My Booklet on the Penitential Psalms

I am pleased to say that my Grove Book on the penitential psalms was published this week. It’s titled The Penitential Psalms Today: A Journey with Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143 and is available from Grove by clicking on this title. The booklet was written for the simple reason that after researching the penitential psalms for 3 years, or so, for a much larger project on the Psalms, it became apparent that no modern short introduction to these seven psalms was in print. The closest I could find were fifty year old books, mentioned earlier on my blog: S is for the Sixties. The absence of a modern introduction to these psalms was all the more surprising given their immense important in Church history. Some of this puzzle is laid out in the book. This booklet is a great place to start to gain an appreciation of these seven psalms and their fascinating history, so as if to make use of them today. A number of previous posts here examine some specific aspects of these psalms in a rather more ad hoc manner. These can be found by clicking on the keyphrase Penitential Psalms.

If you find the booklet interesting it would be helpful if you could let me know via the comments below. If you’d like to know more about these psalms or arrange a talk or retreat on them please get in touch via the ‘Who Am I?’ page.

Psalm 102: Bird on a Wire

This is the third of a series of occasional posts on the penitential psalms. Here we will focus on a single aspect of Psalm 102: its use of ornithological imagery. Pictorial language is not only central to the very nature of the psalms, but it is also key to understanding them. Focusing on the threefold use of bird metaphors will help us reflect on the question, ‘who is speaking this psalm?’

Here are verses 6 and 7 [verses 7 and 8 in the Latin and Hebrew textual traditions] from the NIVUK translation:

6 I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.
7 I lie awake; I have become
like a bird alone on a roof.

Augustine, following the Latin text, identifies the three birds as pelican, owl (or night raven) and sparrow. Perhaps because of his desire to distil everything of value from the Scriptures he argues that the three birds are not necessarily to be understood as a metaphorical unity:

We have three birds, then, and three habitats. A single person may combine the characteristics of all three birds; alternatively, the characteristics of the bids may be distributed among three persons. [1]

This is arguably a case of overinterpretation when we consider the uncertainty of the original terms and the use of parallelism in the Hebrew text. When we recognise the parallelism of v.6a and v.6b, the ‘pelican’ and ‘owl’ become one and the same. It is perhaps the case that the translators of the NIVUK have made this more readily apparent by their choice of rendering the first two uncertain Hebrew words as ‘desert owl’ and ‘owl’, and thus inviting a singular interpretation. The identity of a single persona behind the threefold imagery is also natural in that v.7 in its entirety parallels v.6.

Augustine also makes another interpretive decision that does not chime with modern understanding, although this time it is scientific rather than poetic understanding that has changed. And to be fair Augustine seems at pains to indicate the facts are far from certain:

Pelicans are alleged to kill their chicks by pecking them, then for three days to mourn the dead chicks in the nest. Finally the mother is said to wound herself gravely and pour her blood over her babies, which came back to life as her blood flows over them. [1]

From this supposed ornithological observation an argument is then developed by Augustine linking the pelican’s unusual childrearing approach with Christ’s salvific blood. Reading Augustine on the Psalms is worthwhile but, on this occasion, his Christological interpretation is forced. Interestingly, although Augustine is often thought to have established the identification of the seven penitential psalms—Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143—he does not make a consistent focused penitential interpretation here. Writing a century, or so, later Cassiodorus dismisses a Christological interpretation of the bird imagery and the psalm as a whole [2]. He does focus on a penitential interpretation. He also makes much of the physiology and behaviour of the three birds [3]. In doing so he argues that they are figuratively distinct types of penitents. His close reading is nevertheless an over-interpretation of the text given its overt reliance on a rich parallelism. This Hebraic poetic convention has often, and perhaps surprisingly, been variously forgotten and eclipsed over much of the past two millennia.

