Jesus, Psalm 19 and Empty Words

The Sound of Silence
Jesus had something to say about empty words. We’ll get to these words a little a later after we’ve encountered some other words, as well as some silence. Simon and Garfunkel rereleased The Sound of Silence as a single some fifty-six years ago in September 1965 to some acclaim. Its previous release, in a different musical form, a couple of years earlier had not been a success. The song was written by Paul Simon and since 1965 there have been diverse opinions as to its meaning. Such ambiguity and polyvalence are often a good thing for a song or a poem’s popularity and therefore survival. This is, for example, probably part of the story behind the 150 biblical psalms which are most likely a small fraction of Israel’s hymnody.

I understand The Sound of Silence to be an expression of concern about the nature of modern society and culture. More specifically, that a clarity regarding underpinning principles, philosophy or truth is absent. There is instead just a resounding silence. This lack of words of value and words of veracity seems to fit with:

People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening

The singer of the song seems to know a potential antidote to this cultural malaise:

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”

But this wisdom is met as just another voice amid the competition, and these ‘words, like silent raindrops fell’. The song goes on to allude to the creation of new gods—the neon god they made—alluding perhaps to consumerism, materialism and marketing, symbolised by the observation that “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls”.

Whether, or not, this is the meaning of The Sound of Silence, I find that any testament I make as to my faith is met by people ‘hearing without listening’ and perhaps to them my words, as ‘my truth’, are like me ‘talking without speaking’. In a world of cynicism about a guiding narrative all testimony to something bigger rings hollow or perhaps there is simply a communication failure. And so in this way the collective denial of universal truth means that ‘silence like a cancer grows’. Words as signifiers and pointers to something else evaporate if there is no possibility of belief in what they point to.

Creative Speaking and Speech
The Bible, when it can be heard, makes a very different claim right from the outset. Just a few verses in, and we find all creation being spoken into existence. And with such rhythm that words are celebrated as this unfolds. God even takes delight in naming things. Following on from such an opening, is it any surprise that Psalm 29 can make the more modest claim that God’s voice is like the loudest thunder? Although here, God’s voice is as destructive as it is creative in Genesis 1. It seems that this biblical deity can both create and destroy with his thunderous voice. Humankind echoes this potential for bipolar speech-acts as part of their reflection of God’s image. Our ability to both create and destroy with our words is part of what lies behind the empty words that Jesus refers in Matthew’s gospel (see below).

Psalm 19 also picks up where Genesis 1 leaves off. There the connection between creation and God’s speech is given a little twist. In verses 1–6 it is creation that does the talking, speaking of the God who spoke it into existence:

Day after day they pour forth speech;
  night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
  no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
  their words to the ends of the world.
Psalm 19:2–4, NIVUK

These verses push the speech metaphor to breaking point. This is both ‘speech’ (v.2) and ‘not speech’ (v.3). This recognition that we are both dealing with a metaphor and stretching it to its limit is vitally important. We are dealing with poetic (but nevertheless true) ideas in all their richness. Neither Genesis 1 nor Psalm 19 provide literal accounts of creation being spoken into existence or creation testifying to its creator. We have something that is mysteriously difficult to pin down. We have language grappling with the undeniable reality of creation as observable fact—testifying in some sense to the creator. This is a testimony that can’t be otherwise, a worldview that accepts creation without creator makes no sense here. This is a working hypothesis that explains the universe in all its wonder and magnificence. This is no mechanistic account of the way things are, or the way things came to be. This is faith seeking understanding—a faith and an understanding that is more than two millennia old but we each should make afresh day-by-day.

Instruction
The second half of Psalm 19 deepens this poetic claim of metaphysical insight. Verses 7–11 complement creation’s testimony to the creator with reflection on the creator’s words. These words are precious and sustaining to creation and its creatures:

The decrees of the Lord are firm,
  and all of them are righteous.

