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Penitential Psalms: Psalm 143–Knowing Who We Are in Christ

 

 

Psalm 143 is the final psalm in the grouping historically know as the Penitential Psalms. The other six psalms are: Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. Psalm 143 clearly states where the Christian’s focus should abide: God. 

  • When reading through Psalm 143, the repetition of certain words pop out. Repetition is a strong clue when deciphering any passage of Scripture. In general, according to the way language functions, the more often a word or concept gets repeated, the more important it becomes. Repetition of variants of the word “you” or “your” are striking in Psalm 143. These occur in 10 of the 12 verses, or 83.3% of the time. By comparison, variants of “you” occur in 54.5% of the verses in Psalm 32, and the least percentage, 21.7%, occurs in Psalm 38.
  • Additionally there are five verses in which the word “Lord” occurs in direct address to God.
  • Repetitions of “you” and “Lord” demonstrate to the reader where the psalmist’s focus lies.

Interestingly, in the only two verses in which the psalmist does not address God directly (as displayed in the words “you,” “your,” and “Lord”), his focus shifts first, to the enemy (vs 3), and second, to himself (vs 4) in an introspective examination of how his spirit is doing.

The enemy pursues me,
he crushes me to the ground;
he makes me dwell in the darkness
like those long dead.
So my spirit grows faint within me;
my heart within me is dismayed.
(NIV)

Were the psalmist’s focus to remain on the enemy and the landscape within his own spirit, Psalm 143 would be depressing, rather than uplifting to faith. As it is, Psalm 143 encourages both the psalmist who prays this prayer and the reader, whose heart can join in, as she applies the prayer to Christ in his suffering and to her own circumstances.

In Psalm 143, the reader encounters words and phrases such as: mercy, faithfulness, righteousness, relief, what your hands have done, morning, unfailing love, my trust in you, the way I should go, to you I lift up my soul, I hide myself in you, your will, you are my God, your good Spirit, level ground, your name’s sake, your unfailing love, I am your servant. Psalm 143 teaches us to focus our thoughts and prayers upon the Lord, and our hearts will be lifted up.

What about Penitence? 

As this study has shown, several of the so-called Penitential Psalms have little or nothing to do with traditional concepts of penitence, such as confession and remorse for sins committed. Verse 2 is the only verse out of the 12 that approaches the topic of sin. And it appears to do so only in order to dismiss it quickly.

2 Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before you.

Within the context of the psalm itself, this is as much as to say, “I am not interested in confession of my sins right now, for the enemy is pursuing me hotly and I shall soon be crushed to death (vs 7) if you do not help me quickly right now.” Why should God help him? The psalmist answers, “For I am your servant” (closing words of vs 12). Either the psalmist is arrogant in his deft brushing aside of the sin question, or he is confident of a special relationship between himself and his God. Rather than displaying arrogance, the psalmist appeals to God’s grace, which has been established in long relationship with him.

The question for each of us as readers is, Do I have this confidence before the Lord in my hour of greatest need? Am I certain of my relationship with him? Or, do I feel a need to be punished for my sins before I can ask and expect God to help me? Fortunately for the psalmist, the firm ground of his relationship with God had been established long before he cried out to the Lord in this psalm. He was secure in his overall position of obedient servant to an all-powerful, loving God. Therefore, he was able to apply himself whole heartedly to his most pressing need of asking God to save and rescue him from immediate trouble and danger.

Now is the time for each one of us to examine our relationship with God, so that when we need his help the most, we will be free to ask quickly, just as God is free to give. The ground has already been laid by the saving work of Jesus Christ upon the cross. Reader, have you laid hold of Christ’s blessing? I encourage you to enter into prayer with Jesus Christ right now, in order to make sure that you are his servant. The moment when you need his help the most is not the time to begin to debate with yourself on all kinds of issues and paroxysms of guilt and repentance. Get all that settled in advance, now, so that when you face an emergency, you, the Lord’s servant, will be able to immediately claim your birthright in Christ and quickly ask for the help you need.

Is all this contained in Psalm 143? Ask the playwright and set designer, and he will tell you, yes, it is. Read it for yourself, and see.

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This concludes the series on the Penitential Psalms. Link to the first chapter of the series

 

 

 

Penitential Psalms: Psalm 130–Praying from the Grave

 

1 [A Song of Degrees.] Out of the depths have I cried to thee, O Lord. 2 O Lord, hearken to my voice; let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication. 3 If thou, O Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? 4 For with thee is forgiveness: 5 for thy name’s sake have I waited for thee, O Lord, my soul has waited for thy word. 6 My soul has hoped in the Lord; from the morning watch till night. 7 Let Israel hope in the Lord: for with the Lord is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. 8 And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities. (Psalm 129(130) LXE, Brenton)

 

Prophecy, if prophecy, must tell a story. A large function of the Psalter is to prophesy. The seven penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143) prophesy of Christ: his innocence, the sacrificial nature of his atoning death, his human suffering, his resurrection, and the victory of his people. These portions of the life of Christ are not necessarily presented in chronological order within the penitential psalms. While other psalms speak of Christ’s suffering (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 102, and 143), Psalm 130 speaks from the grave (the depths) without making direct statements of suffering. Rather, the unique element of Psalm 130 is an extreme period of waiting, “For thy name’s sake have I waited for thee, O Lord, my soul has waited for thy word. My soul has hoped in the Lord; from the morning watch till night,” (Psalm 130:5-6 LXE). It is not difficult for faith to hear within these verses the voice of Christ as he waits within the grave for his resurrection.

 

Further, Psalm 130 contains no direct statements of personal sin or guilt, as do Psalms 38 and 51. Rather, Psalm 130 is a penitential psalm of atonement, due to its discussion of sin and forgiveness without personal confession of any sort. The word forgiveness in verse 4, which is ἱλασμός (il-as-mohss) in Greek, is a relatively rare word in Scripture, although it plays an enormous role in Christian evangelism and doctrine. Arndt and Gingrich (1) define it with two meanings: 1) propitiation or expiation, and 2) a sin-offering. While the major English translations (they are translating from Hebrew, not Greek) have “forgiveness” in verse 4, they use words such as “Day of Atonement” in Leviticus 25:9, “ram of atonement” in Numbers 5:8, “sin-offering” in Ezekiel 44:27, “propitiation” or “atoning sacrifice” in 1 John 2:2, and the same for 1 John 4:10. All of these occurrences in the Greek Septuagint are represented by the word ἱλασμός (il-as-mohss), which is translated as forgiveness in Psalm 130:4 (LXE Brenton) or atonement (NETS, Pietersma). (See footnotes 2 and 3.) Important to our discussion of the seven penitential psalms, this is the only occurrence of this word anywhere in the entire Psalter.

 

Who will receive the atoning forgiveness of verse 4? Verses 7 and 8 each name Israel. Israel, in the New Testament sense of the word (Romans 11:26), includes all believers, both saints of the Old Testament and saints of the New. What at first glance might seem to be a psalm of personal lament, therefore, is an intercessory prayer for the beneficiaries of Christ’s death. When God answers the Lord’s prayer for resurrection from the grave (verses 1-2 and 5-6 above), then his “unfailing love” (verse 7) and “full redemption” (verse 7) will be magnificently realized, for “He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins” (verse 8).

 

Comments: For those readers who consult commentaries, you might find that the point of view I present above, namely, that Christ is the subject of this prayer/poem–he is the one who is praying to God his Father from the grave–is underrepresented (4). The thesis of my approach is simple: the Psalter in its first person singular prayers speaks the voice of Christ.

 

I want to repeat what I wrote in the first post of this series on penitential psalms, “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” (The Penitential Psalms: A Fresh Look–New Series).

 

Premising Christ as speaker in all the penitential psalms at first appears to provide obstacles, the most difficult being what to do with a psalm of pure confession, such as Psalm 51. However, when we consider the seven psalms as a unified whole with the understanding that Christ is speaker throughout (except of course in those places which imply or directly state that God is addressing Christ, Psalm 102), we see that a clear picture of the several elements of the complete gospel emerges:

  • Christ’s passion of human suffering (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 102, and 143)
  • Christ’s innocence (Psalms 6, 102, and 130)
  • the wrath of God upon Christ, the wrath that achieved propitiation (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 102, and 143)
  • the persecution of Christ by his enemies (Psalms 6, 38, 102, and 143)
  • Christ’s identity as both God and man (Psalm 102)
  • Christ’s resurrection (Psalm 102:13)
  • Christ’s prayer for his resurrection (Psalm 130)
  • end results for Israel (or Zion) and the Church won by Christ in his victory through the cross (51, 102, and 130)

 

When the reader perceives Christ in their center, the penitential psalms (and the Psalter as a whole) gain a cohesion and sense of meaning that a consideration of each psalm separately does not provide. Also, this viewpoint provides deeper and more certain theological meanings  than the isolated concepts of confession and repentance might individually supply. These psalms offer a great hope for the one who reads, a hope placed on the solid ground of the actions of the Son of God, rather than upon the alternative actions of an unnamed sinner with whom the reader must strain to identify. Once again, my purpose here is to hold up a road sign that says, “Have you tried this pathway through Psalms?” My prayer is that as you spend time with the Lord, asking him to reveal his presence to you within the words of Christ as expressed in these seven psalms,  that God through his Holy Spirit will answer your heart to the fullest extent.

 

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1 Arndt, William F. and F. Wilbur Gingrich, Editors. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd Edition. Revised and Augmented by F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker from Walter Bauer’s Fifth Edition, 1958. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979.

2 Brenton, Sir Lancelot C. L. The Septuagint Version: Greek and English. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970.

3 Pietersma, Albert, ed. A New English Translation of the Septuagint: The Psalms. Translated by Albert Pietersma. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Available online at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/24-ps-nets.pdf. Accessed April 27, 2018.

4 John Barclay hears only the voice of Christ in Psalm 130. See Barclay, John. The Psalms of David, and the Paraphrases and Hymns: With a Dissertation on the Book of Psalms, and Explanatory Introductions to Each. Edinburgh: James Gall, 1826. Reprinted Digitally by Forgotten Books, registered trademark of FB &c Ltd., London, 2017. Available at http://www.ForgottenBooks.com, 2017. A better quality copy is available at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433068259260;view=1up;seq=205;size=75. Accessed April 11, 2019.

Penitential Psalms: Psalm 102–Devotional

Photo by Christina Wilson

 

One person can never transfer to another their own conscious perception. Only the Holy Spirit of God can do that. Scripture calls this transfer having “the mind of Christ.”

But we have the mind of Christ. (1Co 2:16 ESV)

In this sense the Bible is an interactive book. The Holy Spirit can place directly into our conscious perception thoughts and feelings he wishes to convey. It’s very exciting when the Lord does this to us as we read his Word. My prayer is that you, the reader, after reading the words I write here, will at some point turn to Psalm 102 (101 in the Septuagint) and read through it out loud, slowly and carefully, listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit in your heart. Prayerfully, God will share with you the insights that he has shared with me. Additionally, intellect alone can appreciate what I write here. That’s the best we can ever give each other: intellect shaping into communication the insights of our heart.

Here is my devotional guideline for Psalm 102.

Outline of my understanding of this psalm:

  1. Speaker One (the Son): Verses 1-11 (12 LXX).
  2. Speaker Two (God the Father): Verses 12-22 (13-23 LXX).
  3. Speaker One (the Son): Verses 23-24a (24-25a LXX).
  4. Speaker Two (God the Father): Verses 24b-28 (25b-29 LXX).

[Link to the first of the Psalm 102 sequence]

Text I am using for Psalm 102 (101 LXX):

(102) A Prayer for the Poor; when he is deeply afflicted, and pours out his supplication before the Lord.
Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come to thee.
Turn not away thy face from me: in the day when I am afflicted, incline thine ear to me: in the day when I shall call upon thee, speedily hear me.
For my days have vanished like smoke, and my bones have been parched like a stick.
I am blighted like grass, and my heart is dried up; for I have forgotten to eat my bread.
By reason of the voice of my groaning, my bone has cleaved to my flesh.
I have become like a pelican of the wilderness;
I have become like an owl in a ruined house. I have watched, and am become as a sparrow dwelling alone on a roof.
All the day long mine enemies have reproached me; and they that praised me have sworn against me.
For I have eaten ashes as it were bread, and mingled my drink with weeping;
10 because of thine anger and thy wrath: for thou hast lifted me up, and dashed me down.
11 My days have declined like a shadow; and I am withered like grass.
12 But thou, Lord, endurest for ever, and thy memorial to generation and generation.
13 Thou shalt arise, and have mercy upon Sion: for it is time to have mercy upon her, for the set time is come.
14 For thy servants have taken pleasure in her stones, and they shall pity her dust.
15 So the nations shall fear thy name, O Lord, and all kings thy glory.
16 For the Lord shall build up Sion, * and shall appear in his glory.
17 He has had regard to the prayer of the lowly, and has not despised their petition.
18 Let this be written for another generation; and the people that shall be created shall praise the Lord.
19 For he has looked out from the height of his sanctuary; the Lord looked upon the earth from heaven;
20 to hear the groaning of the fettered ones, to loosen the sons of the slain;
21 to proclaim the name of the Lord in Sion, and his praise in Jerusalem;
22 when the people are gathered together, and the kings, to serve the Lord.
23 He answered him in the way of his strength: tell me the fewness of my days.
24 Take me not away in the midst of my days: thy years are through all generations.
25 In the beginning thou, O Lord, didst lay the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands.
26 They shall perish, but thou remainest: and they all shall wax old as a garment; and as a vesture shalt thou fold them, and they shall be changed.
27 But thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail.
28 The children of thy servants shall dwell securely, and their seed shall prosper for ever. (Psalm 101, Brenton Septuagint translation, available at https://ebible.org/eng-Brenton/PSA101.htm, accessed May 24, 2019)
First, we see a human being in great distress, one who suffers emotionally, spiritually, and physically. The reason for his stress he states in verse 10, “because of thine anger and thy wrath: for thou hast lifted me up, and dashed me down.” Read these verses out loud and hear the Son of God, Jesus Christ, speaking from various points throughout the course of his Passion–his arrest, trial, and crucifixion upon the cross. Even though he mentions his “enemies” in verse 8, he addresses God his Father and attributes his suffering directly to him. Please pause and let this sink in. How painful it is when our own parents reject and punish us, but this is God’s own Son. How tragic beyond imagination for the perfectly innocent Son of God to be so treated by his own Father. Christ as one of us suffered as one of us–
Hebrews 5:7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.
8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. (ESV)
When we see the Son of God suffering the rejection and wrath of his Father upon the cross, our empathy is sufficient to understand something of the great love God has for humankind: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were willing that God the Son should suffer this way.
John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (ESV)
Second, we see the Father’s tenderness toward his Son in the reassuring responses he supplies in two passages: 1) verses 12-22 (13-23 LXX) and 2) verses 24b-28 (25b-29 LXX). Is it too difficult for us as readers to imagine the despair and might I say with no irreverence intended, the self-doubt as to the reality of his high role as Savior, as perceived by his human identity–as a man–that Christ might be feeling as he hung upon the cross? The agonies he experiences, as he finds his life being cut off in mid-stream, he experiences as a man–a male human being. How much more intense it would be for him as Son of God! In the replies of his Father we see such a great love for his Son, as he speaks into the eternal identity that transcends this moment of mortality upon the cross. Beyond the reassurance God gives his Son in these two speeches, God through Scripture speaks prophetically to us. Since these words were written centuries before they occurred, the Holy Spirit is indicating well in advance future events in the life of Messiah. Walking alongside the two Emmaus Road disciples (Luke 24:13-27), Psalm 102 would surely be part of the picture Christ painted for them of his life of sacrifice, as foretold in the Scriptures of the Old Testament.
Third, they talked! I find it utterly amazing that such an extended dialogue between two persons of the Trinity should be occurring right here before our very eyes, and in the Old Testament, no less. In addition to having been placed in Scripture for Christ, that he might have written assurance from his Father as he traveled the path through Calvary, these words have been written for us as believers. God wants us to know and understand who he is and what he has done for us. It is not for nothing that John the Apostle calls Christ “the Word” in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Indeed, God through Scripture is a great communicator.
Fourth, God is love. A gift beyond description that comes through our apprehension of Psalm 102, is the certain knowledge that only the Holy Spirit can convey to our hearts, that just as God the Father loves God the Son, so he loves each and every one of us in Christ. As regards the Father’s love, what is true for Christ is true for us in him.
1 John 3:1 See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. (ESV)
John 17:26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (ESV)
Fifth, a further gift beyond measure is the knowledge that God speaks to us through his Word. Often the timing of when the Holy Spirit chooses to interactively connect with our conscious awareness of his presence coincides with a difficult moment we may be passing through at that exact point in our lives. In those moments, as we experience God speaking directly to our hearts from within the passage of Scripture we are reading, each one of us realizes that God sees me and that God hears and understands the travails of my heart. We learn from Psalm 102 that God does indeed “know what it is like” for us, having been where we are to the maximum degree.
Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (ESV)
Sixth, our God is a God of power. Not only does he understand our hearts by means of his Son’s very own personal experience, not only does he love us as he loves his Son, but God also has the power to have placed these written words in the Bible in just such a way. First, he placed them centuries before Christ as part of his preparation for Christ’s arrival. Second, he maintained them in Scripture so that Christ in his incarnation would know them and be blessed by them. Third, he has preserved these words down to this present day. And fourth, God has power to speak this psalm specifically into our hearts on the occasion when we most need to hear it. Such is the power of God’s love.
Seventh, Psalm 102 adds greatly to the Old Testament prophetic testimony of the future coming of a Savior Messiah. Even if the national religious leaders and Jesus’ very own disciples did not, we know that some few, at least, understood the significance of its prophecy. We read:
1 Peter 1:10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully,
11 inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.
12 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (ESV)
Luke 1:68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people
69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us;
78 because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:68-79 ESV)
Read in its entirety, the previous passage sounds remarkably like a fulfillment of Psalm 102:12-22 (13-23 LXX), spoken by the Second Speaker:
12 But thou, Lord, endurest for ever, and thy memorial to generation and generation.
13 Thou shalt arise, and have mercy upon Sion: for it is time to have mercy upon her, for the set time is come.
14 For thy servants have taken pleasure in her stones, and they shall pity her dust.
15 So the nations shall fear thy name, O Lord, and all kings thy glory.
16 For the Lord shall build up Sion, * and shall appear in his glory.
17 He has had regard to the prayer of the lowly, and has not despised their petition.
18 Let this be written for another generation; and the people that shall be created shall praise the Lord.
19 For he has looked out from the height of his sanctuary; the Lord looked upon the earth from heaven;
20 to hear the groaning of the fettered ones, to loosen the sons of the slain;
21 to proclaim the name of the Lord in Sion, and his praise in Jerusalem;
22 when the people are gathered together, and the kings, to serve the Lord.
Eighth, Jesus Christ is Creator. Psalm 102 explicitly and more completely than almost anywhere else in Scripture reveals the identity of God’s suffering Messiah as none other than God the eternal second person of the Trinity, through whom the heavens and earth were created. He also shall be the one to bring about the new creation at the end.  It is this content of the psalm which Hebrews 1:10-12 expounds. Could this be a passage upon which the apostle John leaned when he wrote, “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3 ESV)? A great deal of comfort and amazement over the great love of God for us is available for all who stop and ponder that our Creator is also our Savior, that he personally came to us and suffered as he did to reclaim us and to salvage our lives from the destruction of the enemy. Oh what a Creator we have! And what a powerful Savior he is. God’s unequaled power matched by his unequaled love.
Application: 
Hebrews 4:14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.
15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
(ESV)
Psalm 102 displays in tender, emotional, human fashion the infinite pains God has taken on our behalf. When we forget this, we should not berate ourselves, because even Jesus, as expressed in Psalm 102, needed and received special encouragement from his Father. Just as he turned to his Father God in his greatest hour of need, so should we.
As Karl Barth so ably said, “God is for us.” Barth received that from the Apostle Paul, who writes–
Romans 8:31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?
32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.
34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died– more than that, who was raised– who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,
39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(ESV)
Amen!
Some Closing Thoughts: Hopefully I don’t need to say that I did not get all this in one reading, nor in my first several readings. I have read Psalm 102 most likely dozens of times. What I received that wonderful morning when I first read it in the Septuagint was the simple but startling realization that there were two people talking in the psalm, one of them Christ and the other his Father. This realization came to me as I meditated in recollection upon the psalm, out for a walk shortly after having read it. This was when I was a young Christian, long before I had heard of its quotation in Hebrews. I mention this to demonstrate that God does work upon our spiritual understanding by two means: 1) the plain language of everyday speech, as it is recorded in Scripture, and 2) the presence of the Holy Spirit in our inner beings. When the Holy Spirit “quickens” the words of Scripture to our understanding and to our hearts, the effect within us is not something we soon forget. I pray that God will use Psalm 102 to bless you, the reader, as much as he has used it to bless me. 

Penitential Psalms: Psalm 102–Summary of Its Dialogic Structure

In the “theodramatic” (1) setting of Psalm 102, the Holy Author creates a divine conversation between Father and Son. Scripture supplies confirmation when the New Testament writer of the Letter to the Hebrews quotes in Hebrews 1:10-12 a portion of the entire dialogue, verses 25-27, writing as a matter of fact that in these verses God addresses the Son. Though not directly stated, God the Father is implied.

Where else can the reader find evidence of this dramatic, readers theater style interpretation? First, reading through the text of Psalm 102, the entire sense of the psalm inevitably reveals a conversation. Minimally, the main speaker addresses God directly in verses 1, 2, 10, and 24. Further direct addresses that carry a different content and tone are found in verses 12-22 and again in verses 25-28. The change in content and tone correspond to a change in speaker. Second, as stated above, the Letter to the Hebrews explicitly identifies a second speaker, God, for verses 25-27. Finally, the Septuagint text leads the way in the Hebrews’ interpretation by plainly labelling in common, everyday language the presence of two speakers, “He [speaker one] answered him [speaker two] in the way of his strength: tell me the fewness of my days” (Psalm 101:23 LXE, verse 24 in modern language versions).

With the presence of two speakers acknowledged, the reader can discern the boundaries of the several speech parts. A reasonable assignment is the following:

  1. Speaker One (the Son): Verses 1-11 (12 LXX).
  2. Speaker Two (God the Father): Verses 12-22 (13-23 LXX).
  3. Speaker One (the Son): Verses 23-24a (24-25a LXX).
  4. Speaker Two (God the Father): Verses 24b-28 (25b-29 LXX).

When perceived as a divine dialogue between Father and Son, the devotional aspects of this amazing psalm expand greatly.

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Bates, Matthew W. The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament & Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament. Oxford University Press: Oxford, United Kingdom, 2015 and Paperback Edition 2016, p 170.

Penitential Psalms: Psalm 102–Who Is Speaking?

 

The Old Testament was originally written mostly in Hebrew. About three centuries before Christ, translations of the Hebraic Scriptures into Greek became common. These translations collectively are called the Septuagint. The word “septuagint” means seventy, and unverified tradition holds that seventy scholars sequestered themselves while making the translation at the request of King Ptolemy II for the national library in Alexandria. Extant Greek manuscripts, translated from Hebrew, are older than the oldest extant Hebrew manuscripts by one to two centuries (1). The New Testament, on the other hand, was originally written in Greek, and its authors regularly read and quoted from the Old Testament Septuagint. Knowing this information helps to clarify why the author of the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews included Psalm 102:25-27 in his list of Old Testament texts that demonstrate God’s calling Jesus Christ his “Son” (2).

In the first chapter of Hebrews, the biblical author quotes several passages from the Old Testament in which God speaks directly to his Son. The three occurrences of God speaking directly to his Son are found in verse 5, quoting Psalm 2:7, verses 10-12, quoting Psalm 102:25-27, and verse 13, quoting Psalm 110:1. In the first and third of these quotations, the reader readily discerns the voice of God speaking to a second person. The text clearly states that this is so. However, when reading the quotation from Psalm 102, as it stands embedded within the context of the entire psalm in most English translations, the reader may wonder how it is that these particular verses refer to the Son. How did the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews arrive at this conclusion? Many commentators simply skip past the confusion by stating that the Hebrews’ author, divinely inspired, applied these verses to Christ. But this begs the question, for if so, then why so? Why these verses in particular?

Knowing that the author of Hebrews was quoting from a Greek text helps tremendously. In fact, it solves the puzzle. The complete context in the Septuagint clearly indicates a dialogue between two speakers. That is, the Septuagint text tags the verses immediately preceding the quotation found in Hebrews with clear transitional phrases of dialogue, “23 He answered him in the way of his strength: tell me the fewness of my days. 24a Take me not away in the midst of my days: 24b [the reply from the second speaker immediately follows here without an identifying tag, but it is clear from the context that a second speaker answers the requests of the first] thy years are through all generations. 25 In the beginning thou, O Lord, didst lay the foundation of the earth…” (3).  The Septuagint from which the author of Hebrews quotes (scholars overall agree that the writer is quoting from the Greek text) clearly distinguishes with speech labels the presence of two speakers in dialogue with each other. But the English translations of Psalm 102, which are based upon the Masoretic text (Hebrew), fail to include the tag words, “He answered him…”, found in verse 23a. And the author of the Letter to the Hebrews begins his quotation of Psalm 102 with verse 25, which occurs after the second speaker, God, has already begun speaking. The quotation in Hebrews does not contain the dialogue tags, or labels, but the author implicitly acknowledges their occurrence and assumes that his readers also know this fact. The assumption of dialogue is central to the logic and force of the author’s argument. He presents the Old Testament text as an example of God speaking directly to his Son.

Conclusion: While English versions translated from the Hebrew Masoretic text of Psalm 102:23 do not include the three words, “He answered him…”, the author of Hebrews implicitly acknowledges the prior occurrence of these three words as he begins his quotation in verse 25, which falls after their occurrence in the Septuagint from which he quotes. That the author implicitly acknowledges dialogue in the passage is clear from the entire context of Hebrews 1. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews is demonstrating how Old Testament scripture accords Christ the status of Son. Among his proof texts are several verses that indicate direct speech by God to his Son. Among these is Psalm 102:25-27, quoted in Hebrews 1:10-12. It is clear that the Hebrews’ author is attributing the quotation as a speech statement by God to his Son. Again, the Son is the one to whom God is speaking, both in Hebrews 1:10-12 and in that passage’s source, Psalm 102:25-27. The Son is he to whom God replies. The Son is the “poor” man pouring out his supplication to the Lord, whose voice we hear so plaintively in the first eleven verses of this “penitential” psalm.

Significance: What is the answer to the big question, “So what?” The following blog in this series will, Lord willing, provide answers to that question.

 

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1 Reference works concerning the textual history of the Septuagint include 1) Karen H. Jobes & Moisés Silva. Invitation to the Septuagint. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2000. 2) H.B. Swete, An Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek, Cambridge: University Press, 1900. 3) Timothy Michael Law. When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

2 Although Hebrews begins speaking of God’s Son in verse 2 of chapter 1, the author specifically names Christ as the Son in Hebrews 3:6, “But Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son…”

3 Brenton, Sir Lancelot C. L. The Septuagint Version: Greek and English. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970. Notice that the verse numbering differs from most English versions.

The NETS Bible (Pietersma, Albert, ed. A New English Translation of the Septuagint: The Psalms. Translated by Albert Pietersma. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Available online at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/24-ps-nets.pdf. Accessed April 27, 2018) reads, “24(23) He answered him in the way of my strength, ‘Tell me the paucity of my days. 25(24) Do not take me away at the mid-point of my days,…”

In further confirmation of the Septuagint text, the Latin Vulgate, which translates the Greek, includes the words from Psalm 102:23, “He answered him…”

Penitential Psalms–Psalm 102: Why Penitential?

 

WE LEARNED what a truly penitential/repentant psalm looks like when we studied Psalm 51. This kind of psalm is rare in the Psalter. Psalm 102(101 LXX) immediately follows Psalm 51 in the list of seven traditional penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143). It bears little resemblance to Psalm 51. Why does the list include Psalm 102?

First, a careful line by line search of Psalm 102 (ESV) (Greek and Brenton English) (English NETS) reveals not a single syllable concerning sin or repentance. Words and phrases present in Psalm 51, such as “blot out my transgressions” (v 1) and “wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me thoroughly from my sin!” (v 2) simply do not occur anywhere in Psalm 102.

Second, what Psalm 102 does contain is a poetic expression of great suffering on the part of the speaker. His suffering is summed up well in the superscription given the psalm before the first verse begins, “A Prayer for the Poor; when he is deeply afflicted, and pours out his supplication before the Lord,” (Psalm 102:1 LXE). While of course this title is not part of the biblical text itself but an ancient editorial addition, the Greek word for “Poor” (πτωχός, ptoe-koes) is a word often used by Jesus in the New Testament. We find one example in the first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 5:3). Thayer describes the meaning of this word “poor” as, “destitute of wealth, influence, position, honors; lowly, afflicted,” (Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament). As explained in greater depth in a previous chapter (Penitential Psalms: A Big Mix-Up?) one possible explanation of the origin of both the word “penitential” and the list of seven psalms is the Greek “pen” word family. One of these “pen” stem words is πένητος (pen-ee-tohss). A “penitose” person is a poor person. Note the similarity to English “penitent.” “Penitose” is a synonym of “Ptoe-koes,” “poor,” which we just saw in the title above Psalm 102.

So, Psalm 102 is the speech of a poor, afflicted person who pours his heart out to the Lord. What else do we find in Psalm 102? Thirdly, we find the psalmist’s direct claim that he has enemies (v 8) who cause him pain, and further, that God himself (v 10) in “anger” and “wrath,” or “raging fury” (NET) has “lifted me up, and dashed me down,” (LXE, Septuagint in English). These last two features, both enemies causing pain and God’s wrath causing pain, are most strongly present in penitential Psalms 6, 38, and 102. Of these three, only Psalm 38 expresses sorrow for sin. Psalm 102, as mentioned in point one above, expresses neither confession nor remorse for anything.

Conclusion: Psalm 102 is “penitential” in the sense that it is the speech of a poor and needy person crying out to the Lord for help. The speaker’s suffering originates in persecution by both enemies and the Lord. There is neither acknowledgement of sin (confession) nor contrition (repentance) of any kind. The more we examine the seven so-called penitential psalms, the one item we find common to all of them is a deep humility of spirit as the psalmist addresses the Lord. To this author, it seems likely that, were we beginning fresh today, we would not begin to think of grouping these seven psalms in a cluster as our church forefathers did.

A Peek Ahead: There is much more to say about Psalm 102, such as, Who is speaking? This topic will form the content of a future post.

Penitential Psalms: Psalm 51–A Personal God of Love

 

It happens to be Maundy Thursday and tomorrow is Good Friday. Psalm 51 is an Easter Song if there ever was one. Psalm 51 is difficult for me and for everyone who strongly feels that Christ is the primary speaker in David’s psalms. The speaker in this psalm unquestionably confesses his personal guilt and sin. And Christ is sinless and holy. How can the speaker be Christ? And yet, that is my position.

Craig C. Broyles writes that of the seven penitential psalms (Pss. 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143), Psalm 51 is unique in its exclusive focus on sin (Broyles, p226). He also writes that among the psalms as a whole, it is “unrivaled … for its interest in inner transformation” (Ibid.). While Broyles in no way claims Christ as speaker, he states that within the psalm itself there is no reason to see David as speaker (Ibid., p 226-227). The superscripts were written by an ancient editor after the fact. None of the superscriptions above the psalms is to be considered Scripture.

Why is it so difficult to receive Christ as speaker in Psalm 51? Consider these words:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 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. (Psalm 51:1 ESV)

Turn away thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. (Psalm 51:9 LXE)

I must speak personally here, but I think I speak for many. To attribute the above words to Christ stirs up uncomfortable feelings of shame that are difficult to deal with. If Christ the sacrificial lamb speaks these words upon the painful cross, then that means that he the sinless one is speaking these words for me. It’s extremely humbling to go before the throne of grace knowing that He knows. It’s humbling to agree with him that yes, I did do these things. But what is most humbling is to see the big problem for God that my sin caused and to watch, childlike, as he himself pays the cost to fix the damage my sinful actions brought about. Yes, it’s very childlike. Come on, folks, admit it. God went to a lot of trouble to fix the problem humanity’s sin caused and it cost him a great deal. Because he is who he is, we in our puniness will never be able to possibly imagine what it was like for God’s Son, God himself, our creator, the all-powerful one, to become one of us and to take upon himself our sin.

Psalm 51 can be a great blessing for everyone whose sin is great. So often we hear about those who feel that God could never forgive their sin because of its excessive nature. “God can forgive others,” they may think, “but he could never forgive me.” Yes, he could! And he did! The actual words of the psalm itself don’t say what the sin was.  When Israel’s high priest used to lay his hands upon the head of the scapegoat, he wasn’t just symbolically giving up the low-level sins of the people, but all their sins (Leviticus 16:7-10). God knows. Jesus on the cross knew what the sins were. He confessed them as his own.  

What might the following words mean when translated into the actual experience of the One hanging on the cross?

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2Corinthians 5:21 ESV)

Might such a person, who has himself become sin, be able to confess the words of Psalm 51? For the sake of all who might ever believe in him, I say yes (1).

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1 Because Scripture calls for a witness of at least two, “Where two or more are gathered in my name…” “…take one or two others along…,” I’d like to bring along with me John Barclay. He writes:

… there is no blasphemy (as many have most blasphemously alleged there is) in this manner of interpretation [Christ as the sole speaker in all of Psalm 51]; which must either be admitted, or the New Testament made void! (Barclay, page 218)

While Barclay in his preface has multitudes of arguments to support his attributing all of Psalm 51 to Christ as speaker, one of his main arguments is the existence of parallel passages: Psalm 51:16-17 is parallel to Psalm 40:6. Psalm 40:6-8 is quoted in Hebrews 10:5-7. There the words are attributed directly to the mouth of Christ, “Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said…” (Ibid.). Barclays’s logic is mathematical: If A = B and C = B, then A = C. Since the New Testament in Hebrews attributes Psalm 40:6 to Christ as speaker, then a parallel passage in another psalm (Psalm 51:16) must also be attributed to Christ (Barclay, page 47). It also follows that since there is one speaker throughout all of Psalm 51, if one portion is spoken by Christ, then the whole psalm, by the rules of plain English, must also be spoken by Christ (Ibid., page 42-43).

While I agree with this “head” explanation, I also fully agree with Barclay elsewhere, when he states that seeing Christ as our intercessor and mediator in Psalm 51 is mostly a matter of heart. Christ fully and consciously washed our sins away in his own blood. Why would anyone want to maintain that Christ our mediator did not stand in for us and acknowledge our sin as his own? If this were not so, Barclay asks, then how can we have confidence that the righteousness of Christ is ours? In other words, “How could sinners call his righteousness theirs, if he had not called their sin his?” (Ibid., page 71). And if our theology permits Christ to call our sin his, then in honesty, we cannot forbid him from confessing it. Yes, to see Christ as the speaker of Psalm 51 is to see what substitutionary atonement meant for the Lamb of God.

Many blessings upon you all; may this Easter be among the happiest you have ever known.

 

 

 

 

Penitential Psalms: Psalm 38–Christ’s Passion Speaks Loudly

 

 

Link to Psalm 38(37) English Septuagint Translation

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.

Summary

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.

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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 Psalmspage 191.

4 The seven penitential psalms are: 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143.

Waltke, Houston, and Moore, The Psalms as Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary, page 133.

 

 

Penitential Psalms: Psalm 32–Grace

 

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

 

Penitential Psalms: Psalm 32–How Could Christ Pray the Words of a Sinner?

Distant Shores Media/ Sweet Publishing

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.

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