Psalm 6: The First Penitential Psalm Today

This post will provide some examples of penitential commentary on Psalm 6 from the likes of Augustine, Cassiodorus, Denis the Carthusian, Luther and Calvin. In this way it introduces the reader to ancient readings and a facet of psalm interpretation which is unpopular today but was once immensely generative in doctrine, personal piety, Lenten practice, literature, and music. It also initiates an exploration of why such penitential readings of Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143 slowly waned in modernity. [1]

The first of the group of psalms designated the Penitential Psalms, Psalm 6, poses two acute challenges to the interpreter. Firstly, it is very short and so provides rather limited contextual information. Secondly, much of the content is open ended as to where it fits on the spectrum from literal to figurative. Augustine (354–430), who is thought by some to have established the grouping of the seven psalms, is quick to connect God’s wrath in v.1 with the psalmist’s sin which is not directly mentioned in the psalm. Having done this, he interprets the psalm as referring to what might be termed soul sickness thus conflating the reference to ailments in the bones (v.2) with that concerning the disturbed soul (v.3):

Accordingly the next verse, and my soul is greatly perturbed, makes it clear that the language of bones does not refer to the bones of the body. And you, Lord, how long? Here, obviously, is a soul wrestling with its own diseases, but long untreated by the doctor, in order that it may be convinced how great are the evils into which it has launched itself by sinning. [2]

Later interpreters might object to this singular focus on the soul on a number of grounds not least due to the potential for an anachronistic importing of Greek notions of the soul into the Hebrew text. This important matter will not delay us here but will be considered in a later post when we turn to another of the Penitential Psalms.

Like Augustine, Cassiodorus (c.485–c.585) sees the psalm as both penitential and concerned with spiritual sickness. Augustine and Cassiodorus both find support within the psalm for a penitential reading from the psalm’s superscription or heading. Issues regarding the Greek and Latin translation of the heading gave rise to a long tradition of what now seem very fanciful interpretations of this and many psalm headings. Here is the NRSV’s rendering of Psalm 6’s heading compared to that in the Latin Vulgate and its translation in Denis the Carthusian’s late medieval Commentary [3]:

To the leader: with stringed instruments; according to The Sheminith. A Psalm of David.

In finem, in carminibus. Psalmus David. Pro octava.
Latin text from Denis the Carthusian

Unto the end, in verses, a Psalm for David, for the octave.
English translation of the Latin

Like many other ancient and medieval interpreters Augustine, Cassiodorus and Denis each make much of ‘the end; and the ‘octave’ to refer to the Day of the Lord and other eschatological motifs concerning judgement. For example, Augustine and then Cassiodorus argue that:

. . ., it is possible to understand the day of judgement as the eighth day, because immediately after the end of this age, once eternal life has been gained, the souls of the righteous will not be subject to the ebb and flow of time. Perhaps because all time revolves around a seven-day cycle, the time which will be subject to none of that changeableness has been called the eighth day. [4]

For the octave denotes the Lord’s coming when the seven days of this age are at an end, and He comes to judge the world . . . That is why the penitent now introduced before us earnestly supplicates in the ordered divisions of his prayer that he may not be convicted for his deeds on the day of judgement. [5]

Cassiodorus is the first extent source to present the traditional seven penitential psalms as a group. He was also a keen advocate as to their ongoing value:

Though we should apply our eager intelligence to all the psalms, since the greatest resources for living are sought from them, yet we ought to pay particular attention to the psalms of the penitents, for they are like suitable medicine prescribed for the human race. [6]

Such exhortations about the value of the Penitential Psalms were taken very seriously by the medieval church. It is difficult to capture the magnitude of the importance that these seven psalms had for over a millennium. A snapshot of this rich reception can be found in a forthcoming Grove Booklet written by me and comprehensive assessment of their medieval ubiquity in a much larger study centred on Psalm 51 by Clare Costley King’oo [7]. By the thirteenth century King David was central to readings of Psalm 6, and the other six Penitential Psalms. Arguably the most famous example is Dame Eleanor Hull’s Middle English c.1420 translation of an earlier French text (probably mid or late thirteenth century) on the seven Penitential Psalms [8]. By this time David was understood as the model penitent [9]. His adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah are alluded to in the heading of Psalm 51—the fourth of the seven Penitential Psalms—and this psalm was understood as David’s contrite words spoken to the prophet Nathan. All seven Penitential Psalms were read from this perspective facilitated by their being collecting together in Books of Hours and other devotional works on the seven like those of Dame Eleanor Hull. In short King David became the model penitent whose contrition and compunction all faithful Christians should aspire to follow. For example, we read in Hull’s commentary on Psalm 6 about the contemporary sinner:

