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If Psalm 6 were taken out of the blue sky, that is, without centuries of commentary and church tradition behind it, I would not identify in it the theme of repentance in response to God’s wrath, simply because there are no words of repentance in it. Nor is there confession or mention of sin.
By comparison, Psalm 51 is confessional and repentant. In it we read,
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.
We find nothing like this in Psalm 6. Rather there are pleas asking for mercy to be proffered without the offer of repentance. Now some might say that God’s anger or wrath implies sinfulness. This may be so where context supports such a reading, but this is not the case with Psalm 6. Notwithstanding the issue of context, implicit is not as strong as explicit.
The psalmist in Psalm 6 clearly has an open relationship with God and trusts him. He appears surprised that God has not answered him sooner, or quickly. The activities of his enemies contribute to his difficulties. However, by the end of the psalm, God has answered. And yet, there is no mention of forgiveness. God comes to the psalmist’s aid with neither repentance nor forgiveness having been exchanged.
In comparing the opening verse of Psalm 6 with an identical opening in Psalm 38, Craig C. Broyles writes, “the absence of any confession of sin in Psalm 6 [is] all the more striking. It does not draw an inevitable connection between sin and sickness; it simply prays…” (Broyles, 63).
One element Psalm 6 manifests in abundance is sorrow. Mournful phrases include:
- Psalm 6:2 Pity me, O Lord; for I am weak: heal me, O Lord; for my bones are vexed. (LXE)
- Psalm 6:3 My soul also is grievously vexed: but thou, O Lord, how long? (LXE)
- Psalm 6:5 For in death no man remembers thee: and who will give thee thanks in Hades? (LXE)
- Psalm 6:6 I am wearied with my groaning; I shall wash my bed every night; I shall water my couch with tears. (LXE)
- Psalm 6:7 Mine eye is troubled because of my [sic] wrath; I am worn out because of all my enemies.
(LXE, English Septuagint)
In the sense of being a sorrowful (πένθος, penthos) psalm, Psalm 6 is penitential. It is the source of the sorrow that is questioned. Is it sorrow for the psalmist’s own unstated sin (which would force the reader to assume it), sorrow caused by the sins of others, who are explicitly stated enemies (vv 7-8, 10), or the wrath of God (vv 1, 3-4). Clearly, the psalm supplies evidence only for the latter two.
Yet church tradition since at least Gregory of Nyssa classifies this psalm as penitential, in the sense of confession for sins committed. According to Bruce Waltke (48), Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-394) “notes that the terms ‘confession’ and ‘praise,’ while linguistically distinct, were morally in conjunction. By confession we depart and separate from evil things, and by praise we embrace the grace of God to receive all benefits.” (Waltke, 48).
This view makes many assumptions concerning what is not explicit within the psalm itself. Gregory and other church fathers of his era (c 335-394) began with the hermeneutical assumption that Psalm 6 was primarily about David, since its superscription says “by” or “of” David. A further assumption by these men is that the psalm was written with reference to David’s sins of adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband, as recorded in 2 Samuel 11:1-12:25 (Ibid., 47). However, other interpretations of Psalm 6, as represented by accompanying illustrations in printed Bibles, were present alongside Gregory’s and continued until the end of the fifteenth century. These included topics such as the Last Judgement and Christ enthroned (1 Costley, Clare). But beginning in the sixteenth century and well into the eighteenth, the church, including Protestants, increasingly viewed Psalm 6 as a penitent confessional by David. David’s sin with Bathsheba even became the symbol of the entire Psalter (2 Ibid).
Here lies the determiner: one’s primary hermeneutical assumptions. There is a major difference of interpretation concerning Psalm 6, as with many or most of the psalms, depending upon whether David as David the man is in view or whether Christ is in view. Jesus himself and the apostolic fathers who personally saw and talked with him, including the Apostle Paul, did not teach that the psalms were primarily about David.
First, Jesus taught his disciples that the Psalms and other Old Testament scripture were written about himself (Luke 24:44). Then Peter, in one of his early speeches directly after Pentecost, as recorded in Acts 5:17-36, claims that Psalm 16:8-11 and 110:1 specifically were written prophetically with the risen Christ as their subject, rather than David, who was a simply a human mouthpiece. Finally, Paul interpreted Psalm 16 as being primarily about Christ, as written through David in the role of prophet. In reference to Psalm 16, Matthew W. Bates writes concerning Paul’s statement in Romans 15:9, “…Paul was not interested in David as the ascribed speaker, but rather David was a vehicle through whom the Spirit spoke…For Paul, David as a specific man is not very relevant…” (Bates, 302). This same attitude of Paul toward all Old Testament Scripture is again revealed in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10 and 10:11. For Paul to live, including his reading of Scripture, meant Christ, “For to me to live is Christ…” (Philippians 1:21 ESV).
