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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:
- 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 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.
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.
There is one thing about Psalm 32 (31 LXX) upon which everyone agrees: it is a psalm about grace. The Apostle Paul quotes Psalm 32:1-2 in Romans 4:7-8.
1 Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and who sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin, and in whose mouth there is no guile. (Psalm 32:1-2 LXE, Septuagint in English, Brenton)
7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;
8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Rom 4:7-8 ESV)
Paul in Romans pronounces grace–pardon for sin apart from works. He uses the example of Abraham, who received God’s blessing of righteousness on the basis of his faith. Paul extends the promise which God gave Abraham to all believers who follow his example of placing their faith in God. For Paul, placing one’s faith in God means placing faith in the God who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead.
22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.”
23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone,
24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord,
25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (Rom 4:22-25 ESV)
Paul argues in all of Romans 4 that God extends the grace of righteousness to Gentile believers on account of their faith in his Son, rather than on account of their racial birth. And who cannot hear the roar of joy surging like a great wave that encompasses all people around our globe? Besides being penitential, Psalm 32 is well known as a psalm of thanksgiving. The Greek Orthodox Church reads this psalm to new believers as they emerge from the waters of baptism. (See The Orthodox Study Bible.)
Let’s take a look at Psalm 32 (31 LXX).
LXE Psalm 32:1 <<A Psalm of instruction by David.>> Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin, and in whose mouth there is no guile.
3 Because I kept silence, my bones waxed old, from my crying all the day.
4 For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: I became thoroughly miserable while a thorn was fastened in me. Pause.
5 I acknowledged my sin, and hid not mine iniquity: I said, I will confess mine iniquity to the Lord against myself; and thou forgavest the ungodliness of my heart. Pause.
6 Therefore shall every holy one pray to thee in a fit time: only in the deluge of many waters they shall not come nigh to him.
7 Thou art my refuge from the affliction that encompasses me; my joy, to deliver me from them that have compassed me. Pause.
8 I will instruct thee and guide thee in this way wherein thou shalt go: I will fix mine eyes upon thee.
9 Be ye not as horse and mule, which have no understanding; [but thou] must constrain their jaws with bit and curb, lest they should come nigh to thee.
10 Many are the scourges of the sinner: but him that hopes in the Lord mercy shall compass about.
11 Be glad in the Lord, and exult, ye righteous: and glory, all ye that are upright in heart. (Psa 32:1-11 LXE)
A second point of agreement concerning Psalm 32 among commentators is its use of dialogue. After multiple readings, many readers will be able to recognize that more than one person speaks within its lines. Changes of tone, subject, and shifts between singular and plural help delineate the various speech boundaries within the psalm.
Identifying speakers in a psalm can be tricky. The reader must be alert, noticing large and small cues. She must draw upon her knowledge of God and his ways, based upon her reading of all of Scripture. Not surprisingly, while nearly everyone recognizes dialogue and change of speakers in Psalm 32 (31 LXX), there is not consensus concerning who speaks which lines.
Here is how I break it out:
Psalm 32 (31 LXE): A Readers Theater Interpretation
Chorus of the Congregation: … 1 Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin, and in whose mouth there is no guile.
Christ to God: 3 Because I kept silence, my bones waxed old, from my crying all the day.
4 For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: I became thoroughly miserable while a thorn was fastened in me. Pause.
5 I acknowledged my sin, and hid not mine iniquity: I said, I will confess mine iniquity to the Lord against myself; and thou forgavest the ungodliness of my heart. Pause.
Chorus of the Congregation: 6 Therefore shall every holy one pray to thee in a fit time: only in the deluge of many waters they shall not come nigh to him.
Christ to God: 7 Thou art my refuge from the affliction that encompasses me; my joy, to deliver me from them that have compassed me. Pause.
God to his Christ: 8 I will instruct thee [singular in LXX] and guide thee [singular in LXX] in this way wherein thou [singular in LXX] shalt go: I will fix mine eyes upon thee [singular in LXX].
