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 to note that the psalmist knows nothing of a soul/body duality. For the psalmist the word ‘soul’ has a connotation of one’s ‘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.

E is for Eleanor Hull

Dame Eleanor Hull (c.1390–1460) is primarily known for translating a French commentary on the penitential psalms. The original French work dates from the late twelfth century. Eleanor’s father, Sir John Malet of Enmore, in Somerset, was a retainer of John of Gaunt. Eleanor was well-connected not only by birth but in marriage too, as her husband, John Hull, was also a retainer of John of Gaunt. He later became ambassador to Castile during the reigns of both Henry IV and Henry V. In her last years, having been widowed and her only son Edward having died in 1453, she retired to the Benedictine nunnery in Cannington, Somerset, close to the family home. It was there that she made her translation of the penitential psalms text. More biographical information can be found in Barratt (2003).

Hull’s translation was part of a growing interest in the seven psalms in the medieval period. Psalm 51 occupies pride of place because it is not only the middle psalm of the seven, but its heading, or superscription, began to play an increasingly important role in the interpretation of all of the penitential psalms. We will let the opening words of Hull’s commentary of Psalm 51 explain part of the reasoning why this was the case.

This Middle English text is not as daunting as it first appears. It is best read aloud, noting that ‘þ’ is pronounced as the modern ‘th’, ‘y’ is frequently there as an ‘i’, ‘u’ is frequently said as ‘v’, and ‘Ʒ’ is pronounced ‘g’:

This tytyl seythe, ‘in þe end, of þe psalmis of Dauid.’ Here by-fore ye haue herd what a tytyl ys. The tytyl ys þe entre of þe techyng for-to vndyrstond þe psalme. Psalme, he seythe, ys þe preysyng of God with song that is browht forthe by suetnes of þe euerlastyng ioye, and for that Dauid had for-Ʒete the preysyng of God al-myghty for þe veyne pleasance of his flessche, he made þis psalme wher-of þe tytyl sownyth, ‘in þe end, of þe psalmis of Dauid’. And hit sownyth as moche as þer-of he seyd, ‘Y haue be wykkid and wrecchyd al my lyfe vn-to now, but now schal y drawe towards hym that is þe ende of al euelys, and in þis proffytable ende that is þe begynnyng of al goodness that euer were and euer schal be y schal begynne my presyng besechyng þe al-myghty that he make me worþy to preyǀse hym aftyr his gret mercy and that he forƷeue me my mysdedys. And þer-for with gret repentance y seye and with feruent dezyre of myn hert: Miserere mei deus secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.

Barratt, 1995

These opening words argue that the title of the psalm is the interpretive key to understanding it. It echoes the importance of King David noted in C is for Contrition and Compunction. It does this by considering two components of the title. The part rendered ‘in þe end’ defied translators of the original Hebrew for centuries but we recognise this today as meaning ‘for the leader’, i.e. that this is a performance directive. This part of the title is of only small account for Hull. More importantly, ‘of þe psalmis of Dauid’ is taken in the text above as a statement of Davidic authorship. Today we would render this ‘Of David’ and recognise the ambiguity of the ‘of’ as implicit in the Hebrew text—it could mean authorship, association, dedication, etc. Despite these recent developments the basic premise of reading through a Davidic lens is still one, among a number of, possible reading. For Hull such a reading dominated, although her work is interpretively complex and nuanced.

Hull’s work is part of a movement in the medieval period to read the penitential psalms, and in fact the whole Psalter, through the heading of Psalm 51 and King David. Much literature and poetry that followed Hull had a more singular focus on David. In a later post we will return to the heading of Psalm 51 and the story that it alludes to in its mention of Nathan and Bathsheba.

References
Alexandra Barratt (editor), The Seven Psalms: A Commentary in the Penitential Psalms Translated from the French by Dame Eleanor Hull, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Alexandra Barratt, ‘Dame Eleanor Hull: The Translator at Work’, Medium Ævum, 272 (2), 277-296, 2003.

 

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.

B is for Bones

Psalm 51 is one of seven psalms that have been grouped together and known as the penitential psalms since the sixth century. These seven psalms frequently touch on what today is often judged to be an unsavoury and unwelcome idea—the notion that God not only exhibits anger but shows his divine displeasure as wrath. In verse 8 of Psalm 51 we read:

Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Psalm 51:8, NRSV

The psalmist either has experienced, or they think they have experienced, God’s hand against them. The wider context of the psalm, in which they are asking for forgiveness, suggests a causal link between sin and wrath. This post is not going to unravel this knotty theological issue, although other posts in this A-to-Z will return to this subject. For the moment we are going to explore one thread of this matter—a concern crystallised in the very bones of the psalmist.

