Thursday after Ash Wednesday (1st in a series on Penitential Psalms) Psalm 6 (AV)
11 February 2016
Written by Pr. Petersen and delivered by Pr. Frese due to the former’s sudden bout with the Flu.
To the chief Musician on Neginoth upon Sheminith, A Psalm of David.
1O LORD, rebuke me not in thine anger, neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure.
2Have mercy upon me, O LORD; for I am weak: O LORD, heal me; for my bones are vexed.
3My soul is also sore vexed: but thou, O LORD, how long?
4Return, O LORD, deliver my soul: oh save me for thy mercies’ sake.
5For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?
6I am weary with my groaning; all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears.
7Mine eye is consumed because of grief; it waxeth old because of all mine enemies.
8Depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity; for the LORD hath heard the voice of my weeping.
9The LORD hath heard my supplication; the LORD will receive my prayer.
10Let all mine enemies be ashamed and sore vexed: let them return and be ashamed suddenly.
+ + +
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
God’s wrath is not an ambiguous mystery that might or not be something to be nervous about. It is revealed. St. Paul writes:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:18–22, ESV)
Three times, in that context, Paul writes of God giving up the hard-hearted.
“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” (Romans 1:24–28, ESV)
This is what the wrath of God is revealed against: all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. Because of this ungodliness and suppression of the truth God gave men of old up to the lusts of their hearts, to dishonorable passions, and to debased minds. Those things lead them to unnatural relations and shameless acts which are the very same moral evils that our society can longer call evil but thinks them to be the stuff of holy marriage. Sodom and Gomorrah have nothing on us. The wrath of God is revealed in God giving us up to these things until such time as He delivers us and separates the sheep from the goats.
Repent. We live in dangerous, perilous times, times that deny God’s wrath even as they are handed over to it.
Psalm 6 is a perfect Psalm for our age. It is the first and shortest of what we commonly call the seven penitential Psalms. They aren’t grouped together by the Bible, but by men. They are grouped together because they all have this in common: they all explicitly ask God for forgiveness of sins. This is practically the only thing Lutherans ever ask God for, so it can seem sort of strange to group them together on this basis. But these sorts of explicit prayers aren’t as common in the Psalter as you might think. Consider Psalm 23 or 98. They don’t ask for forgiveness as directly as Psalms 6 and 32 and 51 do.
Don’t get too hung up on that for now. Just know that penitential doesn’t mean wallowing in self-pity and terror, but it means to make a plea for and a confession of Messianic forgiveness and mercy.
Back to Psalm 6. David begins with the reality of God’s wrath. We are somewhat accustomed to his railing against the ungodly, those who walk in the counsel of the wicked, stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of scoffers, but here David is afraid for himself because of what he has done personally. He has deserved God’s wrath and he prays to be delivered from it: “O LORD, rebuke me not in thine anger, neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure.”
“Divine wrath is not some sort of irritation; God does not become peeved or annoyed.” He is not sulking because we hurt His feelings. His wrath is “a deliberate resolve in response to a specific state of the human soul” particularly toward those who are hard of heart, unrepentant, or who have turned their backs on God and deliberately refused His grace. That is what David is up against. He knew better but he turned his back on God’s grace. That is why He begs God not to rebuke him in His anger.
We must also pray in this way – not just in Lent but always. We must ask to be delivered from God’s wrath – not as those who didn’t know what they were doing, but as those who have hardened their hearts and planned to repent later. A love of sin remains more than a mere possibility in all of us to the very day we die. David is not a fantastic story that doesn’t make any sense. It makes perfect sense: lust and greed and pride are well-known by us all. That is why we need to keep on repenting, confessing, and praying, and that is why God in His mercy keeps on speaking in the Scriptures, absolving us in the pastors, and feeding us in the Sacrament of the Altar.
Thank God that we are still able to see that some things are evil. We can speak, albeit imperfectly, on behalf of the unborn and for holy marriage, against bigotry and injustice. Nonetheless, every deliberate and willful sin hardens our hearts. Our sins are willful acts against the goodness of God. They are a denial of His image in us. “The taking away of sin required the shedding of Christ’s blood on the Cross. This fact itself tells us how serious” sin is even as it tells us what we are worth to the Father.
Sin, especially deliberate sin, leaves us in “a very weakened state. It is felt in our inner frame, our very bones, as it were.” Thus David: “Have mercy upon me, O LORD; for I am weak: O LORD, heal me; for my bones are vexed. My soul is also sore vexed: but thou, O LORD, how long? Return, O LORD, deliver my soul: oh save me for thy mercies’ sake.” (Psalm 6:2–4, AV)
He continues: “For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?” (Psalm 6:5, AV)
David needs mercy now because death is too late. No one gives thanks in the grave. That, by the way, is how the hard-hearted behave now: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.” The hard-hearted don’t merely not ask God for forgiveness. They also don’t give thanks. Death is the culmination of sin, the place without thanksgiving, “in the grace who shall give the thanks?” We have suffered a foretaste of that in our own lives. We have been discontent, envious, and hardened our hearts so that our bones ache within us. Like David, we want no more of that. So like David, we pray: “Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for I am weak.”
Sin and death form the context of this Psalm. They give cause for the lament and plea. We need rescue, deliverance. We are in danger because of the sins of our society and family and church, and because of our own sins. But we are not worse than David. He had hope. He shows us how to pray in hope, how to cling to a promise. He knows the Holy Trinity hears and answers him:
For the Lord hath heard the voice of my weeping.
The Lord hath heard my supplication;
The Lord will receive my prayer. (Psalm 6:8b-9, AV)
What has the Lord heard? He has heard those who trust in Him, who have come confession and sorrow over sin, who still have ashes in their pores, whose bones ache with sorrow for their children, for their past, for their failures. He also heard confidence and trust not in self or tradition or academic theology but in His mercy. The Lord has heard faith. It is customary for confession and absolution, despite the tears that accompany it and the terrible circumstances and sins that sometimes provoke it, it is customary for it to end with a note of hope and joy – like Psalm 6.
This is not the end. The Lord is merciful. The Son has drunk the cup of Wrath in your stead and cast the dregs upon Satan’s crushed skull. The Lord, risen from the dead, comes in peace in the Sacrament, not to rebuke you, but to wash away the ashes, to prepare you for Easter, to restore you to the fold for mercies’ sake.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.
 The quotations in this sermon, other than quotations of the Psalm, have been taken directly from Patrick Henry Reardon’s remarks on Psalm 6 in Christ in the Psalms. Even where there aren’t quotes, the argument and ideas are also mainly his from the same section. Patrick Henry Reardon, Christ in the Psalms (Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2000), 11–12.