotations from older authors makes the supposition more probable that the psalm is the earlier. Resignation and shrinking blend in that cry, in which a heart conscious of evil confesses as well as implores, recognises the justice and yet deprecates the utmost severity of the blow. He who asks, "Not in Thine anger rebuke me," thereby submits to loving chastisement.
Then follow in Psalms 6:2-3 three short petitions, which are as much cries of pain as prayers, and as much prayers as cries of pain. In the two former the prayer is put first, and its plea second; in the last the order is reversed, and so the whole is, as it were, enclosed in a circlet of prayer. Two words make the petition in each clause, "Have mercy on me, Jehovah" (tastelessly corrected by Gratz into "Revive me"), and "Heal me, Jehovah." The third petition is daring and pregnant in its incompleteness. In that emphatic "And Thou, Jehovah," the psalmist looks up, with almost reproach in his gaze, to the infinite Personality which seems so unaccountably passive. The hours that bring pain are leaden footed, and their moments each seem an eternity. The most patient sufferer may cry, "How long?" and God will not mistake the voice of pain for that of impatience. This threefold prayer, with its triple invocation, has a triple plea, which is all substantially one. His misery fills the psalmist’s soul, and he believes that God will feel for him. He does not at first appeal to God’s revealed character, except in so far as the plaintive reiteration of the Divine name carries such an appeal, but he spreads out his own wretchedness, and he who does that has faith in God’s. pity. "I am withered away" like a faded flower. "My bones are vexed"; -the physical effects of his calamity, "bones" being put for the whole body, and regarded as the seat of sensibility, as is frequently the usage. "Vexed" is too weak a rendering. The idea is that of the utmost consternation. Not only the body, but the soul, partakes in the dismay. The "soul" is even more shaken than the "bones"; that is to say, mental agitation rather than physical disease (and the latter as the result of the former) troubles the psalmist. We can scarcely fail to remember the added sanctity which these plaintive words have received, since they were used by the Prince of sufferers when all but in sight of the cross.
The next turn of thought includes Psalms 6:4-5, and is remarkable for the new pleas on which it rests the triple prayer, "Return; deliver; save." God is His own motive, and His self-revelation in act must always be self-consistent. Therefore the plea is presented, "for Thy lovingkindness sake." It beseeches Him to be what He is, and to show Himself as still being what He had always been. The second plea is striking both in its view of the condition of the dead and in its use of that view as an argument with God. Like many other psalmists, the writer thinks of Sheol as the common gathering place of the departed, a dim region where they live a poor shadowy life, inactive, joyless, and all but godless, inasmuch as praise, service, and fellowship with Him have ceased.
That view is equally compatible with the belief in a resurrection and the denial of it, for it assumes continued individual consciousness. It is the prevailing tone in the Psalter and in Job and Ecclesiastes. But in some psalms, which embody the highest rapture of inward and mystical devotion, the sense of present union with God bears up the psalmist into the sunlight of the assurance that against such a union death can have no power, and we see the hope of immortality in the very act of dawning on the devout soul. May we not say that the subjective experience of the reality of communion with God now is still the path by which the certainty of its perpetuity in a future life is reached? The objective proof in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is verified by this experience. The psalmists had not the former, but, having the latter, they attained to at all events occasional confidence in a blessed life beyond. But the tone of such triumphant glimpses as Psalms 16:10; Psalms 17:15; Psalms 49:15; Psalms 73:24, is of a higher mood than that of this and other psalms, which probably represent the usual view of devout Hebrews.
The fact, as it appeared to those at the then stage of revelation, that remembrance and praise of God were impossible in Sheol, is urged as a plea. That implies the psalmist’s belief that God cared for men’s praise-a thought which may be so put as to make Him an almighty Selfishness, but which in its true aspect is the direct inference from the faith that He is infinite Love. It is the same sweet thought of Him which Browning has when he makes God say, "I miss my little human praise." God’s joy in men’s praise is joy in men’s love and in their recognition of His love.
The third turn of feeling is in Psalms 6:6-7. The sense of his own pains which, in the two previous parts of the psalm, had been contending with the thought of God, masters the psalmist in these dreary verses, in which the absence of the name of God is noteworthy as expressive of his absorption in brooding over His misery. The vehemence of the manifestations of sorrow and the frankness of the record of these manifestations in the song are characteristic of the emotional, demonstrative Eastern temperament, and strike our more reticent dispositions as excessive. But however expressed in unfamiliar terms, the emotion which wails in these sad verses is only too familiar to men of all temperaments. All sad hearts are tempted to shut out God and to look only at their griefs. There is a strange pleasure in turning round the knife in the wound and recounting the tokens of misery. This man feels some ease in telling how he had exhausted his strength with groaning and worn away the sleepless night with weeping. Night is ever the nurse of heavy thought, and stings burn again then. The hyperbolical expressions that he had set his bed afloat with his tears and "melted" it (as the word means) are matched by the other hyperboles which follow, describing the effect of this unmeasured weeping on his eyes. He had wept them away, and they were bleared and dim like those of an old man. The cause of this passion of weeping is next expressed, in plain words, which connect this turn of the thought with the next verses, and seem to explain the previously mentioned physical pain, as either metaphorical or consequent on the hostility of "mine adversaries."
But even while thus his spirit is bitterly burying itself in his sorrows the sudden certainty of the answer to his prayer flashes on him. "Sometimes a light surprises," as Cowper, who too well knew what it was to be worn with groaning, has sung. That swift conviction witnesses its origin in a Divine inspiration by its very suddenness. Nothing has changed in circumstances, but everything has changed in aspect. Wonder and exultation throb in the threefold assurance that the prayer is heard. In the two former clauses the "hearing" is regarded as a present act; in the latter the "receiving" is looked for in the future. The process which is usually treated as one simple act, is here analysed. "God has heard; therefore God will receive"-i.e., answer-"my weeping prayer." Whence came that confidence but from the breath of God on the troubled spirit? "The peace of God" is ever the reward of submissive prayer. In this confidence a man can front the close-knit ring of enemies, of whatever sort they be, and bid them back. Their triumphant dismissal is a vivid way of expressing the certainty of their departure, with their murderous hate unslaked and baulked. "Mine enemies" are "workers of iniquity." That is a daring assumption, made still more remarkable by the previous confession that the psalmist’s sorrow was God’s rebuke and chastening. But a man has the right to believe that his cause is God’s in the measure in which he makes God’s cause his. In the confidence of prayer heard, the psalmist can see "things that are not as though they were," and, though no change has passed on the beleaguering hosts, triumphs in their sure rout and retreat. Very significantly does he predict in Psalms 6:10 the same fate for them which he bad bewailed as his own. The "dismay" which had afflicted his soul shall pass to them ("sore vexed"). Since God "returns" (Psalms 6:4), the enemy will have to "return" in baffled abandonment of their plans, and be "ashamed" at the failure of their cruel hopes. And all this will come as suddenly as the glad conviction had started up in the troubled heart of the singer. His outward life shall be as swiftly rescued as his inward has been. One gleam of God’s presence in his soul had lit its darkness, and turned tears into sparkling homes of the rainbow; one flash of that same presence in his outward life shall scatter all his foes with like swiftness.