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Overcoming the World

An Exposition of Psalm 6
Visiting Professor of Homiletics
Union Theological Seminary in Virginia
. . . the suffering and faith of the individual worshiper come through
the psalm's standardized expressions with great power.
This shows the extent to which individual and worshiping community
were one in Israel : The community gave voice to the needs and
prayers of the individual; the individual gave voice to the
trust and traditions of the community.
N THE FACE OF IT, Psalm 6 is neither arresting in its language nor
notable for its depth of faith. Despite the fact that it is the first of
the traditional seven penitential psalms of the church (the others being
Pss. 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143), it has achieved nothing of the famil-
iarity of Psalms 51 or 130. One searches in vain for any noteworthy
treatment of this lament in the writings of the fathers, and its lack of
importance in church history would seem to indicate that it is of com-
parative minimal worth.
Yet I have chosen to expound Psalm 6 precisely because it is so typical
of the lament form in the Psalter. Many of its phrases are standardized
expressions, found over and over again; and the very repetition of such
phrases means that they were of great importance for the worshiping
communities of Old Testament times. They may therefore contain
some of the basic theological insights of Israel.
Because English translations of Hebrew poetry so often obscure the
unique emphases of the Hebrew, I have deliberately preserved the
order and repetitions of the Hebrew text in the following translation.
To the choir master: on stringed instruments
according to the eighths. A song. To David.
. Yahweh, not in your wrath rebuke me,
and not in your anger chastise me.
2. Be gracious to me, Yahweh, for withering I am !
Heal me, Yahweh, for terrified are my bones!
3. And I am (lit.: my nephes is) greatly terrified.
But thou, Yahwehhow long?
4. Return, Yahweh, deliver me (lit. : my nephes) !
Save me for the sake of your covenant love (hesed) !
5. For there is not in death your memory;
in Sheol, who praises you?
6. I am weary with my groaning.
I drench every night my bed,
with my tears my couch I make to flow.
7. Consumed from grief my eye;
it grows dim because of all my enemies.
8. Depart from me, all doers of iniquity!
For Yahweh hears the voice of my weeping.
9. Yahweh hears my supplication.
Yahweh my prayer accepts.
10. They shall be ashamed and greatly terrified, all my enemies.
They shall turn back, they shall be ashamed in a moment.
Four strophes clearly emerge in this psalm, the first and second ending
in typical Hebraic fashion with a question, the first, second, and fourth
beginning, equally typically, with imperatives. Emphases fall naturally
on the imperative verbs, but also on the "for" (k) phrases, which so
often in Hebrew give the reason for the preceding statements. The word
order of the second half of 2 and 26 shows the terms to be stressed there :
and "terrified.
In addition, the repetitions of the psalm are
quite deliberate, since they too indicate emphases : The psalmist states
three times that Yahweh has heard his prayer (vs. 86 and 9), and twice
Overcoming the World
that his enemies will be ashamed (v. i o). He deliberately repeats the
verb "terrified
(bhal) in , after having applied it to himself in 26
and 3, to indicate the complete reversal in his situation.
There is no way we can determine the date of the psalm with cer-
tainty. It gives the impression of being the expression of an individual,
but the phrases used are so typical of the individual laments that it seems
likely it originated and was preserved in the cult and was then made
available for use by individuals who found in it an expression of their
own particular needs.
The surprising fact is, however, that the suffering
and faith of the individual worshipper come through the psalm's stan-
dardized expressions with great power. This shows the extent to which
individual and worshiping community were one in Israel: The com-
munity gave voice to the needs and prayers of the individual; the in-
dividual gave voice to the trust and traditions of the community. Neither
individual nor community was lost in the othera balance which Ameri-
can Protestantism has yet to achieve.
During the time of primitive Christianity, Psalm 6 was used in the
Jewish liturgy for weekdays, being sometimes inserted in the morning
service, just before the concluding Kaddish. Later, it was employed daily
both in the synagogue and the Latin church, except on Sabbaths, festi-
vals, and semifestivals. The Latin church used it as an offertory on the
Monday of Passion Week; and, strangely enough, the psalm came to be
used in both synagogue and church for funerals or for memorial masses
and offices for the dead.