Three of the other penitential psalms also mention the psalmist’s bones. In the first penitential psalm we read:

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
Psalm 6:2, NRSV

In this psalm the shaking bones are part of a wider range of symptoms. It is unclear, however, just what ailment the psalmist is experiencing. There is here, and elsewhere, in the Psalter an ambiguity as to whether the ailments are literal or metaphorical. It is possible that this contributed to the preservation of such psalm as they are so readily appropriated by others. Whether this ambiguity aided its preservation, or not, it is undoubtedly an asset to have a readily re-readable prayer as part of a Prayerbook. The previous verse of Psalm 6 indicates that the cause of bones shaking with terror could be fear of God’s anger. Such a possibility is even more clearly found in Psalm 38, the third of the penitential psalms:

There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones because of my sin.
Psalm 38:3, NRSV

The fifth penitential psalm also makes mention of the psalmist’s bones. Here they are burning like a furnace:

For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
Psalm 102:3, NRSV

What we make of this depends on a decision as to how we read this psalm. If we see it as a penitential psalm, then like in the other cases we can see this as being the result of sin, or at least understood in this way by the poet. If we read the psalm on its own terms we could come to several alternative conclusions: extreme loneliness, illness, oppression by the community, depression. Each, perhaps all of these, could each account for the psalm’s content. Such categories are arguably anachronistic given the two and half millennia between the psalmist and us.

Such orthopaedic prayer language is far from the beauty of Allegri and yet, make no bones about it, it is likely to have touched even more lives than the Italian priest’s glorious composition. One wonders how many people have found strength in bringing their assorted troubles to God in these prayers.

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.

Psalm 51: Miserere mei, Deus

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

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

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

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

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

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

David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. (2 Samuel 12:13, NRSV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

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

Psalm 32: As Stubborn as a Mule

Dissecting Butterflies
Have you ever sat through someone else’s holiday photographs? It is rarely an edifying experience. Have you ever heard someone waxing lyrical about an event that you never experienced? It is difficult to draw any excitement from someone else’s experience. Something is lost in translation as we hear of experiences second-hand. Even as the person with first-hand experience of an exciting event we only have our memory.

Later we might struggle to remember the feelings, the emotion, pathos, or adrenaline, depending on the performance we are thinking of. This is of course part of the reason why Jesus uttered the words, “Do this in remembrance of me”.

The same challenge is true of the psalms. They are prayers, poems, and songs. Prayers function properly when prayed. Poems are at their best when performed. Songs are made for gathering together.

In this sense preaching a psalm is only an hors d’oeuvre, a starter, a taster, an invitation to do something with the psalm in question. Trying to distil the propositional truth from any psalm, or any piece biblical poetry—including the Prophets of the First Testament and Jesus’ teaching in the Second Testament—is akin to dissecting a butterfly to show how beautiful it was in flight.

The stakes are higher with the Bible. The power of praying goes beyond the best theatre, concert, or sport. As God-breathed, the Bible does not just work at an emotional level it has transformative potential. It works through the Spirit and in Christ to save, and to sanctify—to make us more like Jesus Christ.

Blessed and Happy
Psalm 32 as prayer, song, and poem, opens with two verses that start with the word ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’, depending on the English translation. Or as the New Living Translation puts it:

Oh, what joy for those
whose disobedience is forgiven,
whose sin is put out of sight!
Yes, what joy for those
whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt,
whose lives are lived in complete honesty!

Psalm 32:1–2, NLT

The very first psalm, the one that sets the ball rolling in the Book of Praises, starts with the same Hebrew word, ’ašrê. There the imagery of a tree planted by streams of water reminds us that not only are we blessed and happy in Christ, but we are places where God’s grace is at work, where others can find the living water that Jesus promised, and the fruitfulness of being rooted in Christ.

Psalm 119 also starts off with the same idea of double blessing as Psalm 32. There is an English saying about counting your blessings. There’s even a hymn that tells us to do this:

Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your blessings, see what God hath done.

