Question: "What are the penitential psalms?"
Answer: The book of Psalms is a collection of 150 poems, hymns, and songs originating from worship in ancient Israel. Throughout history, church fathers and Bible scholars have classified individual psalms into various categories according to their content, theme, and structure. One grouping known as the penitential psalms shares the key feature of expressing penitence—the psalmist’s sorrow over sin and spiritual failure.
There are seven penitential psalms: Psalms 6; 32; 38; 51; 102; 130; and 143. In each, the author acknowledges or confesses his trespass before the Lord and recognizes his need for God’s favor and forgiveness. The penitential psalms make fitting prayers for the repentant sinner.
From as early as the time of Origen (AD 184—253) and Augustine (AD 354—430), the penitential psalms were set apart for liturgical use in the Christian church for the confession of sin and repentance. Medieval Pope Innocent III (AD 1161—1216) ordered that the penitential psalms be recited during Lent and Holy Week. The Roman Breviary, an ancient service book of the priests of the Roman Catholic Church, provided a special place for the penitential psalms. Likewise, the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer designates the penitential psalms as appropriate for use on Ash Wednesday and in other Lenten prayer services.
The most familiar penitential psalm, Psalm 51, has been called the Sinner’s Guide. It is King David’s prayer of repentance after the prophet Nathan confronted him with his sins (2 Samuel 12). David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and covered it up by having her husband, Uriah, killed. The words of Psalm 51 pour forth from David’s darkest moment of self-awareness. He acknowledges the depth of his sin and guilt and pleads for God’s mercy. Then, gripped with confidence in God’s faithfulness, David believes his plea will be heard and answered. Psalm 32, the follow-up to this psalm, reveals that God does indeed grant David’s prayer. Besides serving as a personal prayer of confession, contrition, and restoration, Psalm 51 also gives voice to the nation of Israel in its plea for repentance and salvation.
Psalm 6, the first of the penitential psalms, reveals the author in deep affliction, weary in body and spirit, and desperately appealing to God for mercy and relief from punishment. Again, the psalmist here is David, who has been suffering from an illness. Trusting in God’s gracious reply, David closes his prayer knowing God will hear and help him.
Psalm 38 is the prayer of an individual suffering from an illness that he views as a punishment inflicted by God. The psalmist confesses his sins and asks God for forgiveness. Similarly, Psalm 102 is the lament of an individual who is sick, suffering, lonely, and threatened by his enemies. However, in this prayer, the psalmist asks for help for himself and for Jerusalem. Psalm 102 mixes personal concerns with those of the whole kingdom and includes a hymn of praise to God.
The author of Psalm 130 neither specifies the nature of his affliction nor explicitly repents of sin. But he does express awareness of his sinfulness and his need for God’s grace. The closing verses suggest that this penitential psalm is not only an individual confession but a national prayer of repentance for all of Israel.
The last of the seven penitential psalms is Psalm 143. It contains a universal acknowledgment of guilt: “Don’t put your servant on trial, for no one is innocent before you” (Psalm 143:2, NLT). But this is the only reference to sin and forgiveness in the psalm.
Repentance of one’s sins before a holy God is one of the major themes of Scripture, and the penitential psalms are perfect examples of the value of repentance and a firm reliance on the God of all grace and comfort.