I’m using the Douay-Rheims translation of the Psalm, but following the verse numbering of more modern translations
Psalm six is the first of the so-called Penitential Psalms. It is a cry for mercy in the midst of a grave illness.
6:1 Is a title which, among other things, attributes the Psalm to David.
6:2 O Lord, rebuke me not in thy indignation, nor chastise me in thy wrath (see Ps. 2:5). The Hebrew word for rebuke is yakach, which means “to be right”, and, by implication, to have just cause. Used causatively here it means rebuke, reprove. Essentially, by using this word in this way, the Psalmist is admitting his fault and the rightness of his punishment, but also asking that justice be tempered with mercy. This he can do on the basis of God’s covenant relation. Concerning the relationship between God’s justice, mercy, and the covenant, one can profitably read article 4 of Pope John Paul’s Dives in Misericordia.
The Hebrew word for God’s indignation is aph, which refers to the nose. A person who is indignant or angry tends to breathe heavily, in an impassioned way. This description of God’s attitude towards the Psalmist is not without meaning, as will become clear further on. Chastise me in thy wrath. The word for chastise can refer (literally) either to physical blows or a verbal brow-beating. It came to refer to punishment in general, as is the case here. The word for wrath is chemah, and it derives from a word meaning “hot” or “burning.” The Lord’s anger is at a fever pitch, in light of the psalmist’s own sickness, possibly brought on by a fever, this description is rather interesting.
6:2 Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak: heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled. The previous verse contained two imperatives (rebuke me not, chastise me not), as does this verse (have mercy on me, heal me). The Psalmist has done something to offend God, this is rather clear from the first two imperatives and from the call for mercy. The Hebrew word for mercy used here is chanan,=bend or stoop down: a figure of benevolent condescension. In spite of his sins he can rely on God for mercy on the basis of the covenant even though God is right (righteous, just) in rebuking him (recall the comment on rebuke above).
“The concept of “mercy” in the Old Testament has a long and rich history. We have to refer back to it in order that the mercy revealed by Christ may shine forth more clearly. By revealing that mercy both through His actions and through His teaching, Christ addressed Himself to people who not only knew the concept of mercy, but who also, as the People of God of the Old Covenant, had drawn from their age – long history a special experience of the mercy of God. This experience was social and communal, as well as individual and interior.
Israel was, in fact, the people of the covenant with God, a covenant that it broke many times. Whenever it became aware of its infidelity – and in the history of Israel there was no lack of prophets and others who awakened this awareness-it appealed to mercy. In this regard, the books of the Old Testament give us very many examples. Among the events and texts of greater importance one may recall: the beginning of the history of the Judges,31 the prayer of Solomon at the inauguration of the Temple,32 part of the prophetic work of Micah,33 the consoling assurances given by Isaiah,34 the cry of the Jews in exile,35 and the renewal of the covenant after the return from exile.36
It is significant that in their preaching the prophets link mercy, which they often refer to because of the people’s sins, with the incisive image of love on God’s part. The Lord loves Israel with the love of a special choosing, much like the love of a spouse,37 and for this reason He pardons its sins and even its infidelities and betrayals. When He finds repentance and true conversion, He brings His people back to grace.38 In the preaching of the prophets, mercy signifies a special power of love, which prevails over the sin and infidelity of the chosen people.
In this broad “social” context, mercy appears as a correlative to the interior experience of individuals languishing in a state of guilt or enduring every kind of suffering and misfortune. Both physical evil and moral evil, namely sin, cause the sons and daughters of Israel to turn to the Lord and beseech His mercy. In this way David turns to Him, conscious of the seriousness of his guilt39; Job too, after his rebellion, turns to Him in his tremendous misfortune40; so also does Esther, knowing the mortal threat to her own people.4142 And we find still other examples in the books of the Old Testament.
At the root of this many-sided conviction, which is both communal and personal, and which is demonstrated by the whole of the Old Testament down the centuries, is the basic experience of the chosen people at the Exodus: the Lord saw the affliction of His people reduced to slavery, heard their cry, knew their sufferings and decided to deliver them.43 In this act of salvation by the Lord, the prophet perceived his love and compassion.44 This is precisely the grounds upon which the people and each of its members based their certainty of the mercy of God, which can be invoked whenever tragedy strikes.
Added to this is the fact that sin too constitutes man’s misery. The people of the Old Covenant experienced this misery from the time of the Exodus, when they set up the golden calf. The Lord Himself triumphed over this act of breaking the covenant when He solemnly declared to Moses that He was a “God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”45 It is in this central revelation that the chosen people, and each of its members, will find, every time that they have sinned, the strength and the motive for turning to the Lord to remind Him of what He had exactly revealed about Himself46 and to beseech His forgiveness.
