Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Introduction to the Seven Penitential Psalms

Today, I want to start my Lenten series on the seven penitential psalms with a general introduction to this set of psalms.

Penance and Lent

St John Fisher's Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms opens with a discussion of the example of King David, and points out that there are three different ways God deals with sinners:

"There are some sinners, who continue in their wretchedness till they die, and those almighty God punishes in hell's eternal pains, whose ministers are the devils.  There are other sinners who have begun to be penitent before their death and to amend their lives, and these almighty God punishes in the pains of purgatory, which have an end and whose ministers are his angels.  Thirdly, there are still other sinners who, by grace in this life, have so punished themselves by penance for their offences that they have made sufficient repayment for them.  And these almighty God accepts in his infinite mercy." (Ignatius Press edition, pp9-10)

David, he suggests, was one of this last group: knowing that he had grievously offended God, he asked mercy of him and through the composition of psalms such as Psalm 6 and 50, "attained great contrition and sorrow of soul, by which he obtained forgiveness."

We too should use these psalms to excite that same deep sense of contrition.

Our aim must firstly be to make a good confession of our sins this Lent, and cease sinning.

Secondly, by this act of penance, we must hope to go some way to wiping out the awful punishments we would otherwise face in purgatory which are traditionally thought to be no less than the pains of hell, but better than them in that they have an end point!

And thirdly, as an act of charity, we can, of course, also offer our efforts for others, whether for the conversion of the living, and other needs, or for the faithful dead in purgatory.

The Seven Penitential Psalms

The Penitential Psalms were traditionally prayed communally each day during Lent - indeed, Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) ordered them to be prayed at this time.

You can find them with the antiphon normally used in most missals, or in the Monastic Diurnal.

The origins of the list though are obscure.

St Augustine certainly refers to four of these psalms as a grouping, but the first surviving complete listing of the penitential psalms - Psalm 6, Psalm 31 (32), 37 (38), 50 (51), 101 (102), 129 (130) and 142 (143) - comes from Cassiodorus, a sixth century contemporary of St Benedict.  Yet Cassiodorus seems to take it as an already existing grouping rather than something that he is specifically proposing.

The Psalms and their significance

Because the penitential psalms have a long devotional tradition, their number is often given some significance.  Cassiodorus, for example, suggests that the number aligns with the number of paths to forgiveness of sins:

" Do not believe that there is no significance in this aggregate of seven, because our forebears said that our sins could be forgiven in seven ways: first by baptism, second by suffering martyrdom, third by almsgiving, fourth by forgiving the sins of our brethren, fifth by diverting a sinner from the error of his ways, sixth by abundance of charity, and seventh by repentance."

Another common idea has been to view each psalm as countering one of the seven deadly sins: Psalm 6 is the counter to pride; Psalm 31 against avarice; Psalm 37 against anger; Psalm 50 is a defense against lust; Psalm 101 against gluttony; Psalm 129 against envy; and Psalm 142 as a counter to sloth.

Personally I see them more as tracing the path we travel individually in having our sins forgiven and expiated, through contrition, confession and so forth.  But I don't think there is just one way to view them, and there are many layers of meaning in each of them to meditate on.

King David

I mentioned above that St John Fisher starts his exposition of the Penitential Psalms with a reflection on the life of King David, and rereading his story in Scripture (I Samuel 16 onwards), is, I think, a very useful starting point, for he is named of the author of the first four and the last of the penitential psalms.

 David is recognised as a saint by the Church, but you would have to say his life does not follow the typical pattern of conversion and then advancement in holiness.  In fact in some respects he seems to have enjoyed more graces and holiness as a youth and young man than when he was older.

As a teenager his merits were recognised both by God, who had the prophet Samuel anoint him as a future king at a time when he was just the youngest of nine sons, and employed as a shepherd.  King Saul employed him for his ability to soothe away the ill-humour and demons that tormented him.  And of course God gave him other special graces and knowledge, reflected in his spectacular defeat of the Philistine champion Goliath.

After he had been crowned king and enjoyed happiness, he became discontented and proud.  He committed adultery with one of his officer's wives, and compounded the sin by arranging for her husband to be killed.

Yet unlike so many others who fall into sin, David repented wholeheartedly once confronted with his sin.  Moreover, not least by writing these psalms has surely brought many other souls into heaven.

He did, however, suffer along the way.  He was punished by the loss of the child Bathsheba was carrying by him.  And over and over  in these psalms David acknowledges that he has sinned grievously, that he deserves punishment, and chronicles his penances.

David knows that he deserves eternal punishment for what he has done.  Instead though, he pleads with God to deal with him mercifully, and accept the punishment he bears now, and the penance he is doing in this life, so as to spare him from the pains of purgatory or worse.

Let us fervently make that prayer our own.

The next part in this series looks at Psalm 6.


  1. I wish I had discovered this blog, and these posts, at the start of Lent, instead of right after it!

    Were the Penitential Psalms traditionally to be prayed along with a particular Hour, or at any time of day?

  2. Never mind David, there is always next year!

    The penitential psalms can be said at any time but obviously fit best at penitential times (Advent , Lent, Fridays). When said in choir, they were, as I understand it, typically said before Matins.