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.

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.

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.

U is for Undervalued

As I have been researching the reception of Psalm 51 I have found that there is no contemporary treatment of this psalm and its companions, the other six penitential psalms. We saw in S is for the Sixties that, to my knowledge, the 1960s were the last decade in which accessible basic introductions to the penitential psalms were published. This points to a surprising undervaluing of Psalm 51 and the penitential psalms. A remarkable fall from grace given their centrality in the medieval period and beyond. Our final post, Z is for Zeitgeist, will close our journey with a reflection on how various ages have made different psalms their Psalm of Psalms.

I aim to make some amends for the present undervaluing of Psalm 51 and the penitentials—if I had a rock band this would be its name. Whilst this series of posts has gone some way to doing this I will go a step further with the publication of a booklet on the penitential psalms around the end of 2021. If you would like to receive news of this publication later this year, then please email me— m.j.whiting@icloud.com —and I will keep you updated on how you can get a copy of what will be a modestly priced publication.

A more medium-term project is a work celebrating Psalm 51 as The Psalm of Psalms in which I hope to build on this A to Z project.

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.

S is for the Sixties

We have seen time and again that Psalm 51 was The Psalm of Psalms in the medieval period. After the Reformation the importance of Psalm 51 and the other penitential psalms ever so gradually receded. There are many reasons for this, some of which we explored in the previous post.

Psalm 51 was part of the Books of Hours which were literal best sellers. Psalm 51 was central to the piety of the likes of Dante, Donne, Fisher, Hull, and Luther as we have seen. By the twentieth century interest in Psalm 51 as the chief of the penitential psalms had waned. As far as I am aware the 1960s, hence our heading, saw the last two popular books that introduce these psalms and their chief, Psalm 51, for personal devotion. These two books are:

L. J. Baggott, The Seven Penitential Psalms: a book of Lenten studies, London: A. R. Mowbray, 1963.

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

Each one has something to say that helps our journey with Psalm 51. Firstly, Snaith introduces Psalm 51 in this way:

This psalm has been, for well over a thousand years, the most used of all psalms. It was repeated seven times a day, every day except at Christmas time and in Lent, and it marked the conclusion of hourly prayers. Luther uses this psalm to show that sin, a great and innate evil, can be dealt with only by being born again by faith in Christ. The contrast is born in sin, and born again in Christ. Godly men in all ages have written on this psalm, some of them to the extent of a thousand pages. In the Greek and the Vulgate—that is, in all Bibles used by Christians up to the Reformation this psalm was the fiftieth, as it still is in Roman Catholic Bibles: Vulgate Douay, and so forth. This gave commentators great scope, with references to the many fifties which occur in the Old Testament and in the New: the width of the Ark, the breadth of Ezekiel’s Temple, the freedom from service of the Levites after fifty years, the year of Jubilee. The extensive use of this psalm, and its aptness for our condition, has led to the very frequent use of certain couplets: ‘Create in me a clean heart . . .’ and ‘O Lord, open thou my lips . . .’, and so forth. [Snaith, p.47]

There seems to be little doubt that Snaith would be sympathetic to the claim that this is the Psalm of Psalms. However, he might be exaggerating regarding the ‘thousand pages’ claim. I have found no evidence of any treatment of this length. Baggott has a different, and it must be said more sobering, point of departure:

In European history this psalm has had a remarkable influence. When Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, who championed the cause of English liberty by winning Magna Charta from King John, passed to his rest, it was with this psalm upon his lips. When Savonarola’s power came to an end on Friday, April 7th, 1498, he turned to the Psalms for comfort. Two days later, on Palm Sunday, he was tortured so severely that the only bones in his body that were left unbroken was his right arm, in order that he might sign his so-called Confessions; but instead he wrote a meditation on this psalm, which Luther published in 1523. On July 6th, 1535, Sir Thomas More, ‘the Gentleman of the Reformation’ as he has been called, was executed on Tower Hill. Kneeling at the scaffold and repeating Psalm 51, which had always been his favourite prayer, he placed his head upon the low log that served as a block, and received the fatal stroke. So, too, was it the prayer of Lady Jane Grey, and the song of John Bunyan. And not of these alone, for this psalm has been the hope and comfort of countless believers who have found in its classic phrases an ideal expression of their own penitence and worship. In all ages the saints of the Church have come to this Hebrew psalm and found in it a peerless liturgy. [Baggott, p.44]

P is for Penance and Penitence

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

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

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

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

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

L is for Luther

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luther Works, volume 12

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

 

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

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

F is for Fisher

John Fisher (1469–1535) was variously a Catholic cardinal, chancellor of the University of Cambridge and bishop of Rochester. It is sobering to remember, that he was a victim of the wrath of Henry VIII and was beheaded on Tower Hill on the morning of 22 June 1535. His head was displayed on London Bridge for some two weeks after his death. His writings on the penitential psalms were published many years earlier in 1508.

For Fisher our Psalm 51 was Psalm 50. This was because he followed the Latin tradition, which follows the Greek tradition, in joining Psalms 9 and 10 as a single psalm. His work on Psalm 51 is a rich exhortation to deal with the consequences of sin and to lead a life of virtue. We get a taste of this in this short excerpt:

If a tablet has been foul and filthy for a long time, first we scrape it, and after it has been scraped we wash it and make it clean. Our soul can be compared to a tablet on which nothing was painted. Nevertheless, with many misdeeds and spots of sin we have defiled and made it deformed in the sight of God. Therefore, it is necessary that it should be scraped, washed, and wiped. It shall be scraped by the inward sorrow and compunction of the heart when we are sorry for our sin; it shall be washed with tears from our eyes when we acknowledge and confess our sin; and lastly, it will be wiped and made clean when we try to make amends and do satisfaction by good deeds for our sins.

Gardiner, 1998, p.102

We note Fisher’s concern with the soul and that the Psalms are very much the language of the soul. Nevertheless, it is important t note that the psalmist knows nothing of a soul/body duality. For the psalmist the word ‘soul’ has a connotation of ‘their very being’. It is, of course, quite possible that Fisher has a more dualistic understanding than that of the psalmist. Like other interpreters of his time, Fisher uses the word compunction, which we considered in an earlier post: C is for Contrition and Compunction.

This short excerpt is focused very much on sin as misdeeds. Later posts will consider broader definitions of sin. The emphasis on misdeeds ties closely to the medieval practice of Penance. The closing sentence of the above quotation refers to the deeds required by this doctrine as the final stage of Penance. We will return in a later post to explore the differences between penitence and penance. For now, we note that Psalm 51 was central to both ideas in the Middle Ages. It was one of the seven texts recommended for lay Christians to use to express penitence. In a similar way it was a text given by a priest to say as one of the deeds to demonstrate Penance. In this way Psalm 51 was an everyday reality for many during the medieval period.

Reference
Saint John Fisher, Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms, Anne Barbeau Gardiner (Translator and editor), San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998.