Psalm 51: Miserere mei, Deus

For various reasons I have been reflecting on the penitential psalms for much of 2020. If this is a response in any way to Covid-19 then it has been an unconscious one. The grouping of Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143 together dates to before the time of Cassiodorus (487–585). Some attribute the group to Augustine (354–430) but Cassiodorus’ Expositio Psalmorum, or Exposition of the Psalms, is the earliest extant work that clearly identifies each of these seven as a closed group of psalms. The identification of seven such psalms is somewhat puzzling. There are other psalms, for example Psalm 25, that seem to fit well with the others due to its penitential concern. A convincing case can even be made that Psalm 25 is ‘more penitential’ than some of the seven. Some have argued that the link is God’s wrath, noting that all of them either (i) mention God’s anger, or (ii) are cited, or referred to, in the early chapters of Paul’s Letter to the Romans [1].

Whatever the original thinking behind their grouping they have been bound together in liturgy, sung worship, devotional commentary, and theological dispute ever since the sixth century. They can also be seen to display a certain symmetry befitting their sevenfold nature. The symmetry I refer to draws attention to the central psalm, Psalm 51. Either side of Psalm 51 the opening words of four of the psalms reveal two pairs. Psalms 6 and 38 both open with a similar address, generally made identical in their Latin liturgical titles as Domine, ne in furore tuo. In a similar way Psalms 102 and 143 have identical openings in Latin: Domine, exaudi.

Domine, ne in furore tuo unites Psalms 6 and 38 as the psalmist petitions God that he will not rebuke, despite his anger. In the penitential framework, implicit in the identifying of this psalm group, this anger is assumed to be the result of the psalmist’s sin. The opening of Psalms 102 and 143, in a similar vein, is a plea that God will hear and answer the fearful lamenting psalmist. Psalm 51 at the centre of the group, even without the framing provided by this symmetry, is the penitential psalm par excellence. Many commenters have gone further, seeing it as the psalms of psalms [2]. What makes Psalm 51 so special?

This psalm is one of the thirteen psalms that contains a biographic comment about the life of David. Though critical scholars make a strong case that such headings are late additions to the psalms, they have played an important role in Christian interpretation of the psalms. This is especially the case with Psalm 51 because it relates one of the most, if not the most, pivotal moment in David’s life. It condenses the terrible events of 2 Samuel 11 into a few words:

To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. (Psalm 51 heading, NRSV)

David’s adultery with Bathsheba might well have amounted to rape. Even without this possible dynamic, with the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, we see David commit two conjoined sins. It is not just the depth of the iniquity of one so beloved of God that is notable here. It is the remarkable gracious forgiveness of the living God that transforms this psalm into something truly special:

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. (2 Samuel 12:13, NRSV)

Here in the heart of the First Testament we see grace at work. Psalm 51 and 2 Samuel 12:13 both highlight the acute generosity of God. The wider narrative of 2 Samuel 12 does, however, reveal complications in that Nathan has to tease the truth from David, and despite God’s gracious forgiveness, sin still has its unpleasant consequences.

This biographical heading and the narrative in 2 Samuel enable a penitential theology that sees David as a model penitent. In this way, the penitential nature of these psalms means that their words have been understood on the lips of Christ as he prays as his body, the Church. Both their use in confession and in a rich Augustinian tradition have made the penitentials, and especially Psalm 51, the inspiration for some remarkable music in a variety of traditions. The four examples mentioned below are as varied as the theological, doctrinal, and pastoral aspects of this psalm, known simply as the Miserere. The collision of sin, penitence, forgiveness, and grace defies any singular mood.

In terms of the Latin choral tradition Gregorio Allegri’s (c. 1582–1652) Miserere is perhaps the most well know. There is story that the detailed score for the various choral parts of this music was kept secret so that it could only be used in the Sistene Chapel. This was the case until one day a fourteen-year-old, by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, witnessed a performance and then subsequently wrote down the score from memory.

Howard Goodall’s recent Have mercy on me – miserere mei stands in the same tradition of use of the Latin text. Unlike Allegri’s work the vocals are supported by musical instruments. But like Allegri, it uses the beauty of music to invite reflection on the superabundant forgiveness and mercy found in Psalm 51.

