1 The discipline of the Lord may be so harsh that he seems to be angry. David prayed that the Lord would not discipline him in wrath. The position of the phrases “not … in your anger … or … in your wrath” in the MT is emphatic, so as to emphasize that the psalmist is not suffering justly because of his sin. The discipline of the Lord is there! But the psalmist does not understand why it has come or how long it is going to last. God’s discipline is for the purpose of sanctification; however, in David’s present experience it almost works the opposite results. God seems to have forsaken him (v. 3) and so ceased to care for his servant, whether he be dead or alive (v. 5).
The verbs “rebuke” (tôkîḥēnî, GK 3519) and “discipline” (teyasserēnî, GK 3579) are often synonymous. The “rebuke” of the Lord may be a form of judgment, but it may also come in the form of a lesson in life (Dt 4:36; 8:5; 2 Sa 7:14; Ps 94:10; Pr 3:12; see NIDOTTE 2:443). Eliphaz states the argument that the Lord delivers people from calamities even when he has inflicted them in the process of maturation (Job 5:17–26, esp. vv. 17–18).
2 In his suffering, the nature of which is only intimated in vv. 8–10, David turned to Yahweh as though to say, “Father, my covenantally faithful God.” He does not confess his sins but asks the Lord to demonstrate his covenantal promises—restoration (v. 2) and loyalty (v. 4). The discipline of the Lord appears as too severe. In a manner characteristic of the OT, he identifies suffering with judgment (reproof) and judgment with God’s wrath (cf. 38:1–3). The OT describes vividly the terrible effects of God’s wrath. When he comes to judge, “the earth trembles; the nations cannot endure his wrath” (Jer 10:10; cf. Isa 66:15–16; Mic 1:2–4; Na 1:2–4; Zep 1:14–17). It is a terrible thing to fall into God’s angry hands.
Who can stand in the judgment of God? Certainly not a man who is in deep anguish! The adjective “faint” (ʾumlal, GK 583; cf. NIDOTTE 1:427) may express the process of withering of leaves, crops (grapes, olives; cf. Isa 24:7; Joel 1:10, 12), and verdant regions, such as the Bashan, Mount Carmel, and Lebanon (Na 1:4). Metaphorically, it signifies the weakness of strong people and of fortifications (Isa 24:4; Jer 14:2; La 2:8). For the psalmist it shows how his vigor (spiritual, psychological, and physical) has been brought down.
Though the anguish of his soul is stated in physical language (“faint” and “bones”), the psalmist is using such terms as metaphors for his deep depression. The word “bones” signifies the depth and intensity of his depression, which has affected his most inner being. In fact “being” is expressed in Hebrew by “bone” (ʿeṣem, GK 6795; cf. Ge 29:14 [NIV, “flesh”]; Ex 24:10 [NIV, “itself”]) and “soul” (nepeš, v. 3; cf. Ge 27:4 [NIV, “my (blessing)]”; Lev 24:17 [NIV, “life”]; 1 Sa 18:3 [NIV, “himself”]; 1 Ki 19:10 [NIV, “me”]). In Oriental fashion no clear distinction is made between “soul” and “body,” because man suffers in his whole being. The agony of “my bones” means the same as “my soul is in anguish” (v. 3), i.e., “I am full of anguish.”
1–3 The poem begins, quite literally, with the Lord. The first word of the poem is Yahweh. By beginning so, the poet not only calls on the Lord, but the psalmist names the Lord as both his problem and the One holding the antidote to his condition. As McCann has eloquently put it, the “foes are not the psalmist’s main problem. Rather, the real problem is God!… But if God is the problem, God is also the solution.” The first four verbs of the poem make this clear. The first verse contains two negative appeals and the second two positive appeals: do not rebuke me … do not discipline me … be gracious to me … heal me. Together, the negative and positive appeals describe both God as the psalmist’s problem and God as the solution. The poet needs both less of God’s attention and more. The word rebuke (yāḵaḥ) carries a legal or parental connotation; it implies a rightful authority to judge and correct. The word discipline (yāsar) carries more of a sense of instruction than it does punishment.
