Psalm 6 as 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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

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.

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. 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. By this time David was understood as the model penitent. 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, . . .

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 . . .

. . . 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 . . .

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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.

 

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.

X is for X-rated

Throughout this acrostic series we have celebrated how Psalm 51 has inspired great music (A is for Allegri), challenging sermons (J is for John Donne), uplifting commentary (E is for Eleanor Hull) and theological reflection (L is for Luther). Not everything that Psalm 51 has inspired has been so lofty and in tune with the cry Miserere mei, Deus. For example, the Books of Hours which were primers for lay piety had woodcuts showing the naked bathing Bathsheba with David looking onwards. In an age when this was the only mass media it seems likely that such imagery would have inflamed in some the very lust that prayer was meant to quell.

The same subject informed the Western art tradition and the naked Bathsheba provided a pious umbrella of religious propriety under which to practice voyeurism. Paintings by Rubens (c.1635), Rembrandt (1654) and Hayez (1845) are among the most famous of this very focused genre.

There is enormous irony that Psalm 51 might, albeit very indirectly, give rise to the voyeurism that was the downfall of its supposed author. Sadly, the story of Bathsheba from inception to the present bears the all too familiar hallmarks of patriarchy at its worst. The Bible has scant details about the nature of Bathsheba’s complicity in adultery. Little imagination is required to picture various scenarios that lie a long way from consensual sex, especially given the power of a king in a patriarchal culture.

This is of course speculation but what is clear is that over the centuries Bathsheba has been assumed to have invited David’s attention. Even the positive outcome of David’s penitence, contrition and compunction side lines Bathsheba as an object in the story. Too few have even paused to ask with genuine openness whether she was victim or co-sinner in the light of celebrating David as sinner turned penitent. There is of course little evidence to go on, but we would all do well to at least pause to remember that Bathsheba was a frail human being whose role as victim, sinner and penitent remain opaque.

R is for Reclassifying

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.

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.

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.

C is for Contrition and Compunction

In English translations of Psalm 51 the word contrite is often used, for example as here in the NRSV:

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:17, NRSV

In the Hebrew text the ‘contrition’ centres on brokenness—it is the person who has experienced brokenness that is ready to ask God for forgiveness. The term contrition conveys a steady attitude of awareness of one’s frailty and wrongdoing before God. The use of Psalm 51 in church liturgy is meant, among other things, to provide space for the worshipper’s self-examination as to their contrition.

Such an attitude is the foundation on which being penitent is built. As Psalm 51 claims this is the sort of sacrifice that God looks for. The word compunction is a much more dramatic experience than contrition. It is the sudden awareness of one’s moral fragility and need for repentance. This term for such an experience and the theological idea originated in Acts 2:37, its only direct biblical precedent. There we read:

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”
Acts 2:37, NRSV

The phrase ‘cut to the heart’ was translated from the Greek into Latin as compuncti sunt corde. In later medieval theology the term become very popular as an experience of the piercing of the heart. This is watered down in modern English parlance as the derivative notion of the pricking of one’s conscience. In the Middle Ages both the terms contrition and compunction became central to personal faith. This became centred on Psalm 51. We have already seen that it mentions contrition (broken-heartedness) so where does compunction come in?

In brief, Psalm 51 has a heading which mentions the terrible story of how King David committed both adultery and murder. When this heading is taken as a lens with rich to read Psalm 51 then the importance of David’s contrition becomes even more apparent. In the Middle Ages, David through the Psalms which are traditionally attributed to him, became a model of penitence and an exemplar of contrition. This became a lens through which all seven of the penitential psalms were read at this time. In Psalm 32:4 the Latin translation has a phrase:

Conversus sum in aerumna mea dum configitur mihi spina.

Or

I am turned in my anguish, while the thorn is fastened in me. [After Kuczynski, 1995]

Via this thorn, David was understood to show compunction as well as contrition. We will return to David in several future posts on Psalm 51, including the next.