The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in his Miserere does something very different. His lengthy work from 1992 takes each word of the Latin text one at a time in its opening minutes. As each word is sung it is answered by a bassoon. This reveals the penitent petitioning God for mercy with disturbing slowness. Perhaps they are struggling with fear of God? Maybe they simply need to show the solemnity of their petition? As the work unfolds it provides a journey to the day of judgement and beyond.

We conclude with this post with mention of arguably the wildest interpretation of Psalm 51: Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. The dependence here is of course more of a riff and there’s no hint of Latin. Psalm 51 awakens in me the immense gratitude and solace that despite my sin, in Christ, I can say with Cohen’s David:

And even though it all went wrong.
I’ll stand before the lord of song.
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.

 

References

    1. Harry P. Nasuti, Defining the Sacred Songs: Genre, Tradition, and the Post-Critical Interpretation of the Psalms, Sheffield Academic Press, 1999, p.33.
    2. Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries: A Reception History Commentary on Psalms 1–72, John Wiley & Sons, 2018, pp.304–316.

Penitential Wisdom

Introduction
Perhaps the above title jars? In a way I hope that it does, as when we find something odd or ill-fitting it can be the start of learning something new. Of course, it might just be a fleeting move away from, and the, back towards the status quo of our understanding.

This short post arose from simultaneously questioning the very idea that biblical wisdom literature is a genuine genre and some extensive of the penitential psalms. So, where do we begin?

The Puzzle of the Penitential Psalms
The seven penitential psalms—Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143—are something of a puzzle to us today, when judged by modern genre definitions. Harry Nasuti has explored this collision of old categories with modern genres in his Defining the Sacred Songs, with helpful attention to the details of interpretative practice that span more than two millennia [1]. One insight he has is that the ancient seven psalms are more coherently defined by external factors than their content.

It is evident that the seven psalms are not of one genre in the modern sense. Two of them—Psalms 51 and 130—might be ‘penitential’ in the strictest sense if we consider a single-minded focus on asking for forgiveness from sin. In this manner Psalm 51, as is often recognised, becomes the penitential psalm par excellence [2]. Psalms 6, 38, 102 and 143 are understood today as individual laments, with other influences in some cases. Some might allow that they contain varying degrees of evidence that the psalmist is penitent. Uniquely, Psalm 32 arguably looks back on past penitence. The biggest problem for modern penitential genre is that in these psalms, the psalmist’s enemies often appear on the scene, muddying any singular concern with penitence.

This presence of enemies is just the most obvious challenge. A less stark issue, but a complexity none the less, is the difficulty in distinguishing between the psalmist’s spiritual and physical afflictions. This might be compounded by the potential for anachronism in wanting to differentiate angst from illness, based on modern distinctions. It is further obscured by what seems to be the deliberate attempt by the psalm collectors and editors to make the psalms malleable for later singers, readers, and poets to inhabit.

Luther is one interpreter who sees all afflictions, whether spiritual, health-related or enemies, as a reminder of the need for an attitude of penitence and as an opportunity for being trained in righteousness [3]. Luther’s acute interest in these psalms coheres with his profound fear of God, or anfechtungen, and a connection between Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and the seven penitential psalms.

The connection between Romans and the seven psalms is essentially a reading of these psalms from the perspective of an aspect of Pauline theology. Romans has sometimes been noted as something of a locus maximus for God’s wrath in the Second Testament. Psalms 6, 38 and 102 all refer to God’s wrath explicitly:

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
Psalm 6:1, NIV

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Your arrows have pierced me,
and your hand has come down on me.
Psalm 38:1–2, NIV

For I eat ashes as my food
and mingle my drink with tears
because of your great wrath,
for you have taken me up and thrown me aside.
Psalm 102:9–10, NIV

The other four penitential psalms are all quoted or alluded to in Chapters 3 and 4 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. A case could be made that Saint Paul created the tradition that gave rise to the crystallisation of these seven psalms as penitential. This tradition that can be traced from Paul through possibly Augustine (mediated by his biographer, Possidius [4]), to Cassiodorus (c.490–c.583) who identified the seven psalms explicitly [5], through connections with penance, Lent, Indulgences, and praying for dead, in the medieval period, then finally jettisoned of much baggage by Luther to arrive at the present day.

