Psalm 38 screams at the reader and begs her to ask, “Why is such a self-declared righteous man being punished so extremely by God? What were his self-declared sins against God, that he receives such wrath?” And finally, “Doesn’t it seem odd that someone who knows he is being oppressed by God for his sins would so mightily press upon God in prayerful request for salvation from his enemies?”
Psalm 38 is nowhere quoted in the New Testament, yet it bears a striking resemblance to Psalm 22, which is one of the Old Testament passages most often quoted in the New (1). The Gospel quotations of Psalm 22 make explicit reference to Christ in his Passion, while the author of Hebrews sees Christ as speaker within the context of Psalm 22:22. If readers perceive Christ as speaker in Psalm 22, wouldn’t the same principles of interpretation allow them to perceive Christ as speaker in Psalm 38? The answer is yes.
Augustine in the 4th century perceived Christ as the speaker of Psalm 22 in its entirety from first to last (3). Making an appeal to consistency, he argues that if Psalm 38:3 is not spoken by Christ, then neither is Psalm 22:1, whose words in verse 1a Christ spoke from the cross, “O God, my God, attend to me: why hast thou forsaken me?” Augustine equates, “The words of mine offences are far from my health,” (Psalm 22:1b, Septuagint) with, “There is no peace to my bones because of my sins,” (Psalm 38:3b, Septuagint). Augustine answers questions 1 and 2 above by his claim that as Christ is the head of the body, when he speaks, he speaks for both himself as head and for the body. The sins he confesses are the sins of the body–i.e., the sins of humankind. God metes out on the cross the just consequences of sin that fell upon Adam when he first sinned in the garden. There God said to Adam, “You shall surely die,” (Genesis 2:16-17).
While many other commentators have many other opinions of who is speaking in Psalm 38, I will jump forward to John Barclay (1795-1826, Scotland), with whom I share a kindred spirit. He writes,
This Psalm also is all spoken in one person, and breathes forth the heaviest pressure and anguish of spirit, supported by the most consummate meekness, patience, and resignation to the will of God: the language is borrowed from the most pungent feelings of one suffering all manner of distress in body, min, character, and estate. That Messiah is the person, is demonstrable from the very face of the whole Psalm, compared with all its parallels cited on the margin with others [Note: The ESV version has many links to Psalm 38 throughout the Old and New Testaments], and read in the light of the four Evangelists: so that nothing more particular needs be said in this place; only the reader may especially consult Psalms vi. xl. lxix. and lxxxviii. with their illustrations (Barclay, pages 186-187).
Robert Hawker (1753-1827) writes upon Psalm 38:1,
And how truly interesting is it to behold Christ with an eye of faith thus praying; and to hear him with the ear of faith thus pleading; when enduring that curse which the law denounced against the sinner, and thus redeeming us from the curse by becoming both sin and a curse for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. Gal. iii. 13. 2 Cor. v. 21. (Hawker, page 284)
And again, concerning verses 2-10:
Let any man read these verses, and then turn to the gospel, and his mind must be led out to remark the striking similarity between what is here said by the spirit of prophecy, and the history of the sorrows and sufferings of Jesus. Reader, turn to some few passages, and then pause over both, in comparing spiritual things with spiritual, and say whether David spake these things of himself, or of some other man? Luke, xxii. 41-44; Mark, xiv. 32-34: (Ibid.)
Concerning verses 11-14:
Who that ever read the prophet’s account of Him, that as a sheep before her shearers was dumb, so he opened not his mouth; or who that ever read the relation of Jesus standing before Pilate, when, amidst all the blasphemy poured upon him, he remained silent, until the unjust judge himself marveled; or who that ever attended to what the apostle hath said of Jesus, that when he was reviled, he reviled not again; who, I say, that ever attended to these things, could hesitate for a moment to behold the Lord Christ in this prophetic description of him? Surely no one that knows any thing of David’s history, will give him credit for this dumbness and insensibility to the reproaches of his enemies. (Ibid.)
