What are the Penitential Psalms? If you said, “I don’t know,” then you’ve just explained why we have difficulty understanding them today. Most people have never heard of them, unless they attend an Orthodox liturgical church. So if you’re protestant, evangelical, or Catholic, why bother?
Little is known about the very early history and origin of the grouping of what later became the seven penitential psalms. Within the already Catholic tradition, the earliest information this author found is that fourth century Gregory of Nyssa classed Psalm 6, the first of the seven, as “confession and penitence” (1 Waltke, Laments, 43). Still later, St Augustine, before his death in 430 CE, repeatedly read and wept over four penitential psalms that had been written out and pinned to the wall in front of his bed. Which four they were has not been preserved (2). Cassiodorus, a sixth century Roman statesman, is apparently the first to have named the group of seven psalms as 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143 (3). These seven psalms eventually worked their way into the public liturgy of the Catholic church, and just as eventually were deleted. They were removed in 1911 from public reading and sidelined to private devotions (Ibid., 160-61). John Ubel describes their status within the Catholic church in 2014, “The penitential psalms are not collected in any currently approved liturgical text emanating from the Holy See, despite the intentions of the council and those entrusted with carrying out the liturgical reform” (Ibid., 165). Within the Eastern Orthodox tradition, although the nomenclature “penitential psalms” is known, these seven appear singly in varying portions of the liturgy. Each has its own distinct use and purpose. For example, Psalm 6 is used in Great Compline, Psalm 32 immediately after baptism, Psalm 38 in Orthros, and so forth (4). Evangelical churches tend not to focus on deep study of the Psalter, and most likely “Penitential Psalms” is not a topic often considered.
If you managed to wade through the previous paragraph and are still with me, you may be yawning profusely, scratching your head, and saying to yourself, “I can’t take much more of this. This is not why I read the Psalms.” And in my opinion, you would be correct.
I love John the Apostle’s statement in 1John 2:27:
But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie– just as it has taught you, abide in him (ESV).
The “anointing” John proclaims is the Holy Spirit of Christ, which every believer receives from the Father. He is the Spirit of God who lives within believers and is the source of their new birth (see John chapters 3 and 4, 6:63, 14, 15, and 16).
What John is saying is that each believer is connected to Christ the Son and through him to God the Father by means of the indwelling Spirit of God. Christ is the Living Word, and as such, he is quite able to communicate to every believer the messages from the Psalter which he wants to impart. He does this with all of Scripture. Therefore, the true value of studying Psalms is not to be had by reading about them in the words of someone else, such as the ancient church fathers and my words to you right now, but their true value is in hearing the Spirit speak into your own heart the Lord’s message to you in particular.
My purpose here is to hold up a road sign to you that says, “Have you tried this pathway through Psalms?” The pathway we will consider is Christ and his cross. Even in the so-called grouping of seven Penitential Psalms, we find Christ ever present and revealed. These psalms are not primarily about experiencing emotions of penitence designed to lead us to repentance. Rather, they are primarily about the life of Jesus Christ during his incarnation.
My premise is that Psalms reveal Christ. He is their primary focus. As we see Christ revealed, we also learn about God’s love for us, and that is what makes them important.
In future posts, we will consider each psalm individually and from a variety of angles.
1 Waltke, Bruce K. and James M. Houston with Erika Moore. The Psalms as Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.
2 DiPippo, Gregory. “The Penitential Psalms in the Liturgy of Lent.” New Liturgical Novus Motus: Movement Liturgicus (March 10, 2017). Accessed February 2, 2019. http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/eleu/ vol2/iss1/5/.
3 Ubel, John L. “Septem Psalmi Poenitentiales History, Demise, and Rebirth of an Ascetical Tradition.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought & Culture 17, no. 4 (Fall 2014): 155–68. Accessed February 19, 2019. doi:10.1353/log.2014.0036.
4 Academic Community of St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology, Elk Grove, California. The Orthodox Study Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008. (See the notes for each individual psalm).
Why would God seemingly hide his prophetic intentions in Psalms in such a way that even today biblical pundits do not agree on their overall meaning? Why not speak clearly, directly, and openly about the coming of Christ? No doubt each commentator would answer this question differently, but here’s what I think.
The first reason, at what may appear to the modern eye to be the cold end of the continuum, is that God is sovereign. He owes nothing to anyone. He is not a politician trying to win an election. He bows to the whims of no one. He is not looking to go viral, nor does he care to win a popularity contest. When God caused the Bible to be written, he did it his own way for his own reasons. God chose the vehicle of human faith as the means through which he would manifest himself. “Now without faith it is impossible to please him, for the one who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6 NET) Solving the puzzle of Psalms God’s way requires faith.
When we think about it, faith is fair. It requires neither intellect nor non-intellect, no particular personality type, no particular race, neither wealth nor poverty, neither male nor female, nor any particular nationality. No particular skill is necessary for faith, nor does faith favor a lack of skill. Faith does not require virtue, nor does it need an over abundance of sin. The only requirement of faith is a humble heart. A proud heart is likely to reject faith. God in his sovereignty chooses to hide himself to all but those who look through the eyes of faith. Solving a puzzle requires faith in its maker, who presents us its key. Faith in Christ is able to solve the puzzle of Psalms. [Disclaimer: the reverse is not necessarily true. I am by no means saying that people who do not view Psalms as I do lack faith in Christ.]
