Psalm 51 is one of seven psalms that have been grouped together and known as the penitential psalms since the sixth century. These seven psalms frequently touch on what today is often judged to be an unsavoury and unwelcome idea—the notion that God not only exhibits anger but shows his divine displeasure as wrath. In verse 8 of Psalm 51 we read:
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Psalm 51:8, NRSV
The psalmist either has experienced, or they think they have experienced, God’s hand against them. The wider context of the psalm, in which they are asking for forgiveness, suggests a causal link between sin and wrath. This post is not going to unravel this knotty theological issue, although other posts in this A-to-Z will return to this subject. For the moment we are going to explore one thread of this matter—a concern crystallised in the very bones of the psalmist.
Three of the other penitential psalms also mention the psalmist’s bones. In the first penitential psalm we read:
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
Psalm 6:2, NRSV
In this psalm the shaking bones are part of a wider range of symptoms. It is unclear, however, just what ailment the psalmist is experiencing. There is here, and elsewhere, in the Psalter an ambiguity as to whether the ailments are literal or metaphorical. It is possible that this contributed to the preservation of such psalm as they are so readily appropriated by others. Whether this ambiguity aided its preservation, or not, it is undoubtedly an asset to have a readily re-readable prayer as part of a Prayerbook. The previous verse of Psalm 6 indicates that the cause of bones shaking with terror could be fear of God’s anger. Such a possibility is even more clearly found in Psalm 38, the third of the penitential psalms:
There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones because of my sin.
Psalm 38:3, NRSV
The fifth penitential psalm also makes mention of the psalmist’s bones. Here they are burning like a furnace:
For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
Psalm 102:3, NRSV
What we make of this depends on a decision as to how we read this psalm. If we see it as a penitential psalm, then like in the other cases we can see this as being the result of sin, or at least understood in this way by the poet. If we read the psalm on its own terms we could come to several alternative conclusions: extreme loneliness, illness, oppression by the community, depression. Each, perhaps all of these, could each account for the psalm’s content. Such categories are arguably anachronistic given the two and half millennia between the psalmist and us.
Such orthopaedic prayer language is far from the beauty of Allegri and yet, make no bones about it, it is likely to have touched even more lives than the Italian priest’s glorious composition. One wonders how many people have found strength in bringing their assorted troubles to God in these prayers.