Psalm 6: The First Penitential Psalm Today

This post will provide some examples of penitential commentary on Psalm 6 from the likes of Augustine, Cassiodorus, Denis the Carthusian, Luther and Calvin. In this way it introduces the reader to ancient readings and a facet of psalm interpretation which is unpopular today but was once immensely generative in doctrine, personal piety, Lenten practice, literature, and music. It also initiates an exploration of why such penitential readings of Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143 slowly waned in modernity. [1]

The first of the group of psalms designated the Penitential Psalms, Psalm 6, poses two acute challenges to the interpreter. Firstly, it is very short and so provides rather limited contextual information. Secondly, much of the content is open ended as to where it fits on the spectrum from literal to figurative. Augustine (354–430), who is thought by some to have established the grouping of the seven psalms, is quick to connect God’s wrath in v.1 with the psalmist’s sin which is not directly mentioned in the psalm. Having done this, he interprets the psalm as referring to what might be termed soul sickness thus conflating the reference to ailments in the bones (v.2) with that concerning the disturbed soul (v.3):

Accordingly the next verse, and my soul is greatly perturbed, makes it clear that the language of bones does not refer to the bones of the body. And you, Lord, how long? Here, obviously, is a soul wrestling with its own diseases, but long untreated by the doctor, in order that it may be convinced how great are the evils into which it has launched itself by sinning. [2]

Later interpreters might object to this singular focus on the soul on a number of grounds not least due to the potential for an anachronistic importing of Greek notions of the soul into the Hebrew text. This important matter will not delay us here but will be considered in a later post when we turn to another of the Penitential Psalms.

Like Augustine, Cassiodorus (c.485–c.585) sees the psalm as both penitential and concerned with spiritual sickness. Augustine and Cassiodorus both find support within the psalm for a penitential reading from the psalm’s superscription or heading. Issues regarding the Greek and Latin translation of the heading gave rise to a long tradition of what now seem very fanciful interpretations of this and many psalm headings. Here is the NRSV’s rendering of Psalm 6’s heading compared to that in the Latin Vulgate and its translation in Denis the Carthusian’s late medieval Commentary [3]:

To the leader: with stringed instruments; according to The Sheminith. A Psalm of David.

In finem, in carminibus. Psalmus David. Pro octava.
Latin text from Denis the Carthusian

Unto the end, in verses, a Psalm for David, for the octave.
English translation of the Latin

Like many other ancient and medieval interpreters Augustine, Cassiodorus and Denis each make much of ‘the end; and the ‘octave’ to refer to the Day of the Lord and other eschatological motifs concerning judgement. For example, Augustine and then Cassiodorus argue that:

. . ., it is possible to understand the day of judgement as the eighth day, because immediately after the end of this age, once eternal life has been gained, the souls of the righteous will not be subject to the ebb and flow of time. Perhaps because all time revolves around a seven-day cycle, the time which will be subject to none of that changeableness has been called the eighth day. [4]

For the octave denotes the Lord’s coming when the seven days of this age are at an end, and He comes to judge the world . . . That is why the penitent now introduced before us earnestly supplicates in the ordered divisions of his prayer that he may not be convicted for his deeds on the day of judgement. [5]

Cassiodorus is the first extent source to present the traditional seven penitential psalms as a group. He was also a keen advocate as to their ongoing value:

Though we should apply our eager intelligence to all the psalms, since the greatest resources for living are sought from them, yet we ought to pay particular attention to the psalms of the penitents, for they are like suitable medicine prescribed for the human race. [6]

Such exhortations about the value of the Penitential Psalms were taken very seriously by the medieval church. It is difficult to capture the magnitude of the importance that these seven psalms had for over a millennium. A snapshot of this rich reception can be found in a forthcoming Grove Booklet written by me and comprehensive assessment of their medieval ubiquity in a much larger study centred on Psalm 51 by Clare Costley King’oo [7]. By the thirteenth century King David was central to readings of Psalm 6, and the other six Penitential Psalms. Arguably the most famous example is Dame Eleanor Hull’s Middle English c.1420 translation of an earlier French text (probably mid or late thirteenth century) on the seven Penitential Psalms [8]. By this time David was understood as the model penitent [9]. His adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah are alluded to in the heading of Psalm 51—the fourth of the seven Penitential Psalms—and this psalm was understood as David’s contrite words spoken to the prophet Nathan. All seven Penitential Psalms were read from this perspective facilitated by their being collecting together in Books of Hours and other devotional works on the seven like those of Dame Eleanor Hull. In short King David became the model penitent whose contrition and compunction all faithful Christians should aspire to follow. For example, we read in Hull’s commentary on Psalm 6 about the contemporary sinner:

. . . thinking and saying to himself, ‘I am young and hale and flourishing in my youth and prosperity in this world is mine. And God is meek and merciful and will mend me as he has done on previous occasions.’ I say to you truly that this man lies in his bed. But he rises not with his tears as David did every night. You should understand that such nights betoken deadly sin. For just as a man by night goes stumbling and knows not what he should hold onto but by some light coming upon him from the moon or some star, just so the reason of man goes stumbling into the pit of delight of the night of his sin wherein he lies asleep, lest the light of grace from above shows him the way of great repentance, as she had done to David who washes his bed with his tears every night, . . . [10]

By the time of Denis the Carthusian (1402–1471), at the other end of the medieval period, the sacrament of penance had taken on great importance in church doctrine and practice. This sacramental practice is very much in evidence in Denis’ interpretation of Psalm 6 where he devotes a lot of space to the relationship between the necessity of internal contrition and the outward penitential actions of the penitent:

I have laboured in my groanings: that is, I am interiorly contrite of my sins, although I do not omit the exterior acts of penance and the works of satisfaction, but weeping, abstaining, persisting in holy vigils I prostrate myself . . . [11]

. . . Also, this which is said—I laboured in my groanings—can be understood here to refer to the interior effort, for indeed the interior effort exceeds the exterior effort, just as the interior pain exceeds the exterior pain . . . [12]

because the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping, that is, the interior affection, from which the voice and tears spring forth, and on account of which they declare themselves to be heard. For not clamor, but love, not the tears of the eyes, but contrition of the heart penetrates the heavens and enter into the ears of God. [13]

The English Bishop and Cardinal, John Fisher (1469–1535) had similar concerns and focused on responding to the psalm as consequential for the age to come:

There are three different ways almighty God deals with sinners, according to the three different kinds of them. There are some sinners who continue in their wretchedness till they die, and those almighty God punishes in hell’s eternal pains, whose ministers are the devils. There are other sinners who have begun to be penitent before their death and to amend their lives, and these almighty God punishes in the pains of purgatory, which have an end and whose ministers are angels. Thirdly, there are still other sinners who, by grace in their life, have so punished themselves by penance for their offences that they have made sufficient repayment for them. And these almighty God accepts in his infinite mercy. [14]

Both Denis and Fisher read the psalm penitentially in dialogue with late medieval sacramental praxis and doctrinal development. Luther (1483–1546) is also concerned about the fate of sinners. He tends to speak, however, less abstractly and mechanically, and more personally than either Denis or Fisher:

God’s strength and consolation are given to no one unless he asks for it from the bottom of his heart. But no one who has not been profoundly terrified and forsaken prays profoundly. He does not know what ails him, and he remains secure in the strength and consolation of another, his own or that of creatures. In order, therefore, that God might dispense His strength and consolation and communicate it to us, He withdraws all other consolation and makes the soul deeply sorrowful, crying and longing for His comfort. Thus all God’s chastisements are graciously designed to be a blessed comfort, although through weak and despairing hearts the foolish hinder and distort the design aimed at them, because they do not know that God hides and imparts His goodness and mercy under wrath and chastisement. [15]

Calvin (1509–1564) writing a few years later than Luther commentates in a very different style. His approach seems much more like a modern commentary as he seeks a clear methodology to interpret the text in context before applying it. He still, however, sees the context as the life of David like many pre-critical interpreters. In the end his conclusions are often close to Augustine with who we began this journey:

David, being afflicted by the hand of God, acknowledges that he had provoked the Divine wrath by his sins, and therefore, in order to obtain relief, he prays for forgiveness. . . What the kind of chastisement was of which he speaks is uncertain. Those who restrict it to bodily disease do not adduce in support of their opinion any argument of sufficient weight. [16]

Contemporary academic interpreters tend to avoid David as the subject of the psalms and look to the content of the psalm itself to provide context. [17] In this way Goldingay, for example, argues that the psalm is not penitential but that the psalmist experiences God’s wrath in a manner akin to Job’s experience. For Goldingay the psalmist is not struggling with sin and God’s righteous punishment but is in the thick of lament in part because of the puzzle of why they are so afflicted by God. In closing his consideration of Psalm 6 he reflects on the whole:

All this can be brought to God without expressing either a correlative awareness of sin that needs confessing or a conviction about personal commitment that makes it possible to make a statement that trouble is undeserved. [18]

In a similar way Charry explains Psalm 6’s context by noting that:

In Christian tradition, it is also often read as the first of the Psalter’s seven penitential psalms, yet no confession of sin and no plea for forgiveness are offered. Nothing indicates that the speaker understands his adversity to be punishment for sin, only that it has apparently been going on for some time. The speaker cries for healing, not forgiveness. [19]

In appropriating Psalm 6 today, as functional Scripture, do we really have to choose between what was for a long time a dominant penitential reading and the modern rediscovery of biblical lament? I don’t think so. Whilst there are issues with some aspects of pre-critical interpretation both ancient and modern readings can cohere with the language of this psalm and inform our prayer. Intertextuality might be a dangerous tool in scientific exegesis but surely in a living textual faith there are interpretive connections and riches which legitimise using the words of this psalm as the basis for calling on God as a suffering sinner and/or struggling supplicant. A case can surely be made that a penitential prayer is just one specific subset of the complex lament that is central to the life of faith. These possibilities will be explored further when we turn to some of the other Penitential Psalms in future posts in 2022.

Many people of faith will at some point in the life of faith own the words of this psalm. As the Sidney Psalter expresses the opening verses we too might cry for a variety of reasons:

Lord, let not me, a worm, by thee be shent
While thou art in the heart of thy displeasure:
Ne let thy rage, of my due punishment
Become the measure. [20]

References

  1. Verse numbers here follow that found in the majority of English translation, for example, the NIV and NRSV. Many of the sources cited here use verse numbering that follows the Latin and Greek texts.
  2. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, volume 1, Maria Boulding (translator), John E. Rotelle (ed.) (New City Press, 2000), p.106. In all quotations in this post the psalm text is shown in bold and italics but otherwise identical with the original source.
  3. Denis the Carthusian, Commentary on the Davidic Psalms, Volume 1, Andrew M. Greenwell (translator) (Arouca Press: 2000) p.113.
  4. Augustine, Expositions, p.104.
  5. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms, Volume 1, P. G. Walsh (translator) (Paulist Press, 1990), pp.89–90.
  6. Cassiodorus, Explanation, p.98.
  7. Mark J. Whiting, The Penitential Psalms Today: A Journey with Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143, Grove Books, forthcoming 2022 and Clare Costley King’oo, Misere Mei: The Penitential Psalms in Late Medieval and Early Modern England (University of Notre Dame Press, 2012).
  8. Alexandra Barratt (editor), The Seven Psalms: A Commentary on the Penitential Psalms Translated from French into English by Dame Eleanor Hull (Oxford University Press, 1995).
  9. Michael P. Kuczynski, Prophetic Song: The Psalms as Moral Discourse in Late Medieval England, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), pp.81–119 and passim.
  10. Barratt, The Seven, p.16. My inexpert translation of the Middle English and one Latin phrase.
  11. Denis, Volume 1, p.117.
  12. Denis, Volume 1, pp.117–118.
  13. Denis, Volume 1, p.120.
  14. John Fisher, Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms, Anne Barbeau Gardiner (translator) (Ignatius Press, 1998), pp.9–10.
  15. Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works, Vol. 14: Selected Psalms III (Luther’s Works (Concordia)) (Kindle Locations 2613-2619). Concordia Publishing House. Kindle Edition.
  16. John Calvin, Psalms 1–35, James Anderson (Translator) (Calvin Translation Society, 1845) p.65.
  17. This is something of an oversimplification given the vexed question in the last two hundred years as to what the context of psalm is, with David’s life, temple cult, canonical context, being just some of the options.
  18. John Goldingay, Psalms Volume 1: Psalms 1–41 (Baker Academic, 2006), p.141.
  19. Ellen T. Charry, Psalms 1–50 (Brazos Press, 2015), p.27.
  20. Hannibal Hamlin et al. (editors), The Sidney Psalter: The Psalms of Sir Philip and Mary Sidney, (Oxford University Press, 2009), p.17.

X is for X-rated

Throughout this acrostic series we have celebrated how Psalm 51 has inspired great music (A is for Allegri), challenging sermons (J is for John Donne), uplifting commentary (E is for Eleanor Hull) and theological reflection (L is for Luther). Not everything that Psalm 51 has inspired has been so lofty and in tune with the cry Miserere mei, Deus. For example, the Books of Hours which were primers for lay piety had woodcuts showing the naked bathing Bathsheba with David looking onwards. In an age when this was the only mass media it seems likely that such imagery would have inflamed in some the very lust that prayer was meant to quell.

The same subject informed the Western art tradition and the naked Bathsheba provided a pious umbrella of religious propriety under which to practice voyeurism. Paintings by Rubens (c.1635), Rembrandt (1654) and Hayez (1845) are among the most famous of this very focused genre.

