A dirge. A lament. A description of physical suffering that the singer –the sufferer– believes to be the consequence of his moral offenses. Thus his bodily ills –depicted vividly in verses 6 through 9– act as metaphors for his unnamed but obviously vile moral offenses. Appropriately, then, it is the idea of an offense that forms a central repetition in the song: v. 4, “my offense”
v. 5, “my crimes”
v. 6, “my folly”
v. 19, “my crime”;
The opening verses are a plea, issuing out of an anguish that afflicts the singer’s entire being. He begs God to stay His “arrows” (v. 3), to abate the rage that is causing his suffering:
There is no whole place in my flesh through Your rage,
no soundness in my body through my offense. (v.40)
The similarity in structure and word (“through Your rage”; “through my offense”) make clear that, for the singer, his crime and God’s rage are correlative. Nonetheless, as he describes his afflictions, the singer accuses not God but himself; his own crimes alone the reason for his suffering. The nature of his offense is not given, but it is of such seriousness that his body, the bearer of his punishment, is also the prefigure of his atonement. His afflictions are listed –festering sores (v. 6); a bent and twisted spine (v. 7); burning innards (v. 8); churning heartbeat (v. 9)– indeed, ‘there is no whole place in [his] flesh” (v. 8), but it is the imagery he uses to depict those ailments that most powerfully and poignantly describes his state:
For my crimes have welled over my head,
like a heavy burden, too heavy for me. (v. 5)
The image is of submersion; his crimes rise up to engulf him. He is drowning.
The singer turns, in the section following –verses 10 to 15– to a much more abstract description of his state; turning, in effect, from his bodily ills to his spiritual being: he is without strength, without “the light of [his] eyes” (v. 11). He is abandoned by his friends and kinsmen. In fact they seek to increase his suffering, even to bring about his death (v. 13). Their “lies” and “deceit” (v. 13) contrast with the singer’s own openness and truthfulness. And though he admits his guilt to God, knowing that God hears his every sigh (v. 10), he closes himself off from his enemies –to them, he is like one both deaf and mute (v. 14)–
And I become like a man who does not hear
and has no rebuke in his mouth. (v. 15)
Shutting down his senses, he curbs his resentment, sparing his enemies his animosity and plotting no revenge.
Verses 16 to 21 are a summation of all the previous verses; he re-iterates his plea to God, but now he allows himself hope: “You will answer, O Master, my God” (v. 16). He accepts what awaits him; he stumbles with the “pain [that] is before [him] always”, seeing its cause clearly–
For my crime I shall tell,
I dread my offense. (v. 19)
His foes, “unprovoked”, multiply. Their vileness greater than his own, for they “pay back good with evil” (v. 21) — that he withheld revenge is to them of no value or, worse, a weakness to use for their own advantage– moreover, they revile him for “pursuing good” (v. 21).
The song closes with his cry to God to “stay” with him, to aid and to rescue him. Alone, isolated, suffering, his only haven is in God:
Do not forsake me, Adonai.
My God, do not stay far from me.(v. 22)
Hasten to my help,
O Master of my rescue. (v. 23)
The song begins with the Hebrew word “lehazkir” (להזכיר), meaning “to remind”. Yet the song is a confessional –the singer faces his crimes, perceives his bodily ills as their exposure and punishment, and pleads with God to save him. A reminder does not seem a necessary stipulation. It is only at the song’s completion that the meaning of the opening Hebrew verb clarifies: the song is akin to the prayers of Yom Kippur –it is the singer’s cry of confession, repentance, and hope that God, the Master, will grant him respite (Teshuva, Prayer and Charity).
The beginning and the close of both the first and second half of the song use three distinct names for God. Thus:
v. 2, “Adonai” with the connotation of mercy
v. 10, “Adonai” with the meaning of “Master”;
the second part uses all 3 names in each instance:
v. 16, “Adonai”, used two times, indicating both mercy and mastery, with the addition of “Elohi”, judgement;
and, similarly, v. 32, “Adonai”, mercy, is coupled with “Elohi”, judgement; v. 23 adds “Adonai”, mercy.
The resemblance to Yom Kippur prayer is unmistakable. The song is a supplication, a confession, a remembrance, an atonement.