God to the Congregation: 9 Be ye [plural] not as horse and mule, which have no understanding; but thou [added by translator] must constrain their jaws with bit and curb, lest they should come nigh to thee [singular].
[My Interpretation: Be ye [plural] not as horse and mule, which have no understanding. It is necessary to constrain their jaws with bit and curb, or they won’t come near you [singular impersonal required by context of a single person managing the horse.]
Chorus of the Congregation: 10 Many are the scourges of the sinner: but him that hopes in the Lord mercy shall compass about.
11 Be glad in the Lord, and exult, ye righteous: and glory, all ye that are upright in heart.
What makes Psalm 32 a psalm about the substitutionary atonement of Christ?
The key is found in verse 6, “Therefore shall every holy one pray to thee in a fit time…” What is the logic behind this statement, specifically the conclusion, introduced by the word “therefore,” that “every holy one” should pray to God while he may be found? What warrant is there to jump from the example of one sinner (verses 3-5) to an entire group? And what is the warrant to move from the example of a sinner to “every holy one?”
The latter difficulty can be explained by the NET translation. Where the Septuagint uses “every holy one,” (πᾶς ὅσιος), NET translates the Masoretic text as “faithful follower.” I believe that within the context of the Psalter this is a fair translation. Verse six states that “holy ones,” or “faithful followers,” i.e., those who have been forgiven (vs 1), should now call upon the Lord for protection whenever trouble comes upon them as a flood.
But why? Why does the text say, “therefore”? I see two possibilities. In the first, the logic of the psalm may be stating that because one sinner has been forgiven, God will likewise forgive all sinners. A second possibility states that because God has forgiven this particular sinner, therefore, all believing sinners (faithful followers now made holy) will be forgiven and have access to the help of God through prayer.
The answer to the question of which possibility is the correct one depends upon the identity of the speaker of verses 3-5, who also speaks in 7. This speaker would likewise be the singular “man,” a singular male in the Septuagint, referred to in verse 2. Verse 1 is plural; verse 2 is singular. Verse 6 encapsulates these two verses. The many are blessed because of God’s forgiveness to the one. “Therefore…” But who is this one?
First, “Blessed is the man …” of verse two is identical to the opening words of the Psalter in Psalm 1:1 (μακάριος ἀνήρ). The singular male of Psalm 1:1 is considered by this author and by many others to be Christ. Pilate said of him, “Behold, the man…” In that case, Pilate says, “Behold the human being.” Christ was crucified as the head of the human race. (See the prior post, “Penitential Psalms: 32–How Could Christ Pray the Words of a Sinner?”) In the Psalter, however, Christ is not a generic human being, as some translations would have it. He is a particular male, a single person, a real flesh and blood man who prays to God. Psalm 32:1-2 in the Septuagint distinguishes between the many (32:1) and the one male (32:2). This one male is the speaker of verses 3-5, which are closed off with a break, Selah. Verse 6 is the result (“therefore”) of verses 3-5.
Second, verses 3-4 in the Septuagint have some most remarkable words, which if taken literally, provide clues to the identity of the speaker.
3 Because I kept silence, my bones waxed old, from my crying all the day.
4 For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: I became thoroughly miserable while a thorn was fastened in me. Pause.
Others have pointed out the similarity of these words to those of Psalm 38, which is a veritable portrait of Christ’s crucifixion. The Greek verb (LXX) for “fastened,” Psalm 32:4, “a thorn was fastened in me,” is identical to the Greek verb (LXX) for “fixed” in Psalm 38:2, “For thy weapons are fixed in me, and thou hast pressed thy hand heavily upon me.” Further, Psalm 32:3 states, “Because I kept silence,…” All four gospels make a point of the silence of Christ during his trial.
Once we know that Christ is the speaker of the personal prayer portion of Psalm 32 in verses 3-5 and 7, then the rest of the psalm begins to fall into place. For example, we know that verse 9 cannot be God addressing the speaker of the prayer, because God would never address his Son that way. Verse 8, on the other hand, beautifully illustrates God’s love for his Son.