A 19th century author who views Psalm 6 as being not about David and his sin with Bathsheba but about Christ in his mission and passion is Andrew A. Bonar, who writes, “David may have been led by the Holy Ghost to write it … But surely he meant to tell of One greater than David,—‘the Man of sorrows.’ … We may suppose every word used by Him in some of those nights which He passed in desert places, or in the garden of Gethsemane” (Bonar, 21).
Bonar points out certain similarities of wording found in Psalm 6 and spoken by Christ or found in other portions of the New Testament. For example, when the psalmist cries out, “Lord, rebuke me not in thy wrath,” Jesus prays, “Father, if it be possible, remove this cup from me.” When the psalmist laments, “My soul is sore vexed,” Bonar hears the voice of Christ entering the garden and confiding to his disciples, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.” He points out that the author of Hebrews presents Christ with “strong crying and tears to Him who was able to save him from death,” which corresponds to Psalm 6, “In death there is no remembrance of thee; in the grave, who shall give thee thanks?” (Ibid).
Likewise, John Barclay (1826) finds similarity between Psalm 6:8, “Depart from me, all ye that work iniquity; for the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping,” and Matthew 7:23 and 25:4, in which Christ foretells his actions as judge of the world (Barclay, 109). Of Psalm 6:2 Robert Hawker (1753-1827) writes, “David had a large portion of sorrow in himself, in his family and kingdom. But the beauty of the Psalm is as it beholds Christ in his strong crying and tears, when taking upon him our nature, and becoming sin for the church, that the church might be made the righteousness of God in him. If we eye the Redeemer as the sinner’s surety, we shall then enter into a right apprehension of what he saith under the divine chastisement for sin” (Hawker, 178).
Psalm 6 is numerically the first psalm in which God’s wrath falls upon the speaker himself. This fact is important, since Christ’s atoning death and resurrection is a major theme of the Psalter. In Psalm 6 the speaker does not represent himself as having sinned, yet he perceives God’s wrath upon himself. Psalm 6 therefore introduces the substitutionary atonement of Christ.
The next post will explore Psalm 6 itself in detail.
1 Costley, Clare L. 2004. “David, Bathsheba, and the Penitential Psalms*.” Renaissance Quarterly 57, no. 4: 1235-1277
2 Costley (see footnote 1) writes, “Thus, sixteenth-century European Books of Hours and eighteenth-century American primers alike linked penitential and catechetical practices to the first steps in literacy – and they tied penance, catechesis, and reading to an image of a naked woman and an adulterous king.”
First things first–Disclaimer: This is a technical article most likely of interest to very few. I promise this series will get better once we get past the linguistic details and consider these amazing psalms themselves. If anyone wishes to skip this chapter, please feel free. Otherwise, proceed.
What images come to our minds when we say the word “penitential?”
If we are to understand why seven psalms are classed together in a family (1), we must become detectives who put on our thinking caps. And in doing so, we’ve already admitted that the connection is not obvious, and we take one step away from our hearts as we begin talking with our heads.
Most theological traditions give these psalms a meaning related to penitence, sorrow for sin, or repentance. This is not a popular evangelical theme; evangelicals tend to emphasize joy, joy, joy. Further, today’s evangelicals, reading their Bibles at home, seek to discover their own meanings in Scripture, rather than basing their meditations on centuries old, prior church traditions of which they are largely unaware. They couldn’t care less. In line with that, this blog challenges us as “common,” everyday readers under the influence of and in the presence of the Holy Spirit, to hear what God says about his own psalms. But we will plow forward through this technical mumbo jumbo as a corrective, just in case my conclusions might lead us down the wrong track.
First, let us consider the word “penitential.” The English “penitential” word family includes penitential, penitent, penance, and even penitentiary. Then there is the word family in which the “pen” portion occurs in the middle: repent, repentance, repentant. But what about another distinct set of meanings: penury and penurious? There are also words that use “pen” as a prefix, as in “penultimate.”
In the Oxford English Dictionary, the gold bar standard for English, the etymologies for most of the previous words stretch no further back in time or language than Latin, Old English, and Middle French. The word “penitence” in its Latin form paenitentia occurs in manuscripts of the 5th and 6th century, and in the Vulgate of the 6th and 7th century. “Penury” comes to us from classical Latin, but is of “uncertain origin.” French, Spanish, and Italian have similar words, none of which reach further back than the late Middle Ages. “Penultimate” derives from a Latin prefix meaning “almost.”