Thus, in deeds and in words, the Lord revealed His mercy from the very beginnings of the people which He chose for Himself; and, in the course of its history, this people continually entrusted itself, both when stricken with misfortune and when it became aware of its sin, to the God of mercies. All the subtleties of love become manifest in the Lord’s mercy towards those who are His own: He is their Father,47 for Israel is His firstborn son48; the Lord is also the bridegroom of her whose new name the prophet proclaims: Ruhamah, “Beloved” or “she has obtained pity.”49
Even when the Lord is exasperated by the infidelity of His people and thinks of finishing with it, it is still His tenderness and generous love for those who are His own which overcomes His anger.50 Thus it is easy to understand why the psalmists, when they desire to sing the highest praises of the Lord, break forth into hymns to the God of love, tenderness, mercy and fidelity. (Pope John Paul II)
For my bones are troubled (bahal=trembling). This part of the verse gives the motive by which the Psalmist hopes god will act. The beginning of the next verse supplies a second, somewhat parallel motive.
6:3 And my soul is troubled exceedingly: but thou, O Lord, how long? The word soul here is nephes. The word can refer to any being that breathes. The Psalmists breath, and hence his life-principle, is in danger exceedingly (Hebrew: meod= vehemently). He is having trouble catching his breath, he is fighting for air. He applies the same word to his breathing which he had applied to his soul (troubled, trembling). Recall that God’s indignation (aph) was described as heavy due to impassioned anger (verse 1). The calming of God’s angry breathing, his indignation, will result in the easy breathing of the Psalmist.
But thou, O Lord, how long? The Psalmist’s life is in danger (verse 5) and his question is really a subtle request for a quick response from God. Here we see the Psalmist’s certitude concerning the mercy of God rather than an implied doubt.
6:4 Turn to me, O Lord, and deliver my soul: O save me for thy mercy’s sake. Two more imperatives are addressed to God (turn, deliver), along with another motivating factor (for thy mercy’s sake). The word soul–nephes-appears again. The Psalmist calling upon God to turn to me recalls his earlier plea for mercy, where the word chanan was used (verse 2).
6:5 For there is no one in death, that is mindful of thee: and who shall confess to thee in hell?
Provides another motive for God to act: there is no liturgy in hell. See the footnote #5 to Psalm 6 in the NAB. See also various translations of the verse. The Old Testament did not have a fully developed concept of the after life. The Psalmist, being near death is unable to go to the temple and participate in its liturgy, consequently, he was already no better off than the dead. With the death and resurrection of Christ, the faithful departed do in fact participate in liturgy, as Hebrews 12:22-25, and the Book of Revelation makes clear.
6:6 I have laboured in my groanings, every night I will wash my bed: I will water my couch with my tears. The word for labored is yaga, which means “to gasp,” thus the psalmist continues to focus upon the danger to his nephes,-his soul, breath, life force. He can find no rest or relief even in sleep, for he cries copiously for his sins and the afflictions of mind and body which they have occasioned. The Psalmist doesn’t simply say he “washes” his bed with tears, he literally inundates it (sachah). He washes (literally dissolves) his couch with his tears. One recalls the ancient Christian tradition that St Peter, as a result of the memory of his denial of our blessed Lord, cried so often at the memory of it that the tears etched a path into his cheeks.
6:7 My eye is troubled through indignation: I have grown old amongst all my enemies. The Psalmist says (more properly than in our translation) that his eye is shrinking, i.e., his sight is failing. Pain, affliction, and failing eyesight has made him old before his time. The word used here for indignation is different than that used to describe God’s anger towards the Psalmist in verse 2. A better translation would be “vexation,” “grief,” or “frustration.” Whether this is an effect of his sin, or whether it is caused by his enemies is hard to determine. The enemies appear rather suddenly as a topic, perhaps the Psalmist has refrained from mentioning them until now in order to get himself right with God first. If a man has made God an enemy by his sins he can hardly expect God to help him with his other enemies (see Numbers 14).
6:8 Depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity: for the Lord hath heard the voice of my weeping. The Psalmist has by God’s mercy and through repentance attained to a right relationship with God. Having implored him in verse 4 to turn (shub) to me, He can now with confidence issue his enemies an imperative: depart (sur) from me. The motive for this imperative is that he is no longer among the workers of iniquity for the lord has heard the voice of his weeping.
6:9 The Lord hath heard my supplication: the Lord hath received my prayer. Yet another motive for the departure of the enemies.
6:10 Let all my enemies be ashamed, and be very much troubled: let them be turned back, and be ashamed very speedily. The Psalmist prays that his enemies be ashamed-literally, pale, as if they themselves have come down with a sickness. The trouble (trembling) he experienced in body and soul as a result of God’s anger (see verses 2-3) is requested as an affliction against them. Is this request made by the Psalmist in hope that it will lead them to repent? Again the Psalmist prays that they be turned back. Once again he asks that they be ashamed (pale), and that this take place speedily.