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Saint Augustine, it is said, had written out and pinned at eye level four psalms on the wall beside his bed. These he could read and reread as often as he liked, as he lay there dying. These four psalms became the core of the seven later known as the Penitential Psalms. Although the Penitential Psalms played a significant role in the medieval church, as witnessed by many paintings of the period, during the Reformation and beyond, they diminished in importance and liturgical practice. In the evangelical church today, few have even heard the phrase “penitential psalms,” let alone know which they are or why they are called that.
Association of penitence with seven particular psalms is rather a misnomer and a mistake. The seven particular psalms considered “penitential” as a group are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. As the centerpiece, Psalm 51 is indeed penitential. Psalm 51 supposedly records David’s heartfelt remorse for his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and his later murdering of her husband as a coverup when it became known that David had caused her to become pregnant. David expresses genuine and merited sorrow for his reprehensible sins. However, Psalm 6 and Psalm 102 carry no mention of sin at all. In fact, in each of these the speaker attributes his suffering to the persecution of his enemies. Enemies are a persistent theme throughout these seven psalms. Psalms 32 and 51 are the only ones which make no mention of enemies.
What is the reader to make of these inconsistencies of theme? Why group seven psalms which vary in such basic ways? One possibility is to consider that the traditional understanding of the word “penitent” is at fault. The use of the word penitence to represent a sorrow and suffering over one’s own sin follows a Latin language tradition. There is, however, a Greek semantic pathway using the base syllable “-pen-“, which corresponds to a meaning of extreme sorrow born of deep humility and humbleness of state. The core of this semantic pathway does not require a sense of guilt for sins committed. Rather, the humility can be a response to any number of physical or situational causes, such as poverty, lowliness of social estate, or physical distress. And sorrow born of suffering is in fact a theme which unites the seven penitential psalms. When one considers that the earliest church Bibles were written in Greek and that the Septuagint was the Old Testament of the early church for several centuries, this explanation of the grouping of the penitential psalms seems reasonable.
But the question remains: why does the psalmist maintain his innocence and righteousness, while at the same time grieving and mourning over his sins? Apart from Christ, there can be no reasonable explanation for unity among these psalms. Christ alone, as a human being, can maintain complete righteousness and innocence. This characteristic of the actions of his incarnated life, combined with his sinless divine nature, are what qualified him to be the lamb of God. The sacrificial lamb of Old Testament tradition needed to be one without spot or blemish of any kind. Only Christ qualifies. And yet, five of the seven penitential psalms carry confession of sin in greater or lesser extent.
The answer is simple. “God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God.” (2Corinthians 5:21 NET) The hermeneutic key that unlocks the Psalter is Jesus Christ. The New Testament teaches everywhere that Christ the man suffered, and that he suffered for our sins. Christ the man is the voice of the psalmist throughout the penitential psalms and so many others. As prophecy, these seven psalms foretell in first person the sufferings of the innocent, righteous Christ as he bore the sins of the world in his own person. Only with Christ does the psalmic paradox of the righteous sinner disappear. So, Christ is the dramatic speaker persona of the penitential psalms.
Before closing, one further word about why these seven psalms as a grouping have fallen into disuse and even disfavor. For all but the earliest history of the church, the majority opinion has not recognized that Christ is the voice of the psalmist. Further, the Latin textual tradition overran and trampled the Greek in all but the Orthodox churches. The Latin concept of penitence, as a kind of mournful wailing over sin that self-flagellates the heart of a penitent over and over again throughout the life of the penitent, no longer dominates our churches, especially evangelical ones. It appears as though the lesson was learned–yes, we all begin in universal sin. However, we repent once and then in Christ we move on. The Bible teaches forgiveness of sin and new life in Christ. Joy in salvation and holy living replace guilt for sins committed. Fresh sins are confessed and forgiveness is received. There is no need to wail over one’s past for the remainder of one’s life. The Christian life is lived out through the Spirit of Christ who indwells each and every believer. Joy replaces sorrow.
