Praying Psalm 6 in Lent

One of the frequent themes in the Psalms is danger from “enemies.”  Oftentimes modern readers look at those verses and are drawn to that foreign far-off world in which King David was constantly fighting battles against the Philistines, or on the run from King Saul, or dealing with his eldest son’s rebellion.  Israel was constantly at war back then, and we just can’t relate to it.

Who is the Enemy?

But I’d like to remind you that the Psalms are not just historical documents.  They are prayers for all God’s people at all times.  If you’re not surrounded by hostile armies, you can still pray these psalms with just as much integrity as King David, or any soldier throughout history.  St. Paul wrote (in Ephesians 6) that we do not fight against flesh and blood, but against spiritual powers.  Our enemies are demons and the temptations the incite in us.

1280px-pieter_bruegel_the_elder_-_the_fall_of_the_rebel_angels_-_google_art_project

Brügel’s The Fall of the Rebel Angels – consider this a behind-the-scenes view of your heart

Psalm 6 is very much an “enemies” psalm.  It begins off describing some sort of horror experienced by the person praying:

O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor chasten me in your wrath.
Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing;
O LORD, heal me, for my bones are troubled.
My soul also is sorely troubled.
But you, O LORD — how long?

By referring to God’s anger and wrath it becomes immediately clear that the person praying is guilty of sin.  “I have done wrong,” you might say, “and I am already suffering because of my sin – please don’t add to it!”

The Grief of Sin

Going further, the prayer seeks God’s help.

Turn, O LORD, save my life;
deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love.
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who can give you praise?
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.

Some of this may sound somewhat melodramatic if you try to pray this on a normal day.  But when disaster strikes, your heart will understand this perfectly well.  If you aren’t the one weeping and flooding your bed with tears, chances are you know someone else who is in grief.  You might be tempted to think of grief caused by external pain – problems at school or at work, illness or death of a loved one, troubles with a friend or other relationship – and that would be appropriate.

But remember, the beginning of the Psalm referred to God’s anger and wrath, which are His responses to sin.  The tears being shed here are primarily to be seen as our response to sin!  It is a tough reminder that we should be truly grieved by our sins, in the knowledge that sinful people require deliverance from death.  The “foes” that make our “eyes waste away” are the demonic powers that convinced us to commit sin.

True Repentance

The Psalm ends with a rebuke spoken against those demonic powers:

Depart from me, all you workers of evil;
for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.
The LORD has heard my supplication;
the LORD accepts my prayer.
All my enemies shall be ashamed and sorely troubled;
they shall turn back, and be put to shame in a moment.

This is significant.  Not only was the heart moved to the point of tears and weeping over committed sins, but the will has been rallied to stand against the movement of sin and say “no!”  One of Jesus’ parables spoke of a house being rid of a demon, swept clean, but then being re-occupied by several more demons.  St. Peter wrote a similar warning in his second epistle:

if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first.

The underlying lesson is this: confessing your sins is not enough.  You must have a “contrite heart” – you must be both sorry that you sinned (whether you’re literally crying or not), and desiring to change.  This is the full meaning of repentance.

Specific Sins

Psalm 6 is one of the seven penitential psalms, each of which have been traditionally associated as a weapon against one of the seven deadly sins.  Unfortunately, there seem to be more than school of thought regarding which Psalm is paired with which sin.  Psalm 6 could either be lined up against wrath or against pride.

The sin of wrath makes sense as a cause for this psalm because fear of God’s wrath is a prominent feature at the beginning of the psalm.  A common feature of Old Testament law is that a punishment should fit the crime, so for a wrathful person to experience God’s wrath in return would make a lot of sense.  Psalm 6, in this light, might be saying “I was hatefully angry at someone, and now I’m experience the pain of similar wrath upon my own heart and soul.

Pride, on the other hand, fits this psalm for a different reason.  Pride comes in many forms, but one of its underlying constants is the disordering of right priorities.  God should always be first, and we should always treat others at least as well as we desire to be treated ourselves.  As Psalm 6 enters its grief phase (or its lament), we find the words “in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?”  This may indicate that the person praying had failed to remember and praise God for most of his/her life, and is now realizing that time is nearly up.  God deserves our thanks and praise, and failure to offer it is a form of pride.

Whatever spin you take on Psalm 6, its words of grief over sin and its expression of true and hearty repentance are powerful words and useful resources for us in the Christian life.  As you fight against temptation and sin and the spiritual powers behind them, let this psalm give voice to what the Spirit of God is doing in your heart!

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
This entry was posted in Biblical, Devotional and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Praying Psalm 6 in Lent

  1. Fr. Brench says:

    EPILOGUE

    So we’re living through a spiritual war story. Our best weapon against the Devil is prayer, and the Psalms are excellent ammunition. After all, they are prayers which were written by God. You literally can’t get any better than that!

    But because this is the season of Lent, I want to add a quick shout-out to two other related weapons on the Christian arsenal: almsgiving and fasting. You see, our enemy the Devil often manifests through other means, namely temptations in the world and temptations in our own flesh. Together you get the classic triple enemy – the world, the flesh, and the devil. Just as we fight against the devil with prayer, so too do we fight against the world and the flesh with other appropriate weapons. Against the world we wield the practice of almsgiving; for the world tells us that we need our money, our possessions, our stuff. And so we meet the materialistic temptations of the world by giving away some of what we have. Similarly, against the temptations and desires of the flesh, we wield the practice of fasting. Where our bodies and brains tell us we “need” to satisfy their desires. By fasting or self-denial we meet those temptations with the truth that we don’t need everything we want.

    But just as the temptations of the world and the flesh both stem from the work of the Devil, so too should we understand our almsgiving and fasting as extensions of our prayer. Let prayer be your primary sword in the Christian fight. We’ve looked at Psalm 6 as an example. Now go and use other psalms as well during your lunch break, at bedtime, first thing in the morning – whenever you can – to further your fight against sin and advance with Christ in his righteousness.

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