The Penitential Psalms and pastoral preaching
SALVAGING THE SEVEN
My personal discovery of the Penitential Psalms, reminds me of the paradigm shift captured in Seamus Heaney’s poem Station Island XI:
to salvage everything, to re-envisage
the zenith and glimpsed jewels of any gift
mistakenly abased . . .
Here, we first lament the decline of the Penitential Psalms from their zenith in worship and pastoral practice. We then explore how these seven psalms are jewels for pastoral preaching today. By reading these psalms through a Davidic lens we recover some of the rich language appropriate to describe the human condition and our response to it. We then explore the simple prayerful trust, these psalms model as a gift, in their response to the complexities and perplexities of the life of faith.
THE ZENITH OF THE PENITENTIAL PSALMS
For over one thousand years the Penitential Psalms lay at the heart of Western Christian worship. It is difficult for us to conceive just how popular these seven psalms once were. Their ubiquity was matched by a firm conviction as to their unity, despite their being scattered throughout the Psalter as Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143. Their origin as a sevenfold group is often attributed to Augustine (354–430) but the earliest extant work that explores them as a collection is by Cassiodorus (c.490–c.583). His Exposition of the Psalms is a systematic commentary on the psalms, and it celebrates each of our psalms as one of the seven Penitential Psalms. In contrast, recent psalms scholarship has tended to divide them into various genres, and this might be one reason why they have long lost their privileged place in devotional and pastoral practice.
Another likely contribution to their abasement is the modern neglect of intertextual reading of the Bible, especially in critical scholarship. Such scholarship has also cast doubt on the antiquity of the psalm headings, often excluding them from any interpretive role. It is the superscription, or heading, of Psalm 51 that was key to the unified reading of these psalms for over a millennium. This approach to the seven psalms centred on reading them in the light of David’s penitence following his twin sins of adultery and murder, captured so succinctly at the head of Psalm 51:
For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.
Psalm 51 superscription, NRSV
In this way, Psalm 51 was read as David’s heartfelt penitence, prompted by Nathan’s brave prophetic confrontation in 2 Samuel 12. The beautiful words of this psalm were celebrated as David’s, the model penitent’s, response to God of both contrition and compunction.
THE GIFT OF PENITENTIAL VOCABULARY
Not so long ago, words such as contrition and compunction were part and parcel of everyday language, both within and without the Church. Today such rich language concerning sin and frailty is less often heard. Even words central to historical Christianity, such as penance, penitence and repentance sound dated now because of their eclipse by other concepts and priorities. There are undoubtedly rich and complex reasons for this loss of vocabulary. One is an oversimplification of the problem of sin, and our at-one-ment made possible in Christ. Once rich theological doctrines, such as sola fide, have been remade as taglines, and this leads to the perception of the work of Christ as mechanical and instantaneous. The Penitential Psalms are a gift, reminding us of the need for sincerity and a serious acknowledgement of our frailty before God. Penance as a Catholic doctrine emphasises a physical practice to mirror internal sincerity of penitence or contrition. Whilst Protestants may be wary of such a doctrine there is profound value in a tangible human response to God’s gracious forgiveness.
THE PLOT THICKENS
The opening verses of Psalm 51, in the NRSV, refer to transgressions (vv.1,3), iniquity (v.2) and sin (vv.2,3). The Hebrew words translated here mean respectively: a rebellion against one in authority, a wayward straying from the path and not meeting expectation by missing a target. That our frailty, as well as David’s, can be described so richly, challenges our tendency to use all three words as synonyms in the narrow sense of breaking a rule or command. Salvaging this vocabulary, via Psalm 51, is already a step in the right direction.
An intertextual broadening of David’s story provides additional richness. This does not mean championing King David’s authorship of the psalms, but simply recognising that their Davidic nature is indelibly part of the received Psalter. If Psalm 51 captures David’s words of contrition, then Psalm 38 provides insight into the full complexity of human brokenness. For here we see David grappling with a hodgepodge morass of woes. We are left wondering whether he is conflating physical and/or spiritual illness with guilt. The apparent simplicity of Psalm 51 is absent. Psalm 6, like Psalm 38, adds thickness to David’s plight as the model penitent. Psalm 32 has the same depth, but is written from the perspective of thanksgiving after resolution and deliverance from the conditions described in Psalms 6 and 38.
Some readers might be troubled that Psalms 6 and 32 seem to perceive sin and illness as cause and effect. Of course, the Book of Job warns against the systematic reading of illness and suffering as evidence of sin. Nevertheless, Job’s wisdom does not preclude the unsystematic but real conflation of our moral failings, physical illness, psychological wellbeing, and relationship with our creator. It is precisely this complexity of the human condition—in which we struggle to discern cause and effect in a scientific sense—that makes the psalmist’s choice to trust God wise. The Penitential Psalms prescribe a prayerful medicine enabling varied doses of repentance, petition, and complaint to suit our context as modern psalmists. Psalm 51 might be purely and uniquely penitential, and offers us something special, but in the other six Penitential Psalm there exists a messy mixture of articulated need. Indeed, so rich are The Seven that they question their very designation as penitential. Or perhaps we need to re-envisage the far-reaching holistic nature of penitence.
A key strength of reading The Seven in this way is their coherence with a thick and honest understanding of the life of faith, so vital to spiritual maturity and genuine transformation. The trust and faith explicit in these psalms, and implicit in the Psalter, is a soothing pastoral balm in an age of profound cynicism.
LIKE A BIRD ON A WIRE
The honest nuance and complexity of the life of faith is found throughout Psalm 102. Here the psalmist laments an acute loneliness using three bird-based metaphors (vv.6–7). Whilst the characteristic trust of the psalmist is evident, this is far from a description of a straightforward life of blessing. The psalmist knows distress (vv.2,5), experiences either physical or metaphorical illness (vv.3,5), has an eating disorder (v.4), and perceives God’s rejection (v.10), all in addition to their loneliness.
Whilst we might have expected David to be a moral exemplar, we instead find a sinner and a penitent par excellence. The heading of Psalm 102 encourages us to read it additionally as the words of an anonymous afflicted and weak individual. Such an approach smooths the interpretive slide to making these words our own cries, and those of our fellow worshippers. Whilst Scripture does provide occasional moral exemplars, more often, as here in these psalms, a realistic humility and dependence on God is the picture of the complex reality of the life of faith.
The Penitential Psalms, and others, cohere with pastoral realism, our experience that despite the brave faces we wear as Christians, ‘the full griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions’, as Calvin puts it, are part of the life of faith.
THE CURE OF SOULS
We might have expected, given their name, that the Penitential Psalms would provide a rather thin diagnosis of the human condition. This is not the case. Rather, they collectively deal with the intertwined inchoate woes that afflict us all from time-to-time. Preaching these psalms offers pastoral honesty as illness, depression, loneliness, and the like, are recognised and lamented. Proclaiming the language of these psalms offers a growing pastoral empathy as the human condition is laid bare. Their polyvalence, or plasticity, enables their words to be directly appropriated, as well as enabling a generative broadening of our vocabulary for prayer. In short, preaching these psalms can be a gracious rich gift for the cure of souls.
John Calvin, Psalms Commentary Volume 1, James N. Anderson (translator), 1845.
Seamus Heaney, Station Island, Faber and Faber, 2001.
Mark J. Whiting, The Penitential Psalms Today, Grove Books, 2022.
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