Nonetheless, the Christian heart will always benefit from considering the depth of sorrow in the heart of Christ as he endured the persecution of his enemies, which culminated in his physical sacrifice upon the cross. Doing so can only increase appreciation for the love of God for us expressed through Jesus our Savior and Lord. The seven Penitential Psalms will always be useful for this contemplation.
Links to the complete Penitential Psalms series:
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.
3 The enemy pursues me,
he crushes me to the ground;
he makes me dwell in the darkness
like those long dead.
4 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.
This concludes the series on the Penitential Psalms. Link to the first chapter of the series
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.
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.
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:
- Speaker One (the Son): Verses 1-11 (12 LXX).
- Speaker Two (God the Father): Verses 12-22 (13-23 LXX).
- Speaker One (the Son): Verses 23-24a (24-25a LXX).
- Speaker Two (God the Father): Verses 24b-28 (25b-29 LXX).
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.1 Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come to thee.2 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.3 For my days have vanished like smoke, and my bones have been parched like a stick.4 I am blighted like grass, and my heart is dried up; for I have forgotten to eat my bread.5 By reason of the voice of my groaning, my bone has cleaved to my flesh.6 I have become like a pelican of the wilderness;7 I have become like an owl in a ruined house. I have watched, and am become as a sparrow dwelling alone on a roof.8 All the day long mine enemies have reproached me; and they that praised me have sworn against me.9 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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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)
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)
In the “theodramatic” (1) setting of Psalm 102, the Holy Author creates a divine conversation between Father and Son. Scripture supplies confirmation of dialogue when the New Testament writer of the Letter to the Hebrews quotes in Hebrews 1:10-12 a portion of the entire exchange, 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:
- Speaker One (the Son): Verses 1-11 (12 LXX).
- Speaker Two (God the Father): Verses 12-22 (13-23 LXX).
- Speaker One (the Son): Verses 23-24a (24-25a LXX).
- 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.
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.
Tragically, not many commentators hear the voice of Christ in Psalm 102. Spurgeon (1) does not. Generally, those who don’t hear the voice of Christ fail to hear the divine dialogue within this amazing psalm. Because two or more witnesses biblically establish a valid testimony (Deuteronomy 17:6; Matthew 18:16; John 8:18), I’m going to take time at the outset to provide these additional witnesses to my own. First, here is a link to the text itself, where the reader can find the entirety of Septuagint Psalm 101(102), and below that is an excerpt that contains the portion quoted in Hebrews 1:10-12.
Reader Resource: Bilingual Text LXX (Septuagint in Greek) and LXE (Brenton’s English Translation). Notice that in the Greek Septuagint and in Brenton’s translation, Psalm 102 in our English Bibles is numbered as Psalm 101. Also, verse numbers may differ, depending upon which Septuagint edition is being used. The numbers to the left follow the Masoretic tradition while those in parenthesis follow the numbering used by the link given.
23(24) He answered him in the way of his strength: tell me the fewness of my days.
24a(25a) Take me not away in the midst of my days: 24b(25b) thy years [are] through all generations.
25(26) In the beginning thou, O Lord, didst lay the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands.
26(27) 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(28) But thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail.
28(29) The children of thy servants shall dwell [securely], and their seed shall prosper for ever.
Here is the same text as presented in the ESV with the Septuagint English in brackets alongside: Psalm 102:23-28.
23 He has broken my strength in midcourse; [LXX: He answered him in the way of his strength:]
he has shortened my days. [LXX: tell me the fewness of my days.]
24 “O my God,” I say, “take me not away in the midst of my days— [LXX: Take me not away in the midst of my days:]
you whose years endure throughout all generations!” [LXX: thy years [are] through all generations.]
25 Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
26 They will perish, but you will remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
27 but you are the same, and your years have no end.
28 The children of your servants shall dwell secure;
their offspring shall be established before you.
Finally, here is the portion (ESV) which the author of Hebrews quotes from the Septuagint:
10 And, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
11 they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment,
12 like a robe you will roll them up,
like a garment they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will have no end.”