For those who may feel uncomfortable attributing the confession of sin to the lips of Christ, Hawker writes this of verse 18:
Let not these words stagger the faith of the believer in considering them as spoken by Christ. As the sinner’s Surety, he was truly made sin for his people, so the scripture declares, yea, also a curse for them. Hence, in the eye of the law, Christ and his seed are one. Gal. iii. 13. 2 Cor. v. 21. (Ibid.)
Samuel Horsley (1733-1806) is bold in proclaiming,
Many parts of the psalm, however, have so striking a reference to the case of our Lord in the days of his flesh, that I cannot but think the whole belongs to him, and that he (the humanity of Christ) is the sick persecuted suppliant. If the sickness may typify generally his humiliation, as I think it may, and the heat which rages in the sick man’s loins, the fiery trial of wrath which he endured in the garden of Gethsemane, when his distress, though principally mental, discovered itself in dreadful symptoms in his body; if this interpretation of the sickness be admitted, there is not a sentence nor a word in the whole of this extraordinary composition which is not applicable to our Lord as man, with more strictness and propriety than to any other person. (Bishop Horsley, page 95, published posthumously in 1815 by the author’s son.)
Again, Andrew A. Bonar (1810-1892) addresses the incongruity of confessed sin by one whom Scripture declares righteous, when he writes:
The difficulty in the way of supposing it used by the Lord Jesus, as descriptive of his feelings and state, when he took on our guilt by imputation, is not at all greater than in some passages of Psalms xl. and lxix., which almost no one doubts to be his utterances. (Bonar, 129)
Finally, the editors of The Orthodox Study Bible (2008) write that Psalm 38 (37 LXX),
“reveals the great love of Christ for mankind in His sufferings and death on the cross, especially v. 18: For I am ready for wounds, and my pain is continually with me. And although He was ‘separate from sinners’ (Heb 7:26) and ‘knew no sin’ (2Co 5:21), yet out of His great compassion for sinners, He prays this prayer in a relative sense as though He were one of them. Thus, He takes the place of sinners as one of them, and intercedes to the Father for their salvation in the midst of His sufferings and death on the cross.”
The fact that I’ve included so few current references to the voice of Christ praying Psalm 38 is a sad reflection on the distance today’s evangelical churches and biblical academicians generally have moved away from the centrality of hearing Christ pray the Psalter. The third question stated in the opening paragraph above is, “Doesn’t it seem odd that someone who knows he is being oppressed by God for his sins wo0uld so mightily press upon God in prayerful request for salvation rom his enemies?” The answer is simple once we identify the speaker as Christ who prays this prayer. We are not at all surprised to hear the substitutionary Lamb of God asking his Father that his enemies not triumph over him.
What about the Penitential Nature of Psalm 38?
Psalm 38 is third in the series of seven traditional penitential psalms (4). The first verses of Psalms 38 and 6 are identical in the Septuagint (Greek). Even though the speaker in Psalm 38 attributes his suffering to his sin, he does not repent in the strict form of asking for forgiveness (5). Bruce Waltke, James Houston, and Erika Moore write:
Psalm 38 is truly a great piece of literature. The psalmist enables his reader to feel his eventual numbness from his unremitting pain by his unrelenting verbal depictions of them. No psalm depicts sickness in such an extended, numbing way. As the psalmist can endure no further suffering, neither can his audience endure further reading about them. (Waltke, page 134)
Psalm 38 is complex, however, because in the center of this prayer to God the psalmist shifts his focus from describing his pain to describing his enemies. The psalmist’s concern over his enemies continues nearly to the end of the poem. While Craig C. Broyles writes that the actions of his enemies, like those of his friends, are a reaction to his sickness (Broyles, 186), verse 20 (LXE) states otherwise, “They that reward evil for good slandered me; because I followed righteousness.” As indicated in the opening paragraph above, the self-proclaimed righteousness and goodness of the psalmist adds further complexity to this “penitential” psalm.
