The inscription tells us that David wrote this psalm but we aren’t sure when he wrote it. It could have been composed during the time of Absalom’s rebellion when David was old, sick, and unable to handle all the complex responsibilities of the kingdom. David’s gradual failure as a visible leader was one of Absalom’s “selling points” as he stole the hearts of the Israelites (2 Sam. 15:1–6). But the psalm might have been written at any time during David’s reign when he was ill and being attacked by his enemies. He describes his plight—“foes without, fears within”—and cries out to God for mercy. He was sure he was facing death (v. 5), which indicates that his experience was real and that he wasn’t using sickness and war only as metaphors for his personal troubles. Neginoth means “stringed instruments,” and Sheminith means “eighth,” which may refer to the number of a familiar melody, a lower octave for men’s voices or the number of strings of the instrument to be played. You find Sheminith also in the title of Psalm 12 (see 1 Chron. 15:21). Psalm 6 is the first of seven “penitential psalms” in which the writers are being disciplined by God and experiencing suffering. The other psalms are 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143, and all of these psalms are helpful to us when we need to confess our sins and draw closer to the Lord. In this psalm, David records the stages in his difficult experience of moving by faith from trial to triumph.
The Pain of Discipline (vv. 1–3)
Eight times in the psalm David addresses God as “LORD—JEHOVAH,” the covenant name of God, and the address in verse 1 is repeated in 38:1, and see Jeremiah 10:24. When God deals with His children, usually He first rebukes and then chastens, just as parents first warn disobedient children and then discipline them (Heb. 12:5–6; Prov. 3:11–12). According to Hebrews 12:1–13, chastening is not punishment meted out by an irate judge but discipline given by a loving Father to help His children mature (see Rev. 3:19). Sometimes God chastens us in order to deal with our disobedience, but at other times, He chastens us to prepare us for what lies ahead. It’s like the training of an athlete for a race. David thought God was angry with him, but that wasn’t necessarily true. However, when you consider that he was surrounded by foes (v. 7), evildoers (v. 8), and enemies (10), and that his body was weak and in pain and his soul troubled, you can see why he felt like he had a target on his back.
Three times he used the Hebrew word bahal, which means “faint, weak, troubled, terrified.” It is translated “vexed” in the King James Version (vv. 2, 3, 10), but in the 17th century, the word “vex” was much stronger than it is today. The translators of the Greek Old Testament used tarasso, which is the word used in the Greek of John 12:27, “Now is my soul troubled …” (and see Matt. 26:38 and Mark 14:34). Knowing that he deserved far more than what he was enduring, David begged for mercy (see 103:13–14) and asked God to send help speedily. The painful question “How long?” is asked at least sixteen times in The Psalms (6:3; 13:1–2; 35:17; 62:3; 74:9–10; 79:5; 80:4; 82:2; 89:46; 90:13; 94:3). The answer to the question is, “I will discipline you until you learn the lesson I want you to learn and are equipped for the work I want you to do.” According to Hebrews 12, when God disciplines us, we can despise it, resist it, collapse under it and quit, or accept it and submit. What God is seeking is submission.
The Futility of Death (vv. 4–5)
David felt that God had turned His back on him and deserted him, so he asked Him to return; and then he began to reason with Him. Every Jew knew that the Lord was “merciful and gracious” (Ex. 34:6–7), so David asked God to manifest that mercy to him and spare his life. Furthermore, what would the Lord gain by allowing David to die? (See 30:9–10; 88:10–12). King Hezekiah used a similar approach when he prayed for deliverance from death (Isa. 38:18–19). The word “grave” in verse 5 (KJV) is sheol, a word that can mean “the grave” or “the realm of the dead.” Here it means the latter. In Old Testament times, people didn’t have the clear revelation of the after-life that was brought through Jesus (2 Tim. 1:10), although there were glimpses of what God had in store for His people (16:9–11; 17:15; 49:14–15; 17:2–4). A body in the grave can’t praise or serve God, and David wasn’t certain what his spirit could do for the Lord in sheol. Conclusion: it would be wiser for the Lord to deliver him and let him live. David still had work to do.
The Strain of Despair (vv. 5–7)
We have gone from a morning psalm (3:5) to an evening psalm (4:8) and back to a morning psalm (5:3). Now we have another evening psalm (6:6). But whereas in the previous psalms, the Lord gave sleep and peace to David, here we find the king sleepless because of fear and pain. He was worn out from groaning, tossing and turning, and he spent a good deal of time weeping. “I soak my pillow … I drench my couch” (v. 6, AMP; see 38:9–10). Sleeping had been replaced by suffering. Sleep is important for healing (John 11:11–12), so David’s lack of sleep only made the condition worse. David’s weakened condition was revealed by the dullness of his eyes (v. 7; see 1 Sam. 14:27, 29). It’s remarkable how much physicians can discover about our physical condition by looking into our eyes.
A man I considered to be a godly spiritual leader once said, “I hear Christians say that their pain and sickness brought them closer to God, but in my case, that didn’t always happen.” That encouraged me! From my own experience and pastoral ministry, I’ve learned that sickness and pain either make us better or bitter, and the difference is faith. If we turn to God, pray, remember His promises and trust Him, we will find His grace sufficient for our needs (2 Cor. 12:9). The Lord may not do what we ask, when we want it, but He will do what needs to be done and help us glorify His name. The question we should ask isn’t “When will I get out of this?” but “What can I get out of this?”
The Joy of Deliverance (vv. 8–10)
At this point, there’s a sudden and surprising change from suffering to joy, an experience recorded in other psalms (22:22; 56:10; 69:30). It doesn’t matter whether this change occurred later or immediately after David prayed, but he felt healing in his body and peace in his heart and mind. Perhaps word came to him that the enemy had retreated or, better yet, had been defeated, and he knew God had heard his cries. Or maybe his circumstances hadn’t changed at all, but David felt God’s witness in his heart that all would be well. The Lord had heard his weeping and requests and had accepted his prayer.
He used this experience to glorify the Lord as he witnessed to his enemies. How this message was conveyed to them, we don’t know; but David was quick to honor the Lord for what had occurred. Perhaps the words in verses 8–10 are an apostrophe, a speech addressed to persons not present but meaningful to those people hearing or reading it. His enemies said that David was done for, but the failure of their prediction would leave them ashamed and defeated. The phrase “Depart from me” is quoted in Matthew 7:23 and Luke 13:27 and seems quite final.