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.