NAVIGATING THE FAITH:
THE SEVEN PENITENTIAL PSALMS
These are psalms of lament, living words to help us pray honestly, giving expression to our deepest feelings. Psalm 6 reads, “Do not reprove me in Your anger, Lord, do not punish me in Your wrath. Have pity on me, Lord for my bones are shuddering.” There is a poignancy throughout the psalms which correlate sin to physical and emotional anguish.
As you read and pray with the Psalms, it is important to know the author’s beliefs at the time. For the Jewish psalmist, these are open and honest expressions of pain in the context of faith. As Christians, the Penitential Psalms remind us that our response to sin must be trust in God’s love, confession and repentance.
I invite you to pray with these Penitential Psalms during Lent. There are seven, making it easy to pray one each week. Below you will find a short explanation of each of the psalms along with a reflection question.
Psalm 6: Prayer in Distress
The psalmist does not claim innocence, but appeals to God’s mercy. Sin here, as often in the Bible, is both the sinful act and its harmful consequences; it is physical sickness and attacks of enemies. The psalmist prays that the effects of personal and social sin be taken away.
Reflection: Which of your sins cause you to “shudder”? Consider its long-reaching consequences (family, community, etc). Ask God to be merciful as you face this sin.
Psalm 32: Remission of Sin
The opening declaration – the forgiven are blessed – arises from the psalmist’s own experience. At one time the psalmist was stubborn and closed, a victim of sin’s power, and then became open to the forgiving God. Sin here is not only the personal act of rebellion against God, but also the consequences of that act – frustration and waning of vitality. Having been rescued, the psalmist can teach others the joys of justice and the folly of sin.
Reflection: Is there a sin which “withers your strength?” Talk to God about this and beg His forgiveness.
Psalm 38: Prayer of an Afflicted Sinner
In this lament, the psalmist acknowledges the sin that has brought physical and mental sickness and social ostracism. There is no one to turn to for help; only God can undo the past and restore the psalmist.
Reflection: Which sin makes you physical feel “stooped and deeply bowed?” Ask the Lord to help you stand upright.
Psalm 51: The Miserere: Prayer of Repentance
This lament prays for the removal of the personal and social disorders that sin has brought. The poem has two parts. The first part asks for deliverance from sin, not just a past act but its emotional, physical and social consequences. The second part seeks something more profound than wiping the slate clean: nearness to God, living by the spirit of God.
Reflection: When do you offer a “sacrifice” to God but your heart is not contrite? Speak about this in Confession.
Psalm 102: Prayer in Time of Distress
The psalmist, experiencing psychological and bodily disintegration, cries out to God. In the temple precincts where God has promised to be present, the psalmist recalls God’s venerable promises to save the poor.
Reflection: Remember a time when your heart felt “withered, dried up and wasted.” Talk to God about this. Listen for His mercy.
Psalm 130: Prayer for Pardon and Mercy
This lament is used in liturgical prayers for the faithful departed. In deep sorrow the psalmist cried to God, asking for mercy. The psalmist’s trust becomes a model for the people.
Reflection: Is there something in your life that