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Psalm 6 - Some points of analysis

The overall structure

Verse 1 is basically a title - in most English translations this is not included in the verse count but is given as a separate leader line, with the English v1 corresponding to Hebrew v2. The main body of the psalm then follows. The formal structure here is quite revealing in terms of the meaning being carried. The framing lines of the body - verses 2 and 11 - are stand-alone couplets, whereas the interior verses come in pairs. These pairs are alternately triplet-couplet and couplet-couplet, with the use of triplets in each case allowing a more complex structure to be used. The overall patterning of the psalm, then, in terms of lines within a completed idea, is:
2 - 3/2 - 2/2 - 3/2 - 2/2 - 2
This formal division is then used to break up the flow of meaning. The opening couplet pleads with Yahweh not to release his anger on the psalmist, whereas the closing one calls for (or predicts) the shaming of his enemies. The first triplet-couplet pair describes the objective weakness of the psalmist, while the second one describes his equally weak emotional state. The first couplet-couplet pair calls for Yahweh to turn and take notice of the psalmist prior to death: the second one celebrates the fact that he has done this and calls on the wicked to turn away.

Comments on individual verses

As mentioned above, verse 1 acts as a title, though both the words translated “strings” and “eighths” are of doubtful meaning. It is usually assumed that they have a technical musical meaning. The clause “for David” appears in a very large number of psalms - often translated “of David”, it need not strictly indicate authorship but rather a sense of being dedicated or offered to him, or perhaps thought to be in his style.

Verse 2 is the first example of a parallel couplet, and is the simplest one in the psalm, with the later ones forming parts of larger, more complex structures. Here, however, we have a straightforward pattern with the elements repeated in the same order in both lines.

Verses 3 and 4 together make up a larger pattern. Verse 3 opens with what looks as though it is to be another couplet like v2, but the last clause (“shaken my bones”) then initiates a second sub-structure, this time with chiastic (crossed-over) pattern. So the whole looks like:
    A1 B1 C1D1
    A2 B2 C2D2
                          D3C3
The change in structure is signalled by the use of a triplet here rather than couplet. The last line sums up in rather abbreviated form the psalmist's longing and so is a suitable line to gather up the sentiments expressed.

Verses 5 and 6 form another unit. The couplet in v5 is a partial parallel, since “uphold” and “deliver” are both members of a group of related words often paired with each other. In this case the opening phrase of the first line and closing phrase of the second differ in sense from each other, but are constructed so as to form sense in their own right - “Turn back, O Yahweh, for the sake of your kindness” would be a good line in a psalm on its own merits. Verse 6 completes the thought with a chiastic structure of its own, of the form:
    A1 B1 C1
    B2 A2 C2

Verses 7 and 8 are full of half-parallels - portions of each of the lines are echoed in the successive ones, but the structure never resolves into a definite pattern. It could well be argued that this is a deliberate ploy to mirror the emotional turmoil of the psalmist.

Verses 9 and 10 find resolution. In the Hebrew the four lines become shorter and more direct as the ideas progress. 9b and 10a appear to form a straightforward parallel construction, but then 10a and b enrich this with a chiastic pattern so that the three lines together show the following pattern:
    A1 B C1
    A1 B C2
    B C3 A2

The closing verse 11 makes an extensive play on consonants which it is only partially possible to translate. The word here translated “taken aback” has at root the idea of being ashamed, and in its root form is bush - the particular form here is yeboshu. The word here translated “turn back” (the basic idea being to return or repent) has root form shub - the particular form is yashubu. So these two root words are mirror images of each other (sh being a single consonant š in Hebrew), and these two lines fully exploit the play on consonants. “Turn back, taken aback” is an attempt to capture some of this while remaining reasonably faithful to the meaning of the words themselves.

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