In the first section of Psalm 6, King David (picture above from the Paris psalter) implored God to take pity on him and heal him from his illness: from his aching bones, and troubled soul. He then goes on to give some reasons for God to have mercy on him, and today, to finish off our quick look at Psalm 6, I want to look at one of those reasons, given in Verse 6, namely his tears of contrition.
Tears are out of fashion these days (except perhaps for that faint hint of emotion when politicians need to persuade us of their humanity!) yet in truth there is nothing wrong with acknowledging our emotions! And indeed seeking to stir up the proper ones within us as the occasion requires.
The meaning of the text
Verse 6 in the Vulgate is:
The verse is a classic example of the parallelism often used in the psalms, so that both halves of the verse essentially mean the same thing: lavare means to wash, while rigare means to wet, water or moisten; lectus and stratus both mean bed or couch.
There is some dispute over tense here: the Vulgate translates as ‘I have laboured...I will wash my bed: I will water my couch with my tears. The neo-Vulgate changes the text to the imperfect, reflecting the more forceful Hebrew: the couch is positively swimming with the flood of tears the psalmist lets loose. Thus the Revised Standard Version translates the verse as “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.”
God does not punish those who punish themselves…
The importance of David’s outpouring of tears, finally accepted in verse 9, is the allusion to a positive aspect of the doctrines around sin and penance, namely that if our sorrow for sin, and thus detachment from it, is sufficiently intense, we can be purified of even the remaining temporal punishment due to us.
Serious sin has two main effects: it cuts us off from God, thus meriting eternal punishment, and it causes harm which we must repair (‘temporal punishment’). The sacrament of penance heals our breach with God, cancelling out eternal punishment, but it does not necessarily wipe out all of the temporal punishment due to our sins, which must be worked off either in this life (through good works such as prayer, almsgiving and fasting), or in purgatory.
St Robert Bellarmine therefore comments on this verse that: “For, as the apostle has it, 1 Cor. 11, "If we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged;" that is to say, if we would condemn and punish ourselves, God would not condemn nor punish us. For he spares those who do not spare themselves.”
A continuing work
I mentioned above that the Neo-Vulgate makes the psalmists work of tears each night ongoing - and this might be one of those cases where even a traditionalist could prefer the neo-Vulgate, at least from a theological point of view! There is a tendency today, even amongst the most conservative and traditionalists of us, to underestimate, at least compared to the perspective of earlier ages, just how serious our sins are, and therefore just how much time in purgatory we might yet face! So to avoid this, we should take St Benedict’s advice, and ‘daily in our prayer, with tears and sighs, confess our past sins to God’ (RB4).
And next, the third penitential psalm, Psalm 37.