For those who explore the Septuagint, verse 17(18 LXX) provides an eye-catching difference from the Masoretic text within the context of the New Testament narrative:
Mark 15:15: and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. (ESV)
Septuagint (Greek): Because I am ready for scourges, and my pain is ever with me. (NETS, Albert Pietersma, ed.)
Septuagint: For I am ready for plagues (footnote in text: scourges), and my grief is continually before me. (Brenton)
Septuagint: For I am ready for wounds, And my pain is continually with me. (Original translation of St. Athanasius Academy in The Orthodox Study Bible.)
Masoretic (Hebrew): For I am about to stumble, and I am in constant pain. (NET)
Greek for “scourges”: μάστιγας
Definition: μάστιξ, μαστιχος, ἡ, a whip, scourge ) [Hebrew שזט Strong’s 07752] 1 Kings 12:11,14; Prov. 26:3): Acts 22:21; Heb. 11:36; metaphorically, a scourge, plague, i. e. a calamity, misfortune, especially as sent by God to discipline or punish (Ps. 88:33 (Ps. 89:33) (Thayer, Lexicon)
When placed in the context of the entire psalm, verse 17 (18 LXX) adds an important detail to the Passion of Christ.
Psalm 38 is much more than a “penitential” psalm. In it, we as readers find a strikingly complete first person narrative of the Passion of Jesus Christ. As the surrogate for the human race, Christ confessed the sins of his people, even while maintaining his own righteousness. We see his physical sufferings, his friends and family standing passive and aloof, the attacks of his enemies, and his utter reliance and trust toward God his Father.
As we the readers immerse ourselves in this psalm, we come to experience with the psalmist the great, great love which the triune God bears for his children–us. God is a personal God in an extreme sense of that word. He himself, by becoming one of us and dying a sacrificial death on the cross for us, bears the full weight of the burden each one of us owns. “See what sort of love the Father has given to us: that we should be called God’s children– and indeed we are!” (1John 3:1 NET)
A Personal Plea
If anyone who is reading this has not in your whole life turned to God and said something like, “Hi. Here I am, and this is who I am. Would you be my friend?” then I ask you, won’t you stop reading and thinking right now, turn to God, introduce yourself to him, and ask him for his presence with you? He’ll do all the rest. Jesus Christ will be the best friend you will ever have in your whole life.
1 Psalm 32:1-2 is quoted in Romans 4:7-8, Psalm 22:1 is quoted Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34; Psalm 22:18 in John 19:24, Matthew 27:35, Mark 15:24, and Luke 23:24; and Psalm 22:22 in Hebrews 2:12.
2 Compare Psalm 32:3 (LXE) and Psalm 38:13-14 (LXE); Psalm 32:4 (LXE): “For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: I became thoroughly miserable while a thorn was fastened in me. Pause.” and Psalm 38:2 (LXE): “For thy weapons are fixed in me, and thou hast pressed thy hand heavily upon me.” In this verse the verbs “fastened” and “fixed” are translations of the same Greek word, ἐμπήγνυμι–to stick in.
3 Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, page 191.
4 The seven penitential psalms are: 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143.
There is one thing about Psalm 32 (31 LXX) upon which everyone agrees: it is a psalm about grace. The Apostle Paul quotes Psalm 32:1-2 in Romans 4:7-8.
1 Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and who sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin, and in whose mouth there is no guile. (Psalm 32:1-2 LXE, Septuagint in English, Brenton)
7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;
8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Rom 4:7-8 ESV)
Paul in Romans pronounces grace–pardon for sin apart from works. He uses the example of Abraham, who received God’s blessing of righteousness on the basis of his faith. Paul extends the promise which God gave Abraham to all believers who follow his example of placing their faith in God. For Paul, placing one’s faith in God means placing faith in the God who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead.
22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.”
