January 23, 2021

Psunday Psalms: God, with Whom We Wrestle and Prevail

King David, Chagall

Psunday Psalms
Devotional Thoughts on the Psalms

* * *

O Lord, do not punish me in anger,
do not chastise me in fury.
Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I languish;
heal me, O Lord, for my bones shake with terror.
My whole being is stricken with terror,
while you, Lord — O how long!
O Lord, turn! Rescue me!
Deliver me as befits Your faithfulness.
For there is no praise of You among the dead;
in Sheol, who can acclaim You!

– Psalm 6:1-6, Tanakh (JPS)

* * *

Psalm 6 has been called the Psalm of the Sick. The psalmist uses imagery of deep and painful physical distress to describe his desperate situation. It is also the first of seven psalms the Church has called, “Penitential” (Pss. 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143). These have served as special sources for prayer and reflection during the Lenten season. Though the singer cries out for God’s mercy and speaks of God’s anger and chastisement, in this case the context is suffering, not personal sin. And the focus on physical infirmity may simply be a metaphorical way of expressing the stress he is under because of his “foes,” who appear in the second half of the psalm as the source of his troubles.

What intrigues me in Psalm 6 is the psalmist’s view of God.

The author of this psalm believed in the sovereignty of God, but it is a sovereignty unlike that often taught, particularly in Calvinist theology. Yes, God is presented as the One who holds the course of the world in his hands, who is ultimately in control of both the good and evil that comes to our lives. As James L. Mays says in his commentary,

At the very beginning the affliction is interpreted as God’s action in wrath to punish, and at the same time God is held to be the one who ‘heals all your diseases’ (Psalm 103:3). The entire span of sickness and health is understood in relation to the Lord. Life and death of a person are in God’s hands. No other cause is contemplated, and no other relief is sought.

Psalms: Interpretation Commentary

On the other hand, note that this same sovereign God is the One to whom the psalmist cries, “O Lord, turn!” This is the same word the Hebrew prophets used when calling Israel to repentance. In other words, this suffering soul is asking God to reconsider, to change course, to repent of his anger and fury, to instead grant mercy and deliverance.

The sovereign God is not the impassive, impassable God. It is possible — and right! — to appeal to him, to plead our case before him, to let him hear “the sound of [our] weeping” (v. 8), and by so doing, to move him to pity and action.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Chagall

The Book of Psalms (indeed, the entire OT) portrays our relationship with God as a vigorous conversation, filled with debating, arguing, pleading, complaining, bargaining, and expressing all the honest thoughts and feelings we have in our hearts — negative, positive, and everything in between.

Part of the mystery of God’s greatness is that he welcomes these robust wrangling sessions and, if the psalmist is right, responds and changes his actions toward us.

This is not Allah of Islam, the sovereign authority before whom his followers simply submit. This is YHWH, the God of Jacob, who wrestles with us and with whom we may prevail.


  1. My hubby, the OT Prof of almost 30 years, now retired, totally agreed when I read this to him today! Thank you!!

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