What turns this psalm from penitential to joyful thanksgiving is the presence of the chorus, made up of believers. Because one man died confessing the sins of others, because God did not impute, or count that sin against him as an individual, then all those for whom Christ died now have free access to God through him. We know that God did not impute sin against Christ (or count it against him, reckon it against him), because God raised him from the dead. If Christ had been guilty, he would have merited his punishment and remained dead. But Christ himself was righteous. We know from his resurrection that God was pleased with him. Because of Christ’s victory, believers are blessed to have their transgressions forgiven, their sins covered. God’s mercy is a cause for thankfulness and rejoicing, which is what the congregation does in the final verse. The psalm opens and closes with God’s mercy for the sinner in view.
Craig C. Broyles writes that Psalm 32 “forms a combination of features unlike any other psalm,” (Broyles, 161). I don’t know about you who are reading this blog, but often, when I first read a psalm, I am left flat, almost without response. I think to myself, “I have nothing to say about this psalm.” But God has blessed me with persistence. God rewarded Jacob with a new name after he wrestled with him all night. Reading the Psalter is often like this biblical story. Many times it is only after wrestling with a psalm, seeking to understand, asking God, delving into the details, reading again and again, that I come to a deeper appreciation of the wisdom of God in how he connects Scripture with Scripture. It is true that these are ancient words and that we as today’s readers must seek to translate them into our own experience. But the treasure of meeting with God through the words of a psalm is so worth the effort. I pray that you will be encouraged to do some digging of your own.
All our Christian lives, we are told that Christ died for our sins and that he himself knew no sin. We know that his own disciples did not spot references to his crucifixion and resurrection in their own Scripture (Luke 24). Nearly every Easter we hear Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And yet, when we read the words of confession in Psalm 32:5: I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin (ESV), we balk at applying these words to the innocent Christ, and we become uncomfortable.
During the time I have studied the Psalter, more and more I become aware that Christ incarnated is indeed human, a person, a man. The Psalter presents Christ’s humanity in a way that is “down to earth” relatable. Our shared human perceptions of experience were his shared human perceptions also. What hurts us hurt him.
Hebrews 12:2 teaches the shame of the cross–if I were hanging on a cross, I would find it extraordinarily shameful. I can relate to that. Galatians 3:13 tells us that Christ became a curse for us. Deuteronomy 21:23 explains that everyone hung to death upon a tree is cursed of God and a source of defilement for the land. Paul tells us that Christ has been sacrificed as our Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). John says, “He [Christ] is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world,” (1 John 2:2 ESV). For “propitiation” in the Old Testament to happen, a lamb was slain and its blood sprinkled on the ark’s mercy seat, so that God’s anger against sinful believers would end. We also read about the scapegoat, upon which the priest would symbolically place “all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins,” and “send him … into the wilderness” (Leviticus 16:21 ESV). Christ was also our scapegoat. Isaiah writes, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted,” (Isaiah 53:4 ESV).
Scripture shows us holy people of God who interceded in prayer as through they themselves were the sinful ones. Daniel prayed, “While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, … ” (Daniel 9:20 ESV). The godly Nehemiah prayed, ” … I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned,” (Nehemiah 1:6 ESV). Paul in the New Testament wrote strongly, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh,” (Romans 9:3 ESV). So I ask, where in Scripture, if not in the first person voice of the psalmist, would God teach us how thoroughly Christ identified with and became humanity to the point of interceding for us as though one of our very own?
I believe we should receive Christ’s penitent prayer as our representative in Psalm 32 for the same reason that John the Baptist allowed himself to be persuaded to baptize Jesus, because “it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness,” (Matthew 3:14 NET). I believe many have difficulty receiving Christ’s words of confession in Psalm 32 because of the difficulty we all experience in realizing just how very much one of us Christ became. Adam’s sin brought all his progeny into death and separation from God. One person, Adam, represented everyone. In the same way, Christ represents everyone (1 Corinthians 15:21-22). As our representative, Jesus personally confessed and was punished for each one of us.