The rationale of this latter use was due largely
to early and widespread speculation about the superscription of the
psalm which actually received more attention in exegetical tradition
than did the body of the psalm itself. There is in the superscription the
enigmatic phrase, "

mnth" which we have translated "accord-
ing to the eighths
(cf. I Chron. 15:2i and the superscription of Ps. 12).
In early Jewish exegesis the Targum interpreted semnth simply as a
1. For example, cf. v. with Ps. 38:1, Jer. 10:24; v. 2 with Ps. 41:4, Jer. 17:14; v. 3&
with Pss. 79:5, 90:13; v. with Ps. 109:26; v. 56 with Pss. 30:9, 88:10-12, 115:17; Isa.
38:18. V. 6 with Ps. 69:3, Jer. 45:3; v. 7 with Pss. 31:9, 88:9; Job 17:7. V. 8a with Ps.
119:115, and v. with Pss. 35:4, 26; 83:17.
2. Eric Werner, "The Sacred Bridge." The Interdependence of Liturgy and Music in
Synagogue and Church during the First Millennium (N. Y., Columbia U. Press, 1959), pp. 6,
156, 159
lyre with eight strings, while Ibn Ezra suggested that it meant the eighth
mode in music.
And a usual exegesis of the term has been to refer it
to the lower octave of men's voices or the higher octave of women's.
Quite early the term was allegorized. The Midrash Tehillim connected
it with the day of circumcision, the eighth day after a child's birth;
but there was also a midrashic allegory which connected the number
seven with the aeons of the world, while the eighth symbolized the mes-
sianic and eternal aeon.
It was this latter interpretation which pre-
dominated in early Latin exegesis. The venerable Bede, Hilary, Atha-
nasius, and Augustine all took the "eighth" to refer to the eighth day,
that is, the first day of the new creation when the dead should rise to
everlasting punishment or eternal life; so Psalm 6 came to be equated
with the final coming, the last judgment, and the eternal kingdom.
The psalm had happier associations in church hymnic tradition. Its
third verse appears in a line of a classic Byzantine hymn of the third to
sixth centuries, preserved in the Codex Alexandrinus.
It also formed
the biblical prototype of Johann Albinus' (1624-1679) hymn, "Straf
mich nicht in deinem Zorn."
But it was as a popular ballad that the
psalm was most loved. In 1533 Clement Marot, valet-de-chambre to
Francis I, translated Psalm 6 into French and nine years later included
the work in his Thirty Psalms, which were "holy ditties" (sanctes
chansonettes) set to popular ballad tunes. These songs became favorites
at the courts of Francis I and Henri II, and within twenty-five years had
spread to the common people, who often gathered to sing them together.
It was from this translation by Marot that Elizabeth Charlotte, wife of
the Duke of Orleans and sister-in-law to Louis XIV, learned the psalm.
The story is told that Elizabeth was deeply disturbed by Louis XIV's
destruction of her homeland around Heidelberg. While walking one day
in the orangery at Versailles, she was singing Marot's translation of
Psalm 6 as an expression of her Protestant feelings.
3. Ibid,, p. 384.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., p. 572.
6. Norman Snaith, The Seven Psalms (London, The Epworth Press, 1964) p. 151".
7. Werner, op. cit., p. 225.
8. Translated by Catherine Winkworth (1829-1878) : "Not in Anger, Mighty God." Artur
Weiser, The Psalms (Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, 1962) p. 129.
9. Snaith, op. cit., p. 14.
Overcoming the World
A noted artist of the time, warmly attached in heart to the Reformed religion, was
engaged in painting the roof, and heard her. "Scarcely," she writes (in a letter)
"had I finished the first verse, when I saw M. Rousseau hasten down the ladder
and fall at my feet. I thought he was mad, and said, 'Rousseau, Rousseau, what
is the matter?' He replied, 'Is it possible, madame, that you still recollect our
psalms and sing them? May God bless you, and keep you in this good mind.
Wordsworth maintained that Psalm 6, along with the other Peni-
tentials, was inscribed in a visible place on the wall of Augustine's
chamber during his last sickness so that "he might fix his eyes and heart
upon them, and make their words his own in the breathing out of his soul
to God.
And tradition has it
that Calvin's favorite exclamation
was from Psalm 6:3e Domine, usque quo? ("O Lord, how long?").