There is enormous irony that Psalm 51 might, albeit very indirectly, give rise to the voyeurism that was the downfall of its supposed author. Sadly, the story of Bathsheba from inception to the present bears the all too familiar hallmarks of patriarchy at its worst. The Bible has scant details about the nature of Bathsheba’s complicity in adultery. Little imagination is required to picture various scenarios that lie a long way from consensual sex, especially given the power of a king in a patriarchal culture.

This is of course speculation but what is clear is that over the centuries Bathsheba has been assumed to have invited David’s attention. Even the positive outcome of David’s penitence, contrition and compunction side lines Bathsheba as an object in the story. Too few have even paused to ask with genuine openness whether she was victim or co-sinner in the light of celebrating David as sinner turned penitent. There is of course little evidence to go on, but we would all do well to at least pause to remember that Bathsheba was a frail human being whose role as victim, sinner and penitent remain opaque.

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.

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.

K is for King David

In the previous post—J is for John Donne—we met his sermon on Psalm 51:7. Throughout this sermon Donne time-and-again reflects on King David as the model penitent. In a very real sense David leads the way for us all. Just as we fail, like him, so we too can receive God’s mercy like David as in Psalm 51.

For centuries, since at least the time of Augustine (354–430) interpreters assumed that the title of Psalm 51 and its references to David, Bathsheba and Nathan were the key interpretive lens through which it should be read. As biblical criticism grew from around the time of Donne onwards it become normal to question every accepted practice of interpretation. It soon became a norm to see the psalm titles with biographical allusions to the life of David as late, and therefore inappropriate as hermeneutical lenses.

Such logic has itself been questioned more recently. It is now more normal to understand these titles as late but to accept them as a possible hermeneutical lens because this was the intent of the editors who added them.

Susan Gillingham’s contribution to Psalms scholarship was recognised in an earlier post. She goes a step further and argues that there are features of Psalm 51 that intentionally further the link between Psalm 51 and 2 Samuel 12 (Gillingham, 2018). The table below shows verses from 2 Samuel which are echoed in Psalm 51 according to Susan Gillingham.

Linked verses from 2 Samuel 12

Psalm 51 verse

He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me, and the child may live.’

Verse 22

Have mercy on me, O God,    according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Verse 1

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.

Verse 13

Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.

Verse 4

Then Nathan went to his house. The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill. David therefore pleaded with God for the child; David fasted, and went in and lay all night on the ground. The elders of his house stood beside him, urging him to rise from the ground; but he would not, nor did he eat food with them.

Verse 15–17

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Verse 17

Such intertextuality is difficult to appreciate with neutrality. The web of intertextual connections in the reception of Psalm 51 is not controversial. We have already seen it furthered by Gregorio Allegri, Alighieri Dante, Eleanor Hull, John Fisher, Leonard Cohen and John Donne. There’s plenty more to come, including a magisterial figure in our next post.

Reference
Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries Volume 2: A Reception History Commentary on Psalms 1 – 72, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2018, p.304.

 

G is for Gillingham

Susan Gillingham is one of the best Psalm scholars of our day. She is Fellow and Tutor in theology at Worcester College, Oxford. She became Professor of the Hebrew Bible in 2014. Her work on the Psalms is wide ranging and multi-faceted. This makes her work especially valuable as much scholarship on the Psalms, throughout the twentieth century to the present, has been all too often marred by competing singular approaches. Her significant contributions include: exploring Hebrew poetry [1], the reception of the psalms [2–4] and examining the place of the psalms in Israelite worship.

Here we draw attention to some aspects of her work in relation to Psalms 51. In her reception history commentary [4] she refers to Psalm 51 as ‘The Psalm of Psalms’ because of its rich impact in theology, art, and culture. In this way Gillingham provides credence to the point that our project is attempting to make, that Psalm 51 has been highly significant especially in the medieval period. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that in the Middle Ages it became a lens through which the other psalms were read.

Gillingham also notes that at the time the Psalter was being edited for the final time it was given a prominent position. We can see this in the headings of the psalms. For the editors of the Psalter the headings were important. That this is the case is evident in the clear grouping of psalms according to their headings. So, for example, there are three what we might call Davidic psalters:

The First Davidic Psalter: Psalms 3–41
The Second Davidic Psalter: Psalms 51–72
The Third Davidic Psalter: Psalms 138–145

Psalm 51 heads the second David psalter giving it a natural place of prominence. Its heading which alludes to the lowest point in David’s life—including adultery and murder—makes the impact of its position at the head of a Davidic collection greater still. David’s misdeeds will be examined in two further posts in this A–Z project.

Interestingly, Gillingham makes claims about the biographical heading and the content of The Psalm of Psalms which run counter to much modern scholarship. We will look at these claims in K is for King David.