A major point of interpretation is how to understand the phrases in your anger and in your wrath (v. 1). At issue is whether the interpreter should take the prepositional bêts as instrumental or causal. If the former, then the sense is “do not rebuke me by means of your anger.” If the latter, then the sense is “do not rebuke me because you are angry.” The former interpretation would be consistent with the Old Testament view, found especially in the wisdom traditions (cf. Prov. 3:11–12; Job 5:17), that God’s discipline or instruction is a source of blessing (although a difficult blessing to stomach). The absence of an explicit confession of sin also favors this interpretation. The tradition of identifying the psalm as a penitential psalm favors the latter interpretation, as does the close parallel of Ps. 38:1 (cf. 39:11). The ancient belief that sickness was caused by sin, which may be present here, also supports this view. For more on this, see “Reflections” below.
The petitions be gracious to me and heal me are appeals to the covenantal confession that God is gracious and merciful (Exod. 34:6–7; cf. Pss. 86:15; 103:8) and that God delights in healing (Exod. 15:26). The two words are often paired together (cf. Ps. 41:4). Here, they convey the sense that one cannot abstract God’s favor from God’s active healing or saving. The abstract concept of God’s favor is known in the concrete experience of deliverance. As motivating reasons for the request to be healed, the psalmist offers only a description of her own woes: for I am feeble … for my bones are terrified. The psalmist offers neither avowals of innocence nor confessions of sins. She believes that the raw reality of her suffering is enough to bring God to action—that and the fact that she is in relationship with the Lord, whose character it is to heal and show mercy. The second of these motivating clauses is extended into a longer cry that ends in the characteristic question how long? The question is quite literal. For those who suffer, it is not just the physical suffering that causes anguish but also the mental suffering of not knowing how long the anguish will linger.
6:1–3 / This psalm’s appeal is structured around two sets of petitions (vv. 1–3 and 4–7), each with its own supporting reasons. The word order in the original Hebrew reveals the emphasis of the opening petition: “don’t in your anger rebuke me!” The psalm may not shun divine discipline as such, only its being done with hostility. Is this mention of rebuke a tacit admission of sin and guilt, an awareness that one suffers illness as a punishment? Because this identical petition opens Psalm 38, which explicitly refers to sickness (vv. 2–10, 17) and to sin and divine punishment (vv. 2–5, 18), some interpreters believe Psalm 6 must bear the same assumptions. But the similarity of their opening petitions makes the absence of any confession of sin in Psalm 6 all the more striking. It does not draw an inevitable connection between sin and sickness; it simply prays, Be merciful to me, Lord. If we take the psalm as it stands, we cannot impose on it a belief that all human conditions—whether for good or ill—have a moral cause. Some passages in the ot, in fact, indicate that God’s discipline of his people stems not from specific human sins but from divine love, and should thus be welcomed (Hb. ysr, “discipline, chastise,” in Pss. 16:7; 94:12; Deut. 8:5; cf. Jer. 10:24; Hb. ykḥ, “correct, rebuke, reprove,” in Prov. 3:11–12; Job 5:17).
The motives supporting these opening petitions for mercy and healing draw God’s attention to the speaker’s pitiful condition and to God’s implicit allowance for its prolonged duration: “My soul is very distressed—but you, Yahweh, how long?”
6:2 Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint … my bones are in agony. The phrase “I am faint” translates a Hebrew verb that is often rendered “languish,” used in the Psalms and Job to describe wicked individuals who are doomed to wither away (Ps. 37:2; Job 18:16; 24:24). The verb “have mercy” implies God’s favor. The reference to “my bones” is synecdoche for the entire body.
