Psalm 6 - New American Bible, Revised Edition
The Seven Penitential Psalms
During times when we wish to express repentance and especially during Lent, it is customary to pray the seven penitential psalms. The penitential designation of these psalms dates from the seventh century. Prayerfully reciting these psalms will help us to recognize our sinfulness, express our sorrow and ask for God’s forgiveness.
We are featuring here the newly released translations of the seven penitential psalms from the New American Bible, Revised Edition with reflections and discussion questions from Graziano Marcheschi, M.A. D.Min.
Psalm 6: Audio | Commentary
Prayer in Distress
1For the leader; with stringed instruments, “upon the eighth.”*
A psalm of David.
2Do not reprove me in your anger, LORD,
nor punish me in your wrath.a
3Have pity on me, LORD, for I am weak;
heal me, LORD, for my bones are shuddering.b
4My soul too is shuddering greatly—
and you, LORD, how long…?*c
5Turn back, LORD, rescue my soul;
save me because of your mercy.
6For in death there is no remembrance of you.
Who praises you in Sheol?*d
7I am wearied with sighing;
all night long I drench my bed with tears;
I soak my couch with weeping.
8My eyes are dimmed with sorrow,
worn out because of all my foes.e
9Away from me, all who do evil!f
The LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.
10The LORD has heard my plea;
the LORD will receive my prayer.
11My foes will all be disgraced and will shudder greatly;
they will turn back in sudden disgrace.g
* [Psalm 6] The first of the seven Penitential Psalms (Ps 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143), a designation dating from the seventh century A.D. for Psalms suitable to express repentance. The psalmist does not, as in many laments, claim to be innocent but appeals to God’s mercy (Ps 6:5). Sin here, as often in the Bible, is both the sinful act and its injurious consequences; here it is physical sickness (Ps 6:3–4, 7–8) and the attacks of enemies (Ps 6:8, 9, 11). The psalmist prays that the effects of personal and social sin be taken away.
* [6:1] Upon the eighth: apparently a musical notation, now lost.
* [6:4] How long?: elliptical for “How long will it be before you answer my prayer?” cf. Ps 13:2–3.
* [6:6] A motive for God to preserve the psalmist from death: in the shadowy world of the dead no one offers you praise. Sheol is the biblical term for the underworld where the insubstantial souls of dead human beings dwelt. It was similar to the Hades of Greek and Latin literature. In the second century B.C., biblical books begin to speak positively of life with God after death (Dn 12:1–3; Wis 3).
a. [6:2] Ps 38:2.
b. [6:3] Jer 17:14–15.
c. [6:4] Ps 13:2–3; 74:10; 89:47.
d. [6:6] Ps 30:10; 88:11; 115:17; Is 38:18.
e. [6:8] Ps 31:10; 38:11; 40:13.
f. [6:9] Ps 119:115; Mt 7:23; Lk 13:27.
g. [6:11] Ps 35:4, 26; 40:15; 71:13.
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Prayer in Distress
The Psalms stand against the human impulse to merit God’s love and mercy through goodness or obedience. A part of us clings to the naïve notion that God’s love for us is tied to our behavior: good behavior earns God’s love and acceptance; bad behavior means divine rejection. That’s a diabolical lie and the psalmist knows it. Instead, eyes wide open and looking in the mirror, the psalmist readily admits his sin and begs God’s mercy anyway. Sin darkens human vision and alienates the soul from God, self, and others. Sin’s greatest danger is its ability to make us doubt God’s love and willingness to forgive. The psalmist’s saving grace is his refusal to let sin drive that wedge between him and the Lord; in fact, it’s his painful awareness of his sin that draws the psalmist nearer. We often think we can approach God only when we’re “good” and have our lives in order. But it’s sin God rejects, not the sinner. The psalmist knows if we waited for a “worthy” time, we’d never pray. So we don’t defer prayer; we don’t wait till God “is in a better mood.” At work, we might rely on a spike in sales to incline the boss to mercy, but our God has never been that kind of God. Scripture tells us to pray whenever there is the need. And need is greatest when we are mired in sin.
In his mercy, God does not spare us the consequences of sin. To spur our prayer, to draw us closer when we might otherwise sulk or hide, God lets sin impact our lives. Sin’s consequence is not God’s punishment, but the natural result of our decisions that, in his love, God uses for our good (if we let him). The psalmist is well aware that his own sin has brought both physical distress and the attack of enemies into his life. Yet he prays unashamedly. As a child who has disregarded a parent’s injunction to not venture far from home comes running back when the playground bully threatens, the psalmist knows where home is. He knows where to find the strong arms and loving embrace of a God who eventually would send his own Son to save us—not when we were finally worthy, but while we were still steeped in sin.
Questions for Reflection:
St. Paul says that God “proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). So why do we keep thinking that God will love us only when we stop sinning?
On the other hand, does knowledge of God’s unconditional love mean we needn’t worry about sinning? Is the destructiveness of sin related to the effects it has on God or to the effects it has on us?
Besides petitionary prayer, there are prayers of praise, thanksgiving, adoration, etc. Does a prayer of petition, asking for mercy and the forgiveness of sin, seem to you like a lower, less enlightened form of prayer? How can you combine petition and praise?