They are more precious than gold,
  than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
  than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned;
  in keeping them there is great reward.
Psalm 19:9b–11, NIVUK

Some scholars of the old form critical school see a tension between the first and second part of this psalm. But this is over-categorisation to the detriment of the richer poetry and synergy of its claims, all centred on speech. The creation and God’s instruction are twin pillars of order behind the space-time universe. They are each so very different and yet interwoven as the very fabric of reality.

In the face of God, the creator, whose creation points to him as a cosmic signpost and the claim that he has provided instruction for us, the psalmist is all too aware of their frailty (vv.12–13) and asks:

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
  be pleasing in your sight,
  Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14, NIVUK

Empty Words?
Such a laudable response to God seems worlds away from these sober words of Jesus:

‘. . . But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.’
Matthew 12:36–37, NIVUK

Before we rush confidently to celebrate the merciful possibility of acquittal we would do well to pause. We all know that our words can be creative and life giving as we echo a microcosm of God’s creative capacity. It is equally clear just how destructive our words can be. Even our empty words can cause real harm and destruction. Being human means experiencing time-and-again, directly and indirectly, both the life-giving and destructive potential of words. Words after all are not heard in a vacuum. They arise from our heart (Matthew 12:35) and they signify the state of our innermost being.

How might we avoid empty words? How might we not be silent when we should speak? Whilst we can try harder, and this might not be a bad thing, it’s not the answer. Rather, the hope we have is not only to look to Jesus Christ, the Word, to acquit us, but to also to transform us. What if praying such Scriptures as those above could work such a miracle?

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
  be pleasing in your sight,
  Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14, NIVUK

 

 

Johnny Cash’s Psalm 1: I Walk the Line

Johnny Cash the Psalmist perhaps sounds a little unlikely. And to be fair it is probably by some peculiar coincidence that there are so many connections between Cash’s I Walk The Line and Psalm 1. But the intertextual and thematic connections are worth considering. I suggest that both texts are enriched by reflecting on the other.

Both songs concern faithfulness. Cash’s song is, at face value and indeed originally was, a declaration of fidelity to his wife, Vivian Liberto. In later life after he discovered Christ it took on a new meaning as a declaration of fidelity to the God of the Bible. Psalm 1 is a statement of faithfulness, and a reflection on what that faith might look like, as well as the blessing it leads to. Some might judge it to be concerned with a dry legalism, but such a view owes more to eisegesis informed by a popular caricature of Jewish faith, than a true reading of the psalm. When we remember that law, or torah, is instruction from God we can perceive the relationship described in Psalm 1 rather than any transactional mechanism based on works righteousness.

Cash declares that he keeps ‘a close watch on this heart of mine’ and has his ‘eyes wide open all the time. One can imagine that early in his career, on tour in front of adoring adolescents, away from home that this would wisely be followed up as avoiding walking (Psalm 1:1a), standing (1:1b), sitting (1:1c) or lying in the wrong company.

The experience of Cash’s early career revealed his declaration ‘I find it very, very easy to be true’, to be rather naïve in the face of the temptations of the rock and roll lifestyle. In many ways Psalm 1 also has a naivety about it. It is sure-footed and certain in its call to integrity and piety, but later psalms revisit its certitude and make it appear naïve amidst the ups-and-downs of the life of faith. For example, Psalm 37 and 73 read as if they are penned by the same person a few years down the line—this person now questions not only their ability to do the right thing but wonders about those who seem blessed despite doing the worst of things. Closer to Psalm 1, Psalms 3 to 7 are a series of laments that cast doubt on the straightforward path to blessing promised in Psalm 1. Of course, Psalm 1 can be understood eschatologically, see Psalm 1:5, in which case it transcends naivety to become a reality in eternity.

