Penitential Psalms: Psalm 8–Closing the Overture
Psalm 8 is in no way penitential. It is included here in this packet of penitential psalms because it is part of an unbreakable chain that stretches from psalm 6, which is considered penitential. In Psalms 6 the reader finds the intense struggle that is the Passion of the King, in Psalm 7 the tide begins to turn and hints of victory glimmer, and in Psalm 8, the victory celebration breaks out in peals of joyous song.
If the entire Psalter were a musical production or dramatic presentation, Psalms 1 through 8 would be the introduction, or overture, of the Psalter as a whole.
Psalms 1 and 2 are the overture proper. They introduce the theme of good versus evil, the main characters, and the final outcome. Psalms 3 and 4 present the protagonist and his antagonists in greater detail. Psalms 5 and 6 display the seriousness of the struggle. The audience sees the weakness of the protagonist and the very real dangers of death that confront him. In Psalm 7 the protagonist successfully fights back and hints of the final resolution are given, though not the climax itself. Psalm 8 bursts through as a celebratory resolution, though details of the climax are omitted.
Superimposing the Gospel narrative on top of this dramatic sequence, as a transparency or see-through photographic layer, early Christians could perceive the following:
- Psalm 1–the theme of God’s choosing goodness and destroying evil
- Psalm 2–the main characters: God, his Son the King, and the antagonistic rulers of the earth; the sovereign victory of God and his Son over the rebels; the opportunity of repentance God offers his enemies
- Psalms 3 and 4–the presence of the Son/King as a man on earth; his faith and confidence in the help and victory of God against his enemies
- Psalm 5–an earnest prayer by the Son for help from God and his faith that God will help him triumph over his enemies
- Psalm 6–a hard look at the weakness of the Son as his enemies, and perhaps God himself (how can this be?), attack him so fiercely that death draws near; his earnest prayer to God for help; an assurance that God heard and will turn back his enemies.
- Psalm 7–the Son/King faces and considers the issue squarely, “Have I sinned against my enemies or not?” That is, “Are my enemies justified in their persecution of me?” The answer is that the Son is innocent, and consequently, God will fight for him by turning the wickedness of the wicked against themselves, so that their own evil deeds fall upon their own heads.
- Psalm 8–a joyful song of praise to the victorious God of creation wonders whose original intention for creation is fulfilled
While the first eight psalms give a great introduction to the Gospel narrative as a whole, they do not give away spoilers of the details of the death and resurrection of the Son. These are all but spelled out as the Psalter progresses.
Details of Psalm 8
First, the celebratory and victorious nature of Psalm 8 can be appreciated without resolving the question, “Who is the speaker?” Is the speaker the singular Son/King addressing God? Is the speaker a chorus of righteous people addressing God about his Son? Could the speaker be a chorus addressing the Son? Could the speaker be a single person addressing God about the Son? Could there be a mixture of these possibilities? These are valid questions. But even if the context and words themselves cannot definitively provide answers, the reader can share in the joyful knowledge that God wins in the end and all is right with the world. For audiences situated in the historical time frame when the psalms were read or performed aloud in liturgical settings, the answer to the question, “Who is speaking?” may have been obvious through the use of costumes, face masks, or simply the physical presence and audible voices of the performer(s) themselves.
Secondly, this psalm enjoys extensive quotation in the New Testament.
In the following quotation, Jesus responds to the praise of the children for himself as “Son of David” with a quotation from Psalm 8:2 (Septuagint). The manner in which he uses the quotation implies that the “you” and “yourself” of the psalm make reference to him. That is, Jesus places himself as the subject of Psalm 8, either directly so, or as his being identifiable with God.
From the mouths of children and nursing babies you have ordained praise on account of your adversaries, so that you might put an end to the vindictive enemy. (Psalm 8:2 NET)
15 But when the chief priests and the experts in the law saw the wonderful things he did and heard the children crying out in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became indignant 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what they are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes. Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of children and nursing infants you have prepared praise for yourself’?” (Matthew 21:15-16 NET)
The New Testament quotes Psalm 8:6 in two locations. In both, the writers interpret the words of the psalm as referring directly to Christ, who is the Son/King of Psalm 2.