Thus, at a few times in the church's history, the words of Psalm 6
have become the media of the prayers of the faithful; but the question
is whether or not the words of these ancient songs of Israel can still give
relevant voice to the faith of the church today. Surely they can. The
Old Testament is given to us as part of our Bible through Jesus Christ,
who has brought us into the covenant community; and we can pray
the prayers of Israel because we are, in faith, the new Israel in Christ.
Our situation before God has become analogous to that of Israel in the
Old Testament, as we now will see in the exposition of Psalm 6.
Verse 1 There is no hesitancy or grandiloquence in the psalmist's
prayer, and he does not search for descriptive, hymnic phrases to describe
his God. He knows to whom he must turn, and he does so, bluntly and
intimately: "Yahweh," he cries, sounding forth that divine name which
was given to Israel in the covenant relationship. It is a cry which ap-
peals immediately to Israel's long history with her God and which rests
on the assurance that Yahweh is with his people.
As the Christian
prays to God who has made himself available to his church through Jesus
10. John Ker, The Psalms in History and Biography (N.Y., Robert Garter and Bros., 1886)
pp. 23ff.
11. As quoted by W. L. Watkinson, Homiletic Commentary on the Psalms (N.Y., Funk and
Wagnalls, 1892) p. 21.
12. So G. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David (N.Y., Funk and Wagnalls, 1892) I, 63.
13. The meaning of "YHWH," as exegeted in the revelation of the name to Moses in
Exod. 3:14 is, "he who will indeed be with you."
Christ, so the psalmist prays to Yahweh who promised to go with his
people in the covenant bond (cf. Exod. 33:16).
The relationship of Yahweh to the psalmist has become one of wrath,
however, because of his sin, and it is first of all this divine wrath that
he asks be removed from him. The word order of the Hebrew shows
quite clearly that the psalmist initially asks, not that Yahweh not chasten
him, but that Yahweh not do so in anger and wrath. In short, the
psalmist recognizes that he has sinned. It is for this reason that Psalm 6
is classed among the seven penitentials, even though its expression of
penitence is not so explicit as that in Psalm 51, for example. The psalmist
realizes he has sinned and that he deserves the real destruction which
comes with Yahweh's wrath against sin; yet he pleads for the God of
the covenant to deal with him, not in wrath so as to destroy him, but
in mercy to correct and to teach him (both verbs used can have this
latter sense). His petition from the very first is that Yahweh act toward
him, not in a relationship of anger, but in the bond of love.
In his book on the seven penitential psalms, Norman Snaith has argued
that it is improper to speak of God as "angry;" and while it is good that
the sinner should first feel that God is angry with him, nevertheless, when
he grows up spiritually and knows "more about the tender mercies of
God," he will give up such language.
Such a view is nonsense in the
light of the biblical revelation, not only of the Old Testament, but also
of the New; and it is such views which have led to the popular belief
that the God and Father of Jesus Christ is a sentimental little godlet
of love who winks at our wrong-doing and loves us no matter what we
may do. Throughout the Bible God destroys Israel and mankind as a
whole for its lack of reliance on his lordship and for its rebellion against
his sovereign commands. Such is surely part of the meaning of the
cross of Christthat we die for our sin against God! Else why was it
necessary that Jesus undergo that torturous crucifixion? But the mercy
of the story is that Jesus dies in our place, taking our deserved death
upon himself, and it is to the same God who later sent Jesus Christ that
the author of Psalm 6 appeals.
We Christians can look to save our lives in no other way than by a
similar appeal to the mercy of God, incarnated finally for us in his
Son. God knows we deserve our destruction! Our flimsy pieties and
14. Snaith, The Seven Psalms, p. 22.
Overcoming the World
our pretenses at righteousness cannot cover all the wrong which exists
in our world; and as we look around at our bomb-scarred landscapes and
our filthy tenements, our polluted earth and our corruptions of power,
we have to confess with the author of Psalm 6 that we are indeed respon-
sible, and therefore guilty before the bar of God's judgment. We deserve
death, and in fact many of us are dying. And our prayer for life can
only be comparable to this Psalmist's: "O Lord, correct us. Guide us.