References

  1. Susan Gillingham, The Poems and Psalms of the Hebrew Bible, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  2. Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries Volume 1, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2012.
  3. Susan Gillingham, A Journey of Two Psalms: The Reception of Psalms 1 and 2 in Jewish and Christian Tradition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  4. Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries Volume 2: A Reception History Commentary on Psalms 1 – 72, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2018
  5. Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries Volume 3: A Reception History Commentary on Psalms 73 – 150, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2022.
  6. S. E. Gillingham, ‘The Zion Tradition and the Editing of the Hebrew Psalter’, pp.308–341 in Temple and Worship in Biblical Israel, John Day, London: Burns & Oates, 2005.

Malcolm Guite’s ‘David’s Crown’: A Review

Malcolm Guite, David’s Crown: Sounding the Psalms, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2021

Malcolm Guite conceived and wrote this book during the earliest months of the pandemic. There is an irony in this origin, for corona, a word that had eluded most of us until a year ago, can refer to a crown or coronet of poems. These 150 poems are a collection—one poem per psalm. They also combine to form a single poem. A 2,250-line epic which is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a majestic response to the biblical Psalter, the original Davidic corona.

 

The Psalter comprises poems of very different lengths. The longest, Psalm 119, is around 200 times longer that the shortest, Psalm 117. Here in David’s Crown Guite adopts a poetic convention such that each poem is the same length and of the same form. In honour of the canonical crown each of his responses has fifteen lines, a nod to the 150 psalms. He also adopts another convention in following John Donne who linked seven poems, each adopting as its first line the last one of the previous poem. This is more than a clever and arbitrary stylistic whim. This convention celebrates another feature of the Psalter, the pairing of each psalm with its neighbours. The resulting concatenation within the Psalter is achieved in more complex ways than in Guite’s response—it includes various devices such as keywords pairs, repeated phrases, alternating patterns of day and night, matching interests and/or theological progression. As Paula Gooder reminds us in the introduction to David’s Crown, the Psalms also have a narrative that ties and binds them together. This can be seen as a journey of petition down to, and through, the low of Psalm 88, followed by a gentling rising path of praise. This culminates with Psalm 150’s unabandoned doxology.

The story within the Psalter is also the narrative of the Davidic kings and God’s kingship. Guite’s response reveals this story with a thoroughgoing Christian reading—this might be David’s Crown but in the 150 episodes we find Christ eclipsing David. This interpretive lens is, of course, that made by the Second Testament and many of the Church Fathers, including most notably Augustine and his interpretive paradigm of the total Christ (totus Christus). As Guite puts it, his work forms ‘a chaplet of praise to garland the head of the one who wore the Corona Spinea, the crown of thorns for us, and who has suffered with us through the corona pandemic [p.xv].’

So far, so good, this collection has a form that both echoes the 150 psalms it celebrates and has a coherent and insightful form. Is the execution as good as the conception? In short, the answer is a resounding yes. Each response is a delight in its own right. Doubtless readers will have different favourites. I particularly enjoyed the reflection on Psalm 39 because of its playful allusion to Leonard Cohen’s famous proverb about light and cracks. The response to Psalm 118, despite its brevity before its subject, works with many of the ideas and words found there in a beautiful fresh way. The 125th meditation is poignant, it is a prayer dedicating the collection as a thanksgiving offering. If each poem is a delight, then the whole can only be described as sublime. The single-minded form does not wear thin but rather provides a sort of theological and Christological perpetual motion—one reaches the end only to find that the last line of Psalm 150 provides the opening to the collection.

Guite explains that this is a response to the Coverdale version of the Psalms from the Book of Common Prayer. This is evident in the Latin headings to each poem and frequently in the language of the compositions. Nevertheless, is very much a contemporary poetry collection, it just knows how to cherish light from the past. There are allusions, both explicit and implicit, to the likes of John Donne, Julian of Norwich, John Bunyan, William Blake, Gregorio Allegri and Robert Alter. This peppering of imbibers and interpreters reminds us that behind these poems lie not just the ancient Psalms themselves but an age of their inspirational legacy—more profoundly still we perceive the Spirit breathing across some three millennia.

If you love the Psalter and enjoy poetry you will cherish David’s Crown:

So come and bring him all your nights and days,
And come into his courts with joyful song,
Come to the place where every breath is praise [p.150].

 

 

 

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.