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man, that thou visitest him? 5 Thou madest him a little less than angels, thou hast crowned him with glory and honour; 6 and thou hast set him over the works of thy hands: thou hast put all things under his feet: (Psalm 8:4-6 LXE)
It has been testified somewhere, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? 7 You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, 8 putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. (Hebrews 2:6-8 ESV)
For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. (1Corinthians 15:27 ESV)
What About the “Penitential” Psalm 6?
In the context provided for Psalm 6, as detailed above in this blog and in the past several blogs, does this psalm stand out as being noteworthy for a theme of confession, sorrow, and repentance for sin? Is it singularly “penitential” in nature? This author thinks not. Taken as a whole, certain psalms excepted, such as Psalm 51, the first person speaker of the Psalter is shown again and again to be righteously innocent. And yet, the Gospel tells us that the Son/King died as a sacrificial lamb for the sins of many. How would an Old Testament author poetically express the thoughts, feelings, and prayers of a sacrificial Lamb who was “made sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21) for us, yet was himself righteous and completely innocent? And yet Jesus after his resurrection told his disciples that the Psalms achieve just this (Luke 24). How they do so is what this blog explores.
Link to the beginning of the chain, Psalms 6-8
Penitential Psalms: After Psalm 6–Psalms 7 and 8
Psalm 7 is not penitential. Neither is Psalm 8. They are included here in this post and the next because they form a sequence along with Psalm 6, which is considered penitential. (Link to Psalm 8)
1. Psalm 1. Introduction to the Psalter. God favors the righteous; the unrighteous will perish. God defines righteousness.
2. Psalm 2. Introduction to the Royal Family; the King is appointed
3. Psalm 3. The King appears as a man on earth
4. Psalm 4. The King on earth walks in righteousness but has many enemies who do not receive him
5. Psalm 5. The King prays Psalm 1
6. Psalm 6. The King is assaulted by enemies and feels assaulted by God; he cries out to the Lord for deliverance
And, moving forward:
7. Psalm 7. The King addresses accusations against himself; war is fully declared and victory won
8. Psalm 8. First denouement, a day of rest, the end of the story foretold, a post-resurrection view, creation celebrated
“Early Christian writers adapted prosopological analysis for interpreting poetic biblical texts like the Psalms and the Song of Songs, and routinely identified the speaking “I” (ego) of the Psalms as Christ.” —Michael Cameron, 171
The key to understanding the Psalter is Jesus Christ. When the reader perceives Christ in the first person speaking role of the Psalms of David, much of what otherwise may appear to be a scattered jumble of statements falls into place. My premise is that “the man,” of Psalm 1 describes Christ in particular. The immediately following psalms unfold as in the Recap and Moving Forward above. When the superscriptions assign a psalm to David, David is “taking on” the persona of someone else–the Christ. (See Peter’s statements in Acts 2:29-31.) A good Greek term to describe this rhetorical tool is prosopopoeia. (1)
In these first several psalms we find a progression from God’s decree in heaven (Psalm 2:6-9 and especially verse 7, “the ordinance of the Lord” LXE) to its enactment on earth. The entire sequence is the Gospel of Christ our King. He was appointed by God in eons past to be Savior and Sovereign Lord of humanity. He performed the salvation by means of his incarnation, substitutionary death on the cross, his resurrection, and ascension. The Psalter records in advance Christ’s holy ministry. Much of this is presented through first person prayers and other speech. In the recorded prayers, as the Apostle Paul writes, “…we have the mind of Christ” (1Co 2:16b ESV).
When the reader adheres to the simplicity of this key concept of interpretation, the love of God for his Son all but shouts from the pages of the Psalter. When we see that love of the Father/Son Godhead and ourselves as readers interacting spiritually with the text by means of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we are included in the fellowship of love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in an interactive way. When we hear Christ speaking the psalms, the love of God for us pours into our hearts. It is a transforming love, “… God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5b ESV).
Following the progressive sequence from Psalm 1 through Psalm 8, Psalm 7 moves beyond Psalm 6. In Psalm 6, the human Son-of-God-King presents himself in weakness and, possibly, what we might experience as confusion, if this were happening to us. God seems to be angry with him and is far away. The beleaguered Son/King continually cries to the Lord as death draws nearer. Eventually, God does answer. Although Psalm 6 is called the first of the Penitential Psalms, in it the psalmist does not confess any sins. Neither does God offer forgiveness when he answers the psalmist’s prayer. The reader should keep this fact well in mind as she reads through the remainder of the penitential psalms. Any sin expressed will not be the sin of the Son, but of those he represents.
