Psalm 32: The Second Penitential Psalm Today

This is the second of seven posts that aim to show how the Penitential Psalms—Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143—have been read by interpreters such as Augustine, Cassiodorus, Luther and Calvin. One reason for doing this is the conviction that we can learn from past interpretations as we compare them with modern readings. These posts will also allow interpreters to speak for themselves by means of some carefully chosen examples of their work. In this post the value of prosopological exegesis is the specific focus. This is a rather grand term for reading a psalm by mapping out the speaker and audience for the various sections of a psalm. The term prosopological is derived from the Greek prosopa meaning characters.

Cassiodorus (c.485–c.585) was fond of prosopological exegesis. In his commentary on all 150 psalms, he has a specific introductory section for each and every psalm that considers the speakers of the psalm. His answers invariably inform his subsequent verse by verse commentary. In the quotation from his Explanation of the Psalms below I have added modern versification in square brackets as well as a definition. This is how he reads Psalm 32:

In the first section of the psalm [vv.1–4] the penitent speaks, openly admitting his sin and declaring that the punishment served on him is deserved, for he thought that his baneful deeds should be kept hidden. In this section, both exordium [a Latin term in rhetoric for a formal introductory statement] and narration are included. In the second part [v.5] there is nothing but correction, for since he has condemned himself by his own admission he believes that the Lord must spare him. In the third part [vv.6–7] the psalmist praises the blessings of repentance, and maintains that even the saints in this world entreat the Lord. He attests that his refuge lies justly in Him, where the words of the penitent likewise find their goal. In the fourth part [vv.8–11] the Lord Christ replies to his words, and promises to invest with mercy those who hope in Him, so that none may believe that the purity of the suppliant is being disregarded through any indifference. These four sections are separated by diapsalms lying between them. Clearly we must take these sections one by one. [1]

The term diapsalms refers to the Hebrew word rendered Selah in the NRSV and many other modern English translations and their supposed place in marking out transitions within some psalms. Whilst the term is present at key breaks in some psalms, in Psalm 32 this function is more questionable. The position of the three occurrences of Selah has clearly influenced Cassiodorus’ breaks between what he terms parts one, two and three. To the modern interpreter the identification of Christ as the recipient of the words of vv.1–7, voiced by the psalmist as a prayer, and his words of reply in vv.8–11 might seem anachronistic. And, of course, this cannot have been the initial intention of the human author and editors—a yardstick central to modern approaches to the Old Testament. The possibility of Christ’s involvement in this psalm as hearer and speaker is even more alien when matters such as the situation in life and/or cultic use of the psalm are brought to the interpretive table. Yet, not only is this a dominant mode of pre-critical reading it is also elegant and self-consistent in the light of the Christology of the Great Tradition. The reader is strongly encouraged to pause and approach the psalm in this manner to experience this reading.

The issue of what we take to the Bible by way of presuppositions is a vexed question. Karl Barth expressed this matter colourfully and memorably in his remarkable essay The Strange New World within the Bible:

The Bible gives to every man and to every era such answers to their questions as they deserve. We shall always find in it as much as we seek and no more: high and divine content if it is high and divine content that we seek; transitory and “historical” content, if it is transitory and “historical” content that we seek—nothing whatever, if it is nothing whatever that we seek. The hungry are satisfied by it, and to the satisfied it is surfeiting before they have opened it. [2]

John Calvin (1509–1564), writing almost a millennium after Cassiodorus, identifies very different voices in Psalm 32. No longer is the speaker abstracted as the psalmist or the penitent, but King David emerges from the background to the fore. This is evident as Calvin introduces his exegesis of Psalm 32:

David having largely and painfully experienced what a miserable thing it is to feel God’s hand heavy on account of sin, exclaims that the highest and best part of the happy life consists in this, that God forgives a man’s guilt, and receives him graciously into his favor. After giving thanks for pardon obtained, he invites others to fellowship with him in his happiness, showing, by his own example, the means by which this may be obtained. [3]

Throughout Calvin’s subsequent verse by verse commentary David is the speaker of the whole psalm. He is referred to by name repeatedly as well as being given the epithet of prophet. This is true of the second half (vv.8–11)—whereas Cassiodorus identifies the speaker as Christ, for Calvin the instruction found in these latter verses is from David as he addresses the faithful.