Life Understood Backwards

Looking Back
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard claimed that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

The experience of the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus was something like this. How could they understand Jesus’ life at its end? Even at the end did it make sense? Cleopas and the other, unnamed disciple have not understood Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. We do not know how much time they spent with Jesus—it is clear they are not among the eleven disciples. But they certainly knew enough to be disappointed. He was not the deliverer they had hoped for. They, like many, wanted a Messiah who was a military redeemer. A messiah like David in every sense. An anointed leader who would defeat the occupying Romans just as David had tackled Goliath and the Philistines.

The one they had begun to think might be God’s anointed ruler had died shamefully on a cross. A remarkable man in many ways, but in the end as frail as any other. And now the women claimed his body was gone. More than that, they also said they had seen angels announcing that he was alive.

These events lived forwards made no sense to these two followers. Jesus was a man who taught with authority, healed the sick, and cast out demons. Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem like a king. And then it all turned sour. These two disciples had apparently given up on the one they had been following. They had left Jerusalem for Emmaus and presumably were returning to their old lives.

But they encounter the risen Jesus, although they do not know this at first. This meeting is a revelation—a revealing in two stages. They experience a progressive understanding of who Jesus is. They will come to understand Jesus’ life.

First Jesus makes them look back as they journey together. They simultaneously look back on the life of Jesus and the work of God in the Old Testament. The Risen Jesus does the most remarkable thing. He combines his story with the story of the Hebrew Scriptures. Read through Jesus, the Hebrew Scriptures become the First Testament to his life, his death, and his resurrection. Jesus is the fulfilment of the Hebrew scriptures.

The second stage of unveiling is a more personal encounter that goes beyond explanation. It is an opening of their eyes. They literally see the risen Christ. They had started out lost on the road, but now were found. They had been blind but now they could see.

Our Conversion
We are unlikely to have had the same type of encounter with the risen Christ as the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. But there is likely to be some similarity. I remember at the age of seventeen finding out more about Jesus and the Bible. I had seen lots of the bits and pieces of the gospel but struggled to put it all together. I still needed my eyes to be opened. I can remember two distinct moments when Jesus suddenly made more sense. The first was a bit like the two disciples on the road having things explained to them. My Emmaus road was a tent, in Margate, where the crucifixion was explained in rather graphic detail to me, and several hundred others. This converted my brain and my conscience. I went forward knowing that my life was never going to be the same again.

Just a few days later I had the second step of eye opening—only possible because of the first. I was reading the Parable of the Tenants in Mark 12 and my heart was converted. My heart burned at that moment like the experience of those two disciples. I understood at a heart level just what it meant that God had sent prophets to speak of him. Prophets who were beaten and killed. I understood at the heart level that he sent his own Son that we might know him. Only for him to suffer the same fate. It was as though Jesus was there with me, unpacking the Law and the Prophets—refreshing me as the bread of life with a meal.

Knowing Jesus in this way does not mean that the rest of our lives suddenly make complete sense. But it is a start. Much still happens in my life that I do not understand. Things have happened to me and my family which I wish had not. But in Christ I trust that in the end it will make sense. The times of pain and trial will be found to have some benefit or important consequence. If we have met Jesus on our Road to Emmaus we can find him too in our Valley of the Shadow of Death. The poet B M Franklin puts is this way:

My life is but a weaving
Between my Lord and me;
I cannot choose the colors
He worketh steadily.

Oft times He weaveth sorrow
And I, in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper,
And I the under side.

Not til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God unroll the canvas
And explain the reason why.

The dark threads are as needful
In the Weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.

Our Ongoing Experience of Christ
In the Emmaus story the two disciples do something simple. They have a meal with Jesus—they break bread with him. It is no surprise that it was at the breaking of bread that their eyes were opened, and they recognised that the man before them is the risen Lord Jesus. Less than a week earlier Jesus has broken bread and explained that his body must be broken. These two disciples would surely have heard about this odd teaching.

Almighty God does not fix his broken creation and broken relationships with a display of power and might. He does the unthinkable—Jesus lays down his life for his friends. One of the most frustrating things about our distance from one another because of Covid-19 is the fact that we cannot gather, and worse still that we cannot eat bread and drink wine, and remember Christ together. As the body of Christ, we are meant to meet together.

In our distance from each other let’s be reminded of the privilege of meeting together so that we can make the best of that day when we join one another again. Let’s remember that puzzle that we are in a mysterious sense the body of Christ.

Scattered we might be, but we are still united in Christ.

A Call to Passion for Christ
The two disciples have their hearts kindled by Jesus. A mixture of joy that he was not dead and a revelation of what he had accomplished in the twin events of cross and resurrection.

How can we kindle that flame afresh—that same passion and conviction in Christ that we have tasted before? There are obvious answers of course, such as prayer and Bible reading. But in the spirit of the gospel, and to keep the light alive in us, reaching out to our fellow disciples is vital. As members of his body our concern should be with the health of all.