Psalm 7 is blatantly defensive. The accusations from the speaker’s enemies have been pinpointed (vv 3-4), and the psalmist vehemently denies any wrongdoing on his part by asking God to punish him if indeed he committed the crimes stated by his accusers (vv 4b-5). He then appeals to God on the basis of God’s decree, which is recorded in Psalm 2. In other words, he prays Psalm 2 as concerns himself. Psalm 2:6-9 shows God decreeing Christ as King (quoted in Hebrews 1:5). Psalm 7:6-16 speak of the decreed judgment upon those who reject God and his appointed Ruler. (See also Psalm 1:4-6.)
Verses 7-8a of Psalm 7 in the Septuagint makes better sense when heard as spoken by the Chorus, which is slightly off-stage but ever present. (See the dramatic setting including the Chorus in “Penitential Psalms: The Amazing Psalm 6–Windup to the Pitch“.)
And the congregation of the nations shall compass thee: and for this cause do thou return on high. The Lord shall judge the nations. (Psalm 7:7-8a LXE)
Verses 7-8a are embedded solidly within a paragraph of verses clearly spoken by the main speaker of Psalm 7, yet verse 7 appears to be addressing Christ the Lord, rather than God most High, and verse 8a is about the Lord. Use of a chorus explains this anomaly. We learn from New Testament Scripture, Isaiah, and other Psalms that “the nations” shall gather around Christ the King, and it is Christ who shall “return on high,” in other words–ascend–after his resurrection, in order for his Lordship over the nations to begin. It also befits a dramatic production to assign the speech in verse 7 about “the congregation” to the Chorus. Verses 14-16 are also suited as lines for the Chorus. If 14-16 are spoken by the Chorus, then verse 17 is the closing “Amen” of thanksgiving spoken once more by the main speaker of Psalm 7.
Who is this God on High who wreaks vengeance upon those who oppose his favored Son/King? Is he being unfair, autocratic, authoritarian, narrow, and fascist in his outlook?
First, God is Creator. At this point in human history, that fact cannot be changed. It follows from this fact that God is Sovereign. Whether we as people like it or not, the Creator is the Ruler.
But secondly, he is a God who gives many chances.
Now therefore understand, ye kings: be instructed, all ye that judge the earth. 11 Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice in him with trembling. 12 Accept correction, lest at any time the Lord be angry, and ye should perish from the righteous way: whensoever his wrath shall be suddenly kindled, blessed are all they that trust in him. (Psalm 2:10 LXE)
Psalm 7 reinforces the call of God to repentance found above in Psalm 2.
God is a righteous judge, and strong, and patient, not inflicting vengeance every day. 12 If ye will not repent, he will furbish his sword; he has bent his bow, and made it ready. (Psalm 7:11 LXE)
Verses 14-16 work well as a choral commentary upon the preceding four verses. These lines speak of an unnamed “he,” which from the context can only be the unrighteous false accuser of the righteous King. They spell out the bad choice the unrighteous one made and how he is bringing down upon his own head his just retribution. These verses demonstrate the false reasoning of those who blame God for condemning evil. Here the just punishment that pursues the unrighteous is nothing more than what that person planned for an innocent person who had done him no wrong. God is patient and just, inviting sinners to repent.
Verse 8a says, “The Lord shall judge the nations…” Immediately the Judge, when not yet the Judge but still the suffering Savior, in response to God on account of the words just spoken by the chorus, pleads with God, “Judge me, O Lord,…” The righteous Judge wants to be judged by God first.
And God does acquit him. Psalm 7 ends very strongly, much as Psalm 2. The righteous King is vindicated, and his false accuser falls into the pit his own hands have dug (vv 15-16). These words of Scripture have been written in future tense, as prophetic, yet their outcome is secure.
From Psalms 3 through 6, the audience perceives the King descending, as he falls deeper and deeper into persecution and human vulnerability. Psalm 7 presents him rising up in strength to face his accuser, along with the announcement of his final victory. Then Psalm 8 comes crashing onto the scene in a wild exuberance of joyful praise. I’ll give Psalm 8 a posting of its own.
