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]

R is for Reclassifying

This series of posts is a celebration of Psalm 51. We have suggested that it was the Psalm of Psalms in the medieval period. This implies that somehow it lost its crown. This is indeed the case. So how was Psalm 51 eclipsed by other psalms after having a one millennia hegemony? We will consider three issues here, though there are others.

The first is the way that modern scholarship has treated the psalm headings which mention biographical episodes from the life of David. We have already seen in previous posts how Psalm 51 was read through a Davidic lens—whereby he is understood as both model sinner and model penitent. In modern scholarship there is virtual unanimity that the headings are late additions to earlier songs that were free of biographical allusions to King David. More recently, it has been argued that if the editors saw the headings as meaningful in their final establishing of the text then such readings are legitimate. Despite this more recent positive view of headings, one implication of the critical view is the marginalisation of a penitential interpretation.

Critical scholarship has also argued that Davidic authorship of the psalms is minimal, or even non-existent, and this has given priority to exploring psalms for evidence of an original setting in life. This leads to the proposal of hypothetical ways in which a psalm was used in the Temple cult or perhaps in a more local tribal setting. When this is done to the penitential psalm they belong to different groups and mixtures of groups. Psalm 51 is seen as a special type of lament with a penitential focus. Despite this interpretation being close to the traditional interpretation for this psalm, Psalm 51 is left bereft of its seven companions which are understood variously to be laments, contain wisdom elements, and in one case understood as a thanksgiving psalm. Such was the sustained critical efforts over two centuries that a penitential reading seemed to run counter to their hypothesised origin and nature.

The third issue is that in many parts of the Church modern sensibilities opened the psalms to criticism and increasingly some were not used in liturgy, or were edited for use in communal worship by omitting some verses. The penitential psalms have an underlying theology of God’s anger and wrath towards the psalmist. This cohered well with the Augustinian interpretive tradition through, and including, the main reformation theologies, but has been questioned in many quarters today.

The upshot of this is that other ways of reading the psalms have become more popular. One mistake with Psalms scholarship that has been repeated over the centuries is to prioritise one hermeneutical lens to the exclusion of others. The psalms are too rich to expect one interpretive lens to do them justice. The penitential lens is one among a number of approaches we need to read these 150 poems as Scripture. And in this sense Psalm 51 remains at least the penitential psalm par excellence even if this means it has lost its crown as Psalm of Psalms.

Q is for the Quality of Mercy

Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice has a speech about mercy, the central theme of our miserere, Psalm 51. It is delivered by Portia in Act 4 Scene 1 in a courtroom context. Portia is pleading, even begging, for Shylock’s mercy. It provides a rich meditation on the meaning of mercy and its relationship with justice. Such reflection is important in earthly affairs, but as is made clear in the speech it pertains closely to the mercy with which Psalm 51 is concerned—that is the unfathomable quality of mercy shown by the Creator to his creatures:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I

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.

O is for Original Sin

The theological idea of original sin is a nuanced one. Saint Augustine is generally viewed as the theologian who firmly established it as a doctrine in the face of challenges to the idea from Pelagius. This is not the place to rehearse this controversy. Our interest here is with Psalm 51 and how it appears to proclaim the doctrine.

In this post we will let Augustine speak for himself using quotations from his sermon on Psalm 51 (for him Psalm 50). When we allow him to speak we first find, unsurprisingly, that Augustine finds original sin presented in this psalm:

David spoke in the person of the whole human race, and had regard to the chains that bind us all. He had regard for the propagation of death and the origin of iniquity, and he said, Lo, I was conceived in iniquity. But surely David was not born of adultery? Was he not the son of Jesse, a righteous man, and his wife? How then can he say he was conceived in iniquity, unless iniquity is derived from Adam? And with iniquity, indissolubly linked, comes the chain of death. Each of us is born dragging punishment along with us, or at any rate dragging our liability to punishment. [p.418, Augustine, Psalms 33–50]

More, surprisingly as he comments further on the key verse (our verse 5, his verse 7) we find a more nuanced view of sexual intercourse that Augustine is generally given credit for:

Human beings are conceived in iniquity, and nourished on sins by their mothers while still in the womb, not because sexual intercourse between husband and wife is sinful, but because the sexual act is performed by flesh subject to punishment. The punishment due to the flesh is death. Mortality is plainly inherent in the flesh. This is why the apostle spoke of the body not as something doomed to die, but as dead already . . . [p.418, Augustine, Psalms 33–50]

Augustine’s doctrine of original sin was understood as a clarification of the theology of the nature of humanity rather than an innovation. Many earlier statements of the Fathers cohere with Augustine’s view found here in his commentary on Psalm 51, and stated more fully elsewhere in his writings. Because of Augustine’s pivotal role in defining original sin against its critics, verse 5 of Psalm 51 was read, and still is by many, as a plain statement of this doctrine. As we shall see in our next post this was not the last time that Psalm 51 would be understood as central to key doctrines in historic Christianity.

Reference
Saint Augustine, Exposition of the Psalm Volume 2: Psalms 33–50, Maria Boulding (translator), Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2000.

N is for Nathan

Nathan gets the briefest of mentions in the heading of Psalm 51:

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

Nathan was a prophet. Like the best of prophets, he was required to speak truth to power. The Book of 2 Samuel provides the details of his brave mission which could so easily have ended in him suffering the fate of so many other prophets. In chapter 11 we read that God was angry with David for committing adultery and the murder of her husband Uriah. God sends Nathan to confront David with the facts of his sin. The heading of Psalm 51 claims that the psalm is the resulting prayer.

Like the best prophets Nathan was not only brave but also wise. He realises that confronting David head on is likely to have a less than good account for him. So, he tells David a story. The episode is far enough away from David’s specific sins so as to not arouse his suspicions but close enough to do its job of forcing David to recognise his iniquity. Nathan’s parable, 2 Samuel 12:1–6, portrays David as someone who has everything he could ever need but is happy to take all from those who have less. In this sense the point we saw Luther make, two posts ago, is made: sin is both a deep-rooted reality and specific acts that arise from this disposition.

After this story, Nathan then speaks God’s assessment of David. God, through Nathan, points out that he had been given everything by God, including a journey from despised shepherd boy to King. Yet, this is clearly not enough for David.

The outcome of this confrontation is a complex one. There is judgement in that the child born to Bathsheba and David dies. There is also mercy in that David receives God’s forgiveness:

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. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.”
2 Samuel 12:13–14, NRSV

This story captures the paradox of David as the worst of sinners and yet the best of penitents. At some level we might find the mercy of God here unfathomable, and yet who is not grateful that their own misdemeanours do not exact death? At least not our death.

Nathan was a faithful prophet to David. When we read Psalm 51 as David’s prayer he becomes a prophet to us. Like Nathan he speaks of sin’s ugly power but also of the glorious quality of God’s mercy.