From Victim to Victor
Psalm 6, like Psalms 3–5 before it, is what many Bible scholars call a lament. The three main types of Psalms among 150 in the book are psalms of praise, psalms of lament, and psalms of thanks. We typically think of psalms of praise and thanks when we think of Psalms in general, and just about every psalm includes elements of praise and/or thanks in some sense. However, the most common type of psalm is the lament, not the psalm of praise or thanks. Which should make sense to us when we stop and think about our lives in this fallen age and the kind of prayers we pray.
Sometimes psalms of praise are called psalms of orientation. All feels right with the world; our life seems ordered, and we are oriented, as we should be, toward God in praise. Then, the most common type, the lament, called psalms of disorientation, are when we plead to God for help. Our life is distressed in some way, or in chaos. We need saving from our enemies or forgiveness for our sins. Not all feels right with the world, and we turns to God in a posture of prayer for help. Psalms of thanks, then, are known as psalms of reorientation. God has provided some deliverance or rescue or help, and now we turn to him not only in praise (because he is our God) but in thanks (because he is our Savior).
The glory of psalms of praise is that God deserves our praise, and to be recognized as Lord, at all times, despite our circumstances, whether all feels right in our little worlds or not. The glory in laments is that despite our pain and difficulty and struggle and doubts, we turn Godward. Our faith is being tested, and in the very act of turning Godward, rather than elsewhere, there is hope. In lament may be where we most often find him to be our greatest Treasure. The glory in psalms of thanks is that God has acted on our behalf. Not only is he worthy of praise as God and Lord, and not only have we cried to him in our trouble and found him as Treasure, but now he has saved us and we turn, in prayerful song, to thank him as Savior.
Lessons for Our Languishing
As glorious as praise and thanks are, it is fitting in this age that the book of Psalms has more laments, psalms of disorientation, than any other type. And here in Psalm 6, we find the fourth lament in a row. As with the previous three, the psalm includes an introductory note saying it is from David, Israel’s great king. (We’re not sure all that’s meant by the ancient Hebrew word Sheminith. It appears to be a musical term or notation, meaning “the eighth”; see also Psalm 12, which has a similar length, as well as 1 Chronicles 15:21.)
Hard circumstances in David’s life — whether related to his son Absalom’s rebellion or not, we do not know — have led him to see his sin, and to cry out to God for rescuing from his foes. Some label this as the first “penitential psalm” (others: 32, 38, 51, 130, 143). As we’ll see, he cries out in his despair in verses 1–7, and then changes his key with a burst of confidence in verses 8–10, which is a typical pattern in laments.
However, penitent as he is, David is not only a sinner in Psalm 6 (unlike Psalm 51). He also has been sinned against. Foes have risen against him. Sinners have made David’s sin an occasion for sinning against him. So David also stands in the shoes of (what we might call) the victim. And so Psalm 6 provides us with a pattern not only for the penitent but also for how someone who is languishing under difficult circumstances might move in a God-honoring way from victimhood to real victory.
Let’s look at Psalm 6 in three parts, and see what lessons God might have for us here when we find ourselves in trouble and distress, especially when it’s unclear how much (or little) of it is our own making, and how much is owing to evil against us.
1) Tell him all your sorrows. (verses 1–3, 6–7)
O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath.
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled.
My soul also is greatly troubled.
But you, O Lord—how long?
David begins with honesty about his condition. He’s not glossing over the state of his heart. He is languishing, he says. And we don’t know the specifics. David generalizes his languishing enough in publishing this psalm to invite in others who also are languishing.
Have you ever lived through a season of life, however brief or extended, when you felt like you were languishing (losing vitality, growing weak)? Like a plant in the hot weeks of July going days on end without water. Like a man stranded on a desert island with nothing to eat. Like a teenager, who just moved to a new town, and goes week after week at a new high school without any real friends. Like a job where you know you’re not wanted, and not appreciated, and it seems like they managing you out, so that you’ll surrender before they have to pony up the severance. David is languishing. Enemies are set against him. And they are watching. They lurk, waiting for him to fall. And it’s taking a toll on him.
And David brings it to God. Psalm 6 shows us it’s okay to begin where we are and be honest with God about our languishing, our moaning, our weeping, our grief. He can handle your honest articulation of pain. And not just some it but all. If God can handle honest languishing from the king of his people, he can handle it from you. In effect, he says to us, as Aslan did to Shasta in The Horse and His Boy, “Tell me all your sorrows.” Even when you are partially at fault for the pain.