1 We encounter this ancient tool of figurative language called prosopopoeia nearly every day. Whenever we hear a child or someone else speak “Valley talk” as they describe an encounter with another person, we might hear a statement such as, “And then she’s like, ‘………’.” What transpires in the elipsis, the dots in the quotation, is a perfect reenactment of the described person’s words, intonation, mannerisms, and attitude, albeit exaggerated for effect. This is prosopopoeia, when a speaker or writer takes up the persona of someone else and becomes them imitatively. This is what acting on stage is all about. Real life actors take up the lives and characters of others in order to portray them with convincing reality. Within Psalms, David, the prophet/actor being used by God, takes up the persona of the Christ. Who has a greater role in God’s plan of salvation: David the man or Christ the Atoning King? Did David know that he was being used by God this way? According to Peter in Acts 2:30-31, David did know that he was prophesying about Another.
Penitential Psalms: The Amazing Psalm 6
Psalm 6 is a psalm of “firsts,” when compared with Psalms 1 through 5 in the Septuagint English.
1. First mention of substitutionary sin (vs 1)
- Psalms 1-3. These carry no thought of sin by the speaker; all is righteousness
- Psalm 4. Emphasizes the speaker’s righteousness in comparison with his enemies’ sins
- Psalm 5. Condemns wickedness, extols righteousness, and proclaims God’s welcome to the righteous, among whom the psalmist includes himself
- Psalm 6. V1–rebuke, wrath, anger mentioned. “Rebuke me not,” etc. While there is no confession of sin, questions about the Lord’s disfavor are strongly implied. This is why I write, “substitutionary sin.” (See also “Penitential Psalms: Psalm 6“)
2. First express mention of weakness (vs 2)b
- Psalms 1 and 2. All positive toward the righteous speaker
- Psalm 3. Emphasizes the psalmist’s personal dependence upon the Lord, but there is no confession of weakness; all is trust in the Lord
- Psalm 4. “Thou has made room for me in tribulation; pity me, and hearken to my prayer” (vs 1) expresses an implication of need in the phrase “pity me” (οἰκτίρησόν με), yet there is no direct statement of weakness
- Psalm 5. Rejoices in the strength of the Lord for the righteous
- Psalm 6. Vv 2-7 list the weaknesses and ailments of the speaker. Verse 2 names weakness: “Pity me, O Lord; for I am weak:” (languishing ESV, faint NIV, frail NET, weak KJV)
3. First mention of psalmist’s being diseased
- Psalms 1 and 2. Strength and well-being for the righteous man (Ps 1) and King (Ps 2).
- Psalm 3. Mention of enemies, but with a strong voice that recounts the prior blessings
- Psalm 4. Spoken from a state of confident well-being (see especially vv 7 and 8)
- Psalm 5. Speaks predominantly against the wicked while voicing the confident assurance in the Lord of the righteous
- Psalm 6. Vv 2-7 are a litany of ailments and concerns: bones are vexed (3), soul vexed (3), death in view (5), weariness, groaning, tears (6), troubled eyes, worn out (7)
4. First mention of God’s extensive non-answering of the prayers of the psalmist
- Psalms 1-2. No prayer
- Psalm 3 (vs 4) “I cried to the Lord with my voice, and he heard me out of his holy mountain. Pause.”
- Psalm 4. God answers strongly (vv 1, 3, 6, 7, and 8)
- Psalm 5.
- confidence that prayer will be answered (vs 3 )
- confidence in Lord’s mercy and the psalmist’s own strength in that mercy (vs 7)
- confidence in blessed outcome for the righteous on account of the Lord’s love of righteousness (vv 11-12)
- Psalm 6.
- fear that the Lord is rebuking and angry (vs 1)
- plea for pity that remains unanswered (vs 2)
- statement of frustration with the great length of time in which the Lord has not answered, “but thou, O Lord, how long?” (vs 3)
- request that the Lord would turn back toward him, implying that God had removed himself from the speaker (vs 4), “Return, O Lord”
- urgency expressed by the psalmist that he is nearing death (vs 5), “For in death no man remembers thee: and who will give thee thanks in Hades?”
- the Lord finally answers (vv 8-9), “8 …for the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping. 9 The Lord has hearkened to my petition; the Lord has accepted my prayer.”
5. First mention of death and Hades as a possible outcome for the psalmist
- Psalms 1-2. Pure strength and blessing
- Psalms 3-5. No thought that the outcome for the psalmist might be death
- Psalm 6. (vs 5) “For in death no man remembers thee: and who will give the thanks in Hades?”
