Friday, March 7, 2014

The Penitential Psalms: No. 2 - Psalm 31/1

The second of the Seven Penitential Psalms, Psalm 31 (32), Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, is a timely reminder of why we undertake Lenten penances, namely the joy that comes when we confess our sins and have them forgiven.  It is a prayer to overcome our resistance to doing just that.

In the traditional Benedictine Office, it is the last psalm of Sunday Matins.

Psalm 31: Beati quorum remissae sunt iniquitates
Ipsi David intellectus.
To David himself, understanding
1 Beáti quorum remíssæ sunt iniquitátes: * et quorum tecta sunt peccáta.
Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.
2  Beátus vir, cui non imputávit Dóminus peccátum, * nec est in spíritu ejus dolus.
2 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord has not imputed sin, and in whose spirit there is no guile.
3  Quóniam tácui, inveteravérunt ossa mea, * dum clamárem tota die.
3 Because I was silent my bones grew old; whilst I cried out all the day long
4  Quóniam die ac nocte graváta est super me manus tua: * convérsus sum in ærúmna mea, dum confígitur spina.
4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me: I am turned in my anguish, whilst the thorn is fastened.
5  Delíctum meum cógnitum tibi feci: * et injustítiam meam non abscóndi.
5 I have acknowledged my sin to you, and my injustice I have not concealed.
6  Dixi: Confitébor advérsum me injustítiam meam Dómino: * et tu remisísti impietátem peccáti mei.
I said I will confess against my self my injustice to the Lord: and you have forgiven the wickedness of my sin.
7  Pro hac orábit ad te omnis sanctus, * in témpore opportúno.
6 For this shall every one that is holy pray to you in a seasonable time.
8  Verúmtamen in dilúvio aquárum multárum, * ad eum non approximábunt.
And yet in a flood of many waters, they shall not come near unto him.
9  Tu es refúgium meum a tribulatióne, quæ circúmdedit me: * exsultátio mea, érue me a circumdántibus me.
7 You are my refuge from the trouble which has encompassed me: my joy, deliver me from them that surround me.
10  Intelléctum tibi dabo, et ínstruam te in via hac, qua gradiéris: * firmábo super te óculos meos.
8 I will give you understanding, and I will instruct you in this way, in which you shall go: I will fix my eyes upon you.
11  Nolíte fíeri sicut equus et mulus, * quibus non est intelléctus.
9 Do not become like the horse and the mule, who have no understanding.
12  In camo et freno maxíllas eórum constrínge: * qui non appróximant ad te.
With bit and bridle bind fast their jaws, who come not near unto you.
13  Multa flagélla peccatóris, * sperántem autem in Dómino misericórdia circúmdabit.
10 Many are the scourges of the sinner, but mercy shall encompass him that hopes in the Lord
14  Lætámini in Dómino et exsultáte, justi, * et gloriámini, omnes recti corde.
11 Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, you just, and glory, all you right of heart.

Psalm 31 in the Vulgate numbering, or 32 in the Hebrew, starts with a reminder that ‘penitential’ does not mean gloom and doom!

Instead, this psalm reminds us that penitence is, paradoxically, the key to true happiness.

The main focus of this psalm is the grace of conversion, and how God brings it about in us, as its opening lines suggest:

"Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord has not imputed sin, and in whose spirit there is no guile...."


The setting for the psalm is generally accepted to be after David has confessed his sins and been punished for it through the death of his child, as described in 2 Samuel 12. That chapter tells how when the child becomes sick, David fasted and wept for seven days, imploring God to spare the child.  But when the child died despite his entreaties, David scandalized his servants by putting on his normal clothes and eating as normal again rather than mourning, since there was nothing he could then do to change the outcome. Instead he went out to worship God, and comforted his wife.

The psalm helps fill out Samuel's account by giving us some insight into King David's state of mind, taking us through several stages of the process of his conversion, including his stubborn resistance, until he at last reaches the joy that comes when he finally accepts God’s mercy, grace and guidance.  Perhaps the most graphic verses are the early ones describing the psalmist's torment before he achieves that realization however, as  Pope John Paul II commented:

"Above all, the person praying describes his very distressful state of conscience by keeping it "secret" (cf. v. 3): having committed grave offences, he did not have the courage to confess his sins to God. It was a terrible interior torment, described with very strong images. His bones waste away, as if consumed by a parching fever; thirst saps his energy and he finds himself fading, his groan constant. The sinner felt God's hand weighing upon him, aware as he was that God is not indifferent to the evil committed by his creature, since he is the guardian of justice and truth.

Unable to hold out any longer, the sinner made the decision to confess his sin with a courageous declaration that seems a prelude to that of the prodigal son in Jesus' parable (cf. Lk 15: 18)...In this way, a horizon of security, trust and peace unfolds before "every believer" who is repentant and forgiven, regardless of the trials of life (cf. Ps 32[31]: 6-7)."

Sin and punishment

The punishments we incur for sin in this life at least are rarely as horrific and direct as David's loss of a child.  Indeed, when bad things happen to us, they are not necessarily meant as punishments at all.

Still, David's example is given to us for a reason, and St John Fisher's commentary on this psalm points out that while contrition and confession are important, voluntarily doing penance to make up for the evil of what we have done is equally important.  The sacrament of confession, he points out requires that we do 'satisfaction', make amends, ideally accepting our penance with good grace.  And if the penance given is merely tokenistic, and does not 'cover' us as the psalm suggests, then we would do well to do more now, so as to avoid having to do it in purgatory later! St John argues that:  "There are many who wail, are contrite, and confess their sins, but there is scarce one in a thousand who does due satisfaction."

Lent then, is a good time to address any deficit in penance we may have to our charge.  Nor should this weigh us down: on the contrary, St John argues, doing penance expels sin and leads to the joy the psalmist eventually arrives at.

You can find the next set of notes on this psalm here.

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