The penitential psalms record expressions of personal lament and confession of sin by the psalmist.
39 min

Background

Penitential psalms are expressions of individual lament that at times include a confession of sin on the part of the psalmist. They are psalms where the author sees that his own sins have contributed to the problems that he is facing (e.g. illness, enemies, punishment, etc.) and therefore asks God to remove these as he seeks forgiveness. In the Penitential psalms where this is the case, the author readily admits that God is a God of mercy and kindness. The term "steadfast love" is often used in reference to that quality in God's nature that continues to love and bless without regard to the response from the sinner. It is the kind of love that God extends while we are separated from Him by sin, indifference or ignorance. God's steadfast love is the reason why we should come to Him with confidence, even when we are guilty of sin.

In some of the Penitential psalms the writer declares that he has to suffer in spite of his innocence, and asks God for a reprieve. In one psalm the author challenges God to curse him if he is not found to be innocent (Psalms 7:3-5, similar to Job).

The Penitential psalms usually follow a script or set format:

  1. A cry for help (healing, forgiveness, rescue).
  2. A statement of condition (about health or danger).
  3. An appeal for help renewed in specific terms (better health, destruction of enemy, cleansing).

Although some psalms see the author as an innocent victim, most Penitential psalms recognize the relationship between the sins of the author and the sufferings that he is experiencing. These psalms are appeals to a forgiving God for removal of sins and the problems attached to them.

Penitential Psalms: Examples

Psalm 6 - A cry from a sick man

1O Lord, do not rebuke me in Your anger,
Nor chasten me in Your wrath.
2Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am pining away;
Heal me, O Lord, for my bones are dismayed.
3And my soul is greatly dismayed;
But You, O Lord—how long?
4Return, O Lord, rescue my soul;
Save me because of Your lovingkindness.
5For there is no mention of You in death;
In Sheol who will give You thanks?
- Psalms 6:1-5

This psalm is a cry for help from a sick man. The expression "how long" occurs over 50 times in the Scriptures, 16 of these are in the psalms. This man sees his illness as a sign of God's displeasure with him and seeks forgiveness. He believes that he is dying and is afraid of dying with God as his enemy.

6I am weary with my sighing;
Every night I make my bed swim,
I dissolve my couch with my tears.
7My eye has wasted away with grief;
It has become old because of all my adversaries.
- Psalms 6:6-7

He describes his weakened and sickly condition, and the mournful state of his soul (depressed, fearful and sad).

8Depart from me, all you who do iniquity,
For the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping.
9The Lord has heard my supplication,
The Lord receives my prayer.
10All my enemies will be ashamed and greatly dismayed;
They shall turn back, they will suddenly be ashamed.
- Psalms 6:8-10

At some point he realizes that God has heard his prayer. He may have been asking for a sign that his prayer was heard (some kind of reassurance or healing) and now has confidence that God has not turned His back on him. The author's enemies previously rejoiced in his illness and charged him with some kind of wrongdoing as the cause. Now that he has been vindicated, however, they will be ashamed for having falsely accused him.

Psalm 143 - A prayer for deliverance from enemies

1Hear my prayer, O Lord,
Give ear to my supplications!
Answer me in Your faithfulness, in Your righteousness!
2And do not enter into judgment with Your servant,
For in Your sight no man living is righteous.
- Psalms 143:1-2

This is a psalm of David and in it we witness this great king's humble cry for help. There is an acknowledgement of unworthiness and a request for a merciful hearing despite this.

The primary lesson that this psalm teaches us is that we can always appeal to God for help, despite our failings, because His willingness to hear our prayers is not based on our righteousness. God listens to our pleadings because He is kind, merciful and willing to hear us.

3For the enemy has persecuted my soul;
He has crushed my life to the ground;
He has made me dwell in dark places, like those who have long been dead.
4Therefore my spirit is overwhelmed within me;
My heart is appalled within me.
- Psalms 143:3-4

The psalmist explains that he is surrounded by the enemy, crushed and defeated. He is discouraged, bordering on despair and his fear is about to overwhelm him. This psalm was written at a time when Saul, the first king of Israel, made many attempts to kill David in a desperate effort to thwart God's plan to remove him (Saul) as king and replace him with David.