6. First mention of grief
- Psalm 1. Blessings to the righteous and judgment to the wicked
- Psalm 2. Glory for the King and punishment for his enemies
- Psalm 3. Prayer of strong trust and confidence in deliverance by the Lord
- Psalm 4. Alternate direct address to the Lord and to the psalmist’s enemies; strong faith in Lord expressed to the enemies; strong confidence in the Lord for his past acts of salvation; also, one short phrase in verse 1, “pity me”
- Psalm 5. Confident prayer in the orderly way God rules: judgment upon the wicked; blessings and intimacy with God’s righteous followers
- Psalm 6. While there is no use of words such as lowly, sorrowful, and mourn, there are some poignant descriptions of these: (vs 6) I am wearied with my groaning; I shall wash my bed every night; I shall water my couch with tears; (vs 7) Mine eye is troubled because of my wrath; I am worn out because of all my enemies.
7. First mention of enemies having some success
- Psalm 1. The wicked have nothing but God’s judgment
- Psalm 2. The wicked rebel with no success whatever. God laughs and scorns them
- Psalm 3. There are large numbers of enemies; no outcome mentioned
- Psalm 4. No thought is given that the enemies have any success throughout the long duration of their obstinance
- Psalm 5.
- Verse 9 contains a detailed description of the wicked and their acts;
- there are supplications (vs 10) and statements of confidence (vv 4-6) that the Lord will destroy the enemies (See Psalms 1 and 2)
- there are descriptions of God’s love for righteousness (vv 4, 6, 8) and his blessings for the righteous (vs 10)
- there is no mention of any enemy success
- Psalm 6. Vs 7b “I am worn out because of all my enemies. 8 Depart from me, all ye that work iniquity; for the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping.” Note: The lengthy descriptions of the psalmist’s woes in verses 1-7a does not state that the enemies are the cause of this grief; it could be the Lord himself. The enemies are not mentioned until verse 8.
8. First mention that the Lord appears to be angry with the psalmist and may be punishing him
- Psalms 1-5. Contain no mention of anything but the goodness and favor of the Lord toward the psalmist and the righteous, of whom he is one
- Psalm 6. Clearly refers to the wrath and anger of the Lord toward the psalmist, either actual or suspected. The psalm opens with these words, “O Lord, rebuke me not in they wrath, neither chasten me in thine anger” (vs 1). It continues with, “3 My soul also is grievously vexed: but thou, O Lord, how long? 4 Return, O Lord, deliver my soul:”
- Note: Although the readers’ suspicions are aroused in Psalm 6 that the Lord himself may be punishing the psalmist, the reader cannot be certain. Other psalms spell out the Lord’s wrath upon the psalmist directly and clearly. See, for example, Psalm 88:7-8.
9. First mention of physical nearness of enemies to the psalmist individually
- Psalm 1. No direct enemies per se; rather the wicked generally, who displease the Lord
- Psalm 2. Enemies are a large distance away, far removed from the authoritative, all-powerful King
- Psalm 3. Multitudes of enemies, but arrayed as in a battle. The psalmist is not alone, and God is near.
- Psalm 4. God is near and supportive of the psalmist. The scene is like an oration to crowds.
- Psalm 5. The psalmist appears to be in a private sanctuary in prayer; many enemies but none in physical proximity
- Psalm 6. The enemies are close by: “Depart from me, all ye that work iniquity; for the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping” (vs 8). “Let all mine enemies be put to shame and sore troubled: let them be turned back and grievously put to shame speedily” (vs 10).
10. First extended length of intense petition by the psalmist for himself
- Psalms 1-2. No petitions, none necessary
- Psalm 2. Personal enemies arise; psalmist asks why? (vs 1); one direct petition (vs 7), “Arise, Lord; deliver me, my God:”
- Psalm 4. None
- Psalm 5.
- Vv 1-2 “hearken…attend…attend”
- Vs 8 “lead me…make my way plain”
- Vs 10 “judge them…cast them out”
- Vs 11 “let all that trust in thee be glad in thee”
- Psalm 6. Vv 1-4 “rebuke me not…neither chasten me…pity me…heal me…how long?…return…deliver…save”
The most amazing feature of this and so many other psalms is how the psalmist, in spite of his difficult trials and seeming abandonment and possible punishment by the Lord himself–how the psalmist continues to quietly and submissively turn to the Lord in complete trust and utter dependence upon his goodness and ultimate favor. (We might call it God’s love.) There is no doubt and certainly no anger. This is how the “righteous” so often mentioned in Psalms love out their faith.
