Z is for Zeitgeist

Reaching the final post in this A to Z series requires a brief assessment of Psalm 51. Is it The Psalm of Psalms as we noted was suggested by some all the way back at the beginning of the journey? What has become clear is just how important this psalm was in the Middle-Ages. We have seen for example, how it could be brought to mind with the single word miserere by Dante in the fourteenth century and how the episode from the life of David mentioned in its heading established a way of reading this and the other penitential psalms through King David as the ideal penitent.

Despite the golden age of Psalm 51 some posts have drawn attention to how it has been less important in recent years and that interest in it, and the category of penitential psalms, has declined. Preparing for this project and researching the penitential psalms over two years, or so, has led me to consider the possibility that different psalms have come to the fore over more than two millennia. This is not to suggest that there has ever been a conscious effort to prioritise one psalm over the other 149. Rather, could it be the case that one psalm can at a given time prove to be an exemplar of the central way in which the Psalter is viewed. Perhaps such a notion is too contrived but nevertheless I’ve tried to capture this possibility in the figure below.

This series of posts provides evidence for the priority of Psalm 51 in the medieval period. Psalm 1 is thought by many scholars to have been written as a deliberate entrance into the Psalter. Its theme of meditation on torah, day and night, is a deliberate echo of the Law. Placing this psalm at the beginning of the book is provides a deliberate lens through which all the psalms are to be read [1,2]. Even if it was not specially composed for this task it was chosen to provide the same hermeneutical lens.

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the early church looked to the psalms with new glasses. Psalm 22 was a special psalm in connecting Jesus with the Psalter. Whilst we find verses from the psalms on Jesus’ lips many times and frequent allusions to their imagery, Psalm 22 is special because of the way Jesus owns it on the cross (Mark 15:34). Not only does he quote its opening, but his act is redolent with a rich theology of the cross and a way to read the psalms afresh. This interpretive approach began in the New Testament, and it reached its ultimate expression in Augustine’s massive project to preach on all the psalms and collect these homilies as a massive commentary. Augustine is famed for his Christus totus which reads the psalms as Jesus words. Sometimes they are Jesus speaking as the head of the church and on others as the body of Christ, the Church. Throughout his massive work on the psalms, time and again he turns to Psalm 22 as the point of departure for this re-reading of the Psalter.

Without negating this legacy, the Middle Ages provided a context in which the penitential psalms in general, and Psalm 51 in particular, became critically important. Whilst not wanting to caricature the medieval theology there was a growing anxiety on just how post-baptism sins could be forgiven, and Psalm 51 was central to all of the theological and doctrinal developments that arose from this.

It was the Reformation that sowed the seeds for the demise in importance of Psalm 51. Luther’s success in undermining Psalm 51’s role in Penance made it less central as it was read as one in which the immediacy of justification by faith could be found in penitence. Over time it would be Psalm 23 that would emerge as the psalm par excellence for the modern period. Its incredible plasticity makes it just as suitable for a wedding as a funeral. So, plastic is this psalm that it has defied labelling in the modern project of psalm categorisation. Without wanting to denigrate Psalm 23 I am left wondering whether its modern appeal lies with an age when pastoral therapy is more desirable than dealing with the fundamental curse of sin that Psalm 51 so readily tackles in the only way possible: a cry of Miserere mei, Deus.

References
1. M. J. Whiting, ‘Psalms 1 and 2 as a hermeneutical lens for reading the Psalter’, Evangelical Quarterly, 85, 246–262, 2013.
2. Cole, R. L., Psalms 1–2: Gateway to the Psalter, Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2013.

 

Y is for Yerushalayim

Despite Psalm 51’s focus on personal repentance, the city of peace, Yerushalayim features towards the psalm’s conclusion:

Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
then you will delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
Psalm 51:18–19, NRSV

This reference clearly identifies the psalm, at least in its final form, as a post-exilic work. Psalms with a theme of penitence are increasingly thought to have their origin in the post-exilic period. The seven penitential psalms all have a concerns beyond the penitent prayer’s context. This can be the psalmist’s enemies, the nations, the people of God and/or Zion.