As we meditate on these things, may the Holy Spirit open to our hearts this greatest of all loves with which our Creator Father loves us. May the words of John 3:16 take on a deeper texture of meaning as we consider the shame of the holy Son of God confessing our sin as though it were his own. And yet, “he endured the cross, despising the shame,” (Hebrews 12:2) because “… he who makes holy and those being made holy all have the same origin,” (Hebrews 2:11 NET). Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters. I can only say, “Hallelujia! Thank you, Lord.” And that is just what the psalmist goes on to say in Psalm 32. We will look at that next time.
If Psalm 6 were taken out of the blue sky, that is, without centuries of commentary and church tradition behind it, I would not identify in it the theme of repentance in response to God’s wrath, simply because there are no words of repentance in it. Nor is there confession or mention of sin.
By comparison, Psalm 51 is confessional and repentant. In it we read,
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.
We find nothing like this in Psalm 6. Rather there are pleas asking for mercy to be proffered without the offer of repentance. Now some might say that God’s anger or wrath implies sinfulness. This may be so where context supports such a reading, but this is not the case with Psalm 6. Notwithstanding the issue of context, implicit is not as strong as explicit.
The psalmist in Psalm 6 clearly has an open relationship with God and trusts him. He appears surprised that God has not answered him sooner, or quickly. The activities of his enemies contribute to his difficulties. However, by the end of the psalm, God has answered. And yet, there is no mention of forgiveness. God comes to the psalmist’s aid with neither repentance nor forgiveness having been exchanged.
In comparing the opening verse of Psalm 6 with an identical opening in Psalm 38, Craig C. Broyles writes, “the absence of any confession of sin in Psalm 6 [is] all the more striking. It does not draw an inevitable connection between sin and sickness; it simply prays…” (Broyles, 63).
One element Psalm 6 manifests in abundance is sorrow. Mournful phrases include:
- Psalm 6:2 Pity me, O Lord; for I am weak: heal me, O Lord; for my bones are vexed. (LXE)
- Psalm 6:3 My soul also is grievously vexed: but thou, O Lord, how long? (LXE)
- Psalm 6:5 For in death no man remembers thee: and who will give thee thanks in Hades? (LXE)
- Psalm 6:6 I am wearied with my groaning; I shall wash my bed every night; I shall water my couch with tears. (LXE)
- Psalm 6:7 Mine eye is troubled because of my [sic] wrath; I am worn out because of all my enemies.
(LXE, English Septuagint)
In the sense of being a sorrowful (πένθος, penthos) psalm, Psalm 6 is penitential. It is the source of the sorrow that is questioned. Is it sorrow for the psalmist’s own unstated sin (which would force the reader to assume it), sorrow caused by the sins of others, who are explicitly stated enemies (vv 7-8, 10), or the wrath of God (vv 1, 3-4). Clearly, the psalm supplies evidence only for the latter two.
Yet church tradition since at least Gregory of Nyssa classifies this psalm as penitential, in the sense of confession for sins committed. According to Bruce Waltke (48), Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-394) “notes that the terms ‘confession’ and ‘praise,’ while linguistically distinct, were morally in conjunction. By confession we depart and separate from evil things, and by praise we embrace the grace of God to receive all benefits.” (Waltke, 48).
This view makes many assumptions concerning what is not explicit within the psalm itself. Gregory and other church fathers of his era (c 335-394) began with the hermeneutical assumption that Psalm 6 was primarily about David, since its superscription says “by” or “of” David. A further assumption by these men is that the psalm was written with reference to David’s sins of adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband, as recorded in 2 Samuel 11:1-12:25 (Ibid., 47). However, other interpretations of Psalm 6, as represented by accompanying illustrations in printed Bibles, were present alongside Gregory’s and continued until the end of the fifteenth century. These included topics such as the Last Judgement and Christ enthroned (1 Costley, Clare). But beginning in the sixteenth century and well into the eighteenth, the church, including Protestants, increasingly viewed Psalm 6 as a penitent confessional by David. David’s sin with Bathsheba even became the symbol of the entire Psalter (2 Ibid).