But what happens when we go all the way back to Old biblical Greek? I find it very odd that none of the entries for any of the above English words mentions the possibility of Greek origins for the “pen” family. There are many occurrences in the Greek Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) and a few in the Greek New Testament with “pen” words as their base (2). The Greek letters when pronounced sound like English “pen.” They are transliterations. It appears as though English and other Latin based languages, such as French and Spanish, preserved the transliterated sounds and spellings of their Greek precursors, but substantially altered their meanings. How did this big mix-up occur? Since the Oxford English Dictionary offers no more than unspecified uncertainties, it follows that I can merely offer reasonable speculation. But the clarity and quantity of the Greek witness overwhelms to the point of crying out for speculation.
For example, here are some of the Greek words:
- πένητος (pen-ee-tohss) A “penitose” person is a poor person. Note the similarity to English “penitent.”
- πένομαι (pen-o-may) 1) To work for one’s living; to toil, to labor 2) to be poor and needy.
- πεινάω (pen-a-oh) To be hungry
- πενθέω (pen-thay-oh) To be sad, to grieve and mourn, in contrast to being joyful. While the object of the grieving is not included in the word itself, it is sometimes scripturally applied to sin. One can grieve and mourn over one’s own sin, over the sin of someone else, and very importantly, over the effects of someone else’s sin upon oneself as victim.
- πενθουντες (pen-thun-tes) The ones who are mourning. Note the similarity to English “penitents,” especially if one were to change the central “t” to “th.” All the consonants are present in both words and the vowels are very similar: penit[h]ents, penthuntes. Bagster comments on Matthew 5:4, ” the penthountes mourn not for their own sins but because of the power of the wicked who oppress the righteous .”
- πενθος (pen-thos) Mourning, grief. Again, in each of these last three words, the mourning need not be associated with sin. The mourning in Genesis 50:10-11 was over the death of Jacob. In 2 Samuel 19:2, the joy of victory for David’s people over their conquering the rebels changed to mourning when David learned that his son Absalom the rebel had died. The grief in Proverbs 14:13 is general and unspecified. In Micah 1:8 and Isaiah 17:14, those who receive God’s judgment experience grief, penthos.
It stretches credulity to think that these Greek words are not in some way related to the English “pen” family, yet the meanings are mostly different. This is a puzzle to be solved. It appears that the English word family with the meaning of “penury,” poverty, may follow the Greek word family for being hungry and working for a living (penomay, penitose, peinaoh). Likewise, the “penitent” word family sounds very much like the Greek word family for mourning, “penthountes.”
What is strange and unusual is that as early as the 4th century [Catholic] church (3), the concept of personal penitence, or sorrow, guilt, and repentance for one’s own sin, came to be associated with words that originally meant poverty and grief in general. The Catholic tradition carried over into Protestantism. Isn’t it characteristic of human nature, many church cultures, and societies in general? It’s what we call the blame game. We blame the victims. It is not so in God’s word. The wicked in God’s Word of the Old Testament are those who oppress the poor and needy, not vice versa. But this is my etymological conjecturing.
Sermon on the Mount: An interesting example, however, is the preaching one often hears for Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Some excellent preachers will say that the ones mourning in this verse are mourning and lamenting their own sinfulness, and that they will be comforted when they complete the process of repentance and experience God’s forgiveness. However, none of the Greek words in the verse imply or connote sinfulness. Rather, as Bagster wrote (see above), Jesus was saying to those who were poor and mournful because of the oppression of the powerful against them, that they would be comforted. In other words, it won’t always be this way. This corresponds better with the following verse in which the meek are told they will inherit the earth. In no manner is the earth spiritual; the earth is physical. The meek will inherit a physical earth. How about verse 3? Jesus addresses a hillside packed with poor people. He could be saying something like, “Since you are already economically poor, let me show you a benefit of poverty–to be poor in spirit.” And for verse 6, “I know you are physically hungry and thirsty, but that won’t be permanently helped now. But why not try this? What will happen if you hunger and thirst for righteousness? Then I guarantee that you will be satisfied.” You see, nowhere in the context of the Beatitudes does it explicitly state that Jesus was addressing a sin problem.
As further evidence toward my line of thinking, we find that when English translations use words such as “repent” and “repentance,” the corresponding Greek word is not of the “pen” family at all, but completely different. The Greek words for English repentance concern turning, turning away from, changing the direction of one’s face, changing one’s mind, and so forth. Greek words with these meanings are epi-strephoe in the Old Testament–to turn to, and meta-no-ee-oh in the New–to change one’s mind.
Summary: So far we have looked at the Greek words underlying the English word “penitential.” We have found that the English word means an attitude of sorrow, guilt, and repentance for one’s own sin, but the Greek words refer to 1) sorrow and grief in general and 2) economic poverty. The sorrow words can be applied to sorrow and grief over one’s own sin, someone else’s sin, and most importantly over the effects of someone else’s sin upon oneself as victim. But none of these applications is necessary. Neither the sorrow nor poverty words themselves carry overtones of sin. I believe a certain facet of human, societal, and church-culture nature is being expressed in the frequent association of sorrow, grief, and economic poverty with an assumed sinfulness on the part of the victim.
