P is for Penance and Penitence

We saw in our previous post, O is for Original Sin, that Psalm 51 is closely connected with this doctrine. In this post we find that our psalm is also intricately connected with the medieval doctrine of penance which became a formal sacramental act in the medieval period. This is a complex story and all we can hope to do is point out how Psalm 51, once again, seems to lie at the heart of matters. It is its place as the chief of the penitential psalms that is a key element of the story.

Central to early Christianity is the belief that Jesus Christ, through his crucifixion and resurrection, made a decisive end to sin. Christianity has continually both celebrated this good news and sometimes been perplexed about how this works out here and now. This is, in part, because the New Testament teaches that baptism makes an end to our sin, as we are united with Christ in both death and resurrection (see, for example, Romans 6:1–11). This is seen visually in the going down into the water, with its association with death, and of the arising from the baptismal waters of the newly cleansed baptised person to a new life. Over the centuries different responses have emerged to dealing with post-baptismal sin.

At its simplest, in the early centuries, there was an expectation of public confession during worship. Later this evolved into confession to a priest instead of gathered worshippers. Later still, as theologians continued to reflect, questions emerged over the efficacy of confession alone. Such questions became acute as purgatory emerged as a part of the anticipated afterlife. Arguably, the doctrine of purgatory was part of the same ongoing questioning and reflection.

Over time, confession became part of a bigger process, the sacrament of penance. Central to this sacrament is that a priest grants absolution of sins to the penitent and following this will allocate acts that are to be performed. These acts are a sign of the mercy and forgiveness which is the heart of the sacrament. This medieval Roman Catholic sacrament has evolved in very different ways in churches today. In some, something very close to the medieval practice is taught, in others it has been significantly reframed, and in still others, it is entirely absent.

But how does Psalm 51 fit in? The adoption of the sacrament of penance reached new heights after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. Among the many parts to this wide-ranging council it was decreed that adult worshippers should seek formal confession at least once a year (Canon 21). This meant, over time, that many people chose Lent as a lead up to their annual confession. This focus on a season of penitence ahead of formal penance provided a context in which the seven penitential psalms become the prayers of choice. The praying of the penitential psalms was commonly assigned as an act of penance. In this way, their chief, Psalm 51, became the keystone prayer for laity, helping it on its way to be the medieval Psalm of Psalms.

O is for Original Sin

The theological idea of original sin is a nuanced one. Saint Augustine is generally viewed as the theologian who firmly established it as a doctrine in the face of challenges to the idea from Pelagius. This is not the place to rehearse this controversy. Our interest here is with Psalm 51 and how it appears to proclaim the doctrine.

In this post we will let Augustine speak for himself using quotations from his sermon on Psalm 51 (for him Psalm 50). When we allow him to speak we first find, unsurprisingly, that Augustine finds original sin presented in this psalm:

David spoke in the person of the whole human race, and had regard to the chains that bind us all. He had regard for the propagation of death and the origin of iniquity, and he said, Lo, I was conceived in iniquity. But surely David was not born of adultery? Was he not the son of Jesse, a righteous man, and his wife? How then can he say he was conceived in iniquity, unless iniquity is derived from Adam? And with iniquity, indissolubly linked, comes the chain of death. Each of us is born dragging punishment along with us, or at any rate dragging our liability to punishment. [p.418, Augustine, Psalms 33–50]

More, surprisingly as he comments further on the key verse (our verse 5, his verse 7) we find a more nuanced view of sexual intercourse that Augustine is generally given credit for:

Human beings are conceived in iniquity, and nourished on sins by their mothers while still in the womb, not because sexual intercourse between husband and wife is sinful, but because the sexual act is performed by flesh subject to punishment. The punishment due to the flesh is death. Mortality is plainly inherent in the flesh. This is why the apostle spoke of the body not as something doomed to die, but as dead already . . . [p.418, Augustine, Psalms 33–50]

Augustine’s doctrine of original sin was understood as a clarification of the theology of the nature of humanity rather than an innovation. Many earlier statements of the Fathers cohere with Augustine’s view found here in his commentary on Psalm 51, and stated more fully elsewhere in his writings. Because of Augustine’s pivotal role in defining original sin against its critics, verse 5 of Psalm 51 was read, and still is by many, as a plain statement of this doctrine. As we shall see in our next post this was not the last time that Psalm 51 would be understood as central to key doctrines in historic Christianity.

Reference
Saint Augustine, Exposition of the Psalm Volume 2: Psalms 33–50, Maria Boulding (translator), Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2000.