Writing rather more recently than the two Fathers, Goldingay, argues that tawny owl, screech owl and bird are fitting translations arguing from both a philological and poetic basis that the three terms point to birds that stay awake at night and are likely to keep people awake through their cries. His translation reads:

6 I have come to resemble a tawny owl of the wilderness,
I have become like a screech owl among the ruins.
7 I have been wakeful and I have become like a bird
on its own on a roof. [4]

Comparison with the NIVUK text above reveals this to be a less terse and more explanatory translation. The tension between preserving the terseness of the Hebrew text and helping the modern reader is a constant challenge for the translator. Robert Alter famously accuses the modern English textual tradition of ‘the heresy of explanation’, of being too quick to explain, thus undermining the texts intentional mystery and polyvalency [5]. In translating these verses, Alter captures both the terseness of the original and provides a clear poetic translation:

7 I resemble the wilderness jackdaw,
I become like the owl of the ruins.
8 I lie awake and become
like a lonely bird on a roof. [5]

Addressing the question of the psalmist’s identity in a given psalm, or set of verses, can be a fruitful reflection. It can also be rather vexed, if any singular and overriding claim or assumption is applied across the Psalter. Over the centuries attempts have been made to read the psalms as consistently the words of David. Others have pursued, with similar singlemindedness, Christological readings. Hypothetical religious festivals have been proposed which make the words of the psalms the words of the king of Israel. In the past century there have been a series of critical methods for reading the psalms. My suspicion, however, is that those who have read the psalms as a spiritual discipline have rarely felt the need to be so singular in their reading. The same words and psalms can readily be heard as David, Christ, a precentor, or an anonymous ancient poet. Such polyvocality is not always welcomed by the academy because of its desire for explanation nor some conservative readers who expect contextual certainty. Early Christian interpreters were sometimes too quick to read Christ—his person and actions—into the text. Historical critical interpreters have sometimes been guilty of reading quite different things into the text. The nature of the Psalter stands against any such singular agendas.

Our reflecting on the identity of the psalmist is arguably most important in as far as it helps us to become the psalmist. How do we make these words our own? Are we being instructed? Are we being given words to pray? Are we being taught a vocabulary of prayer? How do we sing these words as a new song?

Psalm 102 is an example of the plasticity of so many of these poems. Countless faithful followers of Christ have owned this song in the midst of old age, loneliness, failure, impending death, and/or moral failure. Numerous others have prayed these words remembering and praying for others whose experience of the life of faith is currently a dark valley. We can also find Christ here, whether in his own experience or in gathering all our prayers as petitions to the Father. The ‘I’ of this psalm at the authorial level is undoubtedly singular, the voice of one psalmist. And yet in faith by the Spirit the reading of this psalm is infinitely polyvalent: it is a sing for all the faithful who are as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.

To conclude, we note that Psalm 103 might have been deliberately placed after Psalm 102 because it frames the answer to the psalmist’s prayer in Psalm 102 with a positive bird metaphor:

1 Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
2 Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits –
3 who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
5 who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

References
1. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, volume 5, Maria Boulding (translator), John E. Rotelle (ed.), Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2003, p.53.
2. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms: Volume 3, P. G. Walsh (translator), New York: Paulist Press, 1990, p.1.
3. Ibid. pp.6–8.
4. John Goldingay, Psalms Volume 3: Psalms 90–150, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008, p.152.
5. Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: Volume 3 The Writings, W. W. Norton and Company, 2019, p.xix.

Psalm 32: The Second Penitential Psalm Today

This is the second of seven posts that aim to show how the Penitential Psalms—Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143—have been read by interpreters such as Augustine, Cassiodorus, Luther and Calvin. One reason for doing this is the conviction that we can learn from past interpretations as we compare them with modern readings. These posts will also allow interpreters to speak for themselves by means of some carefully chosen examples of their work. In this post the value of prosopological exegesis is the specific focus. This is a rather grand term for reading a psalm by mapping out the speaker and audience for the various sections of a psalm. The term prosopological is derived from the Greek prosopa meaning characters.

Cassiodorus (c.485–c.585) was fond of prosopological exegesis. In his commentary on all 150 psalms, he has a specific introductory section for each and every psalm that considers the speakers of the psalm. His answers invariably inform his subsequent verse by verse commentary. In the quotation from his Explanation of the Psalms below I have added modern versification in square brackets as well as a definition. This is how he reads Psalm 32:

In the first section of the psalm [vv.1–4] the penitent speaks, openly admitting his sin and declaring that the punishment served on him is deserved, for he thought that his baneful deeds should be kept hidden. In this section, both exordium [a Latin term in rhetoric for a formal introductory statement] and narration are included. In the second part [v.5] there is nothing but correction, for since he has condemned himself by his own admission he believes that the Lord must spare him. In the third part [vv.6–7] the psalmist praises the blessings of repentance, and maintains that even the saints in this world entreat the Lord. He attests that his refuge lies justly in Him, where the words of the penitent likewise find their goal. In the fourth part [vv.8–11] the Lord Christ replies to his words, and promises to invest with mercy those who hope in Him, so that none may believe that the purity of the suppliant is being disregarded through any indifference. These four sections are separated by diapsalms lying between them. Clearly we must take these sections one by one. [1]