Both Cash’s song and our psalm have a 24-7 motif:

I keep you on my mind both day and night.
Cash

. . . and who meditates on his law day and night.
Psalm 1:2b

And in both cases, this ‘meditation’ is key to happiness. Cash claims that the ‘happiness I’ve known proves that it’s right’, whereas the psalmist equates such meditation with delight (Psalm 1:2a) and the whole poem is connected with happiness with its opening word meaning this in Hebrew (Psalm 1:1a). It should be noted that the happiness of Psalm 1 is a deeper more nuanced well-being, that encompasses happiness and blessedness and everything in between. In contrast, Cash speaks of the happiness that come out of right relationship with a loving human partner.

By its very nature and title, I Walk the Line is about the correct path to follow. This is very much a moral road as it concerns perfect fidelity and loving commitment to another. This is also the exact concern of Psalm 1 as it asks the question as to which path, or line, we travel, the way of the righteous or the way of the wicked (Psalm 1:6).

You can test this synergy and complementarity, between Psalm 1 and Cash’s song, for yourself by listening to Johnny Cash sing I Walk The Line here:

Provided to YouTube by The Orchard Enterprises I Walk the Line — Johnny Cash

 

Cohen’s ‘If It Be Your Will’: Song, Prayer, Psalm

Leonard Cohen described If It Be Your Will ‘as more of a prayer’ than a song during his introduction to its performance by the Webb Sisters and Neil Larson. Here I suggest that it is not only a prayer but more specifically a psalm.

Even the title is highly suggestive of a key feature of psalmody—an absolute trust in God. As the song unfolds this trust, we see that this commitment to God is founded in a creature-Creator relationship, as the singer’s finitude is sublimely conveyed:

If it be your will, that I speak no more
And my voice be still, as it was before

The frailty of the singer is in little doubt given their own metaphorical claim to be a ‘broken hill’. Is it pushing our reflection too far to imagine this as an oblique reference and contrast to the ‘holy hill’ (Psalm 2:6; 3:4; 15:1; 24:3; 43:3 and 78:54) of the Psalter? Beyond the trust and frailty, we also have a subtle undertone of accusation. For all the trust implicit and explicit in the biblical psalms the psalmist is not slow in challenging Yahweh. Here, likewise, Cohen questions with the very refrain, ‘If it be your will’. This is no fatalistic trust in the deity but a relationship and commitment-based questioning:

If it be your will, that a voice be true

Of course, poetry has an immense capacity for polyvalence and here there is a welcome poignant ambiguity. Undoubtedly other readings are possible. We are on firm ground when we note that some of the language of this song is undoubtedly redolent of the Psalms. For example, we cannot miss the allusion to Psalm 98:8:

Let the rivers fill, let the hills rejoice

The specific focus of this prayer, mercy, is also a key aspect of the biblical psalms. Cohen’s psalm is, like many of its Hebrew progenitors, a plea for mercy:

If it be your will, if there is a choice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in Hell
If it be your will, to make us well

Interestingly here in Cohen’s work the call for mercy is for others, and not for himself. Of the 29 calls for mercy, I can find in the Psalter, all but four (Psalm 79:8; 106:46; 123:2 and 3) are prayers prayed by the psalmist for his own deliverance, like that most famously found in Psalm 51:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love
Psalm 51:1a, NRSV

The poetic plea also challenges the conventional notion of hell. It appears that Cohen sees many in this world in need of a deliverance from an all too tangible place of suffering. This adds to the difficulty in pinning down the polarities of trust and challenge—perhaps, like in the Psalter and throughout the Hebrew Bible, these are not polarities at all but concomitant in the God-given grace of a relationship between creature and Creator.

On another occasion when he performed this song, Cohen refers to humanity as ‘creatures of a higher order’. He is, however, under no illusion about the source of the suffering of those in earthly hell. For Cohen, just as we creatures reflect something of our Creator in our ‘rags of light’ so these same clothes make us ‘dressed to kill’ in the worst sense.