N is for Nathan

Nathan gets the briefest of mentions in the heading of Psalm 51:

To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

Nathan was a prophet. Like the best of prophets, he was required to speak truth to power. The Book of 2 Samuel provides the details of his brave mission which could so easily have ended in him suffering the fate of so many other prophets. In chapter 11 we read that God was angry with David for committing adultery and the murder of her husband Uriah. God sends Nathan to confront David with the facts of his sin. The heading of Psalm 51 claims that the psalm is the resulting prayer.

Like the best prophets Nathan was not only brave but also wise. He realises that confronting David head on is likely to have a less than good account for him. So, he tells David a story. The episode is far enough away from David’s specific sins so as to not arouse his suspicions but close enough to do its job of forcing David to recognise his iniquity. Nathan’s parable, 2 Samuel 12:1–6, portrays David as someone who has everything he could ever need but is happy to take all from those who have less. In this sense the point we saw Luther make, two posts ago, is made: sin is both a deep-rooted reality and specific acts that arise from this disposition.

After this story, Nathan then speaks God’s assessment of David. God, through Nathan, points out that he had been given everything by God, including a journey from despised shepherd boy to King. Yet, this is clearly not enough for David.

The outcome of this confrontation is a complex one. There is judgement in that the child born to Bathsheba and David dies. There is also mercy in that David receives God’s forgiveness:

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. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.”
2 Samuel 12:13–14, NRSV

This story captures the paradox of David as the worst of sinners and yet the best of penitents. At some level we might find the mercy of God here unfathomable, and yet who is not grateful that their own misdemeanours do not exact death? At least not our death.

Nathan was a faithful prophet to David. When we read Psalm 51 as David’s prayer he becomes a prophet to us. Like Nathan he speaks of sin’s ugly power but also of the glorious quality of God’s mercy.

M is for Miserere

There is probably no other psalm that has become so readily recognisable with the utterance of a single word. Time and again we have seen that the single word miserere captures not only Psalm 51 but calls to mind the mercy embodied in it and the legacy this psalm has had in literature and especially in worship.

Saint Francis recommended that the Miserere be prayed every day. Other monastic groups make space within their liturgy to sing the Miserere seven time every day.

If you’ve read about Psalm 51 in this blog but not read the psalm itself recently why not pause and and pray it thoughtfully and meditatively?

Here it is in the so-called King James Version:

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest. Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.
Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.
Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.
Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.

L is for Luther

Martin Luther is a magisterial figure in Church history. Whilst opinions about his life, theology and legacy vary, his impact on Christianity is enormous. This post has a singular focus which come as no surprise in this A to Z series. Luther taught on Psalm 51 on at least three occasions. We know this because much of Luther’s work survives today. This not only means we have his published teaching on this psalm, but we can also see how these interactions with this psalm cohere with the wider events of his life and his emerging theology.

The first occasion that Luther taught on this psalm was during his earliest years of lecturing on the Bible, before the landmark episode with the ninety-five theses in 1517. These early lectures which took place between 1513 and 1515 were later published as Dictata super Psalterium. The term Dictata refers to the mode of teaching that had developed In the Middle-Ages whereby the lecturer would dictate and expect their students to annotate the text which was the subject of the lecture.

Before the Dictata was published, however, Luther published the results of subsequent work on the seven penitential psalms. This work was to be his first published work and appeared in print in 1517, a few months head of the October ninety-five theses debacle. Luther’s work here on Psalm 51 is much more detailed than in the Dictata. Much of this work is redolent with the key theological issues that he would promulgate in his infamous theses and in the years of theological, religious and political turmoil beyond. There is significant refection on both penitence and confession. It is hardly an exaggeration to understand that Luther’s theology was founded on the threefold legacy of Psalm 51 and Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians.

His The Seven Psalms, or Die Sieben Bußpsalmen, was later revised in 1524 and was a hugely popular book. It might seem odd that a psalm so closely connected with Penance should be so welcome to Luther. His work on this psalm was a reading which focused tightly on the grace portrayed there and the need for the sinner to be penitent rather than do penance as a response to such mercy. Luther’s third work on Psalm 51 dwarfed both previous studies, running to over one hundred pages.

This third exposition of Psalm 51 was the result of a series of lectures in the Summer of 1532. Throughout the introduction to the psalm and the verse by verse exposition its meaning and significance is indissoluble from his mature doctrine of salvation by faith. This is how Luther seems the importance of Psalm 51 for his theology:

A knowledge of this psalm is necessary and useful in many ways. It contains instruction about the chief parts of our religion, about repentance, sin, grace, and justification, as well as about the worship we ought to render to God. These are divine and heavenly doctrines. . . This psalm is commonly called a “penitential psalm,” and among them is the most widely used in church and daily prayers. Whoever first gave it this name, knew what he was doing. But the rest of the crowd, who either chant or pray it daily in order to perform the works required by the bishops, have understood nothing of it all. They have applied the psalm to the penance of works, to actual sin, which they define as “anything said, done, thought against the Law of God.” This definition is far too narrow to portray the greatness or power of sin. We must look at sin more deeply and show more clearly the root of wickedness or sin, not simply remain with the “elicited acts,” as they call them.