Teach us. Punish us. Jerk us out of our wayward paths and put us on
straight roads again. If need be, send us illness, suffering, anxiety, and
affliction to turn us around and set us right. But O Lord God, remember
the cross of Jesus Christ and deal with us according to it. Chastise us,
not in your destroying anger, but in your merciful love, so that your
reproving becomes a sign of your love, and your judgment the seal of
your mercy; and we may know in all our affliction that you are for us,
through Jesus Christ."
Verses 2-3 The first word of verse 2 sums up all that has gone before :
"Be gracious to me." Kurt W. Neubauer has shown in a study of this
verb, hnan, that its context is always the covenant relationship and that
it expresses the expectant plea of the faithful servant to his master in that
relationship. Thus, the psalmist summarizes his prayer of verse one
and stakes his life on the truth of Israel's past traditions. And yet, he
now goes beyond the initial reason for his prayer. Not only does he pray
in order to confess that God is justified in his judgment, (cf. 5114), but
he prays, urgently and insistently, because he is dying: "withering I
am." The verb ('amai) is consistently used in those contexts in the
Old Testament in which vitality and strength and fruitfulness and hope
are gone : in Jeremiah 14, to describe the effects of draught and famine;
in Joel 1 to describe a locust plague ; in Hosea 4:3 to picture the devastat-
ing effects of evil, and in Isaiah 24, the last apocalyptic condition of
earth under curse. If one reads Isaiah 24:4-13, one grasps the tone of
the verb and the condition of the psalmist becomes very clearlife ebbs
from his body as surely as if his arteries were opened. Scholars have
debated whether the psalmist is actually physically ill or is rather describ-
ing his spiritual state, but the use of the verb elsewhere (cf. Ps. 41:3)
makes it almost positive that the psalmist is in fact approaching death.
The second line of verse 2 confirms this position. "Heal me!" the
psalmist cries, "for terrified are my bones." The "bones," like the
(RSV: "soul") in verse 30, are synonymous in Hebrew with
the self, and the verb, "to be terrified" (bhal), always carries with it in
the Old Testament the imminent threat of an end or of death.
psalmist stares the grave in the face, terrified at the prospect; thus his
prayer is a life-and-death petition to be delivered from the end he
To whom else could he turn with such a petition? We moderns think
we have advanced our conquest of death by our medical miracles and
preventive protections. Perhaps we have. Yet, on our highways, in our
ghettos, in psychiatric ward and nursing home, "death has come up into
our windows" (Jer. 9: 21); and we perceive, if only dimly at times,
that we are frail and defenseless on our own and that we cannot live as
we were intended to live except we have life from God. "Lord, to whom
shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68)these
words of Simon Peter put it succinctly and simply. Our threescore and
ten, full of toil and trouble, are soon gone and we fly away (Ps. 90:10).
The weaver's shuttle of our days moves swiftly and they "come to their
end without hope" (Job 7:6), ". . the dust returns to the earth as it
was" (Eccles. 12:6)unless we live from him alone who can give us
abundant life and eternity. Our psalmist knew nothing of eternal life in
Jesus Christ, but he did know that God alone could make him live, and
he turned in prayer to the one source from which springs all vitality.
And then came that gasping question of every suffering and inflicted
soul, "But thou, O Lord, how long?" It is a question which is at the
same time a prayer of total submission and a petition for relief. It
acknowledges that the psalmist's life or death is in the hands of God.
It submits, as totally justified, to the affliction brought on by God. It
assumes the prayer, "Nevertheless not my will but thine be done" (Luke
22:42), and it accepts suffering in the faith that it serves God's purpose
on earth. Yet, there is also in the question a petition analogous to that
of our Lord: "Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me"
(Luke 22:42). Indeed, there is the urgent plea that Yahweh hasten
the judgment to its conclusion. The psalmist is willing to "wait on the
Lord" (cf. Ps. 130:5-6)to suffer his present illness in patience and
repentance, to bear all things until Yahweh turn and act toward him in
15. Gf. Pss. 30:7, 48:5; 90:7, 104:29; Gen. 45:3; I Sam. 28:21; II Sam. 4:1; Job 4:5,
23;i5;Ezek. 7:27, 26:i8;Dan. 5:9.
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mercy. And yet, there looms that grave ahead and the steady ebbing of
his vital signs, and he cries out in spite of himself, "O Lord, bring this
affliction to an end !"
