Posted by: religionthink | September 10, 2009

Psalm 6: My Bones Are Shaking With Terror.

O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath. Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror. My soul also is struck with terror, while you, O Lord—how long? 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 eyes waste away because of grief; they grow weak because of all my foes. 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 struck with terror; they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame. (Psalms 6:1-10 NRSV)

In Psalms six there are two aspects of the psalm that will be discussed within this essay. The first is the theme of the Psalm itself. Then, a discussion of the use of the word “Sheol”, found in verse six. In doing so possibly we may have a better picture of what the Psalmist is going through and textual similarities of the other nations at the time.

The text of this particular Psalm is a prayer of lamentation. The writer may have a terminal illness and is asking Yahweh for deliverance. There are about seven of these Psalms. In the Catholic Church they are called the Penitential Psalms. They consist of the present Psalm, plus Psalms 37, 38, 51, 102,130, and 143. These types of Psalms were quite common in the Ancient Near East. Most people off handily would associate such a prayer with the writings contained in the book of Job. While this association is correct, they are found elsewhere also. Below we will explore at least three of these examples.

The first is called “A Prayer of Lamentation to Ishtar” a section of this text reads:

“I have cried to thee, suffering, wearied, and distressed, as thy servant.
See me o my Lady; accept my prayers.
Faithfully look upon me and hear my supplication.
Promise my forgiveness and let thy spirit be appeased.
Pity! For my wretched body which is full of confusion and trouble.
Pity! For my sickened heart is full of tears and suffering.
Pity! For my wretched intestines which are full of confusion and trouble.
Pity! For my afflicted house which morns bitterly.
Pity! For my feelings which are satiated with tears and suffering.” (Pritchard p.384)

The next text that deals with our theme is the text “I will Praise The Lord of Wisdom”. In this Akkadian text we find the writer in extreme torment.

“The Alu (disease demon) has clothed himself with
my body as with a garment.
Like a net sleep has covered me.
My eyes stare without seeing.
My ears are open without hearing
Faintness has seized my whole body.
A stroke has fallen upon my flesh.
Weakness has taken hold of my hand.
Weariness has Fallen upon my knees…” (Pritchard p.435)

The last example of the three, we come to the Ugaritic literature, and find the “Legend of King Keret”. The king here is in mourning over his wife that has died. We read:

So he enters his cubical and weeps,
An inner chamber and cries.
His tears drop
Like shekels to the ground.
His bed is soaked by his weeping,
And he falls asleep as he cries.” (Pritchard p.143)

The above texts were given to show their similarities to the Psalm we are discussing. Also it shows that the writing style in the ancient Near East dealt with some of the same issues. Now we will discuss the word Sheol, and how it pertains to the texts describing the underworld.

In the Old Testament the underworld was a place some what removed from the world above. Its population was in a semi conscience sleep. It is supposedly devoid of any praise of God but not removed from his justification. In Deuteronomy 32:22 we read:

“For a fire is kindled by my anger, and burns to the depths of Sheol; it devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.”

And again in Psalms 139:8 we find the familiar text:

“If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.”

Although it was the land of the dead, there are examples of the dead being aroused from Sheol when called upon. One well known example is the raising of the spirit of Samuel, in First Samuel 28:11-15. Another example is Isaiah 14:9

Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come; it rouses the shades to greet you, all who were leaders of the earth; it raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations.”

The word Sheol is used about Fifty-eight times in the Old Testament. This is disputed by some due to the different translations. Some translations use “Sheol” for grave, death, and pit. So the word usage of translations is under much debate. It also appears that one could be delivered from Sheol by Yahweh after a certain time. Although this may not be popular in some circles the example that best fits this hypothesis is in the book of Job.

“But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep. O that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath is past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me! If mortals die, will they live again? All the days of my service I would wait until my release should come. You would call, and I would answer you; you would long for the work of your hands. (Job 14:10-15 NRSV)

Possibly Sheol, for the Jewish community, became like a intermediate between the stage of death and resurrection. It is interesting to note the similarities of purgatory and the writing of Dante’s Inferno to this concept. Many modern ideas about hell and the afterlife may have been influenced by these texts concerning Sheol. A more detailed essay on the after life and the under world in relation to the ancient Near Eastern Texts and the Old Testament is in the making and these similarities will be discussed farther.

In Psalms six, we have one of many painful prayers to Yahweh for deliverance from death, pain, suffering, and enemies. We also had a chance to look at some parts of similar texts that corresponded with the Psalm. We also took a short time to discuss a few topics concerning the Jewish underworld. The biblical texts are full of symbolic, iconographical, and mythological symbols that at times need to be picked apart. The debate of such topics only leads to more topics and more understanding.

Dahood, Mitchell. The Anchor Bible: Psalms 1-50. Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York 1968.

Orr, James. “Sheol.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan 1939.

Pritchard, James. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New York 1950.


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