Luther Works, volume 12

This raises topics that will require two further of our posts—letters O and P— in this A to Z series to unpack.

 

Further Reading
A helpful overview of Luther’s three studies of Psalm 51 can be found in C. Clifton Black, ‘Unity and Diversity in Luther’s Biblical Exegesis: Psalm 51 as a Test Case’, pp.325–345 in Scottish Journal of Theology, volume 38 (1985).

Luther’s work can be found in Luther’s Works a massive project of Concordia Publishing House:
Dictata on Psalm 51 is in volume 10.
Die Sieben Bußpsalmen account of Psalm 51 is in volume 14.
• The massive lecture on Psalm 51 is in volume 12.

K is for King David

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.’

Verse 22

Have mercy on me, O God,    according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Verse 1

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.

Verse 13

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.

Verse 4

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.

Verse 15–17

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Verse 17

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.

Reference
Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries Volume 2: A Reception History Commentary on Psalms 1 – 72, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2018, p.304.

 

J is for John Donne

John Donne (1572–1631) was a poet and in later life an Anglican priest. The penitential psalms were dear to Donne, and of his many surviving sermons nineteen are based on these texts. Only one sermon, however, is on Psalm 51. This sermon, and his understanding of this psalm, is of great importance for understanding Donne, as we find his bold theology of preaching crystallised there. His sermon is more specifically on verse 7. The NRSV and Latin texts of this verse are:

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Psalm 51:7, NRSV

Asparges me hysopo et mundabor
lavabis me et super nivem dealbabor
Psalm 50:9, Latin text and versification

Donne’s sermon on this verse is remarkable in what it reveals of Donne’s sacramental theology of preaching. It is clear that he anticipates both the work of the Spirt and the response of his listeners to enable the cleansing so central to this verse:

God hath given us a free and publike passage of his Word, and Sacraments, the diet and the ordinary food of our souls, and he purges us with that Hyssope, with the application of his promise, with the absolution of our sins, with a redintegration into his mysticall body, by the seales of reconciliation. And this reconciliation to God, by the blood of Christ, applied in the Ordinances of the Church, is that which David begs for his cleansing, and is the last circumstance of this branch, Purge me with Hyssope, and I shall be clean.

In his sermon Donne makes much of the ongoing practice of the ritual of Asperges. This ritual is closely connected with Psalm 51:7 and its Latin text [50:9], see above. In such an act, worshippers are sprinkled with water using an aspergillum. The act of sprinkling stands in a rich biblical and liturgical trajectory. It culminates in an understanding that grace might be ‘sprinkled’ in accordance with the mercy of God through the means of the biblical text expounded by the preacher. In Numbers 19:18, hyssop and water are used for cleansing:

then a clean person shall take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle it on the tent, on all the furnishings, on the persons who were there, and on whoever touched the bone, the slain, the corpse, or the grave.
Numbers 19:18, NRSV

The book of Ezekiel uses imagery of water sprinkling in association with the cleansing of exiles:

I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.
Ezekiel 36:25, NRSV

These Biblical texts gave rise to rites involving sprinkling in the time of the Church Fathers. Although some Reformers were not fond of such acts, in Donne’s time this functioned as a reminder of the worshipper’s baptism and a reflective aide memoir regarding God’s salvific grace—the mercy both described and offered in Psalm 51. Donne’s claim from Psalm 51 is radical—preaching is a means of grace.

Bibliography
John Donne’s sermons are available online from Brigham Young University, see:

https://lib.byu.edu/collections/john-donne-sermons/about/search-guidelines/

I is for Iniquity

It is fair to say that iniquity is not a popular word in modern English. It sounds very old fashioned and is probably used almost exclusively in a religious context to refer to another unpopular concept: sin. In Psalm 51 both of these words can parallel each other, as they do elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. They can be joined by a third word, transgression. This word also parallels the other two. We can see this is the two opening verses of Psalm 51 which comprise three parallel statements:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
Psalm 51:1–2, NRSV

Despite this apparent equivalence of all three words, they each have a different meaning in the original Hebrew. In his magisterial commentary on the Psalms, John Goldingay helpfully uses three different, and less religious words to help capture the original Hebrew [Goldingay, 2007, p.126]:

Transgressions → rebellions
Iniquity → waywardness
Sin → failure

Goldingay explains that behind rebellions lies a Hebrew word which means turning against authority. Similarly, the word translated failure refers to missing a target. This is not accidental failure, there is a sense of responsibility and choice here.