Other notable commentators on this psalm lack the focus on who is speaking. This is the case with Augustine (354–430) who does not mention David by name other than when explaining the psalm’s Davidic title. Throughout Augustine’s account the author of the psalm is the psalmist. This is of course not to say that Augustine would not have identified David as the psalmist, but rather the person of David is not central in his exegesis. Closer to Calvin’s time, John Fisher (1469–1535) also pays little attention to prosopological exegesis. He does allude on occasion to David as the author via his designation of him as the prophet. His concern, however, is that this psalm teaches doctrine and obedience to it, in particular the practice of penance. For example he argues that:

This psalm is fittingly and not unworthily called a penitential psalm, because penance is here so carefully treated and spoken of. First, the prophet praises those whose sis are utterly removed by penance, and, on the other side, he shows the wretchedness of those who forsake penance. He also shows the reason for and the manner of contrition, confession, and satisfaction, which are the three parts of penance. First, he praises greatly the virtue of contrition, especially where these is a full purpose of confession. He also teaches the necessity of contrition and shows the impediments to it, with the proper remedies. Next, he comforts and lifts up those who are weak in soul. He calls to those who are out of the right way for coming into bliss and in a manner threatens them. He promises damnation to those who refuse penance; to those who do penance, forgiveness; to those who go forward and profit in it, joy; and lastly, he promises eternal glory to those who are perfect. This holy prophet goes briefly into all of these points in the order we have just declared to you. [4]

Should we be concerned with the rival voices behind this psalm? For some interpreters this is a key to their exegesis and for others such concerns are peripheral. Does it matter whether we read parts of Psalm 32 as voiced by an anonymous penitent to Christ or a confession from the very lips of David? Does it make a difference whether the latter verses are spoken by Christ or they are a prayer of King David to the faithful of his day? Is it appropriate to read later events into the psalm, such as knowledge of the person of Christ or the penitential practices that evolved in the medieval period? Before attempting to answer these questions we will consider a modern view of the voices that lie behind this psalm.

Susan Gillingham [5] focuses largely on the audience for each of four sections as she suggests the following:

vv.1–2 Instruction in the third person to the community
vv.3–7 God addressed in light of vv.1–2
vv.8–9 God speaks to the psalmist
vv.10–11 The community addressed again (third then second person)

No doubt the reader of this post will already have found which interpreter/s they most warm to, and which seem more distant. We all have a complex array of presuppositions we bring to the text as Barth reminded us above. Listening to diverse interpreters can enable us to see and test our presuppositions. Gillingham [6] argues, by building on the work of H. J. Levine, that there is something positively transformative about recognising that the psalms are at their very heart performative. The identification of speakers and audiences for the various parts of a psalm can enable this performative dynamic in individual and corporate worship. The Psalms transformative potential is perhaps at its most profound when confession is part of the nature of a psalm. This is arguably one of the reasons behind the generative success of the Penitential Psalms.

If we embrace this transformative potential then the prosopological approach is, I think, incredibly valuable. A conscious process of perceiving which words are ours and which are spoken to us can open familiar psalms with a valuable freshness and vitality. It is a secondary matter as to how we fit David, an anonymous author, editors, or even Christ’s voice into such readings. In recognising the performative nature of Psalm 32, we will find ourselves before the God of David who is the God of Lord Jesus Christ, confessing our blessings before a merciful God. As we proceed we will not only remember our blessings but examine how much of the untamed mule lies within. Such instruction is not dusty legalism this is life-giving dialogue of creature with Creator.

Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit. (Psalm 32:1–2, NRSV)

In light of such blessing let us not keep silent.

References

  1. Cassiodorus, Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms, Volume 1, P. G. Walsh (translator) (Paulist Press, 1990) p.305.
  2. Karl Barth, ‘The Strange New World within the Bible’, in The Word of God and the Word of Man, edited and translated by Douglas Horton (Pilgrim Press, 1928) p.32.
  3. John Calvin, Psalms 1–35, James Anderson (Translator) (Calvin Translation Society, 1845) p.391.
  4. John Fisher, Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms, Anne Barbeau Gardiner (translator) (Ignatius Press, 1998), p.25.
  5. Susan Gillingham, The Psalms Through the Centuries, Volume 2: Psalms 1–72 (Wiley, 2018) pp.195–196.
  6. Susan Gillingham, The Psalms Through the Centuries, Volume 2: Psalms 1–72 (Wiley, 2018) p.196.

Author: PsalterMark

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

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