Psalm 102 also refers to the City of Peace. In fact, it’s a central concern from verse 12 through to verse 22. Something I have noticed is that each of the penitential psalms can be read as prayer on behalf of the post-exilic people of God, rather than through a Davidic or personal lens. The legitimacy of such a interpretive lens will be something I will explore at some future point.

The reference to Zion in Psalm 51 brings back the theme of sacrifices mentioned in the preceding two verses:

For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:16–17, NRSV

At first sight the two references to sacrifice seem entirely contradictory and indeed are likely the result of editing. The claim that Yahweh would not delight in sacrifice (v.16) coheres with the penitential nature of Psalm 51 and its emphasis that God’s mercy can be sought if one is truly penitent, that is contrite (v.17). Perhaps the later editor, or even the original psalmist, whilst celebrating this remarkable truth acknowledges nevertheless that they still live in the midst of a religious cultus where ‘right sacrifices’ are formally required. Another aspect that heals the apparent rift between the two claims is that in vv.16-17 the concern is arguably a polar comparison between a mechanical sacrifice, and genuine contrition and petition. Under the Law the best outcome is still right sacrifice, i.e. a physical offering arising from heartfelt contrition.

The beauty of this psalm today is that in Christ we can call on God’s mercy, with the knowledge that through the cross we can reread this psalm and know the promise of his mercy through water, wine and bread.

X is for X-rated

Throughout this acrostic series we have celebrated how Psalm 51 has inspired great music (A is for Allegri), challenging sermons (J is for John Donne), uplifting commentary (E is for Eleanor Hull) and theological reflection (L is for Luther). Not everything that Psalm 51 has inspired has been so lofty and in tune with the cry Miserere mei, Deus. For example, the Books of Hours which were primers for lay piety had woodcuts showing the naked bathing Bathsheba with David looking onwards. In an age when this was the only mass media it seems likely that such imagery would have inflamed in some the very lust that prayer was meant to quell.

The same subject informed the Western art tradition and the naked Bathsheba provided a pious umbrella of religious propriety under which to practice voyeurism. Paintings by Rubens (c.1635), Rembrandt (1654) and Hayez (1845) are among the most famous of this very focused genre.

There is enormous irony that Psalm 51 might, albeit very indirectly, give rise to the voyeurism that was the downfall of its supposed author. Sadly, the story of Bathsheba from inception to the present bears the all too familiar hallmarks of patriarchy at its worst. The Bible has scant details about the nature of Bathsheba’s complicity in adultery. Little imagination is required to picture various scenarios that lie a long way from consensual sex, especially given the power of a king in a patriarchal culture.

This is of course speculation but what is clear is that over the centuries Bathsheba has been assumed to have invited David’s attention. Even the positive outcome of David’s penitence, contrition and compunction side lines Bathsheba as an object in the story. Too few have even paused to ask with genuine openness whether she was victim or co-sinner in the light of celebrating David as sinner turned penitent. There is of course little evidence to go on, but we would all do well to at least pause to remember that Bathsheba was a frail human being whose role as victim, sinner and penitent remain opaque.

W is for Wrath

The subject of God’s wrath is a challenging one at a number of levels. It connects with how we understand the atonement and the relationship between the two testaments to name just two. A starting point for any theological reflection and understanding of God’s wrath recognises that the Bible—in both testaments—speaks of God’s wrath, or anger, towards sin.

Two of the areas of the Bible where this theme is to the fore are Paul’s Letter to the Romans and the Book of Psalms. It is likely that whoever created the grouping of Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143 as the penitential psalms was very aware of this. The evidence of this is that these seven psalms each mention God’s wrath and/or feature in Paul’s discussion of the problem of sin in Romans, see Nasuti (1999).

