The word penitential means "expressing repentance or remorse." The penitential psalms are seven specific psalms that convey repentance. These psalms fall into a larger category called psalms of lament. Other types of psalms include psalms of praise, psalms of wisdom, psalms of thanksgiving, and the royal psalms. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354—430) identified four psalms as penitential psalms, but it is Cassiodorus's list of seven "Psalms of Confession" in his work Exposition of the Psalms in the AD 500s that we use today when referencing the penitential psalms. Those psalms are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. These psalms are traditionally used for reflection and repentance during the season of Lent, and Psalm 130 is often read at funerals.
The penitential psalms all tend to follow a similar structure. They begin with a general cry for help, healing, or mercy. The psalmist then states the reality of the condition in which he finds himself. Finally, the psalm closes with an appeal for specific help. This pattern becomes apparent when we compare perhaps the best-known Penitential Psalm, Psalm 51, with Psalms 38 and 143.
These psalms all begin with a cry for help. Psalm 38:1 reads, "O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath!" Psalm 51 opens, "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions." And Psalm 143 begins, "Hear my prayer, O LORD; give ear to my pleas for mercy! In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness!"
Then each psalm progresses to stating the psalmist's current condition, often recognizing his sinful state as well as the painful consequences of that sin. Psalm 38:4–5 says, "For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. My wounds stink and fester because of my foolishness." Psalm 51:3 says, "For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me." Psalm 143:2–3 states, "Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you. For the enemy has pursued my soul; he has crushed my life to the ground; he has made me sit in darkness like those long dead." In each psalm, the author presents a different problem—wounds, a guilty conscience, and an enemy's pursuit—but the writer brings his current condition before the Lord, humbly recognizing his own unrighteousness in relation to his circumstances.
Finally they all end with an appeal to God for specific help. Psalm 38 concludes, "Do not forsake me, O LORD! O my God, be not far from me! Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation!" (Psalm 38:21–22). Psalm 51 closes with an appeal for God to "Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar" (Psalm 51:18–19). And Psalm 143 ends, "For your name's sake, O LORD, preserve my life! In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble! And in your steadfast love you will cut off my enemies, and you will destroy all the adversaries of my soul, for I am your servant" (Psalm 143:11–12). While each psalm closes with a different plea, they are all pleas for specific help from God.
It is important to note that the reason the psalmists (David in these three cases) approach God confidently in their repentance is because of God's character and not due to their own supposed worthiness. Psalm 51 begs for God's mercy and forgiveness "according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy" (Psalm 51:1). Psalm 143 references God's "faithfulness" (143:1), "righteousness" (143:1, 11), and "steadfast love" (143:12). So these authors appeal to God's character for forgiveness and mercy and not to their own attempts at goodness.
Repentance is an act of faith as evidenced in Psalm 38 when the psalmist cries, "But for you, O LORD, do I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer" (Psalm 38:15). Because God is "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Exodus 34:6), we can trust that "if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). The Penitential Psalm 32 states simply, "I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,' and you forgave the iniquity of my sin" (Psalm 32:5b).
Some have suggested a progression in the seven penitential psalms. They argue that Psalm 6 expresses a fear of punishment; Psalm 32 shows sorrow for sin; Psalm 38 demonstrates a movement to hope, a reoccurrence of fear, and a return to hope; Psalm 51 articulates a love for purity; Psalm 102 conveys a longing for heaven; Psalm 130 demonstrates a distrust of one's own strength; and finally Psalm 143 ends this progression of remorse with joy.
Whether studied together or alone, each of these penitential psalms provides an example of how to come before God in repentance. They encourage the reader to cry to God for help, recognize one's own sinful state, and trust in God's character for forgiveness. Of course, God's loving character is nowhere better revealed than in His sending His own Son, Jesus, to act as a sacrifice on our behalf. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God" (John 3:16–18).
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