Theme: “The Dark Night of the Soul”
In this week’s studies we learn about David’s great affliction, and how his confidence and hope in the Lord were restored through prayer.
Scripture: Psalm 6:1-10
Psalm 6 is the first of the penitential psalms, that is, psalms in which the author confesses his sin and asks God for his mercy and forgiveness. The other penitential psalms are psalms 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143, the best known being Psalm 51, titled “A psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.” It was the custom in the early church to sing these psalms on Ash Wednesday.
But there is a question about how to classify this psalm accurately. I have called it “A Psalm of Repentance,” following the tradition of the early church and what I suppose to be the majority of the commentators. But there are others, such as Peter Craigie, a prayer in sickness. In defense of this alternate view, it is worth noting that the psalm contains no explicit confession of sin and no explicit repentance. In this respect it is quite different from Psalm 51. On the other hand, Psalm 6 does not sound like it is dealing with sickness so much as with grief over wrong done. We can understand the psalmist’s physical problems as the outworking of his spiritual grief. But it is hard to understand the prayer for God to “not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath” (v. 1) if sickness was his primary problem.
Probably a sense of sin, though unspecified, is basic, and the physical afflictions flowed from it. The result is what the old writers called “the dark night of the soul.” If you have been through such a dark night, you will know exactly what that phrase means and will readily identify with David as he gives expression to his feelings. In my counseling I have come across people who have been troubled by similar depressions, and who could have said, as David does in verse 6, “I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.”
The great English preacher D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was so aware of this problem among the people of his congregation after World War II that he preached a series of sermons on it. They are printed in a book entitled Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure.1 More recently, Multnomah Press published “A Critical Concern Book” in which a Baptist minister tells of his own severe depression, his hospitalization in a ward Called 7E, and his recovery. It is called Depression: Finding Hope & Meaning in Life’s Darkest Shadow.2
I do not suggest by linking these books with this psalm of repentance that depression is always caused by sin. Depression has many causes. But since we are all sinners, depression is seldom utterly divorced from sin, and, in any case, a sense of sin often leads to a feeling of having been abandoned by God or being chastised by him, which results in depression. This seems to have been the case of David at the time of the writing of Psalm 6.
What is a penitential psalm?
Why is it difficult to classify Psalm 6 in this category?
Reflection: Did you ever experience the kind of anguish David describes? How did the Lord work in your life during this period? And if you are going through this “dark night of the soul” now, what does the Lord want to teach you in it? How can this great trouble be used to make you more like Christ?
For Further Study: Psalm 88 also discusses similar themes that we find here in Psalm 6. Download for free and listen to James Boice’s message, “The Dark Night of the Soul.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)
1D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968).
2Don Baker and Emery Nester, Depression: Finding Hope & Meaning in Life’s Darkest Shadow (Portland: Multnomah, 1983).