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Penitential Psalms–Psalm 102: Why Penitential?
WE LEARNED what a truly penitential/repentant psalm looks like when we studied Psalm 51. This kind of psalm is rare in the Psalter. Psalm 102(101 LXX) immediately follows Psalm 51 in the list of seven traditional penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143). It bears little resemblance to Psalm 51. Why does the list include Psalm 102?
First, a careful line by line search of Psalm 102 (ESV) (Greek and Brenton English) (English NETS) reveals not a single syllable concerning sin or repentance. Words and phrases present in Psalm 51, such as “blot out my transgressions” (v 1) and “wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me thoroughly from my sin!” (v 2) simply do not occur anywhere in Psalm 102.
Second, what Psalm 102 does contain is a poetic expression of great suffering on the part of the speaker. His suffering is summed up well in the superscription given the psalm before the first verse begins, “A Prayer for the Poor; when he is deeply afflicted, and pours out his supplication before the Lord,” (Psalm 102:1 LXE). While of course this title is not part of the biblical text itself but an ancient editorial addition, the Greek word for “Poor” (πτωχός, ptoe-koes) is a word often used by Jesus in the New Testament. We find one example in the first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 5:3). Thayer describes the meaning of this word “poor” as, “destitute of wealth, influence, position, honors; lowly, afflicted,” (Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament). As explained in greater depth in a previous chapter (Penitential Psalms: A Big Mix-Up?) one possible explanation of the origin of both the word “penitential” and the list of seven psalms is the Greek “pen” word family. One of these “pen” stem words is πένητος (pen-ee-tohss). A “penitose” person is a poor person. Note the similarity to English “penitent.” “Penitose” is a synonym of “Ptoe-koes,” “poor,” which we just saw in the title above Psalm 102.
So, Psalm 102 is the speech of a poor, afflicted person who pours his heart out to the Lord. What else do we find in Psalm 102? Thirdly, we find the psalmist’s direct claim that he has enemies (v 8) who cause him pain, and further, that God himself (v 10) in “anger” and “wrath,” or “raging fury” (NET) has “lifted me up, and dashed me down,” (LXE, Septuagint in English). These last two features, both enemies causing pain and God’s wrath causing pain, are most strongly present in penitential Psalms 6, 38, and 102. Of these three, only Psalm 38 expresses sorrow for sin. Psalm 102, as mentioned in point one above, expresses neither confession nor remorse for anything.
Conclusion: Psalm 102 is “penitential” in the sense that it is the speech of a poor and needy person crying out to the Lord for help. The speaker’s suffering originates in persecution by both enemies and the Lord. There is neither acknowledgement of sin (confession) nor contrition (repentance) of any kind. The more we examine the seven so-called penitential psalms, the one item we find common to all of them is a deep humility of spirit as the psalmist addresses the Lord. To this author, it seems likely that, were we beginning fresh today, we would not begin to think of grouping these seven psalms in a cluster as our church forefathers did.
A Peek Ahead: There is much more to say about Psalm 102, such as, Who is speaking? This topic will form the content of a future post.