Here lies the determiner: one’s primary hermeneutical assumptions. There is a major difference of interpretation concerning Psalm 6, as with many or most of the psalms, depending upon whether David as David the man is in view or whether Christ is in view. Jesus himself and the apostolic fathers who personally saw and talked with him, including the Apostle Paul, did not teach that the psalms were primarily about David.
First, Jesus taught his disciples that the Psalms and other Old Testament scripture were written about himself (Luke 24:44). Then Peter, in one of his early speeches directly after Pentecost, as recorded in Acts 5:17-36, claims that Psalm 16:8-11 and 110:1 specifically were written prophetically with the risen Christ as their subject, rather than David, who was a simply a human mouthpiece. Finally, Paul interpreted Psalm 16 as being primarily about Christ, as written through David in the role of prophet. In reference to Psalm 16, Matthew W. Bates writes concerning Paul’s statement in Romans 15:9, “…Paul was not interested in David as the ascribed speaker, but rather David was a vehicle through whom the Spirit spoke…For Paul, David as a specific man is not very relevant…” (Bates, 302). This same attitude of Paul toward all Old Testament Scripture is again revealed in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10 and 10:11. For Paul to live, including his reading of Scripture, meant Christ, “For to me to live is Christ…” (Philippians 1:21 ESV).
A 19th century author who views Psalm 6 as being not about David and his sin with Bathsheba but about Christ in his mission and passion is Andrew A. Bonar, who writes, “David may have been led by the Holy Ghost to write it … But surely he meant to tell of One greater than David,—‘the Man of sorrows.’ … We may suppose every word used by Him in some of those nights which He passed in desert places, or in the garden of Gethsemane” (Bonar, 21).
Bonar points out certain similarities of wording found in Psalm 6 and spoken by Christ or found in other portions of the New Testament. For example, when the psalmist cries out, “Lord, rebuke me not in thy wrath,” Jesus prays, “Father, if it be possible, remove this cup from me.” When the psalmist laments, “My soul is sore vexed,” Bonar hears the voice of Christ entering the garden and confiding to his disciples, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.” He points out that the author of Hebrews presents Christ with “strong crying and tears to Him who was able to save him from death,” which corresponds to Psalm 6, “In death there is no remembrance of thee; in the grave, who shall give thee thanks?” (Ibid).
Likewise, John Barclay (1826) finds similarity between Psalm 6:8, “Depart from me, all ye that work iniquity; for the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping,” and Matthew 7:23 and 25:4, in which Christ foretells his actions as judge of the world (Barclay, 109). Of Psalm 6:2 Robert Hawker (1753-1827) writes, “David had a large portion of sorrow in himself, in his family and kingdom. But the beauty of the Psalm is as it beholds Christ in his strong crying and tears, when taking upon him our nature, and becoming sin for the church, that the church might be made the righteousness of God in him. If we eye the Redeemer as the sinner’s surety, we shall then enter into a right apprehension of what he saith under the divine chastisement for sin” (Hawker, 178).
Psalm 6 is numerically the first psalm in which God’s wrath falls upon the speaker himself. This fact is important, since Christ’s atoning death and resurrection is a major theme of the Psalter. In Psalm 6 the speaker does not represent himself as having sinned, yet he perceives God’s wrath upon himself. Psalm 6 therefore introduces the substitutionary atonement of Christ.
The next post will explore Psalm 6 itself in detail.
1 Costley, Clare L. 2004. “David, Bathsheba, and the Penitential Psalms*.” Renaissance Quarterly 57, no. 4: 1235-1277
2 Costley (see footnote 1) writes, “Thus, sixteenth-century European Books of Hours and eighteenth-century American primers alike linked penitential and catechetical practices to the first steps in literacy – and they tied penance, catechesis, and reading to an image of a naked woman and an adulterous king.”