23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone,
24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord,
25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (Rom 4:22-25 ESV)
Paul argues in all of Romans 4 that God extends the grace of righteousness to Gentile believers on account of their faith in his Son, rather than on account of their racial birth. And who cannot hear the roar of joy surging like a great wave that encompasses all people around our globe? Besides being penitential, Psalm 32 is well known as a psalm of thanksgiving. The Greek Orthodox Church reads this psalm to new believers as they emerge from the waters of baptism. (See The Orthodox Study Bible.)
Let’s take a look at Psalm 32 (31 LXX).
LXE Psalm 32:1 <<A Psalm of instruction by David.>> Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin, and in whose mouth there is no guile.
3 Because I kept silence, my bones waxed old, from my crying all the day.
4 For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: I became thoroughly miserable while a thorn was fastened in me. Pause.
5 I acknowledged my sin, and hid not mine iniquity: I said, I will confess mine iniquity to the Lord against myself; and thou forgavest the ungodliness of my heart. Pause.
6 Therefore shall every holy one pray to thee in a fit time: only in the deluge of many waters they shall not come nigh to him.
7 Thou art my refuge from the affliction that encompasses me; my joy, to deliver me from them that have compassed me. Pause.
8 I will instruct thee and guide thee in this way wherein thou shalt go: I will fix mine eyes upon thee.
9 Be ye not as horse and mule, which have no understanding; [but thou] must constrain their jaws with bit and curb, lest they should come nigh to thee.
10 Many are the scourges of the sinner: but him that hopes in the Lord mercy shall compass about.
11 Be glad in the Lord, and exult, ye righteous: and glory, all ye that are upright in heart. (Psa 32:1-11 LXE)
A second point of agreement concerning Psalm 32 among commentators is its use of dialogue. After multiple readings, many readers will be able to recognize that more than one person speaks within its lines. Changes of tone, subject, and shifts between singular and plural help delineate the various speech boundaries within the psalm.
Identifying speakers in a psalm can be tricky. The reader must be alert, noticing large and small cues. She must draw upon her knowledge of God and his ways, based upon her reading of all of Scripture. Not surprisingly, while nearly everyone recognizes dialogue and change of speakers in Psalm 32 (31 LXX), there is not consensus concerning who speaks which lines.
Here is how I break it out:
Psalm 32 (31 LXE): A Readers Theater Interpretation
Chorus of the Congregation: … 1 Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin, and in whose mouth there is no guile.
Christ to God: 3 Because I kept silence, my bones waxed old, from my crying all the day.
4 For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: I became thoroughly miserable while a thorn was fastened in me. Pause.
5 I acknowledged my sin, and hid not mine iniquity: I said, I will confess mine iniquity to the Lord against myself; and thou forgavest the ungodliness of my heart. Pause.
Chorus of the Congregation: 6 Therefore shall every holy one pray to thee in a fit time: only in the deluge of many waters they shall not come nigh to him.
Christ to God: 7 Thou art my refuge from the affliction that encompasses me; my joy, to deliver me from them that have compassed me. Pause.
God to his Christ: 8 I will instruct thee [singular in LXX] and guide thee [singular in LXX] in this way wherein thou [singular in LXX] shalt go: I will fix mine eyes upon thee [singular in LXX].
God to the Congregation: 9 Be ye [plural] not as horse and mule, which have no understanding; but thou [added by translator] must constrain their jaws with bit and curb, lest they should come nigh to thee [singular].
[My Interpretation: Be ye [plural] not as horse and mule, which have no understanding. It is necessary to constrain their jaws with bit and curb, or they won’t come near you [singular impersonal required by context of a single person managing the horse.]
Chorus of the Congregation: 10 Many are the scourges of the sinner: but him that hopes in the Lord mercy shall compass about.
11 Be glad in the Lord, and exult, ye righteous: and glory, all ye that are upright in heart.
What makes Psalm 32 a psalm about the substitutionary atonement of Christ?
The key is found in verse 6, “Therefore shall every holy one pray to thee in a fit time…” What is the logic behind this statement, specifically the conclusion, introduced by the word “therefore,” that “every holy one” should pray to God while he may be found? What warrant is there to jump from the example of one sinner (verses 3-5) to an entire group? And what is the warrant to move from the example of a sinner to “every holy one?”