Reference
Michael P. Kuczynski, Prophetic Song: The Psalms as Moral Discourse in Late Medieval England, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

Malcolm Guite’s ‘David’s Crown’: A Review

Malcolm Guite, David’s Crown: Sounding the Psalms, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2021

Malcolm Guite conceived and wrote this book during the earliest months of the pandemic. There is an irony in this origin, for corona, a word that had eluded most of us until a year ago, can refer to a crown or coronet of poems. These 150 poems are a collection—one poem per psalm. They also combine to form a single poem. A 2,250-line epic which is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a majestic response to the biblical Psalter, the original Davidic corona.

 

The Psalter comprises poems of very different lengths. The longest, Psalm 119, is around 200 times longer that the shortest, Psalm 117. Here in David’s Crown Guite adopts a poetic convention such that each poem is the same length and of the same form. In honour of the canonical crown each of his responses has fifteen lines, a nod to the 150 psalms. He also adopts another convention in following John Donne who linked seven poems, each adopting as its first line the last one of the previous poem. This is more than a clever and arbitrary stylistic whim. This convention celebrates another feature of the Psalter, the pairing of each psalm with its neighbours. The resulting concatenation within the Psalter is achieved in more complex ways than in Guite’s response—it includes various devices such as keywords pairs, repeated phrases, alternating patterns of day and night, matching interests and/or theological progression. As Paula Gooder reminds us in the introduction to David’s Crown, the Psalms also have a narrative that ties and binds them together. This can be seen as a journey of petition down to, and through, the low of Psalm 88, followed by a gentling rising path of praise. This culminates with Psalm 150’s unabandoned doxology.

The story within the Psalter is also the narrative of the Davidic kings and God’s kingship. Guite’s response reveals this story with a thoroughgoing Christian reading—this might be David’s Crown but in the 150 episodes we find Christ eclipsing David. This interpretive lens is, of course, that made by the Second Testament and many of the Church Fathers, including most notably Augustine and his interpretive paradigm of the total Christ (totus Christus). As Guite puts it, his work forms ‘a chaplet of praise to garland the head of the one who wore the Corona Spinea, the crown of thorns for us, and who has suffered with us through the corona pandemic [p.xv].’

So far, so good, this collection has a form that both echoes the 150 psalms it celebrates and has a coherent and insightful form. Is the execution as good as the conception? In short, the answer is a resounding yes. Each response is a delight in its own right. Doubtless readers will have different favourites. I particularly enjoyed the reflection on Psalm 39 because of its playful allusion to Leonard Cohen’s famous proverb about light and cracks. The response to Psalm 118, despite its brevity before its subject, works with many of the ideas and words found there in a beautiful fresh way. The 125th meditation is poignant, it is a prayer dedicating the collection as a thanksgiving offering. If each poem is a delight, then the whole can only be described as sublime. The single-minded form does not wear thin but rather provides a sort of theological and Christological perpetual motion—one reaches the end only to find that the last line of Psalm 150 provides the opening to the collection.

Guite explains that this is a response to the Coverdale version of the Psalms from the Book of Common Prayer. This is evident in the Latin headings to each poem and frequently in the language of the compositions. Nevertheless, is very much a contemporary poetry collection, it just knows how to cherish light from the past. There are allusions, both explicit and implicit, to the likes of John Donne, Julian of Norwich, John Bunyan, William Blake, Gregorio Allegri and Robert Alter. This peppering of imbibers and interpreters reminds us that behind these poems lie not just the ancient Psalms themselves but an age of their inspirational legacy—more profoundly still we perceive the Spirit breathing across some three millennia.

If you love the Psalter and enjoy poetry you will cherish David’s Crown:

So come and bring him all your nights and days,
And come into his courts with joyful song,
Come to the place where every breath is praise [p.150].

 

 

 

Psalm 51 and Saint Augustine

Psalm 51, sometimes known as the miserere, has also been given the epithet ‘Psalm of Psalms’ by some. As I have studied it and reflected on its place in Church history over the last twelve months, or so, I am increasingly persuaded that such a claim might well be justified. The accolade owes something to its fundamental nature as arguably the purest and most profound plea for God’s mercy in all of Scripture. It also owes much to the psalm’s title and its reference to David’s double sins of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah—events that occupy 2 Samuel 11–12. This background to the psalm, and David’s confession to the Prophet Nathan also alluded to in the title, gave rise to the identification of this prayer as the penitential psalm par excellence. This recognition of Psalm 51 as chief of the seven penitential psalms was deemed appropriate not only because of its assumed dependence on the pivotal biblical narrative, but it also fittingly lies fourth, and so in the middle, of the sequence of Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143. It was also judged appropriate that in the Greek and Latin traditions that its identity as Psalm 50 could be conceived as a sort of a psalmic Jubilee.