First things first–Disclaimer: This is a technical article most likely of interest to very few. I promise this series will get better once we get past the linguistic details and consider these amazing psalms themselves. If anyone wishes to skip this chapter, please feel free. Otherwise, proceed.
What images come to our minds when we say the word “penitential?”
If we are to understand why seven psalms are classed together in a family (1), we must become detectives who put on our thinking caps. And in doing so, we’ve already admitted that the connection is not obvious, and we take one step away from our hearts as we begin talking with our heads.
Most theological traditions give these psalms a meaning related to penitence, sorrow for sin, or repentance. This is not a popular evangelical theme; evangelicals tend to emphasize joy, joy, joy. Further, today’s evangelicals, reading their Bibles at home, seek to discover their own meanings in Scripture, rather than basing their meditations on centuries old, prior church traditions of which they are largely unaware. They couldn’t care less. In line with that, this blog challenges us as “common,” everyday readers under the influence of and in the presence of the Holy Spirit, to hear what God says about his own psalms. But we will plow forward through this technical mumbo jumbo as a corrective, just in case my conclusions might lead us down the wrong track.
First, let us consider the word “penitential.” The English “penitential” word family includes penitential, penitent, penance, and even penitentiary. Then there is the word family in which the “pen” portion occurs in the middle: repent, repentance, repentant. But what about another distinct set of meanings: penury and penurious? There are also words that use “pen” as a prefix, as in “penultimate.”
In the Oxford English Dictionary, the gold bar standard for English, the etymologies for most of the previous words stretch no further back in time or language than Latin, Old English, and Middle French. The word “penitence” in its Latin form paenitentia occurs in manuscripts of the 5th and 6th century, and in the Vulgate of the 6th and 7th century. “Penury” comes to us from classical Latin, but is of “uncertain origin.” French, Spanish, and Italian have similar words, none of which reach further back than the late Middle Ages. “Penultimate” derives from a Latin prefix meaning “almost.”
But what happens when we go all the way back to Old biblical Greek? I find it very odd that none of the entries for any of the above English words mentions the possibility of Greek origins for the “pen” family. There are many occurrences in the Greek Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) and a few in the Greek New Testament with “pen” words as their base (2). The Greek letters when pronounced sound like English “pen.” They are transliterations. It appears as though English and other Latin based languages, such as French and Spanish, preserved the transliterated sounds and spellings of their Greek precursors, but substantially altered their meanings. How did this big mix-up occur? Since the Oxford English Dictionary offers no more than unspecified uncertainties, it follows that I can merely offer reasonable speculation. But the clarity and quantity of the Greek witness overwhelms to the point of crying out for speculation.
For example, here are some of the Greek words:
- πένητος (pen-ee-tohss) A “penitose” person is a poor person. Note the similarity to English “penitent.”
- πένομαι (pen-o-may) 1) To work for one’s living; to toil, to labor 2) to be poor and needy.
- πεινάω (pen-a-oh) To be hungry
- πενθέω (pen-thay-oh) To be sad, to grieve and mourn, in contrast to being joyful. While the object of the grieving is not included in the word itself, it is sometimes scripturally applied to sin. One can grieve and mourn over one’s own sin, over the sin of someone else, and very importantly, over the effects of someone else’s sin upon oneself as victim.
- πενθουντες (pen-thun-tes) The ones who are mourning. Note the similarity to English “penitents,” especially if one were to change the central “t” to “th.” All the consonants are present in both words and the vowels are very similar: penit[h]ents, penthuntes. Bagster comments on Matthew 5:4, ” the penthountes mourn not for their own sins but because of the power of the wicked who oppress the righteous .”
- πενθος (pen-thos) Mourning, grief. Again, in each of these last three words, the mourning need not be associated with sin. The mourning in Genesis 50:10-11 was over the death of Jacob. In 2 Samuel 19:2, the joy of victory for David’s people over their conquering the rebels changed to mourning when David learned that his son Absalom the rebel had died. The grief in Proverbs 14:13 is general and unspecified. In Micah 1:8 and Isaiah 17:14, those who receive God’s judgment experience grief, penthos.