The term diapsalms refers to the Hebrew word rendered Selah in the NRSV and many other modern English translations and their supposed place in marking out transitions within some psalms. Whilst the term is present at key breaks in some psalms, in Psalm 32 this function is more questionable. The position of the three occurrences of Selah has clearly influenced Cassiodorus’ breaks between what he terms parts one, two and three. To the modern interpreter the identification of Christ as the recipient of the words of vv.1–7, voiced by the psalmist as a prayer, and his words of reply in vv.8–11 might seem anachronistic. And, of course, this cannot have been the initial intention of the human author and editors—a yardstick central to modern approaches to the Old Testament. The possibility of Christ’s involvement in this psalm as hearer and speaker is even more alien when matters such as the situation in life and/or cultic use of the psalm are brought to the interpretive table. Yet, not only is this a dominant mode of pre-critical reading it is also elegant and self-consistent in the light of the Christology of the Great Tradition. The reader is strongly encouraged to pause and approach the psalm in this manner to experience this reading.

The issue of what we take to the Bible by way of presuppositions is a vexed question. Karl Barth expressed this matter colourfully and memorably in his remarkable essay The Strange New World within the Bible:

The Bible gives to every man and to every era such answers to their questions as they deserve. We shall always find in it as much as we seek and no more: high and divine content if it is high and divine content that we seek; transitory and “historical” content, if it is transitory and “historical” content that we seek—nothing whatever, if it is nothing whatever that we seek. The hungry are satisfied by it, and to the satisfied it is surfeiting before they have opened it. [2]

John Calvin (1509–1564), writing almost a millennium after Cassiodorus, identifies very different voices in Psalm 32. No longer is the speaker abstracted as the psalmist or the penitent, but King David emerges from the background to the fore. This is evident as Calvin introduces his exegesis of Psalm 32:

David having largely and painfully experienced what a miserable thing it is to feel God’s hand heavy on account of sin, exclaims that the highest and best part of the happy life consists in this, that God forgives a man’s guilt, and receives him graciously into his favor. After giving thanks for pardon obtained, he invites others to fellowship with him in his happiness, showing, by his own example, the means by which this may be obtained. [3]

Throughout Calvin’s subsequent verse by verse commentary David is the speaker of the whole psalm. He is referred to by name repeatedly as well as being given the epithet of prophet. This is true of the second half (vv.8–11)—whereas Cassiodorus identifies the speaker as Christ, for Calvin the instruction found in these latter verses is from David as he addresses the faithful.

Other notable commentators on this psalm lack the focus on who is speaking. This is the case with Augustine (354–430) who does not mention David by name other than when explaining the psalm’s Davidic title. Throughout Augustine’s account the author of the psalm is the psalmist. This is of course not to say that Augustine would not have identified David as the psalmist, but rather the person of David is not central in his exegesis. Closer to Calvin’s time, John Fisher (1469–1535) also pays little attention to prosopological exegesis. He does allude on occasion to David as the author via his designation of him as the prophet. His concern, however, is that this psalm teaches doctrine and obedience to it, in particular the practice of penance. For example he argues that:

This psalm is fittingly and not unworthily called a penitential psalm, because penance is here so carefully treated and spoken of. First, the prophet praises those whose sis are utterly removed by penance, and, on the other side, he shows the wretchedness of those who forsake penance. He also shows the reason for and the manner of contrition, confession, and satisfaction, which are the three parts of penance. First, he praises greatly the virtue of contrition, especially where these is a full purpose of confession. He also teaches the necessity of contrition and shows the impediments to it, with the proper remedies. Next, he comforts and lifts up those who are weak in soul. He calls to those who are out of the right way for coming into bliss and in a manner threatens them. He promises damnation to those who refuse penance; to those who do penance, forgiveness; to those who go forward and profit in it, joy; and lastly, he promises eternal glory to those who are perfect. This holy prophet goes briefly into all of these points in the order we have just declared to you. [4]

Should we be concerned with the rival voices behind this psalm? For some interpreters this is a key to their exegesis and for others such concerns are peripheral. Does it matter whether we read parts of Psalm 32 as voiced by an anonymous penitent to Christ or a confession from the very lips of David? Does it make a difference whether the latter verses are spoken by Christ or they are a prayer of King David to the faithful of his day? Is it appropriate to read later events into the psalm, such as knowledge of the person of Christ or the penitential practices that evolved in the medieval period? Before attempting to answer these questions we will consider a modern view of the voices that lie behind this psalm.

