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The ancient Christians classed Psalm 6 as the first of the seven penitential psalms, for good reason.  In it, the psalmist calls upon God to turn away from His burning anger and to look upon him with favor.  Whatever may be causing such distress in the psalm itself is somewhat beside the point.  Physical sickness, the attack of enemies, fear of the final judgment, fear in the midst of disaster, all of them in the end boil down to the same basic cry:  “Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger!”

Psalm 6 opens with a clear petition:  “Lord, do not rebuke me in Your anger, and do not chastise me in Your wrath.  Favor me, Lord, for I am frail.  Heal me, Lord, for my bones are terrified.  And my soul is exceedingly terrified.  But you, Lord, how long?”  It is most likely that the psalmist is being assaulted by enemies, judging by the end of the psalm.  But this is a cry of a soul suffering under God’s wrath, not merely suffering at the hands of men.  It is the Lord who rebukes and chastises David.  The terror in his bones emphasizes the depth of this fear:  it is not merely a formality or psychological, but a deep and abiding fear of the wrath of God.  How long is this going to go on, Lord?  It seems like God is distant and turned away from him in anger.

Note, however, that David does not ask God to stop rebuking or chastising him.  Rather, “do not rebuke me in Your anger,” that is, in wrath visited upon sin.  The Lord rebukes His elect, but for a different reason.  “It is for discipline that you have to endure.  God is treating you as sons.  For what son is there whom his father does not discipline” (Hebrews 12:7)?  Through such discipline, the Lord teaches.  “I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to me, declares the Lord” (Amos 4:6).  Therefore, we should not flee away from suffering as if it was repulsive and necessarily bad, and this includes the experience of God’s discipline.  A God who only gives us positive experiences, or negative ones that quickly give way to positive ones, is not the God of Scripture.  Through the experience of God’s discipline, the Lord teaches us to rely upon Him above all things.

“Return, Lord, rescue my soul.  Save me on account of your steadfast love.”  David has no recourse before the Lord except His steadfast love.  If God were to turn away from His elect, His honor and glory would perish.  But the Lord is steadfast, even in the midst of intense trial.  He turns away His face from His sons to show them that He will not forsake them.  “For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime.  Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

“For in death there is not remembrance of You.  In Sheol, who will praise you?”  This cannot mean that the dead are insensible or nonexistent, for the souls cried out from under the altar, just as the blood of Abel cried out from the ground (Genesis 4:10; Revelation 6:9-11).  Rather, “remembrance” may also be translated as “mention.”  Remembering the Lord is not simply recollection, but calling to mind before the whole congregation what the Lord has done.  God does not, after all, simply think about Noah when He remembered him and those with him in the ark, but sent the winds to push away the waters of the flood!  If remembrance implies action, then those who are dead are no longer able to do what only the living can do:  praise God by recounting His glorious deeds out loud.

“I am weary with my sighing.  I cause my bed to swim the whole night.  With my tears I flood my couch.  My eye has become dark with grief.  It grows old from all my attackers.”  David emphasizes the intensity of his contrition.  Not only do his tears flow without ceasing in grief over his sin, but he also “grows old” under the strain.  I think this should be understood in the same way we use expressions like “this will give me gray hairs.”  David’s contrition and the desire to see God’s face again is more than he wants to bear.  It drives him back to the Lord and causes him to call upon Him without ceasing.

But at this point, there is a remarkable shift.  Something has occurred.  “Go away from me, all you doers of wickedness, for the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping.  The Lord hears my pleading.  The Lord accepts my prayer.”  His enemies can no longer trouble him, because he knows that the Lord has heard his cries.  It may be that his weeping has turned to trust, recalling the steadfast love of the Lord.  It may also be that he has heard the voice of another, just as Hannah heard the voice of Eli, causing her to rejoice that she had been heard (1 Samuel 1:15-18).  Whether internal or external, the psalmist leaves behind his weeping and knows that the Lord remains with him, even in the midst of distress.

