George Herbert and the Psalms

Regular readers of this blog will probably be aware that the penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143) have featured prominently here over the past year, or so. This is because of an ongoing project on these psalms. As I have spent time with these seven psalms I have become increasingly surprised at their generative potential in literature, liturgy, poetry, music, politics, and preaching. George Herbert (1593–1633) was an Anglican poet-priest and contributed, in his short life, to most of the aforementioned arenas. The Psalter appears to have been a major source of inspiration. More specifically, the language of the penitential psalms, and the traditional penitential lens through which they are read, seems lie behind much of his work too.

This short post is an encouragement to reflect on one poem and one poetic verse from Herbert’s pen which both respond to the Psalms. The aim is primarily to celebrate his poetry, albeit in just 83 words, on the day he is remembered in the liturgy. A second aim is a nod to the profoundly generative spirit of the psalms that has provided us with such a cloud of witnesses—an unceasing testimony of praise to celebrate and perpetuate the two testaments to Christ.

At the risk of straying from delight to dissection I will say a little about Hebert’s two pieces of verse. The first, Bitter-sweet, captures the life of faith and its two poles of complaint and praise. Whilst scholars have spilt much ink over such matters none can match this short poem’s sublime portrait of psalmic trust. It is a sublime microcosm of the Psalter in both form and content.

Bitter-sweet.
Ah my deare angrie Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sowre-sweet dayes
I will lament, and love.

The second piece, the first of some thirteen verses, grasps the gasps of the penitential psalmist. Though as short as the above, it redolent with the seven psalms. We find the metaphorical travails of the penitent (Pss. 6:7; 32:3; 38:7; 51:8), their sense of distance from God (38:9; 102:2; 130:5–6; 143:7), and their all-encompassing day and night waiting for the living God of the penitential psalms (Pss. 6:6; 32:4; 130:6).

Home.
Come Lord, my head doth burn, my heart is sick,
While thou dost ever, ever stay:
Thy long deferrings wound me to the quick,
My spirit gaspeth night and day.
O show thy self to me,
Or take me up to thee!

Perhaps the choice of the 27th February to celebrate Herbert and its place in the season of Lent (most years at least) is a fitting one?

The Seven Penitential Psalms

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the biblical psalms will have wondered at how they might be grouped together. It is a natural desire to organise and describe any collection of things into categories. Even if we ignore this scientific desire, or tendency towards neatness and order, who has not wished for a psalm index to ‘home in’ on that special psalm as a prayer in a moment of crisis, need, or joy? Of course, the Psalter, and the ordering of its 150 psalms, resists any neat attempts at categorising. And it certainly does not have an index, unless one conducts a personal cut and paste exercise, so as to reorganise them to meet some personal whim.

In the early twentieth century it was the German scholar Hermann Gunkel, building on a hundred years of critical scholarship, who devoted much of his academic mission to classifying the psalms. His success was such that to this day no serious psalms scholar can get two hundred words into a discussion of the psalms without mentioning his name. Much ink has been spilt on the gains, but also losses, in this approach that privileges psalm genre. One of the negative points is worth mentioning here. It is self-evident that the final editors of the Psalter show little care for organising the psalms according to modern genres. If genre—either in its modern conceptions or in other forms, such as indicated by psalm headings—was important to the editors, it was at a level of nuance that has yet to be understood.

So far so bad for psalm categories. So why a post on a specific category? The Penitential Psalms are an ancient category. A category not defined, as far as we know, by the ancient psalmists nor one recognised, without many a caveat, by form critics (those that follow Gunkel’s approach). This category, or term, is often said to have originated with Saint Augustine (354‒430) who wrote the most influential work on the psalms in Church History (Enarrationes in Psalmos or Expositions of the Psalms). It is, however, more likely that the category emerged shortly after Augustine’s time, perhaps with those devoted to his Enarrationes. Cassiodorus (485‒585) refers to the seven Penitential Psalms as if they already existed as a group prior to his own work on the psalms. These seven psalms are 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143 in most modern English Bible versions. Anyone following up Augustine should note that for him they are 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142 because of the numbering convention of the Latin text, the Vulgate, which he used—this in turn follows the Greek Septuagint used by the Early Church. Others commentators followed Cassiodorus and the Penitential Psalms become so tightly bound as a group that they were reproduced together in books, and commentaries were written on them as a group.

There are all sorts of reasons why this grouping has proved robust, we might even say successful. Anyone reading them successively is left with the strong impression that they do indeed belong together as a similar type. We might quibble that they are not all concerned with penitence per se, but they have a mood which unites them, and motif-after-motif and idea-after-idea that makes them a dense web of like-minded theology. Their very number also adds something to their credibility—as in some sense ‘right and proper’—given the completeness associated with the number seven. They were even linked to the seven deadly sins and the seven Canonical Hours used in many monastic and liturgical traditions. This culminated in a medieval tradition, of a process of seven penitential steps. Here these steps are summarised after Snaith (1964):

Step 1, Fear of Punishment, Psalm 6:1
Step 2, Sorrow for Sin, Psalm 32:5
Step 3, Hope of Pardon, Psalm 38:15
Step 4, Love of a Cleansed Soul, Psalm 51:7‒8
Step 5, Longing for Heaven Psalm, 102:16
Step 6, The Distrust of Self, Psalm 130:6
Step 7, Prayer Against the Final Judgement, Psalm 143:2

By the late medieval period, variations on a book known as the Book of Hours, or Horae, become the most popular book of its time—even more copies being made than the Bible itself. The Book of Hours comprised the fifteen Psalms of Ascents (Psalms 120‒134) followed by the seven Penitential Psalms. These were each accompanied by woodcut illustrations which helped make them accessible in an era of limited literacy.

The Penitential Psalms were used throughout Lent in the Medieval period and were especially associated with Fridays in that season. Doubtless one of the other reasons for this later ‘success’ of these psalms was the late medieval periods preoccupation with Penance. In our age we look back and all too easily misapprehend the medieval period. One, among many reasons, is arguable the flippancy with which we treat our frailty and failings before God. These seven psalms are a wonderful, and all too necessary, reminder of both our frailty and God’s graciousness.

Our church will be reflecting on them this Good Friday. Why not spend some time with these seven psalms and judge their veracity and cohesiveness for yourself?

 

References

Clare Costley King’oo, Misere Mei: The Penitential Psalms in Late Medieval and Early Modern England, Notre Dame, Indiana: 2012.

Norman Snaith, The Seven Psalms, London: Epworth, 1964.

Bruce K. Waltke, James M. Houston and Erika Moore, The Psalms as Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014.