CNA - Saint of the Day

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Essay 6 - Submitted Essay - A study of the structure of Psalm 51

The Psalms
“150 steps set up between life and death; 150 reflections of our rebellions and our fidelity, our agonies and our resurrections.”[1] The psalms are in essence poetic prayer, albeit prayer for a very different culture. They compose the only inspired hymnbook ever written and were used in the worship services of ancient Israel. In the same way, they have been used continuously as prayers and hymns in the Christian Church. Their language and images, however, are different from those we use today and the historical events to which they refer and along with the life situation of the composers are alien. It is not easy to identify with these prayers or to identify our own selves and our familiar world within them. Therefore, “the challenge for us is: how can we pray the psalms more fruitfully so that our prayer is not just a matter of reading words that do not come from our own hearts?”[2] In order to develop an answer to this question the message and structure of perhaps the greatest of the lament psalms, Psalm 51, which records the writer’s heart cry to God for divine deliverance from trouble and pain, will be used as a reference.
Structure & Parallelism
Perhaps the most important discovery to make concerning the psalms is that they are examples of Hebrew poetry which differs from our familiar poetry in that it doesn't rhyme. “Hebrew Poetry is the arrangement of thought and not sound”[3], and there seems to be two primary elements at work within it: parallelism and imagery. Parallelism, "first identified for modern readers by Robert Lowth in 1753"[4], is a literary feature in which the words of two or more lines of text are directly related in some way, forming “an idea unit.”[5] By restating a concept using somewhat different words, by using complementary hemistichs on a single thought or by building an idea more explicitly, parallelism forms the structural foundation of Hebrew poetry.
Psalm 51 is divided into three parts; vv1-9, vv10-17, and vv18-19 which is most likely a later addition to the main body of the psalm.[6] The primary concern of vv1-9 is sin, purity, and cleansing, while vv10-17 are more concerned with restoration and renewal of heart and spirit. This psalm is “spirit-inspired poetry”[7] in which three synonyms, “blot out”, “wash away” and “cleanse” are used to request forgiveness, and three synonyms, “transgressions”, “iniquity” and “sin” are used when David is referring to his offence. The structure of these two parts present distichs containing the above synonyms chiastically arranged about a core verse, like “two folding panels whose motifs reflect each other.”[8] The use of chiasmus, which “has been shown to be a basic element in the formal structure of biblical literature”[9], can be found on both a micro and macro level within this psalm. The macro-chiasmatic structure of both main sections of the psalm maintains their internal unity,[10] whilst the interplay of synonymous and introverted parallelism of the various verses gives the psalm its art form. For example, the first verse demonstrates introverted parallelism (micro-chiasmus), where "the lines are arranged so the 1st and 4th lines parallel and the 2nd and 3rd lines parallel"[11] after the scheme a-b-b-a. This verse is then mirrored in the ninth verse and paralleled through use of the term “blot out”. The second verse showing, in itself, synonymous parallelism is mirrored against the seventh verse and paralleled through the use of similar words like, wash, cleanse and purge. Verses three to five are chiastically arranged about the core verse of this section of the psalm, v4, where God is referred to as just and blameless. Overall the synonymous parallels are mirrored throughout the first section in an a-b to a-b structure, for example, 1b-9b, 2a-7a, 2b-7b, 3a-4b, 4a-5 and so on.. Verse six is perhaps an example of “proposition-conclusion”[12] synthetic parallelism where a realisation that God desires truth in v6a expands into a command like sentence asking God to teach David wisdom in v6b. A similar chiastic arrangement of synonymous, introverted and synthetic parallels exists within the second section of the psalm as can be seen in the appendix to this dissertation. A final synonymous parallel in v18 sets Zion in line with Jerusalem in order to indicate different aspects of the same city. This is followed by a climatic final verse where the author moves from right sacrifice to burnt offerings to whole burnt offerings to bulls being offered on the altar. It is clear to see that the many synonymous parallels used throughout the main body of the psalm “have the appearance of art and concinnity and a studied elegance;[13] demonstrating that the psalm is highly structured and not just a ‘miserere’ that was emotionally blurted out.
Old Testament Background
This psalm was written by David when the Prophet Nathan had come to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband Uriah (2 Sam 11:1- 12:15).  Of all the penitential psalms, it is perhaps the most intimate with over forty-five appearances of either the pronoun “You” or an imperative verb directed to God, plus seven uses of the term “God.””[14] Traditional expressions of God’s mercy and forgiveness, along with the presence of references to washing, to ceremonies and instruments used to remove impurity, reveal the roots of this poignant psalm. For example, vv3-4 of this psalm, echo v6 from the book of Exodus which refers to “A God of loving-kindness and mercy… extending compassion … forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin.” Verse 9 refers to the hyssop plant[15] that was used in the preparations for Passover (Ex. 12:21-23), for sprinkling lepers or  houses witnessing a spread of mold (Lev. 14:4–53) and in cases where one has had contact with the dead (Num. 19:18–19). The use of the colour white, a colour of purity and righteousness (Eccl. 9:8), is used in v7b, perhaps as a metaphor for renewal of the whole person. This use of imagery is secondary to the use of parallelism in this psalm but demonstrates another strong characteristic in the composition of Hebrew poetry. Throughout this Psalm and in 137 verses throughout all Psalms, the stress is on the heart since it is “the heart which is the centre of the Hebrew piety and religion.[16]

