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.
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.
What are the Penitential Psalms? If you said, “I don’t know,” then you’ve just explained why we have difficulty understanding them today. Most people have never heard of them, unless they attend an Orthodox liturgical church. So if you’re protestant, evangelical, or Catholic, why bother?
Little is known about the very early history and origin of the grouping of what later became the seven penitential psalms. Within the already Catholic tradition, the earliest information this author found is that fourth century Gregory of Nyssa classed Psalm 6, the first of the seven, as “confession and penitence” (1 Waltke, Laments, 43). Still later, St Augustine, before his death in 430 CE, repeatedly read and wept over four penitential psalms that had been written out and pinned to the wall in front of his bed. Which four they were has not been preserved (2). Cassiodorus, a sixth century Roman statesman, is apparently the first to have named the group of seven psalms as 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143 (3). These seven psalms eventually worked their way into the public liturgy of the Catholic church, and just as eventually were deleted. They were removed in 1911 from public reading and sidelined to private devotions (Ibid., 160-61). John Ubel describes their status within the Catholic church in 2014, “The penitential psalms are not collected in any currently approved liturgical text emanating from the Holy See, despite the intentions of the council and those entrusted with carrying out the liturgical reform” (Ibid., 165). Within the Eastern Orthodox tradition, although the nomenclature “penitential psalms” is known, these seven appear singly in varying portions of the liturgy. Each has its own distinct use and purpose. For example, Psalm 6 is used in Great Compline, Psalm 32 immediately after baptism, Psalm 38 in Orthros, and so forth (4). Evangelical churches tend not to focus on deep study of the Psalter, and most likely “Penitential Psalms” is not a topic often considered.
If you managed to wade through the previous paragraph and are still with me, you may be yawning profusely, scratching your head, and saying to yourself, “I can’t take much more of this. This is not why I read the Psalms.” And in my opinion, you would be correct.
I love John the Apostle’s statement in 1John 2:27:
But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie– just as it has taught you, abide in him (ESV).
The “anointing” John proclaims is the Holy Spirit of Christ, which every believer receives from the Father. He is the Spirit of God who lives within believers and is the source of their new birth (see John chapters 3 and 4, 6:63, 14, 15, and 16).
What John is saying is that each believer is connected to Christ the Son and through him to God the Father by means of the indwelling Spirit of God. Christ is the Living Word, and as such, he is quite able to communicate to every believer the messages from the Psalter which he wants to impart. He does this with all of Scripture. Therefore, the true value of studying Psalms is not to be had by reading about them in the words of someone else, such as the ancient church fathers and my words to you right now, but their true value is in hearing the Spirit speak into your own heart the Lord’s message to you in particular.
My purpose here is to hold up a road sign to you that says, “Have you tried this pathway through Psalms?” The pathway we will consider is Christ and his cross. Even in the so-called grouping of seven Penitential Psalms, we find Christ ever present and revealed. These psalms are not primarily about experiencing emotions of penitence designed to lead us to repentance. Rather, they are primarily about the life of Jesus Christ during his incarnation.
My premise is that Psalms reveal Christ. He is their primary focus. As we see Christ revealed, we also learn about God’s love for us, and that is what makes them important.
In future posts, we will consider each psalm individually and from a variety of angles.
1 Waltke, Bruce K. and James M. Houston with Erika Moore. The Psalms as Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.
2 DiPippo, Gregory. “The Penitential Psalms in the Liturgy of Lent.” New Liturgical Novus Motus: Movement Liturgicus (March 10, 2017). Accessed February 2, 2019. http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/eleu/ vol2/iss1/5/.
3 Ubel, John L. “Septem Psalmi Poenitentiales History, Demise, and Rebirth of an Ascetical Tradition.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought & Culture 17, no. 4 (Fall 2014): 155–68. Accessed February 19, 2019. doi:10.1353/log.2014.0036.
4 Academic Community of St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology, Elk Grove, California. The Orthodox Study Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008. (See the notes for each individual psalm).