. . . thinking and saying to himself, ‘I am young and hale and flourishing in my youth and prosperity in this world is mine. And God is meek and merciful and will mend me as he has done on previous occasions.’ I say to you truly that this man lies in his bed. But he rises not with his tears as David did every night. You should understand that such nights betoken deadly sin. For just as a man by night goes stumbling and knows not what he should hold onto but by some light coming upon him from the moon or some star, just so the reason of man goes stumbling into the pit of delight of the night of his sin wherein he lies asleep, lest the light of grace from above shows him the way of great repentance, as she had done to David who washes his bed with his tears every night, . . . [10]

By the time of Denis the Carthusian (1402–1471), at the other end of the medieval period, the sacrament of penance had taken on great importance in church doctrine and practice. This sacramental practice is very much in evidence in Denis’ interpretation of Psalm 6 where he devotes a lot of space to the relationship between the necessity of internal contrition and the outward penitential actions of the penitent:

I have laboured in my groanings: that is, I am interiorly contrite of my sins, although I do not omit the exterior acts of penance and the works of satisfaction, but weeping, abstaining, persisting in holy vigils I prostrate myself . . . [11]

. . . Also, this which is said—I laboured in my groanings—can be understood here to refer to the interior effort, for indeed the interior effort exceeds the exterior effort, just as the interior pain exceeds the exterior pain . . . [12]

because the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping, that is, the interior affection, from which the voice and tears spring forth, and on account of which they declare themselves to be heard. For not clamor, but love, not the tears of the eyes, but contrition of the heart penetrates the heavens and enter into the ears of God. [13]

The English Bishop and Cardinal, John Fisher (1469–1535) had similar concerns and focused on responding to the psalm as consequential for the age to come:

There are three different ways almighty God deals with sinners, according to the three different kinds of them. There are some sinners who continue in their wretchedness till they die, and those almighty God punishes in hell’s eternal pains, whose ministers are the devils. There are other sinners who have begun to be penitent before their death and to amend their lives, and these almighty God punishes in the pains of purgatory, which have an end and whose ministers are angels. Thirdly, there are still other sinners who, by grace in their life, have so punished themselves by penance for their offences that they have made sufficient repayment for them. And these almighty God accepts in his infinite mercy. [14]

Both Denis and Fisher read the psalm penitentially in dialogue with late medieval sacramental praxis and doctrinal development. Luther (1483–1546) is also concerned about the fate of sinners. He tends to speak, however, less abstractly and mechanically, and more personally than either Denis or Fisher:

God’s strength and consolation are given to no one unless he asks for it from the bottom of his heart. But no one who has not been profoundly terrified and forsaken prays profoundly. He does not know what ails him, and he remains secure in the strength and consolation of another, his own or that of creatures. In order, therefore, that God might dispense His strength and consolation and communicate it to us, He withdraws all other consolation and makes the soul deeply sorrowful, crying and longing for His comfort. Thus all God’s chastisements are graciously designed to be a blessed comfort, although through weak and despairing hearts the foolish hinder and distort the design aimed at them, because they do not know that God hides and imparts His goodness and mercy under wrath and chastisement. [15]

Calvin (1509–1564) writing a few years later than Luther commentates in a very different style. His approach seems much more like a modern commentary as he seeks a clear methodology to interpret the text in context before applying it. He still, however, sees the context as the life of David like many pre-critical interpreters. In the end his conclusions are often close to Augustine with who we began this journey:

David, being afflicted by the hand of God, acknowledges that he had provoked the Divine wrath by his sins, and therefore, in order to obtain relief, he prays for forgiveness. . . What the kind of chastisement was of which he speaks is uncertain. Those who restrict it to bodily disease do not adduce in support of their opinion any argument of sufficient weight. [16]

Contemporary academic interpreters tend to avoid David as the subject of the psalms and look to the content of the psalm itself to provide context. [17] In this way Goldingay, for example, argues that the psalm is not penitential but that the psalmist experiences God’s wrath in a manner akin to Job’s experience. For Goldingay the psalmist is not struggling with sin and God’s righteous punishment but is in the thick of lament in part because of the puzzle of why they are so afflicted by God. In closing his consideration of Psalm 6 he reflects on the whole:

All this can be brought to God without expressing either a correlative awareness of sin that needs confessing or a conviction about personal commitment that makes it possible to make a statement that trouble is undeserved. [18]

In a similar way Charry explains Psalm 6’s context by noting that:

In Christian tradition, it is also often read as the first of the Psalter’s seven penitential psalms, yet no confession of sin and no plea for forgiveness are offered. Nothing indicates that the speaker understands his adversity to be punishment for sin, only that it has apparently been going on for some time. The speaker cries for healing, not forgiveness. [19]

In appropriating Psalm 6 today, as functional Scripture, do we really have to choose between what was for a long time a dominant penitential reading and the modern rediscovery of biblical lament? I don’t think so. Whilst there are issues with some aspects of pre-critical interpretation both ancient and modern readings can cohere with the language of this psalm and inform our prayer. Intertextuality might be a dangerous tool in scientific exegesis but surely in a living textual faith there are interpretive connections and riches which legitimise using the words of this psalm as the basis for calling on God as a suffering sinner and/or struggling supplicant. A case can surely be made that a penitential prayer is just one specific subset of the complex lament that is central to the life of faith. These possibilities will be explored further when we turn to some of the other Penitential Psalms in future posts in 2022.

Many people of faith will at some point in the life of faith own the words of this psalm. As the Sidney Psalter expresses the opening verses we too might cry for a variety of reasons:

Lord, let not me, a worm, by thee be shent
While thou art in the heart of thy displeasure:
Ne let thy rage, of my due punishment
Become the measure. [20]

References

  1. Verse numbers here follow that found in the majority of English translation, for example, the NIV and NRSV. Many of the sources cited here use verse numbering that follows the Latin and Greek texts.
  2. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, volume 1, Maria Boulding (translator), John E. Rotelle (ed.) (New City Press, 2000), p.106. In all quotations in this post the psalm text is shown in bold and italics but otherwise identical with the original source.
  3. Denis the Carthusian, Commentary on the Davidic Psalms, Volume 1, Andrew M. Greenwell (translator) (Arouca Press: 2000) p.113.
  4. Augustine, Expositions, p.104.
  5. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms, Volume 1, P. G. Walsh (translator) (Paulist Press, 1990), pp.89–90.
  6. Cassiodorus, Explanation, p.98.
  7. Mark J. Whiting, The Penitential Psalms Today: A Journey with Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143, Grove Books, forthcoming 2022 and Clare Costley King’oo, Misere Mei: The Penitential Psalms in Late Medieval and Early Modern England (University of Notre Dame Press, 2012).
  8. Alexandra Barratt (editor), The Seven Psalms: A Commentary on the Penitential Psalms Translated from French into English by Dame Eleanor Hull (Oxford University Press, 1995).
  9. Michael P. Kuczynski, Prophetic Song: The Psalms as Moral Discourse in Late Medieval England, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), pp.81–119 and passim.
  10. Barratt, The Seven, p.16. My inexpert translation of the Middle English and one Latin phrase.
  11. Denis, Volume 1, p.117.
  12. Denis, Volume 1, pp.117–118.
  13. Denis, Volume 1, p.120.
  14. John Fisher, Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms, Anne Barbeau Gardiner (translator) (Ignatius Press, 1998), pp.9–10.
  15. Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works, Vol. 14: Selected Psalms III (Luther’s Works (Concordia)) (Kindle Locations 2613-2619). Concordia Publishing House. Kindle Edition.
  16. John Calvin, Psalms 1–35, James Anderson (Translator) (Calvin Translation Society, 1845) p.65.
  17. This is something of an oversimplification given the vexed question in the last two hundred years as to what the context of psalm is, with David’s life, temple cult, canonical context, being just some of the options.
  18. John Goldingay, Psalms Volume 1: Psalms 1–41 (Baker Academic, 2006), p.141.
  19. Ellen T. Charry, Psalms 1–50 (Brazos Press, 2015), p.27.
  20. Hannibal Hamlin et al. (editors), The Sidney Psalter: The Psalms of Sir Philip and Mary Sidney, (Oxford University Press, 2009), p.17.

Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

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