Secondly, when searching through the Psalter for the messianic prophecies announced by Jesus himself to the two Emmaus disciples (Luke 24:25-27) and the gathering of his eleven and others back in Jerusalem (Luke 24:44-48), it is important to remember that although these disciples had walked and talked with Jesus for nearly three years, they had completely missed the references to him, his death, and his resurrection in Psalms and their other Scripture. They needed to be taught by Jesus explicitly and directly. Where are those teachers today?
Except for direct quotations in the New Testament, I believe that our 21st century church has lost sight of the vast quantity of messianic prophecy contained in the Psalter. This is to a large extent the result of scholars having atomized, or separated out into tiny pieces, individual verses and phrases within the psalms. It is also the result of having quenched the great interpreter, the Holy Spirit, with the icy disbelief of academia. The result is that Psalms, and indeed Old Testament Scripture generally, ceased to be looked upon as a unified whole. The art and learned skill of reading Scripture side by side with other Scripture, comparing Scripture with Scripture, became invalidated and lost.
Fortunately, beginning with courageous pioneers such as the great Brevard Childs (Childs, Bibliography), some very few scholars began fighting for a return to the unity and wholeness of Scripture. (See my Annotated Bibliography for a listing and description of those authors whom I have found.) Additionally, some highly esteemed preachers never denied the Holy Spirit as Interpreter, nor left the unity and wholeness of Scripture. These are also listed in the Annotated Bibliography just referenced. The few whom I have found include Patrick Reardon, Andrew A. Bonar, John Barclay, and Arthur Pink. I’m sure there are others. I believe that today we are seeing the tide turning, as more and more scholars boldly come forth to announce the dialogues inherent in the Psalter. These are authors such as Matthew W. Bates, Richard Hays, and Michael Cameron. As I press forward in my studies here in my isolated and tiny citadel, I continue to discover others.
However, the greatest teacher of Scripture is the Holy Spirit, sent for this very purpose. All believers have access to the Holy Spirit. Readers, please never forget that Christians like you and me, the rank and file of early, non-educated lay persons, determined collectively what scholars today call “The Rule of Faith.” It is this standard of measurement, the combined and sifted shared beliefs of the earliest church, as indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who passed on orally and shared as written epistles, what eventually became the canon of New Testament Scripture. It is the rank and file Body-of-Christ members who establish and maintain what the church believes today. Each Spirit indwelled cell contributes to the whole.
I write this by way of encouragement to others to “keep on keeping on” in your search for what Jesus told those two blessed Emmaus disciples. It wasn’t just for them that he unlocked (“hermeneuticked” is the Greek word) what the Old Testament prophecies, including Psalms, said about himself. He meant it for us all.
Psalm 1: Devotional
Not so the ungodly;–not so: but rather as the chaff which the wind scatters away from the face of the earth. Psalm 1:4 (LXE, Septuagint in English)
Reading Scripture aloud from a different translation or even a different language than what we are used to often allows the Holy Spirit to penetrate our heart. I was reading Psalm 1 aloud this morning from the Greek Septuagint in preparation for the next article on Psalm 6, struggling along with pronunciation of many of the longer words.
The first paragraph of Psalm 1 hums along with images of strong blessing after strong blessing. Here is the righteous person who in various ways has kept herself separate from enjoying the company of the ungodly. (It doesn’t mean she never associates with the unrighteous on a day to day basis, but that she doesn’t hang out with them and entertain herself in their company by doing the unwholesome things that it pleases them to do.) Such a person delights in the law of the Lord–in other words, God’s kind of person really enjoys conversing with him through his Word. She’d rather be doing that than any number of other things.
Then the blessings are listed. He (or she) will be like a tree planted by the brooks of waters. Yes, I can see that. I know that image. I love trees; I love water; I love its sound and the deep, cool shade of the tree set by the stream. This biblical tree has delicious fruit which grows in its season. She herself can eat its fruit, and others can, too. The tree’s leaves never fall off. This means it is always spring and summer; autumn and winter never come. There’s no death or dying, just abundant life everlasting. And whatever this blessed-of-God person decides to do, God will prosper. Yes, yes, yes, says my heart.