Here David doesn’t plead his righteousness as he does in other psalms. Next Sunday, in Psalm 7, we will see him plead for justice in verse 8: “Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me.” And famously in Psalm 18:20–24 (which also appears in 2 Samuel 22), he says,
The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me.
For I have kept the ways of the Lord,
and have not wickedly departed from my God.
For all his rules were before me,
and his statutes I did not put away from me.
I was blameless before him,
and I kept myself from my guilt.
So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.
But not here. In Psalm 6, David knows he has not been blameless. He is guilty in some measure. So he pleads for grace, not justice. He knows himself to be at fault. He has sinned. He deserves, and embraces, God’s rebuke and discipline, but begs that God’s rebuke be in love, not anger; that God’s discipline be in grace, not wrath. He doesn’t say, “O Lord, don’t rebuke me.” He receives the rebuke and says, “O Lord, don’t rebuke me in your anger.” I need the rebuke. I receive the rebuke. And I want this rebuke, this pain and hardship, to be the rebuke of love, not anger. I want this discipline be grace, not wrath.
The pain of his languishing is such that his “bones are troubled.” The bones are the deepest and strongest part of the human frame. To be troubled in the bones is to be troubled in the deepest way. David is rocked to the core, we might say today. And to that he adds, “My soul also is greatly troubled.” This is not just physical or mainly physical; it’s spiritual.
And the key question that he asks, in faith, which is the question of those who are languishing, in faith, is this, in verse 3: “How long?” It is significant that David’s question is not if God will rescue him but when. Not will God rescue, but how long till he does. This is often the tension for God’s covenant people. We have come to know who he is, as a gracious God, and merciful, full of steadfast love and faithfulness, and yet, as we should expect, his timing is not our. God’s clock is not set to human time. We want him to act and save according to our timetable. In our heart of hearts we might not have it any other way, but we do feel the pain as we wait. As we languish.
How Long?, O Lord?
In that tension, David’s not quite sure what to ask. He seems to trail off in verse 3: “My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O Lord — how long?” How long till what? Till God does what? What verb? What does he want God to do? He’s not quite sure how to pray. He just wants to be delivered from this season of difficulty that drags on and on as he languishes.
Which makes this psalm such a model for us when we find themselves languishing in a season of life in which the pain and uncertainty and difficulty and conflict just seem to go on and on. Some in this room, perhaps many, are languishing this way this morning. And you haven’t given up faith. You know God’s heart. Deep down you know it’s a matter of time. And yet it goes on another day. Another week. Another month. Another year. And you say, How long? Knowing that God will deliver you in the end doesn’t take away your languishing today.
Sinner and Victim
In verses 6–7, David says more about his languishing. He adds to the picture of how deeply he is distressed:
I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eye wastes away because of grief;
it grows weak because of all my foes.
David weeping might bring to mind 2 Samuel 15:30, during Absalom’s rebellion: “David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, barefoot and with his head covered. And all the people who were with him covered their heads, and they went up, weeping as they went.” Maybe this psalm is from that season. David would have felt at fault as well as mistreated. But we don’t know whether Psalm 6 is from Absalom’s rebellion or not.
Even though David is partially at fault, whatever the circumstances, his foes are using it as an opportunity to attack him. So David is not without sin; nor is he now the chief offender. He is now also a victim in some sense. Other sinners have made the occasion of his sin into an opportunity to sin against him. Which is not the case, by any means, in every victim scenario. We don’t assume fault in every victim just because that’s the case in Psalm 6. But it is often the case, in our fallen world, teeming with sinners, that we are sinned against without ourselves being blameless.
So David’s pain and confusion here is great. His words are no exaggeration. If anything, I suspect, they’re understatement. And in such a whirlwind, God doesn’t tell him, and us, to just grit our teeth, put on smile, and sing a happy song. God says tell me all your sorrows. He sees and knows our disorientation, and doesn’t sweep it under the rug, but acknowledges it with the most common type of psalm in his inspired songbook. And he calls us to more than just rehearsing our pain. He wants us to move beyond the disorientation that prompted our lament.