As the saints in heaven have their usque quo, how long, Lord, holy and true,
before thou begin to execute judgment? So, the saints on earth have their usque
quo, How long, Lord, before thou take off the execution of this judgment upon
us? . . . He corrects us that we might be sensible of his corrections; that when we,
being humbled under his hand, have said with his prophet, "I will bear the wrath
of the Lord because I have sinned against him" (Mie. vii. 9), he may be pleased
to say to his correcting angel, as he did to his destroying angel, "This is enough,"
and so burn his rod now, as he put up his sword then.
John Donne
Verse 4 So the psalmist prays for that one event which will deliver
him from deaththe return of Yahweh to fellowship with him : "Return,
Yahweh, deliver me !" Throughout the Scriptures, deliverance and sal-
vation are conceived first of all, not in terms of the conveyance of new
knowledge, but in terms of God's entrance into fellowship with man.
Thus the whole gospel is concerned with the disruption of the relation
with God, with God's forgiveness of that sinful disruption, and with God's
willingness to be with us despite all that we have done. When the
prophets envisioned the new age of salvation, they saw God returning to
dwell in the midst of his people (cf. Isa. 40:9-11; Ezek. 37:26-28), and
the final promise of the crucified and risen Christ became therefore,
"Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" ( Matt. 28:20). If we
reduce the gospel to a set of ethical precepts or doctrinal formulae, we
ignore the heart of the biblical good newsthat our salvation is con-
veyed to us by God's forgiving presence in our midst. God asks then, not
that we memorize some principles nor adhere to a dead law, but that we
love him with all our hearts and souls and minds, person to person, our
love responding to his (cf. Isa. 29:13^). It is out of that loving and
personal relationship with him that all obedience and morality flow.
And it is in fellowship with him that we are given life and blessing.
For such fellowship the psalmist prays: "Return, Yahweh! I appeal
to that covenant love (hesed) of yours which caused you first to enter
into relation with us your people. Manifest that desire to be with your
16. As quoted in Spurgeon, op. cit., p. 68.
people now concretely in my life." Surely it is the prayer which every
Christian should also pray when he views the cross and resurrection of
Jesus Christ : "O Lord, make the salvation, wrought through your Son,
reality in my life also."
Verse 5 But having earnestly prayed for the return of God to fellow-
ship with him, the psalmist immediately contemplates in horror the
alternative: his death, his descent to Sheol, the realm of the dead,
and his total separation from his Lord.
Sheol is of course never to be equated with our conceptions of hell.
It was, in the ancient Near East, considered to be the realm to which
all dead persons descended. It lay in the depths of the three-story uni-
verse, under the earth and below the subterranean primeval waters, and
it was conceived of as a place of darkness and gloom, of dust and weak-
ness, where the dead were mere shades who chirped and muttered (cf.
Isa. 8:19), and from which there was never any return. Only in a few
passages in the Bible is there any thought that Yahweh had any con-
nection with Sheol (Amos 9:2; Ps. 139:8), and only rarely is there any
intimation in the Old Testament that fellowship with Yahweh may con-
tinue after death (Ps. 73:23fr.; 49:15; Isa. 26:19). God was, in
biblical thought, the God of the living and not of the dead (cf. Luke
24:5; Matt. 22:32), and thus the dead could neither praise him nor
enjoy his fellowship. Life was, in biblical thought, synonymous with
the presence of God; conversely, death was the state of separation from
him. To live was to live with Yahweh. To die was to be cut off from him.
But to live with Yahweh presupposed two activities on the part of
manremembrance and praiseand the psalmist sees with horror that
it is these which will be taken from him in death. He will no longer
be able to remember what Yahweh has done. All that long history of
Yahweh's sovereign dealings with Israel, all the marvelous mercies of
God, woven into a thousand human tales, will be wiped from his
memory, and the past will be a blank. But not to know what Yahweh
has done means not to know who he is, for it was in the remembrance
of his activity that Israel learned the character of its Lord. God, in the
forgetfulness of the dead, will cease to exist for the psalmist, and he con-
fronts that possibility with nothing less than sheer terror.
In our present-day ignorance of the biblical record of what Yahweh
has done, we share the dead's lack of remembrance. We do not know
Overcoming the World
our God because we do not remember his acts. And that is, in the
terms of Psalm 6, synonymous with being dead.