Johnson Oatman, 1897

Whilst counting our blessings, in one sense, is a sensible response to all the wonderful things that God has given us in creation and in our lives, the blessing in Psalm 32 is of a different level. The double blessing here is the most basic happiness, blessing, and joy, that we can experience, because it enables life to be lived to the full—here and now. More than that, it is the foundation of a relationship with the living God and therefore our future life too. It is the knowledge of sin and guilt taken away by God.

Most of us will remember the joy described here, that of our first taste of forgiveness. This joy, that comes from having no barriers between us and God, is not meant to be a one-off event. Such joy, that comes through faith and forgiveness, is the central plank of a relationship with God the Father, through Jesus Christ. If we do not have this forgiveness there is no relationship for us to deepen. As with a human relationship, trust and faith are essential not just for growth but for survival.

Illness and Sin
Before the psalmist experienced the blessing, happiness, and joy captured poetically on a scroll, they were in a dark place. The natural sense of this psalm is that the psalmist—the heading encourages us to see David as the psalmist—experienced illness. An illness summed up as ‘wasting away’ and experiences that led to ‘groaning’:

When I refused to confess my sin,
my body wasted away,
and I groaned all day long.
Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me.
My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.

Psalm 32:3–4, NLT

Perhaps it is metaphorical language? Is it possibly the language of anxiety or fear? Perhaps it is a psychosomatic illness arising from fear of God? Or is it old age or a virus? All of these are plausible when we look at other penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143) as a group. It is also apparent that the psalmist links their emotional or physical illness with sin.

Sin can be the cause of both emotional and physical illness, but this is not the same as suggesting that all ailments can be explained in this way. Nor that we should be quick to make such judgements. The Book of Job warns against such missteps.

An important point is raised here—the same point raised by Hebrews 12. Do we moderns, or post-moderns, still have an openness to being disciplined as God’s children? Do we ever stop for a minute to ask such a question? The psalmist is in no doubt, on this occasion, that they learned the need to repent of sin from an experience of lack of blessing, happiness, and joy. The author of Hebrews tells us to learn discipline from God as his children:

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

Hebrews 12:4–6, NIV [Quoting Proverbs 3:11–12 LXX]

Our first thoughts, and our first prayers, look to deliverance from every ill from the trivial to the severe. There is nothing wrong with this being our first thought and prayer, and of course God in his mercy can deliver. But what if there is something to be learned from our affliction?

I confess I do not entirely like this idea. It is, however, too much of the fabric of the Bible to be ignored. Paul has a struggle, a ‘thorn in his flesh’ (2 Cor. 12:7), that he wanted gone but God saw fit to discipline him through it. The beatitudes in Luke 6 and Matthew 5—sayings of happiness, blessing, and joy turn the notions of blessing on its head. The beatitudes celebrate being poor in spirit, weeping, and being persecuted.

Praying the Psalms
This is exactly why we need the psalms. In praying them we find ourselves praying differently to the one-dimension prayer we default to—the dreaded shopping list prayer.

The psalms are tantalising snapshots of all manner of the type of conversations that we can experience with God. We can find new things to say and we can hear new things in return, when we open up to them. Though they can appear to be hard work at times, they have famously been understood as a school of prayer by spiritual giants such as Saint Augustine, Martin Luther, and more recently Eugene Peterson. If they are a school perhaps, we should not be surprised that they are hard work. Why would we be surprised that being a disciple should require discipline?

Learning prayer from the Bible helps us avoid two errors in prayer. One of these errors is the praise of self rather than God. This is what prayer becomes when it is the wish list, or shopping list, of what we want. The second error avoided by using the Psalms, and other biblical prayers, is the vacuum of no prayer which we sometimes find ourselves in.

As Stubborn as a Mule
One of the challenges of the psalms is how they switch between ideas, images, and moods. A good practice in praying a psalm is to ask the question, “Who is saying this verse?”. Verses 8 and 9 come across as being spoken by God himself. Now we might expect that God has some nice words with which the psalmist is inspired at the close of the psalm. Not so much. Instead God says:

I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
else it will not stay near you.

Psalm 32:8–9, NRSV

God is reminding us that we are as stubborn as mules, we are sinners despite also being saints through Christ.

We are all asses when it comes to walking with God, praying, and especially staying close to God by confessing our sin. Or perhaps it is just me?

As the proverb says, ‘You can lead a horse, or a mule, to water but you cannot make it drink’. So, it is over to you. What will you do with Psalm 32? How can you experience it for yourself?

Penitential Wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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