Jesus came that we might have life and have it to the full. Circumstances prevent us meeting to celebrate together. This does not mean we retreat and just wait for a better time. A crisis like this, it tests our depth in Christ. Being united and encouraged in Christ can be as simple as a phone call, a text message, a card, or a good old-fashioned letter. Some of us might be called to heroics if we are on the front-line but for most of us we need to do the small things that show love and concern. George Eliot expresses it will in her novel Middlemarch:

“..for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Many of the blessings we can bring to one another, even at this time, are unremarkable. But these things not only achieve good now they echo in eternity as the lives of disciples of Jesus lived well. A crisis is just the time when we need some gospel purpose, when we need to show love, kindness, and generosity. Encouraging one another, listening to one another, taking time to do something for one another is part of living the gospel—it is the ongoing re-creation of proper relationships in Christ Jesus.

It is not just our fellow Christians that need encouragement. In these odd times all sorts of questions are in people’s minds. Many people are asking questions about life and death, not so different to those asked by Cleopas and his friend.

Our lives do not make much sense lived forward. How much more is this the case for those who do not know Christ? There are likely to be people you know who are lonely. If nothing else, you can remedy this for a few minutes. There are almost certainly people you know who are fearful. Well, you can listen. There are very likely people you know who are asking questions. Your effort to reach out to them might be the only answer they get.

We believe in the priesthood of all believers we can all use this time to connect with others.

Loving One Another Makes Sense
The act of reaching out to someone is a small step in making sense of life. The strengthening of relationships is a natural consequence of the gospel. Simple acts of love will strengthen both parties and strengthen the body, the fellowship of believers.

The one certainty of understanding our lives is that where there is love this is where they most readily make sense.

The ‘Corona test’ asks of us all how much we love. If we have not love we are, as the Apostle Paul says, a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. Love sings a better song. Don’t wait for someone else to connect.

Jesus tells a parable in Matthew’s gospel which tells us how our lives will make sense in the end when we meet him face-to-face:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:34–40, NIV

An Enarratio of Psalm 1: Behold the Man

The enarratio (exposition or setting forth) of Psalm 1, below, is not an effort at modern exegesis. It does not progress from distinct and careful assessment of textual, canonical, or theological context and then move on to drawing some spiritual lessons for today. It is of the same ilk as Augustine’s Enarrationes in Psalmos, or Expositions of the Psalms. The psalm is read wilfully in the light of Christ and the Rule of Faith—recognising that we are ‘his body’, the Church, and he is ‘our head’. It is also read by using Scripture to understand Scripture. In this way, the meditation is not afraid to recognise that if the Scriptures are inspired by the one Spirit then they have an illuminating and meaningful intertextuality. This echo of Augustine is presented as an experiment—a case that asks us the questions: What have we gained in modern exegesis? And, more importantly what have we lost? The NKJV has been chosen in order to ensure the use of ‘man’ in verse 1—most contemporary translations use inclusive language obscure the word. I normally welcome inclusive translation, but here there is a danger of losing some of the remarkable theological potential of this psalm if the Hebrew word ha’ish is not rendered ‘man’ but as ‘the one’ (as in the NIV), ‘those’ (so the NRSV), or similar.

An Enarratio of Psalm 1: Behold the Man

Blessed is the man. Who is this man we meet at the beginning of the Psalter? In this beginning, this opening of the Book of Psalms, there are rivers and a tree. A choice is presented between obeying God or ungodly council. Is this an echo of the Eden story? Is this man Adam? Or, perhaps we have here the Second Adam? A man presented boldly at the outset of the Psalter—itself a great work of the words of life and salvation. Who better than Jesus Christ, our saviour, to set us on the path ahead? As we start our journey is he the man we should behold? Or do we find ourselves here? Christ came to live the life of every-man, and in Adam all men find their mould. Is this man the first Adam, the Second Adam, and every Adam fashioned from the earth? For we know from the Apostle Paul that all men, and women, are united in both Adams (Rom. 5:12–17; 1 Cor. 15:45). In one we have tasted sin and death, and in the other we are put to death so that we might have life. This psalm most certainly concerns two possibilities: the way of nature in the First Adam, and the way of grace in the Second Adam.

And yet, is this not the Book of David? Even though there is no title mentioning David, is this not his book? But, the Second Adam is the Son of David. And so, we have all these men at work. The first Adam in which we died, David who had a heart that God loved and yet a sinner, and the Second Adam who defines being blessed as being sinless and passing on this blessing to others. It is in him that we are made whole.

Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; . . . In that glorious garden, named Eden, Adam received the counsel of the ungodly. The ancient serpent counselled Eve directly against God’s instruction: “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Adam lamely followed the deceiver’s counsel, through his wife, without hesitation according to the Scriptures. In a moment, in the blinking of an eye, the first man becomes a sinner set on a new path. This path would take him from Edenic blessing into a world were all his progeny would have to choose who to walk with, who to stand with, and who to take to their table. In this fractured world, journeying away from God can happen without even the effort of placing one foot in front of another. Yet God in his mercy still allows for a path on which he accompanies anyone who would know him—the way of grace. But how can man decide between grace and his own nature? What can help us keep to the path?

But his delight is in the law of the Lord, . . . It is God’s instruction, his torah or law, in which we can see the proper path. The first Adam strayed from this path. He had but one prohibitive instruction and yet could not obey it. His delight strayed from God’s instruction to a piece of fruit, a fruit we tend to imagine as an apple, at least in the Western world. Who has not put more delight in ‘other fruit’ than God’s torah? Augustine famously tells us of how it was pears that lead him astray. He, together with other youths, stole the fruit not out of hunger but just because they wanted to taste forbidden fruit. Just as Adam had Eve for company, as a companion in disobedience so we too go astray with others. Terrence Malick tells a story in the Tree of Life, of another youth—Jack O’Brien—who leads his fellows astray. They break things in their neighbourhood including a window. Only frail humanity would break the very things that let light in. Jack has made the wrong choice, the way of nature he has learnt from his Father, rather the way of grace by which his Mother lives. Only the Second Adam consistently found delight in the instruction of his Father, The Father of all humankind.

And in His instruction he meditates day and night. From the lips of Jesus, we hear words shaped not only by prayerful listening but attentive meditation on the law. Jesus found this law in The Law, and the words of the Prophets, and in the other Hebrew writings. He meditated and from his heart these words spilled out and gave rise in turn to new God-given wisdom and instruction. He would rise early to listen (Mk. 1:25), and when needs must he stayed awake into the night chewing over God’s promises (Mk. 14:32–42) and plans. And the result of such meditation by day and night?

He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, . . . Cause and effect plain and simple. The first Adam distracted by one tree lost sight of the Tree of Life. He lost the chance to be a tree, fed by the Spirit’s water. He wandered away from God, though God hoped for him to remain rooted in paradise where he had placed him. It is the way of humanity’s nature that we stray like sheep. Sometimes we not only walk away from God, we run (Jonah 1:3; Luke 15:13). Why would we reject the gracious refreshing waters given to us by God? Only one man has remained planted firmly were God wanted him. The second Adam remained planted in God’s plan though it took him to another tree. A terrible tree of agony, suffering, and death. He was himself a faithful planted tree, his hands had shaped wood in life, but were now nailed to the cruellest of trees.

That brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper. Where is the fruit in dying on a tree? Did not the second Adam wither? In what sense can this be named prosperity? And yet the Second Adam said for all to hear: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:24–25). In this way the First Adam lost his life and the Second Adam bore much fruit, bringing others eternal life. We too, both men and women, can gain our lives. But only in him as we join one another to be his body. Like Jack in the Tree of Life we can turn from the wrong path. The way of grace remains open to us all, that is the nature of grace. As for Jack in the film, the Tree of Life is always available, it pops up everywhere. This is the nature of grace. It is on our doorstep. It can be found even in the wilderness. The way of grace is knowing that we can be a fruitful tree by being grafted into a bigger tree that goes by the name of the Church. For we are the body and the Second Adam, he is our head (Acts 9:4; Eph. 5:21–33; Col. 1:24).

The ungodly are not so but are like the chaff which the wind drives away. Some want to see the ungodly’s step-by-step journey away from God as synonymous with being blown away. And yet this humbling image seems to cohere with a sadder fate on the path away from God. For we know that chaff speaks of the Day of Days (Hosea 13:3), the Day of the Lord.

Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. What is more tragic than a creature who does not know their Creator and so never lives the full life that was put before them? Those that do not join the blessed man, who are not flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, bear not the fruit of forgiveness; sin and death are still theirs as they live in union with the First Adam, a legacy that cannot be healed other than by the Second.

For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the ungodly shall perish. So, it is confirmed there are two paths though an infinite number of twists and turns on these two ways. Those who know the Lord taste his way of grace. Those that are strangers to him can only follow nature’s instruction. In this way a psalm that opens with the word blessed must close with the word perish. And this a reminder that we should praise the one in who we are found, the blessed man who carries us home so we will not be carried hither and thither on the wind in this life or the next.