2) Put him at the center. (verses 4–5)
Sandwiched in the middle of David’s expressions of his languishing (in verses 1–3 and 6–7) are verses 4–5, right here at the heart of the psalm. This is the special offering of this psalm to us this morning. We all know languishing, in some degree or other. We all know turmoil and being sinners and living with the consequences of our sin. We all know, in some sense, the pain of being sinned against, of being “the victim,” and the felt injustice of it, whether we have been partially at fault or not. But where do we go from here? See the surprising way David prays in verses 4–5:
Turn, O Lord, deliver my life;
save me for the sake of your steadfast love.
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who will give you praise?
This is the hinge or pivot in the psalm, the spark that sets the kindling of disorientation ablaze in the fire of reorientation. And how does David reorient? He moves from his need to God’s own God-centeredness and his faithfulness to his covenant. He appeals to God’s own “steadfast love” which he promised under the terms of his covenant with his people (so also in Psalm 44:26; 115:1). He appeals to God’s own heart to exalt himself in the praises of his people.
(Sheol is the Old Testament name for the place of the dead (called Hadesin the New Testament) where the souls of the dead, good and bad, separated from their bodies await God’s judgment; this is where Jesus descended after his death to liberate the souls of the righteous and raise them to heaven; in Sheol, because there is no body and no vocal chords, there is no praise in the way we praise God now with our whole being while on earth.)
Steadfast Love and Faithfulness
In Exodus 34:6–8, when Moses had asked God to show him his glory, and God hid Moses in the cleft of the rock and passed by him, showing him the trailing edge of his glory, he proclaimed to Moses as he passed by,
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
And so we read throughout the history of Israel — and especially in the Psalms — of God’s steadfast love, his covenant faithfulness to those whom he has chosen and pledged himself. Which means that David’s appeal is God-centered. “Lord, save me, to make yourself look good. Vindicate your name. Demonstrate to the nations that you keep your promises. That your glory is untainted. That your faithfulness is without question.” And then he appeals in verse 5 to praise: “Lord, keep me from death so that I might praise you. For the love of your own glory, in your passion for your own praise, O God, rescue me, that I might praise you.”
To which we might say, Well, this is all well and good for David. It is admirable that his request is so God-centered, rather than selfish, but what about God’s God-centeredness? Shouldn’t God be David-centered if David is so God-centered? Doesn’t this make God an egomaniac?
Praise Completes Our Joy
C.S. Lewis, before he was converted, noticed and objected to God’s constant refrain in the Psalms for his people to praise him. He wrote a book called Reflections on the Psalms in which he tells the story of his early unbelief:
The most obvious fact about praise — whether of God or anything — strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless (sometimes even if) shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game — praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least. . . .
I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: “Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?” The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God [and, I add, the Psalmists appealing to God on the basis of his desire to be praised] are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value.
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is it’s appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delightis incomplete till it is expressed. (Reflections on the Psalms, pp. 93–95, emphasis added)
Alright, so we’re deep into it now. Let me summarize the insight from Lewis and walk us back into Psalm 6, and then finish with our third and final lesson in verses 8–10. God’s passion for his own glory, and his attendant desire to be praised (to which David appeals) is not selfish or unloving. In fact, because God is God, he would be unloving if he did not value himself supremely and summon us to praise him. And the surprising fact about praise — oh if were only more obvious! — is that “all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise.” In other words, God calls us to praise not to takefrom us, not to make us miserable, but to giveto us, to make us supremely happy. God’s own God-centered is the foundation and prerequisite of our being truly happy and genuinely rescued.
And as David appeals to God’s own honor and praise, a profound reorientation is happening in his soul. As he told God all his sorrows, his focus has been on himself and his distress. “I am languishing.” “Heal me.” “My bones.” “My soul.” And it’s not wrong for David to acknowledge and voice his pain. In fact, he needs to start here. He needs to own his disorientation. But then he needs to lift his eyes. He needs for God to reorient him on the rock-solid foundation of God’s allegiance to himself, upon which David can bank for deliverance. And as God gives David the wherewithal to move beyond his own languishing, and to plead to God on God-centered terms, here the deliverance begins. It doesn’t mean the full rescue comes at once. There may be much more languishing ahead. But at least David’s feet find a rock on God’s steadfast love, in his allegiance to his glory and honor, in his commitment to his own praise, which is where the glory of his name and the joy of his people comes together.
3) Know that he hears. (verses 8–10)
Listen for the new tune in verses 8–10 and compare David’s newfound confidence with his languishing of verses 1–3, and observe the change on the other side of the God-centered hinge of verses 4–5. Oh for such confidence in our lives!
Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.
The Lord has heard my plea;
the Lord accepts my prayer.