The psalmist calls God to have mercy as his “bones are in agony,” which may mean that the psalmist is suffering some sort of illness. This simple prayer contrasts with the complex rituals that would have been enacted as the pagan world sought relief from suffering. Amulets like the one shown here from Mesopotamia were created to ward off sickness, especially illnesses thought to be demon induced. The middle register shows special healers wearing fish-skin robes performing the prescribed ritual over the sick person so that health might be restored (ninth century BC, neo-Assyrian).
6:1–3. David begins his petition for God’s mercy by fully and sincerely admitting his guilt. He asks for the Lord to be merciful and not rebuke and chasten him in the Lord’s anger or wrath (cf. Pr 3:11). David made this admission with the heartfelt conviction that he was confessing his sin not to a distant, wrathful God, but rather to the God who looks on him as a father looks on his son. This is the implication of the terms rebuke and chasten, which in the Bible are primarily the responsibility of the father to administer to his children (see, for example, Pr 3:12). David’s spiritual condition caused physical consequences so that his bones were dismayed. His soul, or his mental condition, is greatly dismayed because of his distress. Asking how long (or “when” or “why”) is an expression of anguish asking for relief; it shows the psalmist’s intimate relationship with the Lord and the confidence the righteous can have in inquiring of the Lord for mercy, help, and understanding. (Asking how long is a common question, cf. 13:1–2; 35:17; 74:10; 79:5; 80:4; 89:46; asking “why” is common as well, cf. 10:1; 22:1; 42:9; 43:5.)
Ver. 2. Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for I am weak.—Cure for the soul’s weakness:—
There is a very immediate connection between soul-sickness and bodily ailments. The material affects the mental, and presently the mental affects the soul. When David was weak in body he became more than ever conscious of his sinful condition before God. And the enemy took advantage of his weakness, and oppressed him when his heart was sore sick. The saint’s extremity becomes the devil’s opportunity to annoy and to distress him. But he was by no means forsaken of his God.
- The complaint—soul weakness. It is not a disease exactly, and yet there are points about it which make it very much like a disease. Many persons cannot say they are ill, but there is a lack of physical force, a lack of stamina. They are the weaklings of the flock; and it is so in Christian experience. There are Christians lacking that power which makes a man act like a man, and speak like a man, and think with vigour and purpose. Next to listlessness, there is with these invalids a sort of fretfulness. Everything—even the grasshopper—becomes a burden to them. Then there comes to these poor sick souls a sort of fearfulness, their nervous force has gone. These people are very retiring in disposition—nervous, and bashful, and hesitating, very timid and timorous. What are the causes of this spiritual disease? Some are born frail. But the weakness is often due to the disease of harbouring unkind thoughts about anybody. An unhealthy climate is often the reason, physically speaking, for weakness of health. Weakness may be due to unwholesomeness of food.
- The prescription. “Have mercy upon me, O Lord.” God’s mercy must be the antidote for my misery. This is the only remedy for spiritual weakness. If I go to the physician and complain of weakness he will probably give me some medicine which may not be very palatable. Well, then, take the medicine. (Thomas Spurgeon.)
The cry for mercy:—
To fly and escape the anger of God, he sees no means in heaven or in earth, and therefore he retires himself to God, even to Him who wounded him, that He might heal him. He flies not with Adam to the bush, nor with Saul to the witch, nor with Jonas to Tarshish, but he appeals from an angry and just God to a merciful God. Next, observe what David craves—mercy; whereby we may perceive that he was brought to a consideration of his own misery, or else he needed not to have asked for mercy. Then it is necessary, that to the end we may more effectually crave pardon, every one of us first have a sense and feeling of our own sin and misery. Moreover, see that David doth not present his merits, whereby to redeem the filthiness of his sins, neither yet prayers, praises, almsdeeds, victory over God’s foes, wherein he was frequent, but he leaveth them all as a broken reed, to the which he could not well lean in the day of his spiritual temptation, and hath his only refuge in God’s mercy. The merits of men (alas!) what are they? The best works we do are so full of imperfections that there is more dross than gold in them. What man would be content for good gold to receive such coin as is near-by altogether dross? And think ye God for His perfect law, which He gave us to observe and do, will receive our imperfect works? David, under the name of mercy, includeth all things, according to that of Jacob to his brother Esau, “I have gotten mercy, and therefore I have gotten all things.” Desirest thou anything at God’s hands? Cry for mercy, out of which fountain all good things will spring to thee. The blind men, seeking their sight, cried, “Have mercy upon us, Thou Son of David.” The Canaanite, who had her daughter possessed, cried, “Have mercy upon me.” If ye have purchased the King’s pardon, then ye may enjoy the privileges of His kingdom; if ye have mercy, ye have all that God can give you, ye have title to Christ, to heaven, to all the creatures, ye are freed and delivered from the prison of hell. (A. Symson.)