It stretches credulity to think that these Greek words are not in some way related to the English “pen” family, yet the meanings are mostly different. This is a puzzle to be solved. It appears that the English word family with the meaning of “penury,” poverty, may follow the Greek word family for being hungry and working for a living (penomay, penitose, peinaoh). Likewise, the “penitent” word family sounds very much like the Greek word family for mourning, “penthountes.”
What is strange and unusual is that as early as the 4th century [Catholic] church (3), the concept of personal penitence, or sorrow, guilt, and repentance for one’s own sin, came to be associated with words that originally meant poverty and grief in general. The Catholic tradition carried over into Protestantism. Isn’t it characteristic of human nature, many church cultures, and societies in general? It’s what we call the blame game. We blame the victims. It is not so in God’s word. The wicked in God’s Word of the Old Testament are those who oppress the poor and needy, not vice versa. But this is my etymological conjecturing.
Sermon on the Mount: An interesting example, however, is the preaching one often hears for Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Some excellent preachers will say that the ones mourning in this verse are mourning and lamenting their own sinfulness, and that they will be comforted when they complete the process of repentance and experience God’s forgiveness. However, none of the Greek words in the verse imply or connote sinfulness. Rather, as Bagster wrote (see above), Jesus was saying to those who were poor and mournful because of the oppression of the powerful against them, that they would be comforted. In other words, it won’t always be this way. This corresponds better with the following verse in which the meek are told they will inherit the earth. In no manner is the earth spiritual; the earth is physical. The meek will inherit a physical earth. How about verse 3? Jesus addresses a hillside packed with poor people. He could be saying something like, “Since you are already economically poor, let me show you a benefit of poverty–to be poor in spirit.” And for verse 6, “I know you are physically hungry and thirsty, but that won’t be permanently helped now. But why not try this? What will happen if you hunger and thirst for righteousness? Then I guarantee that you will be satisfied.” You see, nowhere in the context of the Beatitudes does it explicitly state that Jesus was addressing a sin problem.
As further evidence toward my line of thinking, we find that when English translations use words such as “repent” and “repentance,” the corresponding Greek word is not of the “pen” family at all, but completely different. The Greek words for English repentance concern turning, turning away from, changing the direction of one’s face, changing one’s mind, and so forth. Greek words with these meanings are epi-strephoe in the Old Testament–to turn to, and meta-no-ee-oh in the New–to change one’s mind.
Summary: So far we have looked at the Greek words underlying the English word “penitential.” We have found that the English word means an attitude of sorrow, guilt, and repentance for one’s own sin, but the Greek words refer to 1) sorrow and grief in general and 2) economic poverty. The sorrow words can be applied to sorrow and grief over one’s own sin, someone else’s sin, and most importantly over the effects of someone else’s sin upon oneself as victim. But none of these applications is necessary. Neither the sorrow nor poverty words themselves carry overtones of sin. I believe a certain facet of human, societal, and church-culture nature is being expressed in the frequent association of sorrow, grief, and economic poverty with an assumed sinfulness on the part of the victim.
But we haven’t talked about any of the Penitential Psalms in particular. Why these psalms? And why sin? Do these psalms even speak of sin and repentance? If the answer was simply yes, I wouldn’t be asking these questions. Stay tuned as we explore other reasons why these psalms may be grouped together.
1 The seven penitential psalms are 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143.
2 Why consider Old Greek? It is the language from which Augustine’s Old Latin Bible was translated, and it is my version of preference for studying the Psalter.
3. The Eastern Orthodox Church has preserved to the present day the Greek Bible and uses it as its preferred text for translation into English and other languages. Study notes in one of these Bibles preserves in many cases the Greek meanings of the “pen” family of words, rather than the later Latin and English meanings. See Academic Community of St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology, Elk Grove, California. The Orthodox Study Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008.