Susan Gillingham [5] focuses largely on the audience for each of four sections as she suggests the following:

vv.1–2 Instruction in the third person to the community
vv.3–7 God addressed in light of vv.1–2
vv.8–9 God speaks to the psalmist
vv.10–11 The community addressed again (third then second person)

No doubt the reader of this post will already have found which interpreter/s they most warm to, and which seem more distant. We all have a complex array of presuppositions we bring to the text as Barth reminded us above. Listening to diverse interpreters can enable us to see and test our presuppositions. Gillingham [6] argues, by building on the work of H. J. Levine, that there is something positively transformative about recognising that the psalms are at their very heart performative. The identification of speakers and audiences for the various parts of a psalm can enable this performative dynamic in individual and corporate worship. The Psalms transformative potential is perhaps at its most profound when confession is part of the nature of a psalm. This is arguably one of the reasons behind the generative success of the Penitential Psalms.

If we embrace this transformative potential then the prosopological approach is, I think, incredibly valuable. A conscious process of perceiving which words are ours and which are spoken to us can open familiar psalms with a valuable freshness and vitality. It is a secondary matter as to how we fit David, an anonymous author, editors, or even Christ’s voice into such readings. In recognising the performative nature of Psalm 32, we will find ourselves before the God of David who is the God of Lord Jesus Christ, confessing our blessings before a merciful God. As we proceed we will not only remember our blessings but examine how much of the untamed mule lies within. Such instruction is not dusty legalism this is life-giving dialogue of creature with Creator.

Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit. (Psalm 32:1–2, NRSV)

In light of such blessing let us not keep silent.

References

  1. Cassiodorus, Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms, Volume 1, P. G. Walsh (translator) (Paulist Press, 1990) p.305.
  2. Karl Barth, ‘The Strange New World within the Bible’, in The Word of God and the Word of Man, edited and translated by Douglas Horton (Pilgrim Press, 1928) p.32.
  3. John Calvin, Psalms 1–35, James Anderson (Translator) (Calvin Translation Society, 1845) p.391.
  4. John Fisher, Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms, Anne Barbeau Gardiner (translator) (Ignatius Press, 1998), p.25.
  5. Susan Gillingham, The Psalms Through the Centuries, Volume 2: Psalms 1–72 (Wiley, 2018) pp.195–196.
  6. Susan Gillingham, The Psalms Through the Centuries, Volume 2: Psalms 1–72 (Wiley, 2018) p.196.

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.

Y is for Yerushalayim

Despite Psalm 51’s focus on personal repentance, the city of peace, Yerushalayim features towards the psalm’s conclusion:

Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
then you will delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
Psalm 51:18–19, NRSV

This reference clearly identifies the psalm, at least in its final form, as a post-exilic work. Psalms with a theme of penitence are increasingly thought to have their origin in the post-exilic period. The seven penitential psalms all have a concerns beyond the penitent prayer’s context. This can be the psalmist’s enemies, the nations, the people of God and/or Zion.

Psalm 102 also refers to the City of Peace. In fact, it’s a central concern from verse 12 through to verse 22. Something I have noticed is that each of the penitential psalms can be read as prayer on behalf of the post-exilic people of God, rather than through a Davidic or personal lens. The legitimacy of such a interpretive lens will be something I will explore at some future point.

The reference to Zion in Psalm 51 brings back the theme of sacrifices mentioned in the preceding two verses:

For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:16–17, NRSV

At first sight the two references to sacrifice seem entirely contradictory and indeed are likely the result of editing. The claim that Yahweh would not delight in sacrifice (v.16) coheres with the penitential nature of Psalm 51 and its emphasis that God’s mercy can be sought if one is truly penitent, that is contrite (v.17). Perhaps the later editor, or even the original psalmist, whilst celebrating this remarkable truth acknowledges nevertheless that they still live in the midst of a religious cultus where ‘right sacrifices’ are formally required. Another aspect that heals the apparent rift between the two claims is that in vv.16-17 the concern is arguably a polar comparison between a mechanical sacrifice, and genuine contrition and petition. Under the Law the best outcome is still right sacrifice, i.e. a physical offering arising from heartfelt contrition.