The other characteristic of the dead man is that he does not praise his
God. Life in the terms of the Psalm is synonymous with praise, and if
one lives, one remembers God's deeds and is driven to praise him for
his acts. There is no other response possible. The God who has led a
people through the two thousand years of loving-kindness stretching from
Abraham to Jesus Christ simply commands a responding "Hallelujah"
from that people, and it is no accident that biblical faith is a faith ex-
pressed in song and praise. From the first song of Miriam at the Red
Sea (Exod. 15:21) to the last great chorus of the saints in Revelation
(chap. 19), the man who lives in Yahweh is the man who lives with
the praise of Yahweh on his lips; and any man who does not praise is,
in biblical thought, dead. It is a view which illumines the nature of our
deathly silence before God.
One other fact must be noted in relation to the psalmist's horror before
death's loss of praise, however. The psalmist recoils from the thought
that he cannot praise Yahweh in Sheol because to praise God, in the
Old Testament, is also to thank him in the company of one's fellows.
Indeed, the word "to praise" in the Hebrew (ydh) is the word also
"to thank," and thanksgiving was always a public function in Israel.
It was not carried out in the privacy of one's inner thoughts. It was
shouted out in exuberant celebration before the temple congregation.
It was witness to other men of what Yahweh had done, and it had as
its chief end to glorify and magnify the Lord in the eyes of all. It is this
loss, too, which the psalmist contemplates as he envisions his death
the loss of the ability to praise Yahweh before the assembled congre-
gation of his fellows, and therefore, the loss of community with his
Some commentators have suggested that the psalmist is appealing to
Yahweh's self-interest here, that is, he is reminding Yahweh that he
won't get what is coming to him if he lets him dieas if Yahweh of
Israel were some idol of Mesopotamia or Egypt, dependent for his
existence on the food and prayers delivered to him by his worshipers.
But the God of the Bible is not diminished by our lack of praise; we are.
17. Cf. Claus Westermann, The Praise of God in the Psalms (Richmond, Va., John Knox
Press, 1965).
And the psalmist is not pleading Yahweh's self-interest, but his love for
his God. The psalmist knows Yahweh. In countless cultic celebrations
he has sung his praises and thanks to the God of Israel, known to him
through all the traditions of the covenant people. He has reveled in
the songs of the faithful congregation and the vitality poured out upon
that congregation by the God of life. Now he contemplates the opposite
of all that he has known : silence, forgetfulness, death, separation from
his beloved Lord and people. And the vision of that awful fate brings
this agonized cry to his lips.
Verses 6-j Indeed, the psalmist further reveals that death has already
begun its work upon him: He has already been separated from his
fellows in the congregation. Perhaps because illness was viewed in Israel
as a result of God's judgment for sin, the psalmist already has his
"enemies," those who have cast him out of their worship as one cursed
by God. The result has been that he has spent his nights in weeping and
groaning, his eyes reddened and dimmed with his tears. Not only is
he cut off from his God; he is cut off from his colleagues as well. And
lest we attribute these verses to typical oriental exaggeration, as many
commentators do, we should remember that this psalmist is a man
totally isolated. He has no one to whom to turn. He is alone and terrified
and weak and sick, a man brought to the edge of the abyss. Nevertheless,
he clings to one hopehis trust in the mercy of God. When all else has
failed him, he prays to the familiar, merciful, covenant God of his peo-
ple, the God he has known all his life long. His prayer is uttered in the
temple to the God who has revealed himself so often through the temple
worship, and it seeks the forgiveness and healing and restoration to
fellowship which the Lord of the temple alone can give.
There is much criticism leveled against the church these days, some
of it justified. And there are many efforts to up-date the church so that
it may speak more forecfully to the modern man. This is well and
good. Yet we must never forget that one familiar and age-old fact
remains as the source of the church and as the motivation and reason
for its life : the presence of God with his people in his Son Jesus Christ.
Through the Word and sacraments, God in Christ comes to the Christian
church and dwells with its faithful people; and unless in the midst of all
its renewal efforts the church continues to proclaim and live in accord-
ance with that fact, it has nothing to give to our sick, dying, terrified
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world. We tell our "old, old story," or we literally have nothing to tell.
