In this series on the penitential psalms, we've looked so far at Psalm 6 and 31. I'd love to linger longer, but in order to round this up before the Triduum, I'm just digging into a few selected verses by way of a taster, so on now to the third of the group, Psalm 37.
Psalm 37 is particularly important for us today I think, because it deals with an unfashionable consequence of sin, namely punishment.
You can find the Vulgate and English translation (as well as a sung version) of the psalm here, but here is a reminder of the words:
"Rebuke me not, O Lord, in your indignation; nor chastise me in your wrath.
For your arrows are fastened in me: and your hand has been strong upon me. There is no health in my flesh, because of your wrath: there is no peace for my bones, because of my sins. For my iniquities have gone over my head: and as a heavy burden have become heavy upon me. My sores are putrefied and corrupted, because of my foolishness. I have become miserable, and am bowed down even to the end: I walked sorrowful all the day long. For my loins are filled with illusions; and there is no health in my flesh. I am afflicted and humbled exceedingly: I roared with the groaning of my heart. Lord, all my desire is before you, and my groaning is not hidden from you.
My heart is troubled, my strength has left me, and the light of my eyes itself is not with me. My friends and my neighbours have drawn near, and stood against me. And they that were near me stood afar off: And they that sought my soul used violence. And they that sought evils to me spoke vain things, and studied deceits all the day long.
But I, as a deaf man, heard not: and as a dumb man not opening his mouth. And I became as a man that hears not: and that has no reproofs in his mouth. For in you, O Lord, have I hoped: you will hear me, O Lord my God. For I said: Lest at any time my enemies rejoice over me: and whilst my feet are moved, they speak great things against me.
For I am ready for scourges: and my sorrow is continually before me. For I will declare my iniquity: and I will think for my sin.
But my enemies live, and are stronger than I: and they that hate me wrongfully are multiplied. They that render evil for good, have detracted me, because I followed goodness.
Forsake me not, O Lord my God: do not depart from me. Attend unto my help, O Lord, the God of my salvation."
As can be seen above, Psalm 37 starts by recapitulating the first penitential psalm, Psalm 6’s plea for God not to rebuke the psalmist in his anger, or chastise him in his wrath. But whereas Psalm 6 is a plea for God to act as a physician rather than a judge, the speaker in Psalm 37 knows that he is being punished, and the psalm is actually about the willing acceptance of suffering here and now as punishment for sin.
The psalm vividly describes the sufferings of the psalmist, and deals with how to respond to the enmity of others who rejoice over his humbled state. And his main plea is for vindication in the face of his enemies.
The descriptions of the psalmist's sufferings here have strong echoes of the Book of Job, though unlike Job, King David accepts that the suffering is deserved: he did after all commit both murder and adultery! And on a number of occasions committed sins of pride and anger that incurred severe punishments on both himself and his people.
But these verses also call to mind the suffering servant sequences of Isaiah, and so the psalm can also be applied to those who undertake penance on behalf of others: when we undertake indulgenced acts and apply them to the souls in purgatory for example; to the saints who add to the treasury of merits; and above all, to our Lord.
Three levels of interpretation
Accordingly, this psalm needs to be read on three levels. First, it can be interpreted in the light of the historical situation of its author, King David, who interprets the sufferings he has undergone in his life as just punishments needed to expiate the effects of his sins, yet also longs for God’s forgiveness. As such, it can also be applied, as a second level of meaning, to the events of our own lives, and be seen as a reminder that it is better to accept God’s correction in the form of the events of our life, and do penance now, than to suffer in purgatory. Thirdly though, many of the Fathers and saints interpreted it as a prayer of Christ for the Church: it chronicles Our Lord’s betrayal and suffering to expiate the sins of us all. As such, it can act as a prompt for us to do penance on behalf of others.
Some modern exegetes have questioned the assignment of the psalm to David’s authorship, noting that the picture the psalm paints of a man close to death as a result of a serious illness has no obvious location in his life. However, the traditional approach to this psalm, supported by analysis of the Hebrew, is to interpret the descriptions in the first half of the psalm rather more figuratively than literally (the illustration above depicting David pierced by arrows from God in verse 2, notwithstanding), an approach certainly suggested by the references to God’s arrows in verse 2 which are clearly meant metaphorically rather than literally. The descriptions, then, are seen as references to the terrible events of David's life such as the death of his son by Bathsheba, the dishonour of his daughter, the death of his son Absalom, the plague that afflicted Israel as a result of David’s decision to take a census of Israel out of pride and without requiring the prescribed offering to the holy places, and so forth. Thus, the psalmists festering sores and putrefaction then, are spiritual sores hidden from others, but all too visible to God; the humiliations he suffered though, all too visible to his enemies.
As a prayer of Christ for the Church
The Christological explanation of the psalm views the verses about the speaker’s afflicted and troubled state, and sense of weakness, as concerning the Agony in the Garden. The statement that friends and neighbours stood against him, as references to Our Lord’s betrayal and then the flight of the Apostles; and the descriptions of false testimony and plotting against him as the attempts of the Jewish leaders to fabricate a case against Our Lord. Above all though, the verses dealing with the speaker’s response to the attacks on him: his becoming deaf and dumb as a prophesy of Our Lord’s refusal to offer a defense before Herod and Caiaphas, and his subsequent scourging.
And continue on for a look at some of the verses of this psalm, with the next part here.
*Belles Heures of Jean de France, duc de Berry, 1405–1408/9. Herman, Paul, and Jean de Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France by 1399–1416). French; Made in Paris. Ink, tempera, and gold leaf on vellum; 9 3/8 x 6 5/8 in. (23.8 x 16.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1).