The beauty of this psalm today is that in Christ we can call on God’s mercy, with the knowledge that through the cross we can reread this psalm and know the promise of his mercy through water, wine and bread.

W is for Wrath

The subject of God’s wrath is a challenging one at a number of levels. It connects with how we understand the atonement and the relationship between the two testaments to name just two. A starting point for any theological reflection and understanding of God’s wrath recognises that the Bible—in both testaments—speaks of God’s wrath, or anger, towards sin.

Two of the areas of the Bible where this theme is to the fore are Paul’s Letter to the Romans and the Book of Psalms. It is likely that whoever created the grouping of Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143 as the penitential psalms was very aware of this. The evidence of this is that these seven psalms each mention God’s wrath and/or feature in Paul’s discussion of the problem of sin in Romans, see Nasuti (1999).

Before we get to Psalm 51, we will present the explicit mentions of wrath in the other six penitential psalms. Psalm 6 and Psalm 38 both open in the same way, with this very concern:

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Psalm 6:1, NRSV

O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger,
or discipline me in your wrath.
Psalm 38:1, NRSV

Psalm 102 speaks of God’s anger too:

For I eat ashes like bread,
and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger;
for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
Psalm 102:9–10, NRSV

Other verses in the penitential psalms speak of God’s action against the psalmist which we might read as a consequence of anger:

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up[a] as by the heat of summer
Selah
Psalm 32:4, NRSV

Psalm 51 makes no direct mention of God’s anger or wrath, although if we read this psalm with a penitential lens, we can understand this lying behind the judgement that the psalmist seeks to avoid. Whether we read it with this lens, or in isolation, we see an expectation, a hope, even a celebration, that God’s mercy will eclipse God’s judgment. Psalm 51 challenges any argument that suggests a bipolar distinction between a wrathful God of the Old Testament and a Loving God of the New. Psalm 51 breaks any such simplistic notions. It points to the need of an understanding of God that resists such false dichotomies. This is not the time or place to explore the atonement or the relationship between the testaments in depth. We can, however, be grateful that both testaments testify to the truth of Psalm 51:

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:17, NRSV

 

Reference
Harry P. Nasuti, Defining the Sacred Songs: Genre, Tradition, and the Post-Critical Interpretation of the Psalms, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999, p.33.

V is for Victorian Opinion

Many of these posts have celebrated Psalm 51 as the Psalm of Psalms in the medieval period. Even as late as the Victorian period there were some commentators who weren’t shy of throwing a few superlatives at this psalm and its six companion penitential psalms. Here is Neale and Littledale’s take on the seven psalms:

the seven weapons wherewith to oppose the seven deadly sins: the seven prayers inspired by the sevenfold Spirit to the repenting sinner: the seven guardians for the seven days of the week: the seven companions for the seven Canonical Hours of the day. [Neale and Littledale, p.124]

The reference here to the seven deadly sins is another reason for the popularity of the penitential psalms and their chief, Psalm 51. In the Middle Ages the notion that there were seven serious—i.e. deadly—sins was a popular one. I am unsure when the association was first established but here’s the list of which psalms which can be said, according to Catholic tradition, to counter a specific sin:

• Psalm 6: Pride
• Psalm 32 [31]: Avarice
• Psalm 38 [37]: Anger
• Psalm 51 [50]: Lust
• Psalm 102 [101]: Gluttony
• Psalm 130 [129]: Envy
• Psalm 143 [142]: Sloth

I have included the Latin psalm numbers in parentheses as the seven deadly sins are most readily connected with the Roman tradition and psalm numbering. A comparison of the seven sins and the seven prayers reveals a less than convincing match. The exception being Psalm 51 and the sin of lust. In this case, in accordance with the heading, the context is very much a story of sin that began with David’s lust for the bathing Bathsheba.

Despite the lack of one-to-one correspondence between the seven psalms and the seven deadly sins, I suggest we would do well to have Psalm 51 to hand daily. This is a psalm that can help us avoid sin and the Psalm of Psalms for asking for God to forgive us in his bountiful mercy.

 

Reference
John Mason Neale and Richard Frederick Littledale, A Commentary on the Psalms: From Primitive and Mediaeval Writers, second edition, volume 1, London: Joseph Masters, 1869.

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.

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.