Saint Augustine, it is said, had written out and pinned at eye level four psalms on the wall beside his bed. These he could read and reread as often as he liked, as he lay there dying. These four psalms became the core of the seven later known as the Penitential Psalms. Although the Penitential Psalms played a significant role in the medieval church, as witnessed by many paintings of the period, during the Reformation and beyond, they diminished in importance and liturgical practice. In the evangelical church today, few have even heard the phrase “penitential psalms,” let alone know which they are or why they are called that.
Association of penitence with seven particular psalms is rather a misnomer and a mistake. The seven particular psalms considered “penitential” as a group are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. As the centerpiece, Psalm 51 is indeed penitential. Psalm 51 supposedly records David’s heartfelt remorse for his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and his later murdering of her husband as a coverup when it became known that David had caused her to become pregnant. David expresses genuine and merited sorrow for his reprehensible sins. However, Psalm 6 and Psalm 102 carry no mention of sin at all. In fact, in each of these the speaker attributes his suffering to the persecution of his enemies. Enemies are a persistent theme throughout these seven psalms. Psalms 32 and 51 are the only ones which make no mention of enemies.
What is the reader to make of these inconsistencies of theme? Why group seven psalms which vary in such basic ways? One possibility is to consider that the traditional understanding of the word “penitent” is at fault. The use of the word penitence to represent a sorrow and suffering over one’s own sin follows a Latin language tradition. There is, however, a Greek semantic pathway using the base syllable “-pen-“, which corresponds to a meaning of extreme sorrow born of deep humility and humbleness of state. The core of this semantic pathway does not require a sense of guilt for sins committed. Rather, the humility can be a response to any number of physical or situational causes, such as poverty, lowliness of social estate, or physical distress. And sorrow born of suffering is in fact a theme which unites the seven penitential psalms. When one considers that the earliest church Bibles were written in Greek and that the Septuagint was the Old Testament of the early church for several centuries, this explanation of the grouping of the penitential psalms seems reasonable.
But the question remains: why does the psalmist maintain his innocence and righteousness, while at the same time grieving and mourning over his sins? Apart from Christ, there can be no reasonable explanation for unity among these psalms. Christ alone, as a human being, can maintain complete righteousness and innocence. This characteristic of the actions of his incarnated life, combined with his sinless divine nature, are what qualified him to be the lamb of God. The sacrificial lamb of Old Testament tradition needed to be one without spot or blemish of any kind. Only Christ qualifies. And yet, five of the seven penitential psalms carry confession of sin in greater or lesser extent.
The answer is simple. “God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God.” (2Corinthians 5:21 NET) The hermeneutic key that unlocks the Psalter is Jesus Christ. The New Testament teaches everywhere that Christ the man suffered, and that he suffered for our sins. Christ the man is the voice of the psalmist throughout the penitential psalms and so many others. As prophecy, these seven psalms foretell in first person the sufferings of the innocent, righteous Christ as he bore the sins of the world in his own person. Only with Christ does the psalmic paradox of the righteous sinner disappear. So, Christ is the dramatic speaker persona of the penitential psalms.
Before closing, one further word about why these seven psalms as a grouping have fallen into disuse and even disfavor. For all but the earliest history of the church, the majority opinion has not recognized that Christ is the voice of the psalmist. Further, the Latin textual tradition overran and trampled the Greek in all but the Orthodox churches. The Latin concept of penitence, as a kind of mournful wailing over sin that self-flagellates the heart of a penitent over and over again throughout the life of the penitent, no longer dominates our churches, especially evangelical ones. It appears as though the lesson was learned–yes, we all begin in universal sin. However, we repent once and then in Christ we move on. The Bible teaches forgiveness of sin and new life in Christ. Joy in salvation and holy living replace guilt for sins committed. Fresh sins are confessed and forgiveness is received. There is no need to wail over one’s past for the remainder of one’s life. The Christian life is lived out through the Spirit of Christ who indwells each and every believer. Joy replaces sorrow.
Nonetheless, the Christian heart will always benefit from considering the depth of sorrow in the heart of Christ as he endured the persecution of his enemies, which culminated in his physical sacrifice upon the cross. Doing so can only increase appreciation for the love of God for us expressed through Jesus our Savior and Lord. The seven Penitential Psalms will always be useful for this contemplation.