This is the last of Saint Augustine’s classic seven penitential Psalms. (The others are 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, and 130.) The psalmist speaks of the pursuit of enemies, and perhaps we think of our chief enemy, the devil, in pondering who or what is out to seduce us away from virtue.
The other aspect that strikes me is the very serious life-and-death struggle portrayed for the reader or singer here. Sin is certainly a life/death matter, especially serious sin. So perhaps this psalm is better saved for form I as a reflection or assist for examining one’s conscience. If a confessor feels the need for just one passage of Scripture, perhaps this is a good one.
The antiphon on the assembly’s lips is this:
Teach me to do your will, my God.
And from there, persecution:
LORD, hear my prayer;
in your faithfulness listen to my pleading;
answer me in your righteousness.
Do not enter into judgment with your servant;
before you no one can be just.
The enemy has pursued my soul;
he has crushed my life to the ground.
He has made me dwell in darkness
like those long dead.
The psalmist is well-acquainted with how discouraging sin can be, either serious or those annoying repeated offenses from which we can never quite emerge:
My spirit is faint within me;
my heart despairs.
We have seen memory as a theme for reconciliation, especially in the Jewish Scriptures, and we get it here:
I remember the days of old;
I ponder all your deeds;
the works of your hands I recall.
These stanzas remind me of Psalm 63, not a penitential psalm, but one that elegantly expresses a bodily longing for God. We are made as corporeal beings, as well as people with minds. In our most gutted moments, perhaps we do well not to think our way out of trouble, butrather, get in touch with our deeper hungers, especially the desire and impulse toward God:
I stretch out my hands toward you,
my soul to you like a parched land.
Hasten to answer me, LORD;
for my spirit fails me.
Do not hide your face from me,
lest I become like those descending to the pit.
In the morning let me hear of your mercy,
for in you I trust.
Show me the path I should walk,
for I entrust my life to you.
Rescue me, LORD, from my foes,
for I seek refuge in you.
The psalmist does give a balance of attention between body and mind:
Teach me to do your will,
for you are my God.
May your kind spirit guide me
on ground that is level.
For your name’s sake, LORD, give me life;
in your righteousness lead my soul out of distress.
In your mercy put an end to my foes;
all those who are oppressing my soul,
for I am your servant.
This text is not often set to music. I don’t recall a version in any Catholic hymnal–perhaps a few of you readers are aware of one. Would you be surprised to learn it doesn’t appear at all in the Lectionary for Mass, not even for weekday readings? That seems to me to be something of a loss.
If you have a sense of an adversary in your life of virtue, and feel deep in your gut the reality of life as a flawed human being seeking God, then perhaps this psalm is rich enough for your reflection.