A good plea for the penitent:—
But is this not a weak plea, to allege weakness for a plea? weak indeed with men who commonly tread hardest upon the weakest, and are ever going over where the hedge is lowest; but no weak plea with God, whose mercy is ever ready upon all occasions, and then most when there is most need; and seeing there is greatest need where there is greatest weakness, therefore no plea with God so strong as this, Have mercy upon me, O God, for I am weak. But why should David pray for mercy to help his weakness? for what can mercy do? Mercy can but pity his weakness; it is strength that must relieve it. But is it not that mercy, I may say, is as the steward of God’s house, and hath the command of all He hath; that if wisdom be wanting for direction, mercy can procure it; if justice be wanting for defence, mercy can obtain it; if strength be wanting for support, mercy can command it; and therefore no plea so perfect to be urged with God as this, Have mercy upon me, O God, for I am weak? But why should David make his weakness a motive to God for mercy? for is not weakness an effect of sin? and can God love the effect when He hates the cause? But it is not the weakness in David that God loves, but the acknowledging of his weakness; for what is this but the true humility? and who knows not in how high account such humility is with God, seeing it is indeed of this wonderful condition, that though nothing be so low, yet nothing reacheth so high, and therefore no motive so fit to move God as this, Have mercy upon me, O God, for I am weak. Mercy, indeed, looks down upon no object so directly as upon weakness, and weakness looks up to no object so directly as to mercy; and therefore they cannot choose but meet, and meeting, not choose but embrace each other: mercy, weakness as her client; weakness, mercy as her patron; that no plea can be so strong with God as this, Have mercy upon me, O God, for I am weak. (Sir Richard Baker.)
An argument taken from weakness:—
But behold what rhetoric he trieth to move God to cure him: “I am weak”; an argument taken from his weakness; which indeed were a weak argument to move any man to show his favour, but is a strong argument to prevail with God. If a diseased person would come to a physician, and only lament the heaviness of his sickness, he would say, “God help thee”; or an oppressed person come to a lawyer, and show him the estate of his action and ask his advice, he would answer, “That is a golden question”; or to a merchant to crave raiment, he will either have present money or a surety; or a courtier for favour, you must have your reward ready in your hand. But coming before God, the most forcible argument ye can use is your necessity, poverty, tears, misery, unworthiness, and confessing them to Him, it shall be an open door to furnish you with all things that He hath. (A. Symson, B.D.)
A forcible plea:—
The tears of our misery are forcible arrows to pierce the heart of our heavenly Father, to deliver us and pity our hard case. The beggars lay open their sores to the view of the world, that the more they may move men to pity them. So let us deplore our miseries to God, that He, with the pitiful Samaritan, at the sight of our wounds may help us in due time. (Ibid.)
O Lord, heal me.—Healing:—
There is something very soothing, very beautiful in that word “Heal.” It seems so full of beneficence, so full of restoration, so full of balm. “Heal,” so near “Health”—it is a beautiful word. The healing is found in Him. There are some medicines which are called polychrists, they heal so many diseases. Heaven knows but one Polychrist. It is one to heal not only many diseases, but all, and that one is the touch of Christ. (P. B. Power, M.A.)