The latter difficulty can be explained by the NET translation. Where the Septuagint uses “every holy one,” (πᾶς ὅσιος), NET translates the Masoretic text as “faithful follower.” I believe that within the context of the Psalter this is a fair translation. Verse six states that “holy ones,” or “faithful followers,” i.e., those who have been forgiven (vs 1), should now call upon the Lord for protection whenever trouble comes upon them as a flood.
But why? Why does the text say, “therefore”? I see two possibilities. In the first, the logic of the psalm may be stating that because one sinner has been forgiven, God will likewise forgive all sinners. A second possibility states that because God has forgiven this particular sinner, therefore, all believing sinners (faithful followers now made holy) will be forgiven and have access to the help of God through prayer.
The answer to the question of which possibility is the correct one depends upon the identity of the speaker of verses 3-5, who also speaks in 7. This speaker would likewise be the singular “man,” a singular male in the Septuagint, referred to in verse 2. Verse 1 is plural; verse 2 is singular. Verse 6 encapsulates these two verses. The many are blessed because of God’s forgiveness to the one. “Therefore…” But who is this one?
First, “Blessed is the man …” of verse two is identical to the opening words of the Psalter in Psalm 1:1 (μακάριος ἀνήρ). The singular male of Psalm 1:1 is considered by this author and by many others to be Christ. Pilate said of him, “Behold, the man…” In that case, Pilate says, “Behold the human being.” Christ was crucified as the head of the human race. (See the prior post, “Penitential Psalms: 32–How Could Christ Pray the Words of a Sinner?”) In the Psalter, however, Christ is not a generic human being, as some translations would have it. He is a particular male, a single person, a real flesh and blood man who prays to God. Psalm 32:1-2 in the Septuagint distinguishes between the many (32:1) and the one male (32:2). This one male is the speaker of verses 3-5, which are closed off with a break, Selah. Verse 6 is the result (“therefore”) of verses 3-5.
Second, verses 3-4 in the Septuagint have some most remarkable words, which if taken literally, provide clues to the identity of the speaker.
3 Because I kept silence, my bones waxed old, from my crying all the day.
4 For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: I became thoroughly miserable while a thorn was fastened in me. Pause.
Others have pointed out the similarity of these words to those of Psalm 38, which is a veritable portrait of Christ’s crucifixion. The Greek verb (LXX) for “fastened,” Psalm 32:4, “a thorn was fastened in me,” is identical to the Greek verb (LXX) for “fixed” in Psalm 38:2, “For thy weapons are fixed in me, and thou hast pressed thy hand heavily upon me.” Further, Psalm 32:3 states, “Because I kept silence,…” All four gospels make a point of the silence of Christ during his trial.
Once we know that Christ is the speaker of the personal prayer portion of Psalm 32 in verses 3-5 and 7, then the rest of the psalm begins to fall into place. For example, we know that verse 9 cannot be God addressing the speaker of the prayer, because God would never address his Son that way. Verse 8, on the other hand, beautifully illustrates God’s love for his Son.
What turns this psalm from penitential to joyful thanksgiving is the presence of the chorus, made up of believers. Because one man died confessing the sins of others, because God did not impute, or count that sin against him as an individual, then all those for whom Christ died now have free access to God through him. We know that God did not impute sin against Christ (or count it against him, reckon it against him), because God raised him from the dead. If Christ had been guilty, he would have merited his punishment and remained dead. But Christ himself was righteous. We know from his resurrection that God was pleased with him. Because of Christ’s victory, believers are blessed to have their transgressions forgiven, their sins covered. God’s mercy is a cause for thankfulness and rejoicing, which is what the congregation does in the final verse. The psalm opens and closes with God’s mercy for the sinner in view.
Craig C. Broyles writes that Psalm 32 “forms a combination of features unlike any other psalm,” (Broyles, 161). I don’t know about you who are reading this blog, but often, when I first read a psalm, I am left flat, almost without response. I think to myself, “I have nothing to say about this psalm.” But God has blessed me with persistence. God rewarded Jacob with a new name after he wrestled with him all night. Reading the Psalter is often like this biblical story. Many times it is only after wrestling with a psalm, seeking to understand, asking God, delving into the details, reading again and again, that I come to a deeper appreciation of the wisdom of God in how he connects Scripture with Scripture. It is true that these are ancient words and that we as today’s readers must seek to translate them into our own experience. But the treasure of meeting with God through the words of a psalm is so worth the effort. I pray that you will be encouraged to do some digging of your own.
All our Christian lives, we are told that Christ died for our sins and that he himself knew no sin. We know that his own disciples did not spot references to his crucifixion and resurrection in their own Scripture (Luke 24). Nearly every Easter we hear Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And yet, when we read the words of confession in Psalm 32:5: I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin (ESV), we balk at applying these words to the innocent Christ, and we become uncomfortable.
During the time I have studied the Psalter, more and more I become aware that the incarnated Christ is indeed human, a person, a man. The Psalter presents Christ’s humanity in a way that is “down to earth” relatable. Our shared human perceptions of experience were his shared human perceptions also. What hurts us hurt him.
Hebrews 12:2 teaches the shame of the cross–if I were hanging on a cross, I would find it extraordinarily shameful. I can relate to that. Galatians 3:13 tells us that Christ became a curse for us. Deuteronomy 21:23 explains that everyone hung to death upon a tree is cursed of God and a source of defilement for the land. Paul tells us that Christ has been sacrificed as our Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). John says, “He [Christ] is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world,” (1 John 2:2 ESV). For “propitiation” in the Old Testament to happen, a lamb was slain and its blood sprinkled on the ark’s mercy seat, so that God’s anger against sinful believers would end. We also read about the scapegoat, upon which the priest would symbolically place “all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins,” and “send him … into the wilderness” (Leviticus 16:21 ESV). Christ was also our scapegoat. Isaiah writes, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted,” (Isaiah 53:4 ESV).
Scripture shows us holy people of God who interceded in prayer as through they themselves were the sinful ones. Daniel prayed, “While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, … ” (Daniel 9:20 ESV). The godly Nehemiah prayed, ” … I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned,” (Nehemiah 1:6 ESV). Paul in the New Testament wrote strongly, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh,” (Romans 9:3 ESV). So I ask, where in Scripture, if not in the first person voice of the psalmist, would God teach us how thoroughly Christ identified with and became humanity to the point of interceding for us as though one of our very own?
I believe we should receive Christ’s penitent prayer as our representative in Psalm 32 for the same reason that John the Baptist allowed himself to be persuaded to baptize Jesus, because “it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness,” (Matthew 3:14 NET). I believe many have difficulty receiving Christ’s words of confession in Psalm 32 because of the difficulty we all experience in realizing just how very much one of us Christ became. Adam’s sin brought all his progeny into death and separation from God. One person, Adam, represented everyone. In the same way, Christ represents everyone (1 Corinthians 15:21-22). As our representative, Jesus personally confessed and was punished for each one of us.
As we meditate on these things, may the Holy Spirit open to our hearts this greatest of all loves with which our Creator Father loves us. May the words of John 3:16 take on a deeper texture of meaning as we consider the shame of the holy Son of God confessing our sin as though it were his own. And yet, “he endured the cross, despising the shame,” (Hebrews 12:2) because “… he who makes holy and those being made holy all have the same origin,” (Hebrews 2:11 NET). Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters. I can only say, “Hallelujia! Thank you, Lord.” And that is just what the psalmist goes on to say in Psalm 32. We will look at that next time.
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.
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 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. He 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 can conclude (knowing who the speaker is) that any sin and God’s resultant wrath are not on account of the psalmist himself.
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). Verses 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)
This is because of these verses being 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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.”
First things first–Disclaimer: This is a technical article most likely of interest to very few. I promise this series will get better once we get past the linguistic details and consider these amazing psalms themselves. If anyone wishes to skip this chapter, please feel free. Otherwise, proceed.
What images come to our minds when we say the word “penitential?”
If we are to understand why seven psalms are classed together in a family (1), we must become detectives who put on our thinking caps. And in doing so, we’ve already admitted that the connection is not obvious, and we take one step away from our hearts as we begin talking with our heads.
Most theological traditions give these psalms a meaning related to penitence, sorrow for sin, or repentance. This is not a popular evangelical theme; evangelicals tend to emphasize joy, joy, joy. Further, today’s evangelicals, reading their Bibles at home, seek to discover their own meanings in Scripture, rather than basing their meditations on centuries old, prior church traditions of which they are largely unaware. They couldn’t care less. In line with that, this blog challenges us as “common,” everyday readers under the influence of and in the presence of the Holy Spirit, to hear what God says about his own psalms. But we will plow forward through this technical mumbo jumbo as a corrective, just in case my conclusions might lead us down the wrong track.
First, let us consider the word “penitential.” The English “penitential” word family includes penitential, penitent, penance, and even penitentiary. Then there is the word family in which the “pen” portion occurs in the middle: repent, repentance, repentant. But what about another distinct set of meanings: penury and penurious? There are also words that use “pen” as a prefix, as in “penultimate.”
In the Oxford English Dictionary, the gold bar standard for English, the etymologies for most of the previous words stretch no further back in time or language than Latin, Old English, and Middle French. The word “penitence” in its Latin form paenitentia occurs in manuscripts of the 5th and 6th century, and in the Vulgate of the 6th and 7th century. “Penury” comes to us from classical Latin, but is of “uncertain origin.” French, Spanish, and Italian have similar words, none of which reach further back than the late Middle Ages. “Penultimate” derives from a Latin prefix meaning “almost.”
But what happens when we go all the way back to Old biblical Greek? I find it very odd that none of the entries for any of the above English words mentions the possibility of Greek origins for the “pen” family. There are many occurrences in the Greek Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) and a few in the Greek New Testament with “pen” words as their base (2). The Greek letters when pronounced sound like English “pen.” They are transliterations. It appears as though English and other Latin based languages, such as French and Spanish, preserved the transliterated sounds and spellings of their Greek precursors, but substantially altered their meanings. How did this big mix-up occur? Since the Oxford English Dictionary offers no more than unspecified uncertainties, it follows that I can merely offer reasonable speculation. But the clarity and quantity of the Greek witness overwhelms to the point of crying out for speculation.
For example, here are some of the Greek words:
- πένητος (pen-ee-tohss) A “penitose” person is a poor person. Note the similarity to English “penitent.”
- πένομαι (pen-o-may) 1) To work for one’s living; to toil, to labor 2) to be poor and needy.
- πεινάω (pen-a-oh) To be hungry
- πενθέω (pen-thay-oh) To be sad, to grieve and mourn, in contrast to being joyful. While the object of the grieving is not included in the word itself, it is sometimes scripturally applied to sin. One can grieve and mourn over one’s own sin, over the sin of someone else, and very importantly, over the effects of someone else’s sin upon oneself as victim.
- πενθουντες (pen-thun-tes) The ones who are mourning. Note the similarity to English “penitents,” especially if one were to change the central “t” to “th.” All the consonants are present in both words and the vowels are very similar: penit[h]ents, penthuntes. Bagster comments on Matthew 5:4, ” the penthountes mourn not for their own sins but because of the power of the wicked who oppress the righteous .”
- πενθος (pen-thos) Mourning, grief. Again, in each of these last three words, the mourning need not be associated with sin. The mourning in Genesis 50:10-11 was over the death of Jacob. In 2 Samuel 19:2, the joy of victory for David’s people over their conquering the rebels changed to mourning when David learned that his son Absalom the rebel had died. The grief in Proverbs 14:13 is general and unspecified. In Micah 1:8 and Isaiah 17:14, those who receive God’s judgment experience grief, penthos.
It stretches credulity to think that these Greek words are not in some way related to the English “pen” family, yet the meanings are mostly different. This is a puzzle to be solved. It appears that the English word family with the meaning of “penury,” poverty, may follow the Greek word family for being hungry and working for a living (penomay, penitose, peinaoh). Likewise, the “penitent” word family sounds very much like the Greek word family for mourning, “penthountes.”
What is strange and unusual is that as early as the 4th century [Catholic] church (3), the concept of personal penitence, or sorrow, guilt, and repentance for one’s own sin, came to be associated with words that originally meant poverty and grief in general. The Catholic tradition carried over into Protestantism. Isn’t it characteristic of human nature, many church cultures, and societies in general? It’s what we call the blame game. We blame the victims. It is not so in God’s word. The wicked in God’s Word of the Old Testament are those who oppress the poor and needy, not vice versa. But this is my etymological conjecturing.
Sermon on the Mount: An interesting example, however, is the preaching one often hears for Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Some excellent preachers will say that the ones mourning in this verse are mourning and lamenting their own sinfulness, and that they will be comforted when they complete the process of repentance and experience God’s forgiveness. However, none of the Greek words in the verse imply or connote sinfulness. Rather, as Bagster wrote (see above), Jesus was saying to those who were poor and mournful because of the oppression of the powerful against them, that they would be comforted. In other words, it won’t always be this way. This corresponds better with the following verse in which the meek are told they will inherit the earth. In no manner is the earth spiritual; the earth is physical. The meek will inherit a physical earth. How about verse 3? Jesus addresses a hillside packed with poor people. He could be saying something like, “Since you are already economically poor, let me show you a benefit of poverty–to be poor in spirit.” And for verse 6, “I know you are physically hungry and thirsty, but that won’t be permanently helped now. But why not try this? What will happen if you hunger and thirst for righteousness? Then I guarantee that you will be satisfied.” You see, nowhere in the context of the Beatitudes does it explicitly state that Jesus was addressing a sin problem.
As further evidence toward my line of thinking, we find that when English translations use words such as “repent” and “repentance,” the corresponding Greek word is not of the “pen” family at all, but completely different. The Greek words for English repentance concern turning, turning away from, changing the direction of one’s face, changing one’s mind, and so forth. Greek words with these meanings are epi-strephoe in the Old Testament–to turn to, and meta-no-ee-oh in the New–to change one’s mind.
Summary: So far we have looked at the Greek words underlying the English word “penitential.” We have found that the English word means an attitude of sorrow, guilt, and repentance for one’s own sin, but the Greek words refer to 1) sorrow and grief in general and 2) economic poverty. The sorrow words can be applied to sorrow and grief over one’s own sin, someone else’s sin, and most importantly over the effects of someone else’s sin upon oneself as victim. But none of these applications is necessary. Neither the sorrow nor poverty words themselves carry overtones of sin. I believe a certain facet of human, societal, and church-culture nature is being expressed in the frequent association of sorrow, grief, and economic poverty with an assumed sinfulness on the part of the victim.
But we haven’t talked about any of the Penitential Psalms in particular. Why these psalms? And why sin? Do these psalms even speak of sin and repentance? If the answer was simply yes, I wouldn’t be asking these questions. Stay tuned as we explore other reasons why these psalms may be grouped together.
1 The seven penitential psalms are 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143.
2 Why consider Old Greek? It is the language from which Augustine’s Old Latin Bible was translated, and it is my version of preference for studying the Psalter.
3. The Eastern Orthodox Church has preserved to the present day the Greek Bible and uses it as its preferred text for translation into English and other languages. Study notes in one of these Bibles preserves in many cases the Greek meanings of the “pen” family of words, rather than the later Latin and English meanings. See Academic Community of St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology, Elk Grove, California. The Orthodox Study Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008.