Wisdom as Fear of the Lord
When the seven psalms are read through an Pauline/Augustinian lens, or simply from the expectation they are penitential which arises from the traditional designation, then all of the ills of the psalmist are rendered as an opportunity for chastisement. In this way every angst, ailment and experience of opposition can be an opportunity for growing in spiritual maturity. This is not only an intertextual reading but by its very nature it becomes a worldview. This is a specific example of the general problem facing us moderns as we read the Bible as Scripture. How much of a space do we have for providence over scientific cause-and-effect? Do we eclipse the authors of Scripture in unseemly haste with our supposedly sophisticated view of God? This post will not answer such questions, only pose them.

Those writings that are generally termed wisdom literature—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job—are often characterised with a call to fear Yahweh, as seen in an earlier post. Does this fear connect with the stance of the awareness of both our sinfulness and God’s wrath—in other words penitence? Our modern sensibilities cry no, as do the years of softening the ‘fear’ required to call faithfully to the Lord. The very notion jars like our title. Indeed, the title captures this notion. Just because something makes us uncomfortable does not make it right or true of course. But surely the stakes are high enough that it merits further meditation. Maybe, just maybe, our discomfort is a necessary first step in finding comfort in Jesus Christ, who now sits are the right hand of the God of holy love.

Bibliography
1. Harry P. Nasuti, Defining the Sacred Songs: Genre, Tradition, and the Post-Critical Interpretation of the Psalms (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999).
2. Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries: Volume 2—A Reception History Commentary on Psalms 1–72 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2018) p.304.
3. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works Volume 14: Selected Psalms III, Jaroslav Pelikan (ed.) (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing, 1958).
4. Clare Costley King’oo, Misere Mei: The Penitential Psalms in Late Medieval and Early Modern England (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012) p.4.
5. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms, Three Volumes, P. G. Walsh (translator), New York: Paulist Press, 1990.

An Enarratio of Psalm 1: Behold the Man

The enarratio (exposition or setting forth) of Psalm 1, below, is not an effort at modern exegesis. It does not progress from distinct and careful assessment of textual, canonical, or theological context and then move on to drawing some spiritual lessons for today. It is of the same ilk as Augustine’s Enarrationes in Psalmos, or Expositions of the Psalms. The psalm is read wilfully in the light of Christ and the Rule of Faith—recognising that we are ‘his body’, the Church, and he is ‘our head’. It is also read by using Scripture to understand Scripture. In this way, the meditation is not afraid to recognise that if the Scriptures are inspired by the one Spirit then they have an illuminating and meaningful intertextuality. This echo of Augustine is presented as an experiment—a case that asks us the questions: What have we gained in modern exegesis? And, more importantly what have we lost? The NKJV has been chosen in order to ensure the use of ‘man’ in verse 1—most contemporary translations use inclusive language obscure the word. I normally welcome inclusive translation, but here there is a danger of losing some of the remarkable theological potential of this psalm if the Hebrew word ha’ish is not rendered ‘man’ but as ‘the one’ (as in the NIV), ‘those’ (so the NRSV), or similar.

An Enarratio of Psalm 1: Behold the Man

Blessed is the man. Who is this man we meet at the beginning of the Psalter? In this beginning, this opening of the Book of Psalms, there are rivers and a tree. A choice is presented between obeying God or ungodly council. Is this an echo of the Eden story? Is this man Adam? Or, perhaps we have here the Second Adam? A man presented boldly at the outset of the Psalter—itself a great work of the words of life and salvation. Who better than Jesus Christ, our saviour, to set us on the path ahead? As we start our journey is he the man we should behold? Or do we find ourselves here? Christ came to live the life of every-man, and in Adam all men find their mould. Is this man the first Adam, the Second Adam, and every Adam fashioned from the earth? For we know from the Apostle Paul that all men, and women, are united in both Adams (Rom. 5:12–17; 1 Cor. 15:45). In one we have tasted sin and death, and in the other we are put to death so that we might have life. This psalm most certainly concerns two possibilities: the way of nature in the First Adam, and the way of grace in the Second Adam.

And yet, is this not the Book of David? Even though there is no title mentioning David, is this not his book? But, the Second Adam is the Son of David. And so, we have all these men at work. The first Adam in which we died, David who had a heart that God loved and yet a sinner, and the Second Adam who defines being blessed as being sinless and passing on this blessing to others. It is in him that we are made whole.

Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; . . . In that glorious garden, named Eden, Adam received the counsel of the ungodly. The ancient serpent counselled Eve directly against God’s instruction: “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Adam lamely followed the deceiver’s counsel, through his wife, without hesitation according to the Scriptures. In a moment, in the blinking of an eye, the first man becomes a sinner set on a new path. This path would take him from Edenic blessing into a world were all his progeny would have to choose who to walk with, who to stand with, and who to take to their table. In this fractured world, journeying away from God can happen without even the effort of placing one foot in front of another. Yet God in his mercy still allows for a path on which he accompanies anyone who would know him—the way of grace. But how can man decide between grace and his own nature? What can help us keep to the path?

But his delight is in the law of the Lord, . . . It is God’s instruction, his torah or law, in which we can see the proper path. The first Adam strayed from this path. He had but one prohibitive instruction and yet could not obey it. His delight strayed from God’s instruction to a piece of fruit, a fruit we tend to imagine as an apple, at least in the Western world. Who has not put more delight in ‘other fruit’ than God’s torah? Augustine famously tells us of how it was pears that lead him astray. He, together with other youths, stole the fruit not out of hunger but just because they wanted to taste forbidden fruit. Just as Adam had Eve for company, as a companion in disobedience so we too go astray with others. Terrence Malick tells a story in the Tree of Life, of another youth—Jack O’Brien—who leads his fellows astray. They break things in their neighbourhood including a window. Only frail humanity would break the very things that let light in. Jack has made the wrong choice, the way of nature he has learnt from his Father, rather the way of grace by which his Mother lives. Only the Second Adam consistently found delight in the instruction of his Father, The Father of all humankind.

And in His instruction he meditates day and night. From the lips of Jesus, we hear words shaped not only by prayerful listening but attentive meditation on the law. Jesus found this law in The Law, and the words of the Prophets, and in the other Hebrew writings. He meditated and from his heart these words spilled out and gave rise in turn to new God-given wisdom and instruction. He would rise early to listen (Mk. 1:25), and when needs must he stayed awake into the night chewing over God’s promises (Mk. 14:32–42) and plans. And the result of such meditation by day and night?

He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, . . . Cause and effect plain and simple. The first Adam distracted by one tree lost sight of the Tree of Life. He lost the chance to be a tree, fed by the Spirit’s water. He wandered away from God, though God hoped for him to remain rooted in paradise where he had placed him. It is the way of humanity’s nature that we stray like sheep. Sometimes we not only walk away from God, we run (Jonah 1:3; Luke 15:13). Why would we reject the gracious refreshing waters given to us by God? Only one man has remained planted firmly were God wanted him. The second Adam remained planted in God’s plan though it took him to another tree. A terrible tree of agony, suffering, and death. He was himself a faithful planted tree, his hands had shaped wood in life, but were now nailed to the cruellest of trees.

That brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper. Where is the fruit in dying on a tree? Did not the second Adam wither? In what sense can this be named prosperity? And yet the Second Adam said for all to hear: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:24–25). In this way the First Adam lost his life and the Second Adam bore much fruit, bringing others eternal life. We too, both men and women, can gain our lives. But only in him as we join one another to be his body. Like Jack in the Tree of Life we can turn from the wrong path. The way of grace remains open to us all, that is the nature of grace. As for Jack in the film, the Tree of Life is always available, it pops up everywhere. This is the nature of grace. It is on our doorstep. It can be found even in the wilderness. The way of grace is knowing that we can be a fruitful tree by being grafted into a bigger tree that goes by the name of the Church. For we are the body and the Second Adam, he is our head (Acts 9:4; Eph. 5:21–33; Col. 1:24).

The ungodly are not so but are like the chaff which the wind drives away. Some want to see the ungodly’s step-by-step journey away from God as synonymous with being blown away. And yet this humbling image seems to cohere with a sadder fate on the path away from God. For we know that chaff speaks of the Day of Days (Hosea 13:3), the Day of the Lord.

Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. What is more tragic than a creature who does not know their Creator and so never lives the full life that was put before them? Those that do not join the blessed man, who are not flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, bear not the fruit of forgiveness; sin and death are still theirs as they live in union with the First Adam, a legacy that cannot be healed other than by the Second.

For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the ungodly shall perish. So, it is confirmed there are two paths though an infinite number of twists and turns on these two ways. Those who know the Lord taste his way of grace. Those that are strangers to him can only follow nature’s instruction. In this way a psalm that opens with the word blessed must close with the word perish. And this a reminder that we should praise the one in who we are found, the blessed man who carries us home so we will not be carried hither and thither on the wind in this life or the next.