A Penitential Psalm

From at least the writings of St. Augustine, Christians have identified certain Psalms as “penitential psalms.”  Since the 6th century, seven psalms have been classified as penitential psalms:

Psalm 6
Psalm 32
Psalm 38
Psalm 51
Psalm 102
Psalm 130
Psalm 143

Penitential psalms acknowledge either personal or collective sin.  They lament the consequences of the sin.  They pray for God’s healing and restoration. However, Psalm 6, the first of the penitential Psalms, does not actually offer a word of confession or repentance.

It begins with a petition that God not rebuke or discipline harshly.  This initial statement about God’s wrath is what places Psalm 6 within the group of penitential psalms. Clearly the Psalmist was experiencing distress.  If we take the distress literally, it’s physical distress: bones ache (Psalm 6:2), death may be imminent (Psalm 6:5), tears and fatigue are felt (Psalm 6:7).  These symptoms may also be metaphors of the experience of sin.  The Psalmist understood circumstances of suffering to derive from God’s judgment.  While I do not believe God sends physical illness as a punishment for sin, I do believe that sin has consequences–often physical consequences.  I also know that suffering can reorient people to focus on God.  The journey of repentance does indeed begin as the penitent move God back to the center of their lives.

The psalm resolves with a word about evil doers.  One could imagine that David–as he suffered some sort of illness–might have experienced treacherous people circling him in his weakness.  They might have waited like vultures for his life to fail so that they could swoop in and feast on the carcasses.  As healing–whether it was physical or spiritual or both–took place, the Psalmist finds the strength to rebuke them.  If penitence begins with putting God in the center of one’s life and intentionally spending time with God, the next step may be for the penitent to disassociate with people who contribute to sins.  Some people are simply toxic and repentance often requires getting away from them.

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