All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled;
they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment.
David’s “greatly troubled” (in verse 3) has now become the “greatly troubled” of his enemies (in verse 10). In verse 3 we saw David asking how long, and now he remembers that God often delays, but he has heard us all along, and accepts our prayers, and responds in his perfect timing. And when he does, he often answers suddenly, “in a moment” (the last words of the psalm).
But here’s the important question for us: How does David know that God has heard him, and that he will indeed respond, that it’s just a matter of time? Where does this newly expressed confidence come from in the psalm? It’s not from new revelation, that God whispered something to him after verse 7. And I don’t think it’s from the passage of time, that David came back and added verses 8–10 at a later time, after God had answered. No, the deliverance is still future (“shall” in verse 10), not past. How does David get this burst of confidence? I want to have this; you want to have this, when you’re languishing.
The answer is that the psalm itself, the act of prayer itself, the rehearsing of the truth of God’s covenant and being freshly honest about his spiraling self, and God’s commitment to his glory, is the channel through which the grace of faith, and confidence, flows. Sanity is restored, in the midst of disorientation, in the very act of addressing God and remembering who he is and repeating what he has promised.
Laments, like this, are not exercises in wallowing or making things worst; rather they are exercises in the Godward restoration of spiritual sanity. They are means of grace through which we first move in spirit from disorientation to reorientation, and have the strength to endure until God updates our circumstances. How are you restoring your sanity if you’re not praying and rehearsing God’s promises? And if you are in a season of languishing, have you considered whether your present spiritual weariness might stem from prayerlessness?
Can I Have This Confidence?
But you might say, That’s all well and good for David. He was the king of God’s chosen people. Of course, God heard his prayers. But I’m just a footman. I’m literally one in a billion professing Christians worldwide. How do I know that God receives my prayers? Can I say with David, “The Lord has heard; he accepts my prayer”? Can I have anything close to the confidence David has? My answer is that you can have every bit as much confidence as David, and in fact, in Christ, we have more.
Jesus Christ is great David’s greater son. He is the total fulfillment of all David embodied, and all God promised to David, as the king of his people. Jesus is not great because his ancestor is David. Rather, David is great because his descendant is Jesus. And at the very heart of Christianity is one of the most remarkable realities in the universe. When we believe in Jesus, when we trust him as our Savior, Lord, and Treasure, that faith, by the power of the Holy Spirit, joins us to Jesus, so that we are in him. Not only does our sin become his, and he puts it to death on the cross, but also all that is his becomes ours.
The question about our confidence isn’t a question about how we compare to David. The question is about how David compares to Jesus. By faith, we are in Jesus. And if God heard the sound of David’s weeping, and heard David’s plea, and accepted his prayer, will he not hear and accept the prayers of those whom he sees in his Son, joined to him by faith? He will. As sure as God heard and accepted David’s prayer, even more so does he hear and accept the prayer of those who are in his Son.
If you are languishing, and you are in Jesus, and you have cried out to him and asked, “How long?” know that he has indeed heard your prayer, and accepted your prayer. Which doesn’t mean he will change your circumstances immediately or in precisely the ways you want. He typically does not. If he did, there would be little point in reorienting our souls. This psalm, remember, was written in the languishing. Rescue had not come yet. And David’s confidence and hope came not on the other side of deliverance but on the other side of reorienting on God, which gave the wherewithal for endurance until deliverance. His timing is not ours, but he will deliver, and may very well do so all at once, in a moment.
So, tell him all your sorrows. You can be honest about however you’re at fault, and however you’ve been sinned against. And put him (rather than self) at the center of your prayers. Ask for his name’s sake. Appeal to him on the basis of his righteous pursuit of praise. And know that he hears.
Call Him by Name
As we come to the Table, let me make one final, simple observation about the psalm as a whole. Eight times, in these ten short verses, David calls God by name. It’s the first words of the psalm: “O Lord.” Then verse 2. Then verse. Then verse 4. Then again, in confidence, in verse 8, and twice in verse 9. Behind the all caps LORD in our English translation is God’s personal, covenantal name (in Hebrew), Yahweh. This psalms flows from the mouth of one in covenant with God, who knows him personally, and calls him by name.
And as we lament, and as we come week after week to the Table, we too call God by name, and by an even more revealing and intimate name than Yahweh. We call him Jesus. In Jesus, God hears and accepts our prayers and invites us here to eat and drink with him.