In the previous post—J is for John Donne—we met his sermon on Psalm 51:7. Throughout this sermon Donne time-and-again reflects on King David as the model penitent. In a very real sense David leads the way for us all. Just as we fail, like him, so we too can receive God’s mercy like David as in Psalm 51.
For centuries, since at least the time of Augustine (354–430) interpreters assumed that the title of Psalm 51 and its references to David, Bathsheba and Nathan were the key interpretive lens through which it should be read. As biblical criticism grew from around the time of Donne onwards it become normal to question every accepted practice of interpretation. It soon became a norm to see the psalm titles with biographical allusions to the life of David as late, and therefore inappropriate as hermeneutical lenses.
Such logic has itself been questioned more recently. It is now more normal to understand these titles as late but to accept them as a possible hermeneutical lens because this was the intent of the editors who added them.
Susan Gillingham’s contribution to Psalms scholarship was recognised in an earlier post. She goes a step further and argues that there are features of Psalm 51 that intentionally further the link between Psalm 51 and 2 Samuel 12 (Gillingham, 2018). The table below shows verses from 2 Samuel which are echoed in Psalm 51 according to Susan Gillingham.
Linked verses from 2 Samuel 12
Psalm 51 verse
|He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me, and the child may live.’
|Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
|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.
|Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
|Then Nathan went to his house. The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill. David therefore pleaded with God for the child; David fasted, and went in and lay all night on the ground. The elders of his house stood beside him, urging him to rise from the ground; but he would not, nor did he eat food with them.
|The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Such intertextuality is difficult to appreciate with neutrality. The web of intertextual connections in the reception of Psalm 51 is not controversial. We have already seen it furthered by Gregorio Allegri, Alighieri Dante, Eleanor Hull, John Fisher, Leonard Cohen and John Donne. There’s plenty more to come, including a magisterial figure in our next post.
Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries Volume 2: A Reception History Commentary on Psalms 1 – 72, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2018, p.304.