It is possible that the identification of the seven penitential psalms originated with Augustine although the first extant identification of the specific seven, mentioned above, as belonging to a closed group is in Cassiodorus’ Explanation of the Psalms [1]. In any case, Augustine’s sermon on Psalm 51 (50 in his Bible), in his Expositions of the Psalms [2], set the tone for exegesis of this psalm throughout the medieval period.

His sermon has often been neglected as a homily because Augustine reflects on its doctrinal contribution to what is generally termed original sin. But setting this aside and embracing Augustine as a faithful and earnest preacher proves to be a refreshing delight. The sermon comes across as a thrillingly tangible event despite more than 1,600 years lying between us and Augustine’s delivery (it was probably preached in the summer of 411). It comes to life in its early sentences as we hear him ask for quiet because his voice is struggling after preaching to a large gathering the previous day. We might well laugh as we note his acknowledgement of the preacher’s prevenient dilemma, the balance between saying enough to benefit a congregation but not so much as to ‘try its patience’. We also find out that the circus is in town and many congregants are absent and sampling its dubious pleasures.

Augustine sounds troubled that so many absentees will not hear his call to health that comes with repentance. He even urges those present to pass on the message to those that are not there. When it comes to the text he also sounds a little embarrassed to have to speak of the great King David as a sinner of some magnitude:

This woman Bathsheba was another man’s wife. We say this with grief and trepidation, yet since God wanted the matter to be written about, he does not mean us to hush it up. [3]

He must overcome his coyness because this psalm provides not only words of repentance but teaches too:

The story is not put before you as an example of falling, but as an example of rising again if you have fallen. Consider it carefully, so you do not fall. [4]

Augustine suggests that there might be two ways to hear of David’s immense sin. Firstly, his story might be misused as an exemplar of sin. Or secondly, and appropriately, as a as a warning to avoid sin by fleeing temptation. He is also at pains to point out that if any his congregation have already fallen into temptation and grave sin that they can still know forgiveness:

But if any who hear this have fallen already, and study the words of this psalm with some evil thing in their consciences, they must indeed be aware of the gravity of their wounds, but not despair of our noble physician. [5]

In this way, for Augustine this psalm carries a double grace, both as an exhortation to avoid sin and as a means to find the grace of Christ:

But as this psalm warns the fallen to be wary, so too it will not leave the fallen to despair. [6]

Augustine goes on to point to David as exemplar to those who have fallen into temptation:

Listen to him crying out, and cry out with him; listen to him groaning, and groan too; listen to him weeping, and add your tears to his; listen to him corrected, and share his joy. If sin could not be denied access to you, let the hope of forgiveness not be debarred. [7]

Anyone familiar with Augustine’s interpretative paradigm known as the totus Christus, that is the total Christ, might be surprised to hear how David eclipses Christ so completely in this homily. Elsewhere in his massive work on the Psalms he has no problem placing the words of sinners in Jesus’ mouth, for Christ can pray the words of his body the Church as well as words appropriate for him as Head of the Church. Augustine’s interpretation of Psalm 51 is an important reminder that Augustine is not a slave to one interpretative paradigm for the psalms. We can take comfort that the words of Psalm 51, though once David’s, can now be ours. In addition, when we pray them, in God’s mercy we can know the same bounteous grace that David experienced.

References
1. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms, three volumes, P. G. Walsh (translator), New York: Paulist Press, 1990.
2. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, six volumes, Maria Boulding (translator), John E. Rotelle (ed.), Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2000.
3. Expositions: Volume 2, p.411.
4. Ibid.
5. Expositions: Volume 2, p.413.
6. Ibid.
7. Expositions: Volume 2,p.414.