Cohen’s poem stands in the firmest of biblical traditions—there is profound questioning here as well as ultimately a willingness to surrender in trust—a response that reflects the creature-Creator relationship. Both Job and Jesus have gone before on this precarious path as illustrated here as we close with three parallel statements:

See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
Job 40:4, NRSV

“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me;
yet not as I will, but as You will.”
Matthew 26:39b, NRSV

If it be your will, that I speak no more;
And my voice be still, as it was before.
I will speak no more, I shall abide until;
I am spoken for, if it be your will.
If It Be Your Will, Leonard Cohen

Z is for Zeitgeist

Reaching the final post in this A to Z series requires a brief assessment of Psalm 51. Is it The Psalm of Psalms as we noted was suggested by some all the way back at the beginning of the journey? What has become clear is just how important this psalm was in the Middle-Ages. We have seen for example, how it could be brought to mind with the single word miserere by Dante in the fourteenth century and how the episode from the life of David mentioned in its heading established a way of reading this and the other penitential psalms through King David as the ideal penitent.

Despite the golden age of Psalm 51 some posts have drawn attention to how it has been less important in recent years and that interest in it, and the category of penitential psalms, has declined. Preparing for this project and researching the penitential psalms over two years, or so, has led me to consider the possibility that different psalms have come to the fore over more than two millennia. This is not to suggest that there has ever been a conscious effort to prioritise one psalm over the other 149. Rather, could it be the case that one psalm can at a given time prove to be an exemplar of the central way in which the Psalter is viewed. Perhaps such a notion is too contrived but nevertheless I’ve tried to capture this possibility in the figure below.

This series of posts provides evidence for the priority of Psalm 51 in the medieval period. Psalm 1 is thought by many scholars to have been written as a deliberate entrance into the Psalter. Its theme of meditation on torah, day and night, is a deliberate echo of the Law. Placing this psalm at the beginning of the book is provides a deliberate lens through which all the psalms are to be read [1,2]. Even if it was not specially composed for this task it was chosen to provide the same hermeneutical lens.

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the early church looked to the psalms with new glasses. Psalm 22 was a special psalm in connecting Jesus with the Psalter. Whilst we find verses from the psalms on Jesus’ lips many times and frequent allusions to their imagery, Psalm 22 is special because of the way Jesus owns it on the cross (Mark 15:34). Not only does he quote its opening, but his act is redolent with a rich theology of the cross and a way to read the psalms afresh. This interpretive approach began in the New Testament, and it reached its ultimate expression in Augustine’s massive project to preach on all the psalms and collect these homilies as a massive commentary. Augustine is famed for his Christus totus which reads the psalms as Jesus words. Sometimes they are Jesus speaking as the head of the church and on others as the body of Christ, the Church. Throughout his massive work on the psalms, time and again he turns to Psalm 22 as the point of departure for this re-reading of the Psalter.

Without negating this legacy, the Middle Ages provided a context in which the penitential psalms in general, and Psalm 51 in particular, became critically important. Whilst not wanting to caricature the medieval theology there was a growing anxiety on just how post-baptism sins could be forgiven, and Psalm 51 was central to all of the theological and doctrinal developments that arose from this.

It was the Reformation that sowed the seeds for the demise in importance of Psalm 51. Luther’s success in undermining Psalm 51’s role in Penance made it less central as it was read as one in which the immediacy of justification by faith could be found in penitence. Over time it would be Psalm 23 that would emerge as the psalm par excellence for the modern period. Its incredible plasticity makes it just as suitable for a wedding as a funeral. So, plastic is this psalm that it has defied labelling in the modern project of psalm categorisation. Without wanting to denigrate Psalm 23 I am left wondering whether its modern appeal lies with an age when pastoral therapy is more desirable than dealing with the fundamental curse of sin that Psalm 51 so readily tackles in the only way possible: a cry of Miserere mei, Deus.

References
1. M. J. Whiting, ‘Psalms 1 and 2 as a hermeneutical lens for reading the Psalter’, Evangelical Quarterly, 85, 246–262, 2013.
2. Cole, R. L., Psalms 1–2: Gateway to the Psalter, Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2013.