Before we get to Psalm 51, we will present the explicit mentions of wrath in the other six penitential psalms. Psalm 6 and Psalm 38 both open in the same way, with this very concern:

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Psalm 6:1, NRSV

O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger,
or discipline me in your wrath.
Psalm 38:1, NRSV

Psalm 102 speaks of God’s anger too:

For I eat ashes like bread,
and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger;
for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
Psalm 102:9–10, NRSV

Other verses in the penitential psalms speak of God’s action against the psalmist which we might read as a consequence of anger:

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up[a] as by the heat of summer
Selah
Psalm 32:4, NRSV

Psalm 51 makes no direct mention of God’s anger or wrath, although if we read this psalm with a penitential lens, we can understand this lying behind the judgement that the psalmist seeks to avoid. Whether we read it with this lens, or in isolation, we see an expectation, a hope, even a celebration, that God’s mercy will eclipse God’s judgment. Psalm 51 challenges any argument that suggests a bipolar distinction between a wrathful God of the Old Testament and a Loving God of the New. Psalm 51 breaks any such simplistic notions. It points to the need of an understanding of God that resists such false dichotomies. This is not the time or place to explore the atonement or the relationship between the testaments in depth. We can, however, be grateful that both testaments testify to the truth of Psalm 51:

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:17, NRSV

 

Reference
Harry P. Nasuti, Defining the Sacred Songs: Genre, Tradition, and the Post-Critical Interpretation of the Psalms, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999, p.33.

V is for Victorian Opinion

Many of these posts have celebrated Psalm 51 as the Psalm of Psalms in the medieval period. Even as late as the Victorian period there were some commentators who weren’t shy of throwing a few superlatives at this psalm and its six companion penitential psalms. Here is Neale and Littledale’s take on the seven psalms:

the seven weapons wherewith to oppose the seven deadly sins: the seven prayers inspired by the sevenfold Spirit to the repenting sinner: the seven guardians for the seven days of the week: the seven companions for the seven Canonical Hours of the day. [Neale and Littledale, p.124]

The reference here to the seven deadly sins is another reason for the popularity of the penitential psalms and their chief, Psalm 51. In the Middle Ages the notion that there were seven serious—i.e. deadly—sins was a popular one. I am unsure when the association was first established but here’s the list of which psalms which can be said, according to Catholic tradition, to counter a specific sin:

• Psalm 6: Pride
• Psalm 32 [31]: Avarice
• Psalm 38 [37]: Anger
• Psalm 51 [50]: Lust
• Psalm 102 [101]: Gluttony
• Psalm 130 [129]: Envy
• Psalm 143 [142]: Sloth

I have included the Latin psalm numbers in parentheses as the seven deadly sins are most readily connected with the Roman tradition and psalm numbering. A comparison of the seven sins and the seven prayers reveals a less than convincing match. The exception being Psalm 51 and the sin of lust. In this case, in accordance with the heading, the context is very much a story of sin that began with David’s lust for the bathing Bathsheba.

Despite the lack of one-to-one correspondence between the seven psalms and the seven deadly sins, I suggest we would do well to have Psalm 51 to hand daily. This is a psalm that can help us avoid sin and the Psalm of Psalms for asking for God to forgive us in his bountiful mercy.

 

Reference
John Mason Neale and Richard Frederick Littledale, A Commentary on the Psalms: From Primitive and Mediaeval Writers, second edition, volume 1, London: Joseph Masters, 1869.

U is for Undervalued

As I have been researching the reception of Psalm 51 I have found that there is no contemporary treatment of this psalm and its companions, the other six penitential psalms. We saw in S is for the Sixties that, to my knowledge, the 1960s were the last decade in which accessible basic introductions to the penitential psalms were published. This points to a surprising undervaluing of Psalm 51 and the penitential psalms. A remarkable fall from grace given their centrality in the medieval period and beyond. Our final post, Z is for Zeitgeist, will close our journey with a reflection on how various ages have made different psalms their Psalm of Psalms.

I aim to make some amends for the present undervaluing of Psalm 51 and the penitentials—if I had a rock band this would be its name. Whilst this series of posts has gone some way to doing this I will go a step further with the publication of a booklet on the penitential psalms around the end of 2021. If you would like to receive news of this publication later this year, then please email me— m.j.whiting@icloud.com —and I will keep you updated on how you can get a copy of what will be a modestly priced publication.

