For the season of Lent, I thought I’d offer a look at the seven “penitential” psalms. Do you know them? 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143.
Back in the 80’s, I made a project of setting each one to music. I don’t know what came of them, aside from Psalm 32 and 51, which I used in my parishes in the 90’s. They might make a nice musical collection for someone else to tackle; I don’t know if any composer has ever attempted it.
These psalm commentaries will be limited mostly to musical, spiritual, or liturgical aspects. In other words, stuff I know somewhat well. I invite Neil, Talmida and others more familiar with scholarly aspects to chime in with any sort of input they’d like to add.
- Do not reprove me in your anger, Lord,
- nor punish me in your wrath.
- Have pity on me, Lord, for I am weak;
- heal me, Lord, for my bones are trembling.
- In utter terror is my soul– and you, Lord, how long…?
- Turn, Lord, save my life;
- in your mercy rescue me.
- For who among the dead remembers you?
- Who praises you in Sheol?
- I am wearied with sighing;
- all night long tears drench my bed;
- my couch is soaked with weeping.
- My eyes are dimmed with sorrow,
- worn out because of all my foes.
- Away from me, all who do evil!
- The Lord has heard my weeping.
- The Lord has heard my prayer;
- the Lord takes up my plea.
- My foes will be terrified and disgraced;
- all will fall back in sudden shame.
Psalm 6 is an individual lament, and one can find many echoes of it in other places in the Psalter. One of its closest sisters is the 5th penitential psalm, number 102.
It only appears only once in the Lectionary, in the Ritual Mass for Anointing of the Sick. In the Hours, once, too: the Monday Office of Readings, week I.
This psalm splits in two by the way it addresses God, starting with the second person address of God in complaint. Is God moved by the argument that the dead (or the damned) cannot praise him? Nevertheless, the audacious psalmist puts a high value on the praise of God as a bargaining chip.
Section 3 focuses inward; the psalmist occupied with weariness and sorrow. God is not mentioned explicitly, but the suffering is on clear display for the Almighty to witness. In the final verses, the psalmist, with God’s help, hopes to rout the foes who beset and trouble. Notice that God is now spoken of in the third person (Talmida probably knows if that is consistent with the Hebrew) almost in a sense of renewed confidence. The prayer is over, God will answer (or has already done so) and the psalmist turns to the persecutors.
I can see why this psalm is consigned to the fringes of the liturgy. It is intensely personal. I know I would find singing it almost embarassing, and perhaps other cantors would as well–unless or until they themselves had the experience of utter sorrow at the hands of foes only to have God turn things around for them.
How would the liturgists out there see this? As a reflection on illness and healing and our own sorrow in physical suffering? As an expression of penitence, appropriate for Lent? How would the musicians in the commentariat go about setting this text? Feel free to share some ideas.