But we haven’t talked about any of the Penitential Psalms in particular. Why these psalms? And why sin? Do these psalms even speak of sin and repentance? If the answer was simply yes, I wouldn’t be asking these questions. Stay tuned as we explore other reasons why these psalms may be grouped together.
1 The seven penitential psalms are 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143.
2 Why consider Old Greek? It is the language from which Augustine’s Old Latin Bible was translated, and it is my version of preference for studying the Psalter.
3. The Eastern Orthodox Church has preserved to the present day the Greek Bible and uses it as its preferred text for translation into English and other languages. Study notes in one of these Bibles preserves in many cases the Greek meanings of the “pen” family of words, rather than the later Latin and English meanings. See Academic Community of St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology, Elk Grove, California. The Orthodox Study Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008.
What are the Penitential Psalms? If you said, “I don’t know,” then you’ve just explained why we have difficulty understanding them today. Most people have never heard of them, unless they attend an Orthodox liturgical church. So if you’re protestant, evangelical, or Catholic, why bother?
Little is known about the very early history and origin of the grouping of what later became the seven penitential psalms. Within the already Catholic tradition, the earliest information this author found is that fourth century Gregory of Nyssa classed Psalm 6, the first of the seven, as “confession and penitence” (1 Waltke, Laments, 43). Still later, St Augustine, before his death in 430 CE, repeatedly read and wept over four penitential psalms that had been written out and pinned to the wall in front of his bed. Which four they were has not been preserved (2). Cassiodorus, a sixth century Roman statesman, is apparently the first to have named the group of seven psalms as 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143 (3). These seven psalms eventually worked their way into the public liturgy of the Catholic church, and just as eventually were deleted. They were removed in 1911 from public reading and sidelined to private devotions (Ibid., 160-61). John Ubel describes their status within the Catholic church in 2014, “The penitential psalms are not collected in any currently approved liturgical text emanating from the Holy See, despite the intentions of the council and those entrusted with carrying out the liturgical reform” (Ibid., 165). Within the Eastern Orthodox tradition, although the nomenclature “penitential psalms” is known, these seven appear singly in varying portions of the liturgy. Each has its own distinct use and purpose. For example, Psalm 6 is used in Great Compline, Psalm 32 immediately after baptism, Psalm 38 in Orthros, and so forth (4). Evangelical churches tend not to focus on deep study of the Psalter, and most likely “Penitential Psalms” is not a topic often considered.
If you managed to wade through the previous paragraph and are still with me, you may be yawning profusely, scratching your head, and saying to yourself, “I can’t take much more of this. This is not why I read the Psalms.” And in my opinion, you would be correct.
I love John the Apostle’s statement in 1John 2:27:
But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie– just as it has taught you, abide in him (ESV).
The “anointing” John proclaims is the Holy Spirit of Christ, which every believer receives from the Father. He is the Spirit of God who lives within believers and is the source of their new birth (see John chapters 3 and 4, 6:63, 14, 15, and 16).
What John is saying is that each believer is connected to Christ the Son and through him to God the Father by means of the indwelling Spirit of God. Christ is the Living Word, and as such, he is quite able to communicate to every believer the messages from the Psalter which he wants to impart. He does this with all of Scripture. Therefore, the true value of studying Psalms is not to be had by reading about them in the words of someone else, such as the ancient church fathers and my words to you right now, but their true value is in hearing the Spirit speak into your own heart the Lord’s message to you in particular.
My purpose here is to hold up a road sign to you that says, “Have you tried this pathway through Psalms?” The pathway we will consider is Christ and his cross. Even in the so-called grouping of seven Penitential Psalms, we find Christ ever present and revealed. These psalms are not primarily about experiencing emotions of penitence designed to lead us to repentance. Rather, they are primarily about the life of Jesus Christ during his incarnation.
My premise is that Psalms reveal Christ. He is their primary focus. As we see Christ revealed, we also learn about God’s love for us, and that is what makes them important.
In future posts, we will consider each psalm individually and from a variety of angles.
1 Waltke, Bruce K. and James M. Houston with Erika Moore. The Psalms as Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.
2 DiPippo, Gregory. “The Penitential Psalms in the Liturgy of Lent.” New Liturgical Novus Motus: Movement Liturgicus (March 10, 2017). Accessed February 2, 2019. http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/eleu/ vol2/iss1/5/.
3 Ubel, John L. “Septem Psalmi Poenitentiales History, Demise, and Rebirth of an Ascetical Tradition.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought & Culture 17, no. 4 (Fall 2014): 155–68. Accessed February 19, 2019. doi:10.1353/log.2014.0036.
4 Academic Community of St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology, Elk Grove, California. The Orthodox Study Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008. (See the notes for each individual psalm).