 

Y is for Yerushalayim

Despite Psalm 51’s focus on personal repentance, the city of peace, Yerushalayim features towards the psalm’s conclusion:

Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
then you will delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
Psalm 51:18–19, NRSV

This reference clearly identifies the psalm, at least in its final form, as a post-exilic work. Psalms with a theme of penitence are increasingly thought to have their origin in the post-exilic period. The seven penitential psalms all have a concerns beyond the penitent prayer’s context. This can be the psalmist’s enemies, the nations, the people of God and/or Zion.

Psalm 102 also refers to the City of Peace. In fact, it’s a central concern from verse 12 through to verse 22. Something I have noticed is that each of the penitential psalms can be read as prayer on behalf of the post-exilic people of God, rather than through a Davidic or personal lens. The legitimacy of such a interpretive lens will be something I will explore at some future point.

The reference to Zion in Psalm 51 brings back the theme of sacrifices mentioned in the preceding two verses:

For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:16–17, NRSV

At first sight the two references to sacrifice seem entirely contradictory and indeed are likely the result of editing. The claim that Yahweh would not delight in sacrifice (v.16) coheres with the penitential nature of Psalm 51 and its emphasis that God’s mercy can be sought if one is truly penitent, that is contrite (v.17). Perhaps the later editor, or even the original psalmist, whilst celebrating this remarkable truth acknowledges nevertheless that they still live in the midst of a religious cultus where ‘right sacrifices’ are formally required. Another aspect that heals the apparent rift between the two claims is that in vv.16-17 the concern is arguably a polar comparison between a mechanical sacrifice, and genuine contrition and petition. Under the Law the best outcome is still right sacrifice, i.e. a physical offering arising from heartfelt contrition.

The beauty of this psalm today is that in Christ we can call on God’s mercy, with the knowledge that through the cross we can reread this psalm and know the promise of his mercy through water, wine and bread.

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.

W is for Wrath

The subject of God’s wrath is a challenging one at a number of levels. It connects with how we understand the atonement and the relationship between the two testaments to name just two. A starting point for any theological reflection and understanding of God’s wrath recognises that the Bible—in both testaments—speaks of God’s wrath, or anger, towards sin.

Two of the areas of the Bible where this theme is to the fore are Paul’s Letter to the Romans and the Book of Psalms. It is likely that whoever created the grouping of Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143 as the penitential psalms was very aware of this. The evidence of this is that these seven psalms each mention God’s wrath and/or feature in Paul’s discussion of the problem of sin in Romans, see Nasuti (1999).

Before we get to Psalm 51, we will present the explicit mentions of wrath in the other six penitential psalms. Psalm 6 and Psalm 38 both open in the same way, with this very concern:

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Psalm 6:1, NRSV

O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger,
or discipline me in your wrath.
Psalm 38:1, NRSV

Psalm 102 speaks of God’s anger too:

For I eat ashes like bread,
and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger;
for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
Psalm 102:9–10, NRSV

Other verses in the penitential psalms speak of God’s action against the psalmist which we might read as a consequence of anger:

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up[a] as by the heat of summer
Selah
Psalm 32:4, NRSV

Psalm 51 makes no direct mention of God’s anger or wrath, although if we read this psalm with a penitential lens, we can understand this lying behind the judgement that the psalmist seeks to avoid. Whether we read it with this lens, or in isolation, we see an expectation, a hope, even a celebration, that God’s mercy will eclipse God’s judgment. Psalm 51 challenges any argument that suggests a bipolar distinction between a wrathful God of the Old Testament and a Loving God of the New. Psalm 51 breaks any such simplistic notions. It points to the need of an understanding of God that resists such false dichotomies. This is not the time or place to explore the atonement or the relationship between the testaments in depth. We can, however, be grateful that both testaments testify to the truth of Psalm 51:

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

 

Reference
Harry P. Nasuti, Defining the Sacred Songs: Genre, Tradition, and the Post-Critical Interpretation of the Psalms, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999, p.33.

