The Seven Penitential Psalms


 

Saint Peter in Penitence by El Greco

St. Peter in Penitence, El Greco, (ca. 1580)

We are currently celebrating the church season of Lent, a 40-day period before Easter when Christians reflect upon the passion and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who was crucified and died as atonement for our sins, setting believers free from sin and death. Easter celebrates Christ’s resurrection from the dead and the promise of eternal life for His believers.  Penitence, a solemn contemplation of one’s sins and request for God’s forgiveness, is foundational to Lent.

One Lenten discipline that I recommend is the prayerful reading of the Seven Penitential Psalms—Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143. These psalms (prayers) are generally attributed to David.  Psalm 51 is probably the most widely read of the seven. In Anglican and Catholic traditions, it is often recited by congregations on Ash Wednesday and at other times during the Lenten season.

Christian tradition suggests several possible reasons behind the writing of these psalms. Probably the most widely accepted explanation is they were King David’s prayers of repentance for his sins against Uriah and Uriah’s beautiful wife Bathsheba. David’s sinful lust for Bathsheba drove him to conspire to have Uriah killed in battle. With Uriah out of the way, David took Bathsheba for his wife.  She conceived and bore a baby son, but the child died shortly after birth.  Recalling the words of condemnation delivered to him by the prophet Nathan regarding David’s sin with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12: 4-7), David believed the baby’s death was God’s punishment for his transgressions. Nathan said to David:

“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”  Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! (NIV)

Another Christian tradition associate’s the Seven Penitential Psalms with the Seven Deadly Sins. We first encounter the Seven Deadly Sins in the writings of Pope Gregory I around the year 600.  The sins are pride, greed, lust, wrath, gluttony, envy, and sloth.

The writings of  French Roman Catholic theologian Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly (1351-1420) associates certain spiritual virtues with the Seven Penitential Psalms: Psalm 6, fear of punishment; Psalm32, sorrow and confession for sin; Psalm 38, hope;  Psalm 51, love of purity and mercy; Psalm102, longing for heaven, Psalm 130, distrust of one’s own strength and hope for mercy; and Psalm 143: joy.

During this year’s season of Lent, I’ve committed to prayerfully reading the Seven Penitential Psalms daily as part of my morning devotion.  It has been a deep spiritual experience, one that I plan to make part of my future Lenten discipline.  I encourage readers to give this a try.  You can find the Seven Penitential Psalms online at the following URL:

http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year/lent/seven-penitential-psalms-songs-of-suffering-servant.cfm

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