“Ashamed and exceedingly terrified are all my enemies.  They will turn back and be put to shame quickly.”  It is rather remarkable here that everything has turned around.  The Lord has turned from facing away from David to facing toward him.  His enemies turn away from facing him and now face away in terror.  David’s terror has passed, and his enemies are terrified before the Lord.  While the reversal did not happen in an instant or the course of a few minutes, the Lord turns everything around.  Even the last sentence shows this with wordplay that cannot be translated into English.  The words for “turn back” and “be put to shame” share the same basic letters in Hebrew, but the order flips around here.  Even the words themselves emphasize this great reversal!

Christians should therefore pray this psalm in the midst of all their troubles.  “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:31-33).  Though we suffer justly for our sin, the fire of God’s discipline purifies rather than consumes, and through it we will offer up sacrifices of prayer and praise in righteousness (Malachi 3:3).

Imprecatory, or cursing, psalms sometimes distress Christians.  Why would we call upon God to curse, when the New Testament seems to say the opposite?  After all, Romans 12:14 says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”  Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

What is often forgotten about the imprecatory psalms is that they are not a case of personal vengeance.  Our tendency is to see the assaults of the wicked as intensely personal, and therefore cursing is likewise personal.  However, the wicked man does not fight against other men, but against God.  Imprecatory psalms therefore call upon God to defend His own honor and glory against the wicked.  Vengeance belongs to the Lord, after all, and should be left to Him alone.  A Christian may in fact pray imprecatory psalms as an expression of a deep trust in the Lord, even in the face of great evil.  The Lord will vindicate His holy name.

Psalm 5 opens with an intense prayer.  “Listen to my words, Lord.  Pay attention to my sighing.  Listen carefully to the voice of my cry for help, my king and my God, for to you do I pray.”  The word translated as “cry for help” suggests a series of shouts, like someone in distress.  Further, the form of the world translated “pray” may also suggest that it is continuous.  The psalmist is in a deep distress and calls upon God.  Such a cry for help is not a case of doubting, but intense trust, for who would call upon God thinking that He would not answer?  Even if He seems distant, God hears the prayers of His people.

“Lord, [in the morning] you hear my voice.  [In the] morning I set in order to you and watch.”  “Set in order” is the language of sacrifice, just like in Leviticus 1:8, 12, where the word describes laying out meat in order for a burnt offering.  Prayer is the spiritual sacrifice of the New Testament, the daily sacrifice of the priesthood which all believers hold.  Not only are we to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), but we should also turn to God as our first act of each day.  “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5).

“For you are not a God of delighting in wrongdoing.  Evil does not sojourn with you.  The senseless will not take their stand in the presence of your eyes.  You hate all the doers of wrongdoing.  You destroy the speakers of falsehood.  A man of bloods and fraud you abhor, O Lord.”  The psalmist testifies to the holiness of God here as a way of contrast with the next section.  An evil man cannot stand before God.  Note that there is also no distinction between the sin and the sinner.  Sin is not an alien act, but an expression of one’s inward nature.  “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speak” (Matthew 12:34).  For the righteous man, sin is something which is in fact foreign, and he sins out of weakness rather than deliberate intention.  But we cannot distinguish between sin and sinner out of a desire to make excuses for sin.  The all-holy Lord cannot abide the presence of sin, as this psalm so clearly testifies.

“And I, in the greatness of your steadfast love, will enter your house.  I will bow down to your holy temple in the fear of you.  Lord, lead me in your righteousness on account of my enemies.  Make straight your path before my face.”  The righteous man does not enter the house on account of his own righteousness, but on account of the steadfast love of the Lord.  It is the Lord who leads him.  It is the Lord who straightens his way before him.  God alone leads a man out of the ways of wickedness.  The psalmist is able to pray to the Lord confidently because of what the Lord has done for him.  It is true that he here alludes to his own righteousness, because without holiness, no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).  Yet this should not be understood as self-righteousness in the negative sense, attempting to stand before God on the basis of one’s perceived righteousness.  The psalmist clearly testifies that he stands before God only because of God’s love and mercy.  He is truly and actually holy in a real way, but only because of God.