Second, as witness #1, here is how I perceive the dialogue in Psalm 101(102). Note that verse numbers differ and are dependent upon the edition being used. For reader convenience I am using the Masoretic numbers and referencing in brackets the numbers found in the “Bilingual Text” link in the “Reader Resource” paragraph at the top of this article.
- Verses 1 – 11 [1-12 in the bilingual link given above]. God’s Son speaks to his Father in the days of his incarnation and Passion.
- Verses 12 – 22 [13-23] God the Father replies through the Holy Spirit to his Son.
- Verses 23 – 24a [24-25a] God the Son answers God the Father. (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 may days:)
- Verses 24b – 28 [25b-29] God the Father answers the Son. (24b “thy years are through all generations. 25 In the beginning thou, O Lord …]
Witness #2: John Barclay (2).
[Barclay uses the Masoretic numbering] In this Psalm we behold the sufferings of Christ, as expressed in his own person, by the Holy Ghost, from the beginning to verse 12, contrasted with the following glory, as declared by the same Spirit in the person of the Father, from verse 12 to 23. Then from the 23d to the middle of verse 24, the dialogue is again renewed, as at the beginning of the Psalm, in the person of the Son–to whom, from the middle of verse 24, to the end of the Psalm, the Father is again represented, as replying according to the former manner, mentioned from ver. 12 to 23: for so this Psalm, ver. 25, &c. is expressly applied and interpreted by the Holy Ghost, Heb. I. ‘Unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever–And thou, Lord, in the beginning, hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of think hands,’ &c.–‘And they shall be changed: but thou are the same, and thy years shall not fail.’
My Comment: Very few biblical commentators will ascribe verses 12-24a to God the Father or God the Holy Spirit, even among those who readily find the Father replying to Christ in the final speech, verses 24b-28. Most gladly I recognize the kindred spirit that exists between John Barclay and myself.
In contrast to Barclay, the third witness, below, Robert Hawker, is one who readily hears the voice of Christ in his Passion in verses 1-11, yet who does not recognize the words of comfort found in verses 12-22 as proceeding from God the Father. He does, however, hear Christ speaking in verses 23-24a and the Father directly answering him in verses 25 to the end.
Witness #3: Robert Hawker (3).
After verse 28: From the apostle Paul’s quotation of this glorious passage, Heb. I. 10, &c. and his illustration of it, as there explained, it should seem very evident that these verses contain God the Father’s answer to Christ’s prayer, and form a blessed summary of all redemption mercies ensured to the church in Him…Reader, I know not what soul exercises or afflictions your heart may be wounded with; but I venture to believe, that the truest relief under all, is to view Christ in his unequalled sorrows. Poring over ourselves, or over our own sorrows, and magnifying them, will never bring comfort. But if I see Jesus with the eye of faith, in the tribulated path; if I mark his footsteps, and he calls to me, and leads me by the way of the footsteps of his flock, where he feeds his kids, beside the shepherds’ tents; I shall feel comfort.
My Comment: Very often, those commentators who do not perceive the voice of Christ in Psalm 102, but that of an unnamed human suppliant–these authors tend to focus on Christ as Creator, and that portion of Hebrews as a Creation passage. The reasoning is that the author of Hebrews merely “applies” the words of Psalm 102:25-28 to Christ as object. They consider verses 25-28 to be spoken by the unnamed single human speaker who speaks throughout the entire psalm. They argue that though this human poet addresses God throughout the entirety of the psalm, this particular portion is applied by the author of Hebrews as making reference to Christ as Creator. In other words, they see a human speaking to God throughout the psalm, complaining to God for a longer life, reasoning that because God has such a long life and such power to create, why can’t he give some of that to the suffering poet? They fail to grasp the nearly sacrilegious arrogance of such a supplication. These commentators claim that the author of Hebrews by inexplicable “divine” inspiration, wrenched these words in particular from the whole psalm, and applied them in reference to Christ as object (Creator). Not only does this do disservice to the entire concept of the Bible’s having been written in “plain, ordinary speech,” but it completely destroys the comfort Hawker and others preeminently find in this psalm, as they consider the sufferings of Christ and the comfort afforded both him and us, who are in him, by God the Father.
