Psalm 51: Miserere mei, Deus

For various reasons I have been reflecting on the penitential psalms for much of 2020. If this is a response in any way to Covid-19 then it has been an unconscious one. The grouping of Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143 together dates to before the time of Cassiodorus (487–585). Some attribute the group to Augustine (354–430) but Cassiodorus’ Expositio Psalmorum, or Exposition of the Psalms, is the earliest extant work that clearly identifies each of these seven as a closed group of psalms. The identification of seven such psalms is somewhat puzzling. There are other psalms, for example Psalm 25, that seem to fit well with the others due to its penitential concern. A convincing case can even be made that Psalm 25 is ‘more penitential’ than some of the seven. Some have argued that the link is God’s wrath, noting that all of them either (i) mention God’s anger, or (ii) are cited, or referred to, in the early chapters of Paul’s Letter to the Romans [1].

Whatever the original thinking behind their grouping they have been bound together in liturgy, sung worship, devotional commentary, and theological dispute ever since the sixth century. They can also be seen to display a certain symmetry befitting their sevenfold nature. The symmetry I refer to draws attention to the central psalm, Psalm 51. Either side of Psalm 51 the opening words of four of the psalms reveal two pairs. Psalms 6 and 38 both open with a similar address, generally made identical in their Latin liturgical titles as Domine, ne in furore tuo. In a similar way Psalms 102 and 143 have identical openings in Latin: Domine, exaudi.

Domine, ne in furore tuo unites Psalms 6 and 38 as the psalmist petitions God that he will not rebuke, despite his anger. In the penitential framework, implicit in the identifying of this psalm group, this anger is assumed to be the result of the psalmist’s sin. The opening of Psalms 102 and 143, in a similar vein, is a plea that God will hear and answer the fearful lamenting psalmist. Psalm 51 at the centre of the group, even without the framing provided by this symmetry, is the penitential psalm par excellence. Many commenters have gone further, seeing it as the psalms of psalms [2]. What makes Psalm 51 so special?

This psalm is one of the thirteen psalms that contains a biographic comment about the life of David. Though critical scholars make a strong case that such headings are late additions to the psalms, they have played an important role in Christian interpretation of the psalms. This is especially the case with Psalm 51 because it relates one of the most, if not the most, pivotal moment in David’s life. It condenses the terrible events of 2 Samuel 11 into a few words:

To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. (Psalm 51 heading, NRSV)

David’s adultery with Bathsheba might well have amounted to rape. Even without this possible dynamic, with the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, we see David commit two conjoined sins. It is not just the depth of the iniquity of one so beloved of God that is notable here. It is the remarkable gracious forgiveness of the living God that transforms this psalm into something truly special:

David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. (2 Samuel 12:13, NRSV)

Here in the heart of the First Testament we see grace at work. Psalm 51 and 2 Samuel 12:13 both highlight the acute generosity of God. The wider narrative of 2 Samuel 12 does, however, reveal complications in that Nathan has to tease the truth from David, and despite God’s gracious forgiveness, sin still has its unpleasant consequences.

This biographical heading and the narrative in 2 Samuel enable a penitential theology that sees David as a model penitent. In this way, the penitential nature of these psalms means that their words have been understood on the lips of Christ as he prays as his body, the Church. Both their use in confession and in a rich Augustinian tradition have made the penitentials, and especially Psalm 51, the inspiration for some remarkable music in a variety of traditions. The four examples mentioned below are as varied as the theological, doctrinal, and pastoral aspects of this psalm, known simply as the Miserere. The collision of sin, penitence, forgiveness, and grace defies any singular mood.

In terms of the Latin choral tradition Gregorio Allegri’s (c. 1582–1652) Miserere is perhaps the most well know. There is story that the detailed score for the various choral parts of this music was kept secret so that it could only be used in the Sistene Chapel. This was the case until one day a fourteen-year-old, by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, witnessed a performance and then subsequently wrote down the score from memory.

Howard Goodall’s recent Have mercy on me – miserere mei stands in the same tradition of use of the Latin text. Unlike Allegri’s work the vocals are supported by musical instruments. But like Allegri, it uses the beauty of music to invite reflection on the superabundant forgiveness and mercy found in Psalm 51.

The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in his Miserere does something very different. His lengthy work from 1992 takes each word of the Latin text one at a time in its opening minutes. As each word is sung it is answered by a bassoon. This reveals the penitent petitioning God for mercy with disturbing slowness. Perhaps they are struggling with fear of God? Maybe they simply need to show the solemnity of their petition? As the work unfolds it provides a journey to the day of judgement and beyond.

We conclude with this post with mention of arguably the wildest interpretation of Psalm 51: Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. The dependence here is of course more of a riff and there’s no hint of Latin. Psalm 51 awakens in me the immense gratitude and solace that despite my sin, in Christ, I can say with Cohen’s David:

And even though it all went wrong.
I’ll stand before the lord of song.
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.

 

References

    1. Harry P. Nasuti, Defining the Sacred Songs: Genre, Tradition, and the Post-Critical Interpretation of the Psalms, Sheffield Academic Press, 1999, p.33.
    2. Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries: A Reception History Commentary on Psalms 1–72, John Wiley & Sons, 2018, pp.304–316.

