The first verse of Psalm 6, discussed yesterday, alluded to God as a judge, expressed as showing his 'anger' as a response to sin. But today’s verse, verse 2, points to the side of God we are brought to know especially through Our Lord’s mission on earth, namely, God as the physician of our souls.
Verse 2: Have mercy on me Lord...heal me
Verse 2 in the Vulgate (and neo-Vulgate) is:
Miserére mei, Dómine, quóniam infírmus sum : * sana me, Dómine, quóniam conturbáta sunt ossa mea.
The verb misereri, familiar to us from the start of the Psalm 50, means to pity, have mercy on, so the first phrase is ‘have pity on me, Lord’.
King David then gives the reason why he is asking for mercy: because he is ill (infirmare, to make physically weak, deprive of strength; to weaken, enfeeble). He asks to be healed (sanare, to heal, cure, restore to health; to aid, help) because his bones, or indeed whole spirit (os, ossis) are troubled (conturbare, to trouble, disquiet, discomfit, dismay; to disturb in mind, cause anxiety). The Hebrew here is actually stronger than the Latin, suggesting more than just troubled or disturbed bones, but positive agony.
The psalmist is making a link in these first two verses between the health of mind, soul and body. And he is asking for God to act as a physician to him, rather than a judge.
Illness as a path to redemption
King David refers to aching bones in several of the psalms so I suspect there is a good case for taking this literally: sometimes illnesses and other providential events in our lives which can serve to bring about conversion, and which if accepted willingly can remit some or all of the ‘temporal’ punishments due to sin (noting of course that illnesses occur for many reasons, not just sin, as the book of Job makes clear). Anyone who has had a fracture, or suffers from arthritis, will emphasize with the psalmist's state!
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1502) comments on this:
"The man of the Old Testament lives his sickness in the presence of God. It is before God that he laments his illness, and it is of God, Master of life and death, that he implores healing. Illness becomes a way to conversion; God's forgiveness initiates the healing. It is the experience of Israel that illness is mysteriously linked to sin and evil, and that faithfulness to God according to his law restores life: "For I am the Lord, your healer." The prophet intuits that suffering can also have a redemptive meaning for the sins of others. Finally Isaiah announces that God will usher in a time for Zion when he will pardon every offense and heal every illness"
God the physician
Nonetheless, many of the Fathers and Theologians also interpret this verse metaphorically. St Augustine for example says: "that is, the support of my soul, or strength: for this is the meaning of bones. The soul therefore says, that her strength is troubled, when she speaks of bones. For it is not to be supposed, that the soul has bones, such as we see in the body."
What the soul is asking for then, as St Robert Bellarmine explains, is for God not to: "punish me not as a judge, but as a physician heal me."
The two verses of this psalm then, remind us to keep in mind that God is both judge and healer, and we must keep both these aspects in mind: for if we only repent now, he is ready to send his saving grace (picture below from Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry).
Tomorrow, a look at our healer's prescription, in the ointment of tears.
And for those who like to listen, a setting of the psalm from that Anglican patrimony we want to (re)claim, by Orlando Gibbons!