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.
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.