The 6th Psalm in the Psalmody is attributed to David. Unlike the 51st Psalm that we heard last week where the context is almost certainly that of David’s transgression with Bathsheba and her husband Uriah, the story behind this Psalm is unknown. Personally, I’ve always felt that those Psalms in which the background is unknown makes it all that easier for me to apply it to myself. The backstory to this Psalm, like many, could very well be MY story and yours.
Again, I’ll invite you to recite the Psalm aloud with me as we go.
“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?”
Luther begins by putting the prayer of the psalmist in its proper perspective. To hear this psalm properly, we need to keep two things in mind.
“First,” says Luther, “in all trials and affliction, man should first of all run to God; he should realize and accept the fact that EVERYTHING IS SENT BY GOD, WHETHER IT COMES FROM THE DEVIL OR FROM MAN. This is what the psalmist does here. In this psalm he mentions his trials, but first he hurries to God and accepts these trials from Him; for this is the way to learn patience and the fear of God. But he who looks to man and does not accept these things as from God, becomes impatient and a despiser of God.”
One of the things that makes Luther’s theology unique is the way that he refuses to compromise the sovereignty of God – particularly in the face of trials and afflictions. Many want to separate God from trials and afflictions saying that do NOT come from Him – which is to say, as much as God would prefer otherwise, there are some things that He simply has no control over. “God didn’t make it to happen – He only let it happen,” or something like that.
Others give God the credit for bringing the trials and afflictions that OTHERS experience, but conclude that it’s because they deserve it. God is punishing them for their sin. We’ve all heard the accusations that certain diseases and disasters are God’s punishment for some particular sin. But this weakens the all-atoning sacrifice of Christ crucified – as though He didn’t atone for ALL SIN and that God’s wrath for all sinners wasn’t COMPLETE EXHAUSTED in Jesus.
Luther however sees things differently. God is in complete control and NOTHING happens apart from His will. Listen to Luther again. “He should realize and accept the fact that everything is sent by God, whether it comes from the devil or from man.”
This is Luther’s ‘theology of the cross.’ God works through suffering and pain to bring us to faith and trust in Him. No one is able to understand the way of God by contemplative thought or academic study. Just as God did His greatest work though the suffering and even death of His Son, so He brings all under the cross that He may bring us to Christ and the life He gives. It is in the actual experience of suffering and dying that God works to bring us to faith in Christ.
In his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, Luther says that God works under the OPPOSITE as we expect. He hides Himself in trials and afflictions and therefore it is THERE that we are to look for Him. He writes, “thus an action which is alien to God’s nature results in a deed belonging to his very nature: he makes a person a sinner so that he may make him righteous.”
The second point of perspective is this. Luther writes, “God chastens us in two ways. At times He does so in grace as a kind Father, temporally; and at times He does so in wrath as a stern Judge, eternally. Now when God seizes a man, the man is by nature weak and disheartened, because he doesn’t know whether God is taking him in hand OUT OF ANGER OR IN GRACE. In fear of His ANGER he begins to cry out: “O Lord, rebuke me not in your ANGER, nor discipline me in your WRATH.” “Let it be in GRACE; be a Father, not a Judge.” It’s not that he is asking to go unpunished altogether, for this would not be a good thing, but that he be punished as a child by his father.”
“Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing. Heal me, for my bones are troubled.” “That is, show me grace, or else I will dissolve and despair in fear and terror. All of my strength and power passes away at the terror of Your punishment. Since, therefore, my strength leaves me, give me Your strength.”
“Here it must be noted,” says Luther, “that this psalm and others like it will never be thoroughly understood or rightly prayed unless disaster stares man in the face as it does in death. Blessed are they who experience this in life, for every man must finally meet his end. When man thus declines and becomes as nothing in all his power, works, and being – when there is nothing but a lost, condemned and forsaken sinner – then divine help and strength will appear, as it did for Job.”
“God’s strength and consolation are given to no one unless he asks for it from the bottom of his heart. BUT NO ONE WHO HAS NOT BEEN PROFOUNDLY TERRIFIED AND FORSAKEN PRAYS PROFOUNDLY. He does not know what ails him, and he remains secure and hopeful in the strength of the consolation of others and even himself. So in order that God might give HIS STRENGTH and CONSOLATION and communicate it to us, He deliberately withdraws all other consolation and makes the soul deeply sorrowful, crying and longing for comfort.”
“Thus ALL GOD’S CHASTISEMENTS ARE GRACIOUSLY DESIGNED TO BE A BLESSED COMFORT, although through weak and despairing hearts – the foolish hinder and distort the design aimed at them because they do not know that God hides and imparts His goodness and mercy under wrath and chastisement.”