Then comes a paragraph break, followed by these words, “Not so, the ungodly, not so…” It was the repetition of “not so,” that got me. It startled me, because I had never heard it before. The quietly persistent repetition is not present in our regular English Bibles–it’s replaced by an exclamation point in many versions. But in that repetition, I could hear the soft, determined voice of the wise grandmother or the confident father, perhaps a respected teacher in the classroom or a courtroom judge. We can see the finger wagging and the head shaking back and forth in the calm, assertive authority that doesn’t need to raise its voice. “Not so…not so.” Don’t think you’re going to get off free on this one, “Not so…not so.” The ungodly will not receive those blessings.
What will be their lot instead?
“They will be like the chaff which the wind scatters away from the face of the earth.” And here is where I lost it and began to cry. I just cried because the image is so sad. Think of the loneliest time in your whole life you have ever felt, and then add cold barrenness to that feeling. Imagine what it would be like to just blow away in the wind, lost, forgotten forever, away from every fire that ever warms a human heart, insignificant, having ceased to exist, as far as human or godly fellowship is concerned. I wouldn’t want to be that person, that piece of lonely chaff forever. And I cry for the ones for whom this word is intended.
Now if these verses don’t cause a Christian to have compassion for the lost and to at least pray for the unsaved…it’s important to keep on keeping on and to not lose heart, for in the end, we will receive what we ask for.
Penitential Psalms: Psalm 6
If Psalm 6 were taken out of the blue sky, that is, without centuries of commentary and church tradition behind it, I would not identify in it the theme of repentance in response to God’s wrath, simply because there are no words of repentance in it. Nor is there confession or mention of sin.
By comparison, Psalm 51 is confessional and repentant. In it we read,
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.
We find nothing like this in Psalm 6. Rather there are pleas asking for mercy to be proffered without the offer of repentance. Now some might say that God’s anger or wrath implies sinfulness. This may be so where context supports such a reading, but this is not the case with Psalm 6. Notwithstanding the issue of context, implicit is not as strong as explicit.
The psalmist in Psalm 6 clearly has an open relationship with God and trusts him. He appears surprised that God has not answered him sooner, or quickly. The activities of his enemies contribute to his difficulties. However, by the end of the psalm, God has answered. And yet, there is no mention of forgiveness. God comes to the psalmist’s aid with neither repentance nor forgiveness having been exchanged.
In comparing the opening verse of Psalm 6 with an identical opening in Psalm 38, Craig C. Broyles writes, “the absence of any confession of sin in Psalm 6 [is] all the more striking. It does not draw an inevitable connection between sin and sickness; it simply prays…” (Broyles, 63).
One element Psalm 6 manifests in abundance is sorrow. Mournful phrases include:
- Psalm 6:2 Pity me, O Lord; for I am weak: heal me, O Lord; for my bones are vexed. (LXE)
- Psalm 6:3 My soul also is grievously vexed: but thou, O Lord, how long? (LXE)
- Psalm 6:5 For in death no man remembers thee: and who will give thee thanks in Hades? (LXE)
- Psalm 6:6 I am wearied with my groaning; I shall wash my bed every night; I shall water my couch with tears. (LXE)
- Psalm 6:7 Mine eye is troubled because of my [sic] wrath; I am worn out because of all my enemies.
(LXE, English Septuagint)
In the sense of being a sorrowful (πένθος, penthos) psalm, Psalm 6 is penitential. It is the source of the sorrow that is questioned. Is it sorrow for the psalmist’s own unstated sin (which would force the reader to assume it), sorrow caused by the sins of others, who are explicitly stated enemies (vv 7-8, 10), or the wrath of God (vv 1, 3-4). Clearly, the psalm supplies evidence only for the latter two.
Yet church tradition since at least Gregory of Nyssa classifies this psalm as penitential, in the sense of confession for sins committed. According to Bruce Waltke (48), Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-394) “notes that the terms ‘confession’ and ‘praise,’ while linguistically distinct, were morally in conjunction. By confession we depart and separate from evil things, and by praise we embrace the grace of God to receive all benefits.” (Waltke, 48).