5I remember the days of old;
I meditate on all Your doings;
I muse on the work of Your hands.
6I stretch out my hands to You;
My soul longs for You, as a parched land. Selah.
- Psalms 143:5-6

David reflects on God's previous acts of mercy. He knows that God has helped him in the past (killing bears and lions to protect his flock as well as defeating the giant, Goliath - I Samuel 17), and can do so again.

Our faith is renewed when we remember how God has helped and rescued us in the past.

7Answer me quickly, O Lord, my spirit fails;
Do not hide Your face from me,
Or I will become like those who go down to the pit.
8Let me hear Your lovingkindness in the morning;
For I trust in You;
Teach me the way in which I should walk;
For to You I lift up my soul.
9Deliver me, O Lord, from my enemies;
I take refuge in You.
10Teach me to do Your will,
For You are my God;
Let Your good Spirit lead me on level ground.
11For the sake of Your name, O Lord, revive me.
In Your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble.
12And in Your lovingkindness, cut off my enemies
And destroy all those who afflict my soul,
For I am Your servant.
- Psalms 143:7-12

Here we see David's renewed appeals for deliverance. In verses 7-8, ha asks that God's favor not be taken away from him. His is not only the fear of dying, but the fear of dying without God's favor. Verse 9 is an appeal for deliverance from physical enemies. Verse 10 is an appeal for the opportunity to serve God and obey Him. In verse 11, he makes an appeal for peace of mind and joy. Finally in verse 12, he appeals to God for the destruction of enemies.

Psalm 51 - A sinner's prayer of forgiveness

This psalm was written as a result of David's affair with Bathsheba (David seduced one of his commander's wife and tried to cover the resulting pregnancy by having her husband deliberately killed - II Samuel 11). For a year David remained unrepentant but after he was confronted by the prophet Nathan concerning his sins, he poured out his heart before God in this Penitential psalm.

1Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness;
According to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions.
2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
And cleanse me from my sin.
3For I know my transgressions,
And my sin is ever before me.
4Against You, You only, I have sinned
And done what is evil in Your sight,
So that You are justified when You speak
And blameless when You judge.
5Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.
6Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being,
And in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom.
7Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8Make me to hear joy and gladness,
Let the bones which You have broken rejoice.
9Hide Your face from my sins
And blot out all my iniquities.
- Psalms 51:1-9

This is a strong cry for forgiveness. God has continued to love David despite his sins and this is what his appeal is based on. It is God's steadfast love that gives us the hope to even come before Him in order to ask for forgiveness. It was David's attitude of humility in acknowledging his personal guilt that allowed him to come before God despite his terrible sins.

Note the synonymous ideas for forgiveness contained in this psalm:

  • Blot out transgressions - verse 1.
  • Wash me from iniquity/cleanse me from sin - verse 2.
  • Purify me - verse 7.
  • Hide Thy face from my sin - verse 9.
  • Create a clean heart - verse 10.
  • Do not cast me aside - verse 11.
  • Do not take the Holy Spirit from me - verse 11.
  • Restore my joy - verse 12.
  • Deliver me - verse 14.

Note also that verse 5 has been used by some theologians (e.g. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, 354-430 AD) to sustain the idea of "original sin," however, the Old Testament writers never speculated on the origin of sin, only on the fact that it was an ever present companion of man's nature. David acknowledges that he has been a sinner all of his life. He was a sinner and his mother, when she gave birth, was also a sinner.

In his cry for forgiveness David acknowledges that he is and has always been a sinner, and in the matter with Bathsheba is responsible for sinning grievously against God, and God is justified in judging and condemning him. David cries out to the Lord for forgiveness and cleansing because he knows that God has a gracious and forgiving nature and wants him to be pure.

10Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.,
11Do not cast me away from Your presence
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
12Restore to me the joy of Your salvation
And sustain me with a willing spirit.
- Psalms 51:10-12

Here, David states his condition and needs, the main one being a new and responsive heart that will desire to do God's will with enthusiasm (the problem in the first place). True repentance and acknowledgement of sin bring forgiveness, and forgiveness brings about this renewal and zeal to do God's will. We only hurt ourselves when we refuse to respond to God's Spirit.

13Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
And sinners will be converted to You.
14Deliver me from blood guiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation;
Then my tongue will joyfully sing of Your righteousness.
15O Lord, open my lips,
That my mouth may declare Your praise.
16For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it;
You are not pleased with burnt offering.
17The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.
- Psalms 51:13-17

The author makes resolutions for the kind of life he will lead when forgiven. He will teach other sinners about God's love and forgiveness (verse 13). He will praise God for His lovingkindness (verses 14-15). He will remain humble and obedient (verses 16-17).

18By Your favor do good to Zion;
Build the walls of Jerusalem.
19Then You will delight in righteous sacrifices,
In burnt offering and whole burnt offering;
Then young bulls will be offered on Your altar.
- Psalms 51:18-19

Verses 18-19 were added by another author at a later date as a witness to returning exiles from foreign captivity (also guilty of spiritual adultery) that God's forgiveness was made evident by their restoration and return to Jerusalem, and the rebuilding of that city.

Psalms 32 - A sinner's joy at being forgiven

In Psalms 51 David made a promise to the Lord that he would spend the rest of his life telling others of God's salvation so that sinners might be converted. This psalm gives the account of that effort and retells the story of his restoration from a more intimate perspective.

1How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven,
Whose sin is covered!
2How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity,
And in whose spirit there is no deceit!
- Psalms 32:1-2

David describes the blessedness of forgiveness. (Note the synonyms for the word forgiven: sin is covered, does not impute iniquity, there is no deceit.)

The writer proclaims that happiness is produced when there is knowledge that God has forgiven, will not condemn, has covered over to hide or excused his sins.

3When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away
Through my groaning all day long.
4For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. Selah.
5I acknowledged my sin to You, And my iniquity I did not hide;
I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the Lord";
And You forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah.
- Psalms 32:3-5

Forgiveness is not granted or obtained by excusing or concealing sin. This, the author says, only brings about more guilt and illness. David acknowledges that forgiveness does not come by stubbornly denying guilt but through an open and humble admission of our wrongdoing. God's grace covers the sins we do not know about as well as the ones we do know and struggle with, but does not excuse the ones we know about and stubbornly refuse to acknowledge or let go.

6Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to You in a time when You may be found;
Surely in a flood of great waters they will not reach him.
7You are my hiding place; You preserve me from trouble;
You surround me with songs of deliverance. Selah.
8I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go;
I will counsel you with My eye upon you.
9Do not be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding,
Whose trappings include bit and bridle to hold them in check,
Otherwise they will not come near to you.
10Many are the sorrows of the wicked,
But he who trusts in the Lord, lovingkindness shall surround him.
11Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, you righteous ones;
And shout for joy, all you who are upright in heart.
- Psalms 32:6-11

We should have confidence in prayer. God answers and protects all of those who call upon Him in prayer, but rejects those who are stubborn and refuse to come near. David illustrates the difference between these two by contrasting the person who is repentant with the one who remains unrepentant: the repentant person is teachable and comes near to God, the other (like a mule) needs to be subdued with harsher measures. Those who trust in God to forgive them will be rewarded not only with forgiveness but a renewed spirit and the accompanying joy as well, and those who do not repent will be surrounded with sorrow.

Forgiveness is a joyful thing but is only obtained through honest and humble acknowledgment of personal sin, and trust in a loving and merciful God.

Summary

Penitential psalms were a personal cry to God for help in times of illness and trouble. The authors of these kinds of psalms recognized the relationship between their own sins and the troubles that they suffered, and consequently asked for forgiveness as well as relief from their particular trials. Forgiveness for the vilest of offenses was always possible from a loving and merciful God but required sincere repentance from a humble heart in order to be received.

The Penitential psalms had a format:

  1. A cry for help.
  2. A statement explaining the problem.
  3. A renewed request for help throughout the psalm.