A more medium-term project is a work celebrating Psalm 51 as The Psalm of Psalms in which I hope to build on this A to Z project.

T is for Tears

Despite the title, I have to confess there are no tears mentioned in Psalm 51. Despite this undeniable fact how many will have shed tears when praying this psalm? Is this not the frequent marker of true contrition and compunction?

I know from personal experience that this psalm can be accompanied by tears. If we read it as the head of the penitential psalms then it’s accompanied by tears, groans, and sighs:

I am weary with my moaning;
    every night I flood my bed with tears;
    I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eyes waste away because of grief;
    they grow weak because of all my foes.
Psalm 6:6–7, NRSV

Here we have arguably the most copious shedding of tears in all of the Bible. There’s even the indication that the plentiful tears are linked to a sight issue. Although we should note these psalms are often metaphorical with regard to the psalmist’s plight, the language would seem to imply these are the most literal of tears. The choice between literal or metaphorical elsewhere in the penitential psalms defies certainty, as here for example:

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
Psalm 32:3, NRSV

And similarly, here in this account of sighing and eyes:

O Lord, all my longing is known to you;
    my sighing is not hidden from you.
My heart throbs, my strength fails me;
    as for the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.
Psalm 38:9–10, NRSV

The mention of tears in Psalm 102 is less concerned with contrition than with general woe, or is the link with ashes a sign of penitence?

For I eat ashes like bread,
    and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger;
    for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
Psalm 102:9–10, NRSV

There is, I suggest, an openness that defies a singular interpretation. This is an aspect of God’s mercy, that these psalms though rooted in an ancient context, when prayed today our context, our situation in life, makes these words ours. So, let’s pray Psalm 51 frequently and when the situation is right let’s not hold back the tears. We live after all in a vale of tears awaiting that day when there will be no more need of tear ducts (Revelation 21:4). Tears can be words before God as they are a sacrament, a sign, of our response to the living God.

S is for the Sixties

We have seen time and again that Psalm 51 was The Psalm of Psalms in the medieval period. After the Reformation the importance of Psalm 51 and the other penitential psalms ever so gradually receded. There are many reasons for this, some of which we explored in the previous post.

Psalm 51 was part of the Books of Hours which were literal best sellers. Psalm 51 was central to the piety of the likes of Dante, Donne, Fisher, Hull, and Luther as we have seen. By the twentieth century interest in Psalm 51 as the chief of the penitential psalms had waned. As far as I am aware the 1960s, hence our heading, saw the last two popular books that introduce these psalms and their chief, Psalm 51, for personal devotion. These two books are:

L. J. Baggott, The Seven Penitential Psalms: a book of Lenten studies, London: A. R. Mowbray, 1963.

Norman Snaith, The Seven Psalms, London: Epworth, 1964.

Each one has something to say that helps our journey with Psalm 51. Firstly, Snaith introduces Psalm 51 in this way:

This psalm has been, for well over a thousand years, the most used of all psalms. It was repeated seven times a day, every day except at Christmas time and in Lent, and it marked the conclusion of hourly prayers. Luther uses this psalm to show that sin, a great and innate evil, can be dealt with only by being born again by faith in Christ. The contrast is born in sin, and born again in Christ. Godly men in all ages have written on this psalm, some of them to the extent of a thousand pages. In the Greek and the Vulgate—that is, in all Bibles used by Christians up to the Reformation this psalm was the fiftieth, as it still is in Roman Catholic Bibles: Vulgate Douay, and so forth. This gave commentators great scope, with references to the many fifties which occur in the Old Testament and in the New: the width of the Ark, the breadth of Ezekiel’s Temple, the freedom from service of the Levites after fifty years, the year of Jubilee. The extensive use of this psalm, and its aptness for our condition, has led to the very frequent use of certain couplets: ‘Create in me a clean heart . . .’ and ‘O Lord, open thou my lips . . .’, and so forth. [Snaith, p.47]

There seems to be little doubt that Snaith would be sympathetic to the claim that this is the Psalm of Psalms. However, he might be exaggerating regarding the ‘thousand pages’ claim. I have found no evidence of any treatment of this length. Baggott has a different, and it must be said more sobering, point of departure:

In European history this psalm has had a remarkable influence. When Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, who championed the cause of English liberty by winning Magna Charta from King John, passed to his rest, it was with this psalm upon his lips. When Savonarola’s power came to an end on Friday, April 7th, 1498, he turned to the Psalms for comfort. Two days later, on Palm Sunday, he was tortured so severely that the only bones in his body that were left unbroken was his right arm, in order that he might sign his so-called Confessions; but instead he wrote a meditation on this psalm, which Luther published in 1523. On July 6th, 1535, Sir Thomas More, ‘the Gentleman of the Reformation’ as he has been called, was executed on Tower Hill. Kneeling at the scaffold and repeating Psalm 51, which had always been his favourite prayer, he placed his head upon the low log that served as a block, and received the fatal stroke. So, too, was it the prayer of Lady Jane Grey, and the song of John Bunyan. And not of these alone, for this psalm has been the hope and comfort of countless believers who have found in its classic phrases an ideal expression of their own penitence and worship. In all ages the saints of the Church have come to this Hebrew psalm and found in it a peerless liturgy. [Baggott, p.44]

R is for Reclassifying

This series of posts is a celebration of Psalm 51. We have suggested that it was the Psalm of Psalms in the medieval period. This implies that somehow it lost its crown. This is indeed the case. So how was Psalm 51 eclipsed by other psalms after having a one millennia hegemony? We will consider three issues here, though there are others.

The first is the way that modern scholarship has treated the psalm headings which mention biographical episodes from the life of David. We have already seen in previous posts how Psalm 51 was read through a Davidic lens—whereby he is understood as both model sinner and model penitent. In modern scholarship there is virtual unanimity that the headings are late additions to earlier songs that were free of biographical allusions to King David. More recently, it has been argued that if the editors saw the headings as meaningful in their final establishing of the text then such readings are legitimate. Despite this more recent positive view of headings, one implication of the critical view is the marginalisation of a penitential interpretation.

Critical scholarship has also argued that Davidic authorship of the psalms is minimal, or even non-existent, and this has given priority to exploring psalms for evidence of an original setting in life. This leads to the proposal of hypothetical ways in which a psalm was used in the Temple cult or perhaps in a more local tribal setting. When this is done to the penitential psalm they belong to different groups and mixtures of groups. Psalm 51 is seen as a special type of lament with a penitential focus. Despite this interpretation being close to the traditional interpretation for this psalm, Psalm 51 is left bereft of its seven companions which are understood variously to be laments, contain wisdom elements, and in one case understood as a thanksgiving psalm. Such was the sustained critical efforts over two centuries that a penitential reading seemed to run counter to their hypothesised origin and nature.

The third issue is that in many parts of the Church modern sensibilities opened the psalms to criticism and increasingly some were not used in liturgy, or were edited for use in communal worship by omitting some verses. The penitential psalms have an underlying theology of God’s anger and wrath towards the psalmist. This cohered well with the Augustinian interpretive tradition through, and including, the main reformation theologies, but has been questioned in many quarters today.

The upshot of this is that other ways of reading the psalms have become more popular. One mistake with Psalms scholarship that has been repeated over the centuries is to prioritise one hermeneutical lens to the exclusion of others. The psalms are too rich to expect one interpretive lens to do them justice. The penitential lens is one among a number of approaches we need to read these 150 poems as Scripture. And in this sense Psalm 51 remains at least the penitential psalm par excellence even if this means it has lost its crown as Psalm of Psalms.

Q is for the Quality of Mercy

Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice has a speech about mercy, the central theme of our miserere, Psalm 51. It is delivered by Portia in Act 4 Scene 1 in a courtroom context. Portia is pleading, even begging, for Shylock’s mercy. It provides a rich meditation on the meaning of mercy and its relationship with justice. Such reflection is important in earthly affairs, but as is made clear in the speech it pertains closely to the mercy with which Psalm 51 is concerned—that is the unfathomable quality of mercy shown by the Creator to his creatures:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I