Yesterday I made some general comments about Psalm 50; today a look at its structure and major themes.
Pope John Paul II devoted four separate General Audiences to this psalm. I’m largely going to draw on them in this overview of the structure and key themes of the psalm, mixing and matching from the following:
- the first Audience, on 21 October 2001 provided a general overview of the psalm;
- on 8 May 2002 the Pope looked at the first half of the psalm;
- the Audience of 4 December 2002 looked at the verses on forgiveness; and
- the final Audience of July 2003 looked at the concluding verses.
The Pope suggested, following the tradition, that the psalm basically falls into two parts, or ‘horizons’:
“Psalm 50 (51) outlines two horizons. First, there is the dark region of sin (cf. vv. 3-11) in which man is placed from the beginning of his existence: "Behold in guilt I was born, a sinner was I conceived" (v. 7)...The first part of the Psalm appears to be an analysis of sin, taking place before God…the second spiritual part of the psalm, the luminous realm of grace (cf. vv. 12-19). By the confession of sins, for the person who prays there opens an horizon of light where God is at work. The Lord does not just act negatively, eliminating sin, but recreates sinful humanity by means of his life-giving Spirit: he places in the human person a new and pure "heart", namely, a renewed conscience, and opens to him the possibility of a limpid faith and worship pleasing to God…”
Within these two horizons, there are several key themes and theological concepts that the psalm points to that deserve to be highlighted.
Sin and its nature
The first the psalm points to the importance of recovering a sense of sin, something so much lacking in our time:
“There is above all a lively sense of sin, seen as a free choice, with a negative connotation on the moral and theological level: "Against you, you alone, have I sinned, I have done what is evil in your sight" (v. 6).
King David alludes to our inheritance of original sin: “For behold I was conceived in iniquities; and in sins did my mother conceive me”. But he also explores the dimensions of personal sin, using three different terms to capture its dimensions:
“Three Hebrew terms are used to define this sad reality, which comes from the evil use of human freedom. The first term, hattá, literally means "falling short of the target": sin is an aberration which leads us far from God, the fundamental goal of our relations, and, consequently, also from our neighbour. The second Hebrew term is "awôn, which takes us back to the image of "twisting" or of "curving". Sin is a tortuous deviation from the straight path; it is an inversion, a distortion, deformation of good and of evil; in the sense declared by Isaiah: "Woe to those who call good evil and evil good, who change darkness into light and light into darkness" (Is 5,20). Certainly, for this reason in the Bible conversion is indicated as a "return" (in Hebrew shûb) to the right way, correcting one's course. The third term the psalmist uses to speak of sin is peshá. It expresses the rebellion of the subject toward his sovereign and therefore an open challenge addressed to God and to his plan for human history.”
He also draws out the broader implications of sin:
“In the confession of the Miserere there is a noteworthy emphasis: the sin is described not only in its personal and "psychological" dimension but above all what is described is the theological reality. "Against you, against you alone have I sinned" (Ps 50,6) exclaims the sinner…Sin is not just a psychological and social matter, but an event that corrodes the relationship with God, violating his law, refusing his plan in history and overturning his set of values, "putting darkness for light and light for darkness", in other words, "calling evil good and good evil" (cf. Is 5,20). Before finally injuring man, sin is first and foremost a betrayal of God.”
Conversion and renewal
But the real force of this psalm surely comes from its testimony to the contrasting possibility of conversion and renewal from even the gravest of sins: “You shall sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed: you shall wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow. To my hearing you shall give joy and gladness: and the bones that have been humbled shall rejoice.”
I have to admit that my personal favourite verse is that strident demand for joy: Redde mihi lætítiam salutáris tui: et spíritu principáli confírma me, or ‘Give me back the joy of your salvation and strengthen me with a noble spirit’.
Grace through the Holy Spirit
Pope John Paul II points to the allusions to the Holy Spirit in the psalm read in the light of the New Testament:
“The movements of grace through the Holy Spirit: in the original Hebrew the word "spirit" is repeated three times, invoked of God as a gift and received by the human creature who has repented of his sin: "Renew in me a steadfast spirit.... Do not deprive me of your holy spirit.... Sustain in me a generous spirit" (vv. 12.13.14). One could say, taking recourse to a liturgical term, that it is an "epiclesis", that is, a triple invocation of the Spirit who, as in creation hovered over the waters (cf. Gn 1,2), now penetrates the soul of the faithful, infusing it with new life and raising it from the kingdom of sin to the heaven of grace.”
The mediation of Christ and his Church
|Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, |
Folio 49v, Musée Condé
The last two verses, praying for the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem, and the restoration of animal sacrifices, are almost certainly later additions (for those who worry about such things, the old Pontifical Biblical Commission ruled this an acceptable opinion). Pope John Paul II commented:
“The person who completed the Psalm had a valid intuition: he grasped the needy state of sinners, their need for sacrificial mediation. Sinners cannot purify themselves on their own; good intentions are not enough. An effective external mediation is required. The New Testament was to reveal the full significance of this insight, showing that Christ, in giving his life, achieved a perfect sacrificial mediation.”
He pointed to St Gregory the Great’s interpretation of the verse about the offering of a contrite heart as the proper sacrifice to God as speaking of the earthly life of the Church. The verse on burnt offerings, as of the Church in heaven. He ended his Audiences with the relevant section from St Gregory, and it is indeed a fitting place to conclude this brief overview:
"Holy Church has two lives: one that she lives in time, the other that she receives eternally; one with which she struggles on earth, the other that is rewarded in heaven; one with which she accumulates merits, the other that henceforth enjoys the merits earned. And in both these lives she offers a sacrifice: here below, the sacrifice of compunction, and in heaven above, the sacrifice of praise. Of the former sacrifice it is said: "The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit' (Ps 51: 19); of the latter it is written: "Then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and in whole burnt offerings' (Ps 51: 21).... In both, flesh is offered, since the sacrifice of the flesh is the mortification of the body, up above; the sacrifice of the flesh is the glory of the resurrection in praise to God. In heaven, flesh will be offered as a burnt holocaust when it is transformed into eternal incorruptibility, and there will be no more conflict for us and nothing that is mortal, for our flesh will endure in everlasting praise, all on fire with love for him" (Omelie su Ezechiele/2, Rome 1993, p. 271).”
Tomorrow, on to the fifth penitential psalm, Psalm 101 (102).