Finally, to iniquity. This old-fashioned word represents a Hebrew word meaning waywardness, or a deliberate deviation from the right path. Whether we are people of faith, or not, I think we all know there are times when we make a decision that sets us on a different path. We also know that sometimes our judgement is poor, we know that we are choosing a wrong path. The problem is that all too often one bad turn leads to another. The psalmist knows that we sometimes need a God-given bath—a factory reset to overwrite our iniquity. By asking God we can be cleansed, washed, and our wrong path blotted out of our copy book. In our next post we hear from someone who was convinced that we all needed to respond to this message.

 

Reference

John Goldingay, The Psalms Volume 2: Psalms 42–89, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, Baker Academic, 2007.

H is for Hallelujah

Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah has a life of its own Western culture. I have lost count of the covers I have heard, and the number of films it has been used in. It is a riff on Psalm 51, the ultimate evolution from Allegri who we met in the first of these posts.

It opens with David as the psalmist:

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor falls, the major lifts
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Leonard Cohn, Hallelujah

David might be the celebrated psalmist, but all is not well because he’s a bewildered composer of prayers. There is something of Cohen as well as David here. The biblical David is of course multidimensional. Throughout these reflections on Psalm 51 we have the interplay of David as songwriter, the worst of sinners, and the chief of penitents. There are times when for some he has been one of these to the point that his other facets are eclipsed or entirely displaced. But for Cohen we have David is all his rich perplexity, warts and all. A later verse clearly makes reference to his fall:

Your faith was strong, but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah

David’s temptation which led to both adultery and murder is here, along with the domestication that followed in his new marriage. The hallelujah is no longer a cry of abandoned worship but the words of sexual satisfaction. A very different reference to the sexual act than Psalm 51’s, see verse 5. The close of the song refers to a very different cry on David’s lips—his miserere. His cry for mercy has been heard. This is evident in both Psalm 51 and the narrative in 2 Samuel 12.

And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand right here before the Lord of song
With nothing, nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah

Here we have the same merciful outcome as the original miserere. The sinner is free, having journeyed from being a sinner to an abandoned worshipper, via Psalm 51 and its words of penitence.

G is for Gillingham

Susan Gillingham is one of the best Psalm scholars of our day. She is Fellow and Tutor in theology at Worcester College, Oxford. She became Professor of the Hebrew Bible in 2014. Her work on the Psalms is wide ranging and multi-faceted. This makes her work especially valuable as much scholarship on the Psalms, throughout the twentieth century to the present, has been all too often marred by competing singular approaches. Her significant contributions include: exploring Hebrew poetry [1], the reception of the psalms [2–4] and examining the place of the psalms in Israelite worship.

Here we draw attention to some aspects of her work in relation to Psalms 51. In her reception history commentary [4] she refers to Psalm 51 as ‘The Psalm of Psalms’ because of its rich impact in theology, art, and culture. In this way Gillingham provides credence to the point that our project is attempting to make, that Psalm 51 has been highly significant especially in the medieval period. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that in the Middle Ages it became a lens through which the other psalms were read.

Gillingham also notes that at the time the Psalter was being edited for the final time it was given a prominent position. We can see this in the headings of the psalms. For the editors of the Psalter the headings were important. That this is the case is evident in the clear grouping of psalms according to their headings. So, for example, there are three what we might call Davidic psalters:

The First Davidic Psalter: Psalms 3–41
The Second Davidic Psalter: Psalms 51–72
The Third Davidic Psalter: Psalms 138–145

Psalm 51 heads the second David psalter giving it a natural place of prominence. Its heading which alludes to the lowest point in David’s life—including adultery and murder—makes the impact of its position at the head of a Davidic collection greater still. David’s misdeeds will be examined in two further posts in this A–Z project.

Interestingly, Gillingham makes claims about the biographical heading and the content of The Psalm of Psalms which run counter to much modern scholarship. We will look at these claims in K is for King David.

References

  1. Susan Gillingham, The Poems and Psalms of the Hebrew Bible, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  2. Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries Volume 1, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2012.
  3. Susan Gillingham, A Journey of Two Psalms: The Reception of Psalms 1 and 2 in Jewish and Christian Tradition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  4. Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries Volume 2: A Reception History Commentary on Psalms 1 – 72, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2018
  5. Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries Volume 3: A Reception History Commentary on Psalms 73 – 150, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2022.
  6. S. E. Gillingham, ‘The Zion Tradition and the Editing of the Hebrew Psalter’, pp.308–341 in Temple and Worship in Biblical Israel, John Day, London: Burns & Oates, 2005.