V is for Victorian Opinion

Many of these posts have celebrated Psalm 51 as the Psalm of Psalms in the medieval period. Even as late as the Victorian period there were some commentators who weren’t shy of throwing a few superlatives at this psalm and its six companion penitential psalms. Here is Neale and Littledale’s take on the seven psalms:

the seven weapons wherewith to oppose the seven deadly sins: the seven prayers inspired by the sevenfold Spirit to the repenting sinner: the seven guardians for the seven days of the week: the seven companions for the seven Canonical Hours of the day. [Neale and Littledale, p.124]

The reference here to the seven deadly sins is another reason for the popularity of the penitential psalms and their chief, Psalm 51. In the Middle Ages the notion that there were seven serious—i.e. deadly—sins was a popular one. I am unsure when the association was first established but here’s the list of which psalms which can be said, according to Catholic tradition, to counter a specific sin:

• Psalm 6: Pride
• Psalm 32 [31]: Avarice
• Psalm 38 [37]: Anger
• Psalm 51 [50]: Lust
• Psalm 102 [101]: Gluttony
• Psalm 130 [129]: Envy
• Psalm 143 [142]: Sloth

I have included the Latin psalm numbers in parentheses as the seven deadly sins are most readily connected with the Roman tradition and psalm numbering. A comparison of the seven sins and the seven prayers reveals a less than convincing match. The exception being Psalm 51 and the sin of lust. In this case, in accordance with the heading, the context is very much a story of sin that began with David’s lust for the bathing Bathsheba.

Despite the lack of one-to-one correspondence between the seven psalms and the seven deadly sins, I suggest we would do well to have Psalm 51 to hand daily. This is a psalm that can help us avoid sin and the Psalm of Psalms for asking for God to forgive us in his bountiful mercy.

 

Reference
John Mason Neale and Richard Frederick Littledale, A Commentary on the Psalms: From Primitive and Mediaeval Writers, second edition, volume 1, London: Joseph Masters, 1869.

T is for Tears

Despite the title, I have to confess there are no tears mentioned in Psalm 51. Despite this undeniable fact how many will have shed tears when praying this psalm? Is this not the frequent marker of true contrition and compunction?

I know from personal experience that this psalm can be accompanied by tears. If we read it as the head of the penitential psalms then it’s accompanied by tears, groans, and sighs:

I am weary with my moaning;
    every night I flood my bed with tears;
    I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eyes waste away because of grief;
    they grow weak because of all my foes.
Psalm 6:6–7, NRSV

Here we have arguably the most copious shedding of tears in all of the Bible. There’s even the indication that the plentiful tears are linked to a sight issue. Although we should note these psalms are often metaphorical with regard to the psalmist’s plight, the language would seem to imply these are the most literal of tears. The choice between literal or metaphorical elsewhere in the penitential psalms defies certainty, as here for example:

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
Psalm 32:3, NRSV

And similarly, here in this account of sighing and eyes:

O Lord, all my longing is known to you;
    my sighing is not hidden from you.
My heart throbs, my strength fails me;
    as for the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.
Psalm 38:9–10, NRSV

The mention of tears in Psalm 102 is less concerned with contrition than with general woe, or is the link with ashes a sign of penitence?

For I eat ashes like bread,
    and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger;
    for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
Psalm 102:9–10, NRSV

There is, I suggest, an openness that defies a singular interpretation. This is an aspect of God’s mercy, that these psalms though rooted in an ancient context, when prayed today our context, our situation in life, makes these words ours. So, let’s pray Psalm 51 frequently and when the situation is right let’s not hold back the tears. We live after all in a vale of tears awaiting that day when there will be no more need of tear ducts (Revelation 21:4). Tears can be words before God as they are a sacrament, a sign, of our response to the living God.

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.