This view makes many assumptions concerning what is not explicit within the psalm itself. Gregory and other church fathers of his era (c 335-394) began with the hermeneutical assumption that Psalm 6 was primarily about David, since its superscription says “by” or “of” David. A further assumption by these men is that the psalm was written with reference to David’s sins of adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband, as recorded in 2 Samuel 11:1-12:25 (Ibid., 47). However, other interpretations of Psalm 6, as represented by accompanying illustrations in printed Bibles, were present alongside Gregory’s and continued until the end of the fifteenth century. These included topics such as the Last Judgement and Christ enthroned (1 Costley, Clare). But beginning in the sixteenth century and well into the eighteenth, the church, including Protestants, increasingly viewed Psalm 6 as a penitent confessional by David. David’s sin with Bathsheba even became the symbol of the entire Psalter (2 Ibid).
Here lies the determiner: one’s primary hermeneutical assumptions. There is a major difference of interpretation concerning Psalm 6, as with many or most of the psalms, depending upon whether David as David the man is in view or whether Christ is in view. Jesus himself and the apostolic fathers who personally saw and talked with him, including the Apostle Paul, did not teach that the psalms were primarily about David.
First, Jesus taught his disciples that the Psalms and other Old Testament scripture were written about himself (Luke 24:44). Then Peter, in one of his early speeches directly after Pentecost, as recorded in Acts 5:17-36, claims that Psalm 16:8-11 and 110:1 specifically were written prophetically with the risen Christ as their subject, rather than David, who was a simply a human mouthpiece. Finally, Paul interpreted Psalm 16 as being primarily about Christ, as written through David in the role of prophet. In reference to Psalm 16, Matthew W. Bates writes concerning Paul’s statement in Romans 15:9, “…Paul was not interested in David as the ascribed speaker, but rather David was a vehicle through whom the Spirit spoke…For Paul, David as a specific man is not very relevant…” (Bates, 302). This same attitude of Paul toward all Old Testament Scripture is again revealed in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10 and 10:11. For Paul to live, including his reading of Scripture, meant Christ, “For to me to live is Christ…” (Philippians 1:21 ESV).
A 19th century author who views Psalm 6 as being not about David and his sin with Bathsheba but about Christ in his mission and passion is Andrew A. Bonar, who writes, “David may have been led by the Holy Ghost to write it … But surely he meant to tell of One greater than David,—‘the Man of sorrows.’ … We may suppose every word used by Him in some of those nights which He passed in desert places, or in the garden of Gethsemane” (Bonar, 21).
Bonar points out certain similarities of wording found in Psalm 6 and spoken by Christ or found in other portions of the New Testament. For example, when the psalmist cries out, “Lord, rebuke me not in thy wrath,” Jesus prays, “Father, if it be possible, remove this cup from me.” When the psalmist laments, “My soul is sore vexed,” Bonar hears the voice of Christ entering the garden and confiding to his disciples, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.” He points out that the author of Hebrews presents Christ with “strong crying and tears to Him who was able to save him from death,” which corresponds to Psalm 6, “In death there is no remembrance of thee; in the grave, who shall give thee thanks?” (Ibid).
Likewise, John Barclay (1826) finds similarity between Psalm 6:8, “Depart from me, all ye that work iniquity; for the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping,” and Matthew 7:23 and 25:4, in which Christ foretells his actions as judge of the world (Barclay, 109). Of Psalm 6:2 Robert Hawker (1753-1827) writes, “David had a large portion of sorrow in himself, in his family and kingdom. But the beauty of the Psalm is as it beholds Christ in his strong crying and tears, when taking upon him our nature, and becoming sin for the church, that the church might be made the righteousness of God in him. If we eye the Redeemer as the sinner’s surety, we shall then enter into a right apprehension of what he saith under the divine chastisement for sin” (Hawker, 178).
Psalm 6 is numerically the first psalm in which God’s wrath falls upon the speaker himself. This fact is important, since Christ’s atoning death and resurrection is a major theme of the Psalter. In Psalm 6 the speaker does not represent himself as having sinned, yet he perceives God’s wrath upon himself. Psalm 6 therefore introduces the substitutionary atonement of Christ.
The next post will explore Psalm 6 itself in detail.
1 Costley, Clare L. 2004. “David, Bathsheba, and the Penitential Psalms*.” Renaissance Quarterly 57, no. 4: 1235-1277
2 Costley (see footnote 1) writes, “Thus, sixteenth-century European Books of Hours and eighteenth-century American primers alike linked penitential and catechetical practices to the first steps in literacy – and they tied penance, catechesis, and reading to an image of a naked woman and an adulterous king.”