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.

 

D is for Dante

Dante Alighieri is known for his poetic work Inferno. This work is not just famous, it is infamous. Nevertheless, infamy rarely means well understood. This epic fourteenth-century Italian poem recounts a journey through hell and is one of three poems that form a whole: The Divine Comedy or Commedia, to give it its simple Italian title. The three parts are Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. A journey through hell, purgatory and paradise might seem a long way from Psalm 51. There are, however, a number of connections between our psalm and Dante’s work. This post will explore just part of this wider relationship.

Dante (1265–1321) wrote his Commedia whilst in exile from his city of birth, Florence. There’s not time to go into how he came to be banished from his home city, but we can note, with some amusement, that the details are still potentially the subject of a court case, some seven hundred years after his death, see this recent newspaper article:

Daily Telegraph February 2021

For many years the little I knew of Dante’s work meant that I wrote it off as an unhelpful dwelling on the worst kind of over-literalisation of the afterlife. More recently, I have discovered that a number of people that I hold in high regard value Dante’s work—indeed they seem to prize it, as not only worthwhile literature, but claimed it has a spiritual, even transformative potential.

That Dante has a richer and more nuanced intent than macabre speculation on the afterlife is evident at the outset. The opening three lines refer to the proverbial midlife crisis or, to put it another way, lost soul. Here they are:

At one point midway on our path in life,
I came around and found myself now searching
Through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost. [Kirkpatrick, 2012, p.3]

We soon discover that Dante is not just lost but that he is being pursued by beasts: a leopard, a lion, and a wolf. It becomes apparent that these three animals represent specific sins that Dante is struggling with. The three respectively represent lust, pride and avarice. At line 65 in the first of 34 Cantos we meet Psalm 51 crystallised in one word—Miserere—such was its medieval importance. In context we have:

Seeing him near in that great wilderness,
To him I screamed my ‘Miserere’: ‘Save me,
Whatever—shadow or truly man—you be.’ [Kirkpatrick, 2012, p.5]

This call of mercy, arising from fear, will in fact be answered. Our interest is that for Dante  his hope of an answer to all of his desperate mid-life sin and fear can crystallised in a single psalm—Psalm 51. Even more remarkable is the fact that the fame of Psalm 51 is such that it is called to mind for Dante, and his readers, in a single word. He calls miserere centuries before Allegri celebrates this same psalm in his own musical cry for mercy.

It turns out that Dante is not beset by a shadow but that this is none other than Dante’s hero poet Virgil. Virgil has been sent on an act of mercy by Dante’s departed love Beatrice. Dante does not yet know it but his prayer, his cry for mercy, has already been answered.

Psalm 51 features in both Purgatorio and Paradiso but that story must await another time and place.

Reference
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Robin Kirkpatrick (translator and editor), London: Penguin Books, 2012.

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.

A is for Allegri

This is the first bitesize post of a series of twenty-six. The series will be an A to Z for two reasons. The first reason is that I am joining the #AtoZChallenge which is an event in which participants blog their way through April in twenty-six acrostic posts. The second reason is that our topic, Psalm 51, though not itself an acrostic poem, is part of the Psalter in which nine of the 150 psalms are acrostics.

Why is Psalm 51 the subject of these 26 posts? The primary reasons are to showcase this truly amazing psalm, and to celebrate what can only be termed its incredible legacy. This psalm has been, with good reason, named The Psalm of Psalms by some. The reader will need to decide whether this and other superlatives we will encounter along the way are just hyperbole. I hope that many might agree with me that these are well deserved appellations.

There were other ways in which this project on Psalm 51 could have started. For example, the letter A could have been for Augustine, the North African theologian from Hippo, but I have only recently explored Augustine and his sermon on Psalm 51.

Gregorio Allegri (c.1582–1562) was both a Roman Catholic priest and an Italian composer. His most famous work today is his musical setting of the Latin text of Psalm 51. It is known by the shorthand name of Miserere because in Latin this is the first word of Psalm 51. Miserere means mercy in English. The full liturgical title of Psalm 51 and Allegri’s work is Miserere mei, Deus, which means ‘Have mercy on me, O God’. Psalm 51 was so famous for many centuries that the single word, Miserere, would bring it to mind in all sorts of cultural and religious settings.

Allegri’s choral Miserere is the stuff of legend—fitting for a post with so many superlative claims for Psalm 51. Allegri composed his Miserere for use in what are known as Tenebrae services in Holy Week. When Pope Urban VIII heard the work, he was impressed and wanted to preserve Allegri’s work for the Vatican’s use. So, he decreed that it should only be sung in the Sistine Chapel and only at the close of Holy Week. Its beauty would have been all the more startling in this context as it was (and indeed still is) performed by two choirs as a rich polyphonic work, and it followed services in which only plain chant was used. Here is a link to an excellent version of it, sung by VOCES8:

Allegri’s original work evolved after its ‘escape’ from the Sistine Chapel. The full story of its escape, courtesy of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart around 1770, can be found in a BBCFOUR documentary.

So far, Psalm 51 is living up to our earlier superlatives, at least in terms of a remarkable musical legacy—I hope you agree that Allegri’s work is as hauntingly beautiful as its story is remarkable.

#AtoZChallenge Theme Reveal

I am looking forward to posting 26 posts this April. This is what it means to do the #AtoZChallenge. I’ve done it before and you can see the results by starting here with A is for Aleph to Tav.

This year I will be blogging on Psalm 51 and its legacy in literature, liturgy, music, poetry and theology. I hope to show that this psalm deserves the accolade of psalm of Psalms. This is all part of an ongoing project on the penitential psalms where Psalm 51 is the centre psalm of the seven.

This really is a challenge! All encouragement and questions welcome—these both lighten the journey.

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.

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.

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.