The second reason is humankind’s hardness of heart toward God. Throughout the entirety of Scripture, front cover to back, God has always favored the humble heart. In the New Testament Jesus spoke a saying, “Do not give what is holy to dogs or throw your pearls before pigs; otherwise they will trample them under their feet and turn around and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7:6 NET) And in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit wrote, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17 ESV) What better way to publicly sow seed than by means of puzzles? Everyone sees the puzzle. The hard of heart will not understand, while the broken of heart will receive the key and solve the puzzle.
Why does God hide his word from the hard of heart? First is the matter of judgment. God judges the hard of heart by withholding understanding from them. Apart from this, I also believe he does so to provide time for the broken of heart to hear and understand. When God came to visit humanity in physical person in the form of a man, Jesus the Son of God, he often spoke in parables, or story puzzles. Jesus’s disciples once asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (Matthew 13:10 ESV) He replied, “…this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.” He was quoting Isaiah from the Old Testament. Jesus continued, “But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it. Listen then to what the parable of the sower means:” (Matthew 13:15-18 NIB)
In other words, Jesus didn’t want those who hated him to understand his words. This was God’s judgment upon them. On the other hand, he wanted those who would become his friends to understand. For this to happen, he needed to give them time. When Jesus’s enemies finally, clearly, understood Jesus’s stance as God’s Son, they crucified him. But not before he had three years to present his entire case. During this time, his disciples and others had opportunity to hear and see all that he gave them. Although they didn’t fully understand at the time, after his resurrection they did.
Clear and direct statements can easily be rejected outright without a pause for deliberation. Puzzles coax. They give people time to ponder and reconsider. They give opportunity for puzzle solvers to ask for help. They give time for some hardened hearts to be softened. Jesus’s disciples were the puzzle solvers, and by giving them parables, he protected them from immediate retaliation of outright enemies. His parables gave his disciples and friends the time they needed to fully understand his words and actions.
What about today? Here we have a second aspect of the explanation. God loves us. He is our Father and Jesus is our Brother. Parents and grandparents who love their children know they can’t get enough time with them. They love and savor every moment of pleasure in watching them grow. They love helping the child grow. Growing takes time, and God has all the time in the world to enjoy his children.
Jigsaw puzzles take time. It’s pretty difficult to go racing through jigsaw puzzles. They are not like driving down a scenic highway at eighty miles an hour, missing all the sights along the way. The best way to see scenery is at a slow pace. Likewise, by their very nature, jigsaw puzzles must be slowly solved. The time necessary to solve these puzzles allows them to work well as a group activity. The puzzle solvers can remain quiet, or they can talk. Great visiting and fellowship can take place when friends do jigsaw puzzles together. They produce a relaxed atmosphere where eventually hearts are often shared. The Psalter as jigsaw puzzle takes time. When a pliable, humble, seeking heart reads Psalms, God is reading with her. Sometimes God talks, and often he watches. Solving this puzzle together results in fellowship with God. As a parent, God often enjoys watching his child place the pieces. At other times, he guides his child’s hand.
Puzzles frustrate certainty and foster humility. It’s easier for us to learn when we give God our uncertainties. Being stuck on a puzzle piece encourages us to ask God for help. This is good, because God loves to help his children and it gives us opportunity to hear from him directly. As Father, he loves to give good things to those who ask him (Matthew 7:11).
Finally, puzzles grow with a child. A very young child begins with a three piece puzzle. Preschool children can move up to twenty-five pieces. Some, like myself, never choose to go beyond five hundred pieces, no matter how old I am. And, I like my puzzle pieces large, so I can see and handle them easily. God’s Word is adaptable to the individual. The Psalter grows with us. The more time we spend in this book, as in all of God’s Word, the more of himself God shares with us. That is, as long as he has given us the key, and we choose to receive. Jesus Christ is the key to all God’s Word. Praise be to the Lord.
Setting: You’re working on a jigsaw puzzle. Most of the pieces look more or less the same, and you feel like it’s a puzzle depicting fog. Suddenly, you find a piece that makes your heart leap. You examine it closely and yes, it contains strong clues that tell you this piece is pivotal and unique. But where does it belong?
Sometimes reading Psalms is like working on a jigsaw puzzle. Many psalms sound more or less the same. Most people might tell you that there is no distinguishable “plot line” to Psalms. Once we find the key, however, the pieces of individual psalms fit together into a beautiful portrait of the face of Christ. But where do we begin?
A good place to start a jigsaw puzzle is the picture on the top cover of the box. But when we dump the pieces out and turn them over, do we recognize that these pieces will form that picture? Or is this something we accept by faith? Do we think that the publisher of the puzzle lied to us and purposefully put an incorrect picture on the top side of the box just to trick and confuse us? Of course not. Now if we receive something as mundane as a jigsaw puzzle by faith, why not the word of God? Who better than the author of the book would know what the book contains?
What does the author of the book say about Psalms? (What picture does the publisher of the jigsaw puzzle place on the cover of the box?)
Luke 24:25 And he [Jesus] said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (ESV)
Acts 2:30 [Peter speaking about David] Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, 31 he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. (ESV)
Luke 24:44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, (ESV)
In other words, God, who wrote the book, claims that Psalms are prophetic of Christ. The picture on the box of the jigsaw puzzle is a picture of the life of Christ. This information proves to be invaluable when unlocking the solution of what so often appears to be an insoluble jigsaw puzzle.
Stay Tuned: We’ll be continuing this motif in later posts as we consider a group of psalms known collectively as the “Penitential Psalms.”