“For there is not firmness in his mouth.  [In his] inward parts destruction.  An open grave their throat.  With their tongue they smooth out [or flatter].”  Paul uses part of this verse to declare that all have sinned in Romans 3:13.  It is a clear description of the deeds of wicked men.  “Firmness” has to do with what is in the mouth, that is, the words one speaks.  The wicked man is a liar (John 8:44).  He seeks destruction from deep within his heart (Psalm 36:1).  Their throat is an “open grave” because it is insatiable.  Their greed and evil desire know no limits (Proverbs 27:20; 30:15-16).  Finally, they flatter by smoothing out with honeyed words.  “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many” (Matthew 7:13).

“Make them bear their guilt, God.  Let them fall from their own counsels.  In the greatness of their crimes, scatter them, for they are rebellious toward you.”  This is the most direct expression of cursing within the psalm.  Note that it is God who will bring the judgment upon the wicked, not the righteous man.  Note further that they rebel against God by their crimes.  There is also a poetic parallel here, for as the Lord abounds in steadfast love above, so the wicked man abounds in his sins.

“And all who take refuge in you rejoice.  They rejoice loudly for a long time.  You shut them off, and the lovers of your name rejoice loudly in you.  For you bless the righteous, Lord.  Like a large shield [with] favor you surround him.”  The righteous man has nothing to fear, because the Lord will judge the world in perfect righteousness.  Even if he has to suffer the assaults of the wicked now, God will bring them to an end, causing him to rejoice.  To “rejoice loudly” or “sing for joy” is an expression of the volume of this cry.  An overwhelming joy causes us to shout at the top of our lungs, much like a cry of victory at the end of a battle.  The Lord also “shuts off” the righteous by sealing them off from outside danger, like a large shield surrounding them.  Even if some things continue to assault us by God’s will for our discipline, He will not suffer the righteous to fall.  There is safety in the Lord even in the midst of great danger.

The book of Lamentations does not clearly identify its author.  It is concerned with the fall of Jerusalem, which occurred in 586 B.C.  Therefore, it had to have been written at least after that point.  But the vivid grief over the city it expresses suggests that Jerusalem had recently fallen when it was written.  Thus, the author probably witnessed the destruction firsthand.  The most likely and the traditional author of Lamentations is Jeremiah, who fits those parameters.  2 Chronicles 35:25 also notes that Jeremiah composed a “lament for Josiah,” which were “written in the Laments.”  Because Jeremiah also composed several such “jeremiads” or lamentations in the book of Jeremiah, it is thus very likely that this was another such composition (Jeremiah 12:1-4 is one example).

Lamentations is a structurally magnificent series of poems.  The book itself is broken into five chapters, and note that each has 22 verses, except for chapter 3 which has 66.  This is not an accident.  The first four chapters are all acrostic, which means that each line begins with a letter of the alphabet in sequence.  Since there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, this explains why there are 22 verses.  Chapter 5 is not acrostic, though it retains the same number of verses.  Chapter 3 intensifies the pattern, so that the acrostic pattern is a group of three verses instead of a single verse.

This is also worth noting because of another Hebrew thought pattern which tends to place the emphasis toward the middle rather than at the end.  If this is the case here, that would make this reading for the Fourth Sunday of Easter the main point of the whole book, since it falls to nearly the numerical middle according to the versification.  This would go far to explain what is otherwise a tone of seeming despair in the face of the destruction of Jerusalem.

While there is not time here to consider the whole book, it is enough to note the beginning of this chapter to bring out the contrast.  Jeremiah says “I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of His wrath; He has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me He turns His hand again and again the whole day long” (Lamentations 3:1-3).  It is the Lord who is against him, which makes his lament much like that of Job (such as Job 6:4, though there are many examples throughout that book).  The Lord has brought this disaster against His faithless people.  “He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; He turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces; He has made me desolate; He bent his bow and set me as a target for His arrow” (Lamentation 3:10-12).

This, then, sets the reading for this Sunday focused on comfort into proper perspective.  Lamentations 3:22-33 is not a generic kind of trusting in the Lord, a sort of platitude about how it will “all be right.”  This is a hope which trusts in God’s mercy even in the face of God’s wrath.  It is a hope which knows that “the Lord will not cast off forever” (Lamentations 3:31) those to whom He has brought grief.  It is a hope which clings to the promises of God even while it seems that everything has gone wrong.  Even though everything is taken away which had been given, yet the Lord remains faithful and true.  “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in Him’” (Lamentations 3:22-24).