“Sin speaks to the sinner in the depths of their hearts” (Ps36:1) and it is this conversation between sin and sinner that gives rise to this lament of repentance. The heart experiences a heavy burden and the mind a shadow when they encounter the guilt of sin. There are four main messages presented in this psalm: a plea for forgiveness, confession of sin, an appeal for cleansing and God’s desired responses from humankind. David’s plea for forgiveness is based solely on God’s mercy and is naked of excuse or efforts of justification and loaded with honesty. In his confession of sin against God he reveals the power of his conscience that keeps his sin ever before him and clears God of any blame should punishment follow. His life has been surrounded by sin, that he has failed regularly and has separated himself from God. A future without God is not what he desires and so with nothing to offer only repentance he comes before God with one request: for complete purification from the sin that holds him captive and spiritual restoration. “You have received the grace of God. Do not let it go for nothing.” (2Cor 6:1) St Paul exhorts all to respond restorative grace and David relates three ways in which he will correspond with the grace he has received. He proposes to teach transgressors, so that other sinners may experience the same grace, to sing praises to God so that “heart speaks unto heart”[17] in a continuous dialogue of love and to offer the ultimate sacrifice of a humbled and contrite heart in an act of surrender to the point of dependence.
Christian Reading
As Christians we are urged to “Let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Col 3:16). As a school of prayer, the psalms continue to provide us with the language of prayer. Christ’s use of the psalms, together with the use of the psalms in Christian prayer down through the ages, reveals that “The entire Christ prays in this way. But it is made rather in the name of the body.”[18] It is in the psalms, that one encounters the outpouring of every human emotion and the reciprocal response of God speaking through the words of the Holy Spirit. Psalm 51 pairs up sin with pardon and shows that, "Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more." (Rom 5:20).   It also demonstrates the two roles that are present in a human person’s relationship with God; God’s role in pardoning, making wise and restoring the individual, primarily through baptism, and our role in repenting, trusting and serving. For the Christian, the role of serving is extended towards Christ present in others since through this role, we emulate the role of the Father in forgiving those “indebted to us” (Luke 11:2-4) , in teaching all nations (Mt 28:19-20) and in admonishing those who have strayed (2Tim 2:24-26). “In fact God saves us "not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour" (Ti 3:5-6).”[19]

[1] See How to read the Old Testament - Psalms - Etienne Charpentier  pp94-95
[2] See Catholic Ireland – The Psalms: Prayers for Today – James McPolin SJ
[3] See “Christ in the Psalms” – Bryan Hansen
[5] ibid
[7] See Psalms: Finding forgiveness and restoration – Ralph F Wilson
[8] See “The Psalms: strophic structure and theological commentary” - Samuel L. Terrien pp 402 - 403
[9] See “Chiasmus in Job” – Mitchell Dahood SJ p145
[10] See Restoration and its blessings: A theological analysis of psalms 51 and 32 -Jack Barentsen -
[11] See Hebrew Poetry - David Graves & Jane Graves
[12] See The-Poetic-Scriptures-Synthetic--Composite--and-Climactic-Parallelisms--Part-3
[13] See "Preliminary Dissertation," – Robert Lowth p. xxii
[14] See “Psalm 51 – How Original” – Rabbi Benjamin J. Segal
[15] See “Hyssop” – Wayne Blank
[16] See “Psalms” – David E. Graves
[17] The motto that Newman adopted for use as a cardinal, Cor ad cor loquitur traced to St. Francis de Sales

[18] See “Discourses of St. Augustine on the Psalms” Passion of the Whole Body of Christ - par1

Múlier, ecce fílius tuus, Totus Tuus! Fergal

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