Verse 2.—“Have mercy upon me, O Lord.” To fly and escape the anger of God, David sees no means in heaven or in earth, and therefore retires himself to God, even to him who wounded him that he might heal him. He flies not with Adam to the bush, nor with Saul to the witch, nor with Jonah to Tarshish; but he appeals from an angry and just God to a merciful God, and from himself to himself. The woman who was condemned by King Philip, appealed from Philip being drunken to Philip being sober. But David appeals from one virtue, justice, to another, mercy. There may be appellation from the tribunal of man to the justice-seat of God; but when thou art indicted before God’s justice-seat, whither or to whom wilt thou go but to himself and his mercy-seat, which is the highest and last place of appellation? “I have none in heaven but thee, nor in earth besides thee.” … David, under the name of mercy, includeth all things, according to that of Jacob to his brother Esau, “I have gotten mercy, and therefore I have gotten all things.” Desirest thou any thing at God’s hands? Cry for mercy, out of which fountain all good things will spring to thee.—Archibald Symson.
Verse 2.—“For I am weak.” Behold, what rhetoric he useth to move God to cure him, “I am weak,” an argument taken from his weakness, which indeed were a weak argument to move any man to show his favour, but is a strong argument to prevail with God. If a diseased person would come to a physician, and only lament the heaviness of his sickness, he would say, God help thee; or an oppressed person come to a lawyer, and show him the estate of his action and ask his advice, that is a golden question; or to a merchant to crave raiment, he will either have present money or a surety; or a courtier favour, you must have your reward ready in your hand. But coming before God the most forcible argument that ye can use is your necessity, poverty, tears, misery, unworthiness, and confessing them to him, it shall be an open door to furnish you with all things that he hath.… The tears of our misery are forcible arrows to pierce the heart of our heavenly Father, to deliver us and pity our hard case. The beggars lay open their sores to the view of the world, that the more they may move men to pity them. So let us deplore our miseries to God, that he, with the pitiful Samaritan, at the sight of our wounds, may help us in due time.—Archibald Symson.
Verse 2.—“Heal me,” etc. David comes not to take physic upon wantonness, but because the disease is violent, because the accidents are vehement; so vehement, so violent, as that it hath pierced ad ossa, and ad animam, “My bones are vexed, and my soul is sore troubled,” therefore “heal me;” which is the reason upon which he grounds this second petition, “Heal me, because my bones are vexed,” etc.—John Donne.
Verse 2.—“My bones are vexed.” The Lord can make the strongest and most insensible part of man’s body sensible of his wrath when he pleaseth to touch him, for here David’s bones are vexed.—David Dickson.
Verse 2.—The term “bones” frequently occurs in the psalms, and if we examine we shall find it used in three different senses. (1.) It is sometimes applied literally to our blessed Lord’s human body, to the body which hung upon the cross, as, “They pierced my hands and my feet; I may tell all my bones.” (2.) It has sometimes also a further reference to his mystical body the church. And then it denotes all the members of Christ’s body that stand firm in the faith, that cannot be moved by persecutions, or temptations, however severe, as, “All my bones shall say, Lord, who is like unto thee?” (3.) In some passages the term bones is applied to the soul, and not to the body, to the inner man of the individual Christian. Then it implies the strength and fortitude of the soul, the determined courage which faith in God gives to the righteous. This is the sense in which it is used in the second verse of Psalm 6, “O Lord, heal me; for my bones are vexed.”—Augustine, Ambrose, and Chrysostom; quoted by F. H. Dunwell, B.A., in “Parochial Lectures on the Psalms,” 1855.
 Jacobson, R. A., & Tanner, B. (2014). Book One of the Psalter: Psalms 1–41. In E. J. Young, R. K. Harrison, & R. L. Hubbard Jr. (Eds.), The Book of Psalms (pp. 103–104). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.