Saint Augustine did not number the 73rd among his seven penitential psalms.* But if he had, it wouldn’t have been a poor choice.
If you were using this psalm in a reconciliation liturgy, he given antiphon for this psalm is “It is good for me to be with the Lord.” The liturgy gives verses 1-2, 21-22a, 23-24, and 26 + 28ab, which are a representative selection of the larger piece.
This psalm leads off the third of the five books of the Psalter. Think of it as a supplement to the songs that went before. Scripture scholars view verse 1 as a “conclusion” to what follows, but it might as easily be a lead-off reminder for those who approach the living God in prayer.
As we look at the first stanzas, we can ask of ourselves: do we truly aspire to be upright, just, clean of heart, and virtuous? It is a tall order. Notice the mood as we move to verse 2, “But, as for me …” into the next stanza which skips to verse 21. The psalmist “almost” lost balance. But the singer acknowledges a deep wound within, and confesses before God. We have stumbled, but we have not fallen.
How good God is to the upright,
the Lord to those who are clean of heart!
But, as for me, I almost lost my balance;
my feet all but slipped.
Because my heart was embittered
and my soul was pierced,
I was stupid and understood not.
I hear echoes of other psalms in these stanzas that follow. Psalm 139 is thought to be a later composition, but the intimacy suggested by the third stanza–our aspiration for being in God’s presence (Psalm 84, too)–is a common theme.
Yet with you I shall always be;
you have hold of my right hand.
With your counsel you guide me,
and in the end you will receive me in glory.
As is this theme, which we also read of in Psalm 16:5:
Though my flesh and my heart waste away,
God is the rock of my heart and my portion forever.
But for me, to be near God is my good,
to make the Lord God my refuge.
The entirety of Psalm 73 would make an excellent piece for reflecting and preparing for the Sacrament of Penance. While it has the usual Jewish self-deprecation, it also portrays the just believer as having an internal streak of optimism. Yes, self-examination, healthy guilt and shame all have their place in the interior reflection of a penitent. But because Christ has triumphed, that puts the affirmation of Psalm 73 in a new light. And that new light is what forgiveness and mercy is all about.
* 6, 32, 38, 51, 91, 130, 143