Verses 8-9 Here is the wonder of the story which the psalmist and
the church have to tell : Despite all our sin and sickness and separation
from him, God hears our prayers of repentance and faith and forgives
and comes to be with us, bringing his life.
The psalmist's enemies, who cast him from their midst, considered
him cursed of God and lost, a man beyond all reclaiming. And just so,
the cynic, the pessimist, the so-called realist consider our age to be lost
and our world doomed to end with a bang or more probably with a
whimper. As Luther put it in a conversation with Dr. Jerome Weiler
concerning Psalm 6 in 1538, "The devil . . . can fashion the oddest
syllogisms. For example, 'You have sinned; God is wrathful toward sin-
ners; therefore despair'."
But neither the devil nor the world reckon
with the love of God, which heeds the cries of the repentant sinner and
saves us, despite our sin. The pessimists and realists of this world can
see only doom; the man of faith, in the love of God, envisions that the
earth will become God's kingdom. Beyond every reason to despair,
God's love gives hope, and the psalmist proclaims that hope has borne
its fruit in the reality of God's acceptance of him: "Begone from me,
all you hopeless and faithless judges of my conduct, for Yahweh has
returned to be with me. And with him, I shall live and remember and
praise, and be restored to fullness of life."
Verse 10 More than this, the psalmist proclaims that all those col-
leagues of his who had given him up for lost and put no stock in the
love of God and its ability to save shall have no lasting voice or place
in the scheme of life. Rather, they shall fall victim to their faithlessness :
They will become terrified before the abyss as the psalmist had been
terrified. But the salvation of the psalmist will serve as a witness to
them; it will show them to have been without justification for their
pessimism; it will prove them wrong; and then, yes, perhaps even they
will be saved by the love of Godthus perhaps can we interpret the
enigmatic, "They shall turn back, they shall be ashamed in a moment."
There is no bitterness here on the psalmist's part toward his former
enemies. There is no gloating over the reversal of fortunes, or hatred for
18. "Table Talk Recorded by Anthony Lauterbach, March 29, 1538," The Library of
Christian Classics, Vol. XVIII, "Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel," ed. and trans, by
T. G, T. Tappert (Philadelphia, The Westminster Press) p. 100.
those who had opposed him. There is only the certainty that God has
heard his prayer and returned, changing everything. There is only the
conviction that the love of God has worked to transform his life.
Commentators have long debated the reason for this remarkable trans-
formation in the psalmist's attitude. Mowinckel and others posited the
theory that immediately preceding such verses there occurred in the
cult the proclamation of a priestly or prophetic "oracle of salvation,"
which gave assurance to the individual that his prayer had been accepted
by God and that therefore his suffering and rejection would come to an
end. There is much evidence to support such a theory, though we cannot
prove it absolutely. But whatever the reason for the psalmist's certainty,
it is worth noting that nothing in his outward condition is actually
changed ! He is still sick, the discreditation of his enemies lies still in the
future, and his statements in verses 8 to io are wholly statements of faith.
Yet, he is sure that new life has been given him by the forgiveness and
return to him of Yahweh; and he leaves the temple a transformed man.
So it always is with faith's certainty in this world. It lays hold of
that which the disbelieving can never see, and it lives by the assurance
of things which are always unseen. In the midst of the most awful
suffering it finds the act of God: at the destruction of Jerusalem it
perceives God's sovereign work; in the blood of a criminal's cross it
sees redemption; standing beside an empty tomb, it proclaims God's vic-
tory forevermore. In the midst of all the evil and turmoil and despair
of this maddened world, faith proclaims that nevertheless God is the
ruler yet. And before the might of man's destructive instruments, it
proclaims that God's word is mightier still. Faith's certainty in this
world is the certainty that God's works matter most, and how we stand
in relation to him is absolutely determinative for the outcome of our lives.
So our psalmist shouts out in joy that God is for him and has returned
to be with him; in that certainty he is renewed and given back his life.
Nothing else matters any moresuffering, sickness, enemiesfor the
psalmist knows that with his God he can do all things (cf. Phil. 4:13).
He might have asked, as Paul asked, "If God is for us, who is against us"
(Rom. 8:31)? Surely, it is that faith which overcomes the world.
^ s
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