Zechariah 7—A Rebuke in a Time of Uncertainty

Zechariah Season 2
It is the fourth year of King Darius. Two years ago, the prophet Zechariah delivered a series of prophecies of hope and encouragement. These were wonderful messages for a time of great uncertainty for the returning exiles. That First Season of Zechariah’s prophecies was binge-read and binge-heard by the returned exiles as they struggled to return to a new normal. They were working hard to rebuild the temple and restore economic prosperity. So popular was Season One that it was preserved for all generations of God’s people. Season Two, which starts here in Chapter 7, was also preserved for us.

Two years on, the hard slog of temple building, and the difficulties of post-exilic life seem the same. Although the temple is nearing completion, everyday life seems as hard as ever. The first prophecies of Zechariah have been an encouragement. It has become increasingly clear, however, that these words speak of a distant future hope.

So what new words will Zechariah bring now after a two-year hiatus?
Zechariah’s new words are prompted by Sharezer and Regem-Melek, and some others, arriving from Bethel, a 10 mile, or so, walk to the north. They ask a question about whether they need to keep to a regular annual fast that laments the exile and the loss of the temple. They are asking a question raised by Zechariah’s First Season of prophecies: “Is the exile over?”.

Rather than getting a yes or a no from the prophet they get essentially a rebuke. Prophets inspired by God don’t go in for simple yes-and-no answers. They have a tendency to challenge and question. And this is very much the case here. As we hear the answer and rebuke we would do well to receive as a community, not as an individual.

Fasting and Feasting
Rather than address the question, Zechariah questions the spiritual sincerity of these people from Bethel and the wider community—although at the end of chapter 8 he does return to the matter of fasting and indeed unpacks an exciting answer of “yes” to their question.

According to Chapter 7 this is not even Zechariah’s rebuke. Rather, Zechariah is instructed to question them by God. He asks if their 70-year routine of fasting was really an act for God. The fasting in question here would be reflective and would have focused on repentance. There was a need to avoid being like the people of old who gave rise to the judgement of exile.

Zechariah’s challenging rebuke can be generalised to all people of God. When do our spiritual practices become an empty routine? More positively, when are they genuine expressions of devotion or repentance?

Zechariah doesn’t just challenge them with regard to fasting and genuine repentance. He goes on to extend his rebuke to feasting too. There were a number of prescribed festivals in the Law, in addition to the number of annual fasts we learn about here—there are four fasts mentioned later in this prophecy. Zechariah pulls no punches. He is questioning the sincerity of both their fasting and their celebrations. Nearly every month of the calendar there was a feast or a fast. The fundamental underlying question is: “Are you any better than the people who gave God cause to leave the Temple and scatter the people in exile?”.

Are the people of Bethel, and by extension the people of Jerusalem, walking with God? Are they living by faith and not by sight? Or to take this seriously as a divine Word are we, in our time of uncertainty, walking with God? Are we living by faith and not by sight?

Following and Serving
Such questions are sobering. Is our daily practice of praise, thanksgiving, praying, and Bible reading a healthy genuine expression of our love for Jesus Christ? Are we following Jesus daily? Or are we paying lip service to what should be a living relationship?

Do we make every effort to get the best from fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ? Are we expectant when we gather virtually. Do we pray for others, including those that lead? Are we just hunkering down and resigned to spiritual mediocrity and passivity? Or are we living as Christ’s body to support and nurture one another? Dare we imagine sharing our faith at this time?

The men sent by the people of Bethel probably did not welcome challenging questions anymore than we do. Did they shrug off the challenge, or see the Word of God behind the prophet’s words? Are we willing to be open to discerning whether Zechariah’s words are a rebuke for us too?

At the end of the day, God was not worried about the events calendar back in Bethel or the religious programme in Jerusalem. He’s not interested in the specifics of our calendars either. How the people of Bethel organise the details of fasting, feasting, and fellowship is no more the point than the details of time, frequency, and name of our church events and groups.

The important matter is whether the life of faith we share with one another brings us closer to God and bears fruit. The measure is not the website or church bulletin. Zechariah, and our God who inspired him, ask other questions of us.

Specifically, these questions include: Are we a people concerned with justice? Are we able and willing to extend the mercy we have known to others? Do we have compassion for those who suffer hardship because of their faith or the cruel events that scar this world? Can we meet the needs of the marginalised?

Word and Spirit
Our current time of uncertainty might seem like a hindrance. But this is the season that God has given us.

We can hunker down. We can complain about zoom. We can lament how much easier it was when masks and social distance didn’t encumber us. But in the time that God gives us now, the gospel of Jesus Christ would have us do better. We still have his Word and his Spirit. And compared to many others we have more material blessings.

We can lean on the one who we praise, thank, pray to and listen to. We can live by faith, not by sight, here and now. We can be a blessing to others now. In all this we are reliant on the living God through Christ. As Zechariah has already explained God works “Not by might nor by power, but by his Spirit.”