Reflecting on the Psalms: The Penitential Psalm par excellenc

Among the psalms of supplication or lament, some are penitential, that is, they ask for mercy and forgiveness from sin and transgression against God.

Aug 28, 2021

By Msgr James Gnanapiragasam
Among the psalms of supplication or lament, some are penitential, that is, they ask for mercy and forgiveness from sin and transgression against God. The sinner is repentant and feels the need to be reinstated as he experiences the consequences of sin.

The psalm that stands out here is Psalm 50 (51) in which several words are used to describe the language of sin. The Hebrew word hata (Vss. 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 13) which is usually translated as ‘to sin’ literally means ‘to miss the mark or target’, ‘to go wrong’. A sinner would then be someone who has missed reaching God and the joy that flows from it.

Other words used to denote sin in Psalm 50 (51) according to the Grail translation are: ‘offence’ and ‘transgressors’(Verses 1, 3, 13) which means to infringe upon another’s rights; ‘guilt’ (Verses 2,5,9) meaning to turn aside from the right way; ‘Evil’ (Verse 4) a general word for wickedness. This rich vocabulary of sin speaks volumes about the psalmist’s physical and mental distress, the consequences of his sin.

Psalms of Supplication (2) Psalm 50 (51) Every Friday Morning Prayer

The heading in the Bible that we find at the beginning of this psalm connects it with a repentant King David after his adulterous union with Bathsheba. His subsequent scheming for the murder of her husband, Uriah, must have filled him with remorse. However, psalm headings were only added later and do not necessarily reflect the actual historical context of the psalmist.

The psalm begins with an appeal to God for his tender mercy and compassion to forgive. The psalmist is well aware of his sin. He does not deny it or run away from recognising it. He knows that it is an evil he has committed against God. He acknowledges, moreover, that he, being a human being, is prone to evil from birth (Verse 5). This does not mean that either his mother or the act of procreation is sinful. He repeats his call: ‘purify me’, ‘wash me’ so that he will be clean once again. His cry for forgiveness is intensified as he wants a pure heart and a spirit of holiness. A complete makeover! Was he also suffering from a physical disease since he prays ‘that the bones you have crushed may thrill’ (Verse 8)? It is possible.

As he bounces back, he wants to make a commitment. Sin is not only individual; it involves the community. He wants to become an apostle and teach transgressors the Lord’s ways. Thus, he realises that he has sinned against a God who is love, a God who is not interested in sacrifices and offerings. God only wants a person to accept his sinfulness in humility and contrition. The last two verses of this psalm pleading for the postexilic restoration of Jerusalem and the Temple were added later.

Christ would have prayed this psalm knowing that the community of Israel had failed. Sin is always a rebellion against the Covenant which God made with his people. Commentators suggest a connection with the parable of the Prodigal Son where words used are reminiscent of this psalm: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. The words in Verse 8 ‘that the bones will thrill’ may be translated by ‘that the bones will dance’. This reminds us of the older son coming back from the fields and hearing ‘music and dancing’ (Lk 15:25). Several times in the gospels Jesus says, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ His words constantly mirrored his compassion, ‘What I want is mercy, not sacrifice.’ Moreover, baptism is the sacrament of initiation whereby a person is purified and washed clean. All these connections help us to pray this psalm with meaning.

Psychologically, one may speak about our human condition as being prone to sin because of social, hereditary or past influences. However, we must be conscious of our belonging to a people of sinners. We have a responsibility, together as a community to denounce evil and pray for forgiveness. The psalmist puts us in the context of the prophet Ezekiel, who reported Yahweh’s words, ‘I shall pour clean water over you and you will be cleansed …I shall give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you’ (Ez 36:25ff). It is noteworthy that the Church invites us to pray this penitential psalm on Fridays, the day Christ died and the last day of our working week, to appeal to the God of love to forgive the offences we may have committed, both as individuals and as a community.

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