“But you, O Lord – how long?” Time seems long to all who are afflicted; and on the other hand, it seems short to those who are happy. But it seems especially and immeasurably long to those who have the inner hurt of the soul, the feeling of being forsaken and rejected by God.
Thus there is no greater pain than the gnawing pangs of conscience, which occur when God withholds truth, righteousness, wisdom, etc., and nothing remains but sin, darkness, pain, and woe. This is a sample or foretaste of the pains of hell and everlasting damnation; therefore it pierces the very bones, strength, blood and marrow, and whatever there is in man.”
“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?
“God’s turning away implies that God has rejected and forsaken him. This is accompanied by the feeling of terror the feeling of damnation. And so he calls on God to turn again. Returning implies an inner consolation and joyous hope.”
“He asks this, not because of any merit or worthiness in himself, but on account of God’s mercy, so that God may be extolled, loved, and praised. For there is no praise of you in death. Here the psalmist speaks not only of temporal death but also of spiritual death, when the soul is dead. For sin is the death of the soul and pain is its hell.
Both are felt by one who remains in this distress. And so he says, ‘do not let me remain in death and hell; but according to Your mercy, “for the sake of your steadfast love,” graciously raise me up, deliver me from hell, and console me.”
“The psalmist’s primary concern is for the praise of God and the honor of his name. In hell, His mercy does not exist and no one praises Him and everyone only desecrates and blasphemes His justice and truth.”
Luther takes this opportunity to encourage a balanced perspective in the face of suffering. Our prayer should not be one-sided where all we want from God is relief from our guilt and pain and suffering. There is also a responsibility to maintain a good will and love toward God. Those who cry out to God for His help must do so with a degree of moderation or they make it all about themselves.
Luther writes, “This is by far the noblest thought which the saints have in their crosses and by which they are also sustained… The saints retain a good will toward God in their suffering and distress – and they are more concerned about losing God’s gracious will, praise and honor than bout being damned. For he does not say, ‘in hell there is no joy and pleasure,’ but ‘in hell there is no praise and honor of you.”
The lesson says Luther is this, “We must overcome afflictions, death, and hell, not by running away from God or by impatience with Him, but with favor, good will, and love continuing to turn toward Him.”
Luther inserts a practical comment here, probably based on his own personal experience. He says, “These are sharp words for the old Adam, especially if he is still fresh and green; but that does not matter.”
“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.”
The effect of the psalmist’s spiritual grief has taken a physical toll on him. Luther writes, “the whole mode and life of my body is changed and misshapen; and all this on account of the wrath of God which I have felt. The world cares for the body with silk, gold, and sumptuous eating, like the rich man in the Gospel; but through the wrath of God, I have become the poor and deformed Lazarus.”
“I am useless… For such a feeling of the chastisement of God has the effect that all strength is consumed. It seems to him that heaven and earth are laid upon him and that everyone is his enemy. Nowhere does he find comfort; he finds only terror and the wrath of God.”
“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.”
Here we see the movement from despair to joy. God is no longer the problem. He has become the Savior. So the question is, who has changed – has God changed His mind about the sinner or has the sinner changed his mind about God. God does not change. His desire for sinners is always the same – that they should repent and put their trust in Him and turn from their sin. It is the psalmist who has changed and who now sees God at work in his life through the trials and afflictions that God’s word of Law has brought on him – all so that God might also bring His word of Gospel to him.
The other question is this one, who are the ‘workers of evil’? Who are his ‘enemies’? His enemies are those who want to convince him that his trials and afflictions are either NOT FROM GOD or that they are THE PUNISHMENT OF GOD who has elected him for condemnation.
The way we may sometimes hear this like this, “God helps those who help themselves.” Before you can expect God to help you, you must do what is in you. But the psalmist can find nothing in himself to do. He is as good as dead before God and the dead can do nothing.
Rather, the psalmist has learned that we cannot obtain God’s grace and mercy by doing what is in us – but only by accepting what is done to us, even by God Himself. Only when we are completely humbled and brought to nothing by God’s alien work do we see how completely turned in on ourselves and confident in ourselves we really are. Only as we are stripped of all hope in ourselves will we turn to Christ as our only hope.
Luther writes, “And now he attacks the proud holy ones who have never felt the wrath of God or come to the knowledge of their sins. Therefore they do not believe, trust, call upon, know, or teach the goodness of God; but they mislead themselves and others through works and the bold presumption of merit before God. He wishes that they would finally recover from their bold presumption and regain their senses.”
“God is so disposes that he gladly hears those who cry and lament, BUT NOT those who feel smug and independent. Therefore the good life does not consist in outward works and appearances but in a lamenting and sorrowful spirit as we read in Psalm 51, ‘The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.’”
“It is the psalmist’s wish that his enemies realize this, for they would be different if they came to their senses and were terrified at themselves.”