Witness #4: Arthur Pink (4)
Arthur Pink lines up with Hawker as perceiving Christ as speaker up until the Father’s reply quoted in Hebrews (verses 25-28). Myself and Barclay, the reader might recall, saw two sections in which God the Father spoke directly to the Son (verses 12-22 and 24b-28.) Pink sees only the latter. He adds to the discussion, however, by combining the author of Hebrews’ rhetorical (logical, argumentative) use of Christ as Creator with the devotional comfort found in Psalm 102 of Christ as suffering Savior. Pink writes:
“And Thou, Lord, in the beginning, hast laid the foundation of the earth.” The Psalm from which this is quoted is a truly wondrous one … It lays bare before us the Saviour’s very soul. Few, if any, of us would have thought of applying it to Christ, or even dared to, had not the Spirit of God done so here in Heb. 1. This Psalm brings before us the true and perfect humanity of Christ, and depicts Him as the despised and rejected One (p 69, see note 4).
After the above, Pink quotes the entire psalm (an indication of how very impressed he is with it) up through verse 22. He labels verses 23-24a as the “strong crying,” quoted in Hebrews 5:7, “of Him who was ‘acquainted with grief.'” Then Pink writes:
And what was Heaven’s response to this anguished cry of the Saviour? The remainder of the Psalm records God’s answer: “Thy years are throughout all generations. Of old hast Thou laid the foundation of the earth. And the heavens are the work of Thy hands. They shall perish, but Thou shalt endure, yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt Thou change them, and they shall be changed: But Thou art the same, and Thy years shall have no end” (vv. 24-27).
Conclusion: In what I hope has not been a manner too arduous to read, I’ve presented four witnesses who agree that through the use of dialogue, Psalm 102 represents both the voice of the Son crying out to his Father in anguish during the days of his incarnation and Passion and the comforting voice of his Father in reply. I have been greatly encouraged recently to have discovered current academic writers who perceive divine dialogue between Father and Son in the book of Psalms (5). I’m sure up to date devotional material, such as this one seeks to be, will also follow.
I have presented these four witnesses so that the reader may have confidence to explore this pathway in a meditatively devotional session of his or her own. For those who follow this blog, I promise that a devotional interpretation of Psalm 102 will be written next.
For now, in consideration of Christian history’s regarding of Psalm 102 as one of the seven so-called penitential psalms, I just want the reader to notice how exactly the Holy Spirit wrote Scripture. We have seen that not all of the so-called “penitential” psalms are penitential in a sense that requires confession and repentance over sin. In this sense of the word, Psalm 51 is the most “penitential,” and Psalm 102 not at all. Note carefully that Psalm 51, which confesses and mourns over sin, does not represent Christ in any way as speaking from the divinity of his being. Rather, he speaks as mediator, a participant in humanity, a sacrificial lamb who took upon himself the sins of the world. Then, just as carefully, note that Psalm 102, which is highly “penitential” in the second meaning of the word, that of poverty and suffering of spirit, presents Christ both in his divinity and his human nature, but quite apart from sin. The reader can conclude that Christ God’s Son, as 2 Corinthians 5:21 states, “knew no sin,” as Psalm 102 demonstrates, and yet God “made him to be sin” “for our sake,” Psalm 51. Praise God.
1 Spurgeon, Charles. The Treasury of David: Containing an Original Exposition of the Book of Psalms; A Collection of Illustrative Extracts from the Whole Range of Literature; A Series of Homiletical Hints upon Almost Every Verse; And Lists of Writers upon Each Psalm in Three Volumes. Peabody: Henrickson Publishers, No Date.
2 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.
3 Hawker, Robert S. The Poor Man’s Old Testament Commentary: The Book of Psalms, public domain. Available at http://grace-ebooks.com/library/Robert%20Hawker/RH_Poor%20Man%27s%20Old%20Testament%20Commentary%20Vol%204.pdf, published by Grace Baptist Church of Danville, Kentucky. Accessed May 3, 2018.
4 Pink, Arthur. An Exposition of Hebrews. Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, 1954, pages 68-74.
5 See 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. See also Bates, Matthew W. The Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation: The Center of Paul’s Method of Scriptural Interpretation. Baylor University Press: Wayco, Texas, 2012.
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 written 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 his 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 speaker] 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. This fact, in turn, forces the reader to conclude that the “poor” man who pours out his supplication to the Lord, whose voice we hear so plaintively in the first eleven verses of this “penitential” psalm, is none other than the Son whom God addresses directly as such in verses 24-28 LXX (Septuagint).
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.
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…”
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.
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).
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.
Psalm 38 screams at the reader and begs her to ask, “Why is such a self-declared righteous man being punished so extremely by God? What were his self-declared sins against God, that he receives such wrath?” And finally, “Doesn’t it seem odd that someone who knows he is being oppressed by God for his sins would so mightily press upon God in prayerful request for salvation from his enemies?”
Psalm 38 is nowhere quoted in the New Testament, yet it bears a striking resemblance to Psalm 22, which is one of the Old Testament passages most often quoted in the New (1). The Gospel quotations of Psalm 22 make explicit reference to Christ in his Passion, while the author of Hebrews sees Christ as speaker within the context of Psalm 22:22. If readers perceive Christ as speaker in Psalm 22, wouldn’t the same principles of interpretation allow them to perceive Christ as speaker in Psalm 38? The answer is yes.
Augustine in the 4th century perceived Christ as the speaker of Psalm 22 in its entirety from first to last (3). Making an appeal to consistency, he argues that if Psalm 38:3 is not spoken by Christ, then neither is Psalm 22:1, whose words in verse 1a Christ spoke from the cross, “O God, my God, attend to me: why hast thou forsaken me?” Augustine equates, “The words of mine offences are far from my health,” (Psalm 22:1b, Septuagint) with, “There is no peace to my bones because of my sins,” (Psalm 38:3b, Septuagint). Augustine answers questions 1 and 2 above by his claim that as Christ is the head of the body, when he speaks, he speaks for both himself as head and for the body. The sins he confesses are the sins of the body–i.e., the sins of humankind. God metes out on the cross the just consequences of sin that fell upon Adam when he first sinned in the garden. There God said to Adam, “You shall surely die,” (Genesis 2:16-17).
While many other commentators have many other opinions of who is speaking in Psalm 38, I will jump forward to John Barclay (1795-1826, Scotland), with whom I share a kindred spirit. He writes,
This Psalm also is all spoken in one person, and breathes forth the heaviest pressure and anguish of spirit, supported by the most consummate meekness, patience, and resignation to the will of God: the language is borrowed from the most pungent feelings of one suffering all manner of distress in body, min, character, and estate. That Messiah is the person, is demonstrable from the very face of the whole Psalm, compared with all its parallels cited on the margin with others [Note: The ESV version has many links to Psalm 38 throughout the Old and New Testaments], and read in the light of the four Evangelists: so that nothing more particular needs be said in this place; only the reader may especially consult Psalms vi. xl. lxix. and lxxxviii. with their illustrations (Barclay, pages 186-187).
Robert Hawker (1753-1827) writes upon Psalm 38:1,
And how truly interesting is it to behold Christ with an eye of faith thus praying; and to hear him with the ear of faith thus pleading; when enduring that curse which the law denounced against the sinner, and thus redeeming us from the curse by becoming both sin and a curse for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. Gal. iii. 13. 2 Cor. v. 21. (Hawker, page 284)
And again, concerning verses 2-10:
Let any man read these verses, and then turn to the gospel, and his mind must be led out to remark the striking similarity between what is here said by the spirit of prophecy, and the history of the sorrows and sufferings of Jesus. Reader, turn to some few passages, and then pause over both, in comparing spiritual things with spiritual, and say whether David spake these things of himself, or of some other man? Luke, xxii. 41-44; Mark, xiv. 32-34: (Ibid.)
Concerning verses 11-14:
Who that ever read the prophet’s account of Him, that as a sheep before her shearers was dumb, so he opened not his mouth; or who that ever read the relation of Jesus standing before Pilate, when, amidst all the blasphemy poured upon him, he remained silent, until the unjust judge himself marveled; or who that ever attended to what the apostle hath said of Jesus, that when he was reviled, he reviled not again; who, I say, that ever attended to these things, could hesitate for a moment to behold the Lord Christ in this prophetic description of him? Surely no one that knows any thing of David’s history, will give him credit for this dumbness and insensibility to the reproaches of his enemies. (Ibid.)
For those who may feel uncomfortable attributing the confession of sin to the lips of Christ, Hawker writes this of verse 18:
Let not these words stagger the faith of the believer in considering them as spoken by Christ. As the sinner’s Surety, he was truly made sin for his people, so the scripture declares, yea, also a curse for them. Hence, in the eye of the law, Christ and his seed are one. Gal. iii. 13. 2 Cor. v. 21. (Ibid.)
Samuel Horsley (1733-1806) is bold in proclaiming,
Many parts of the psalm, however, have so striking a reference to the case of our Lord in the days of his flesh, that I cannot but think the whole belongs to him, and that he (the humanity of Christ) is the sick persecuted suppliant. If the sickness may typify generally his humiliation, as I think it may, and the heat which rages in the sick man’s loins, the fiery trial of wrath which he endured in the garden of Gethsemane, when his distress, though principally mental, discovered itself in dreadful symptoms in his body; if this interpretation of the sickness be admitted, there is not a sentence nor a word in the whole of this extraordinary composition which is not applicable to our Lord as man, with more strictness and propriety than to any other person. (Bishop Horsley, page 95, published posthumously in 1815 by the author’s son.)
Again, Andrew A. Bonar (1810-1892) addresses the incongruity of confessed sin by one whom Scripture declares righteous, when he writes:
The difficulty in the way of supposing it used by the Lord Jesus, as descriptive of his feelings and state, when he took on our guilt by imputation, is not at all greater than in some passages of Psalms xl. and lxix., which almost no one doubts to be his utterances. (Bonar, 129)
Finally, the editors of The Orthodox Study Bible (2008) write that Psalm 38 (37 LXX),
“reveals the great love of Christ for mankind in His sufferings and death on the cross, especially v. 18: For I am ready for wounds, and my pain is continually with me. And although He was ‘separate from sinners’ (Heb 7:26) and ‘knew no sin’ (2Co 5:21), yet out of His great compassion for sinners, He prays this prayer in a relative sense as though He were one of them. Thus, He takes the place of sinners as one of them, and intercedes to the Father for their salvation in the midst of His sufferings and death on the cross.”
The fact that I’ve included so few current references to the voice of Christ praying Psalm 38 is a sad reflection on the distance today’s evangelical churches and biblical academicians generally have moved away from the centrality of hearing Christ pray the Psalter. The third question stated in the opening paragraph above is, “Doesn’t it seem odd that someone who knows he is being oppressed by God for his sins wo0uld so mightily press upon God in prayerful request for salvation rom his enemies?” The answer is simple once we identify the speaker as Christ who prays this prayer. We are not at all surprised to hear the substitutionary Lamb of God asking his Father that his enemies not triumph over him.
What about the Penitential Nature of Psalm 38?
Psalm 38 is third in the series of seven traditional penitential psalms (4). The first verses of Psalms 38 and 6 are identical in the Septuagint (Greek). Even though the speaker in Psalm 38 attributes his suffering to his sin, he does not repent in the strict form of asking for forgiveness (5). Bruce Waltke, James Houston, and Erika Moore write:
Psalm 38 is truly a great piece of literature. The psalmist enables his reader to feel his eventual numbness from his unremitting pain by his unrelenting verbal depictions of them. No psalm depicts sickness in such an extended, numbing way. As the psalmist can endure no further suffering, neither can his audience endure further reading about them. (Waltke, page 134)
Psalm 38 is complex, however, because in the center of this prayer to God the psalmist shifts his focus from describing his pain to describing his enemies. The psalmist’s concern over his enemies continues nearly to the end of the poem. While Craig C. Broyles writes that the actions of his enemies, like those of his friends, are a reaction to his sickness (Broyles, 186), verse 20 (LXE) states otherwise, “They that reward evil for good slandered me; because I followed righteousness.” As indicated in the opening paragraph above, the self-proclaimed righteousness and goodness of the psalmist adds further complexity to this “penitential” psalm.
For those who explore the Septuagint, verse 17(18 LXX) provides an eye-catching difference from the Masoretic text within the context of the New Testament narrative:
Mark 15:15: and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. (ESV)
Septuagint (Greek): Because I am ready for scourges, and my pain is ever with me. (NETS, Albert Pietersma, ed.)
Septuagint: For I am ready for plagues (footnote in text: scourges), and my grief is continually before me. (Brenton)
Septuagint: For I am ready for wounds, And my pain is continually with me. (Original translation of St. Athanasius Academy in The Orthodox Study Bible.)
Masoretic (Hebrew): For I am about to stumble, and I am in constant pain. (NET)
Greek for “scourges”: μάστιγας
Definition: μάστιξ, μαστιχος, ἡ, a whip, scourge ) [Hebrew שזט Strong’s 07752] 1 Kings 12:11,14; Prov. 26:3): Acts 22:21; Heb. 11:36; metaphorically, a scourge, plague, i. e. a calamity, misfortune, especially as sent by God to discipline or punish (Ps. 88:33 (Ps. 89:33) (Thayer, Lexicon)
When placed in the context of the entire psalm, verse 17 (18 LXX) adds an important detail to the Passion of Christ.
Psalm 38 is much more than a “penitential” psalm. In it, we as readers find a strikingly complete first person narrative of the Passion of Jesus Christ. As the surrogate for the human race, Christ confessed the sins of his people, even while maintaining his own righteousness. We see his physical sufferings, his friends and family standing passive and aloof, the attacks of his enemies, and his utter reliance and trust toward God his Father.
As we the readers immerse ourselves in this psalm, we come to experience with the psalmist the great, great love which the triune God bears for his children–us. God is a personal God in an extreme sense of that word. He himself, by becoming one of us and dying a sacrificial death on the cross for us, bears the full weight of the burden each one of us owns. “See what sort of love the Father has given to us: that we should be called God’s children– and indeed we are!” (1John 3:1 NET)
A Personal Plea
If anyone who is reading this has not in your whole life turned to God and said something like, “Hi. Here I am, and this is who I am. Would you be my friend?” then I ask you, won’t you stop reading and thinking right now, turn to God, introduce yourself to him, and ask him for his presence with you? He’ll do all the rest. Jesus Christ will be the best friend you will ever have in your whole life.
1 Psalm 32:1-2 is quoted in Romans 4:7-8, Psalm 22:1 is quoted Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34; Psalm 22:18 in John 19:24, Matthew 27:35, Mark 15:24, and Luke 23:24; and Psalm 22:22 in Hebrews 2:12.
2 Compare Psalm 32:3 (LXE) and Psalm 38:13-14 (LXE); Psalm 32:4 (LXE): “For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: I became thoroughly miserable while a thorn was fastened in me. Pause.” and Psalm 38:2 (LXE): “For thy weapons are fixed in me, and thou hast pressed thy hand heavily upon me.” In this verse the verbs “fastened” and “fixed” are translations of the same Greek word, ἐμπήγνυμι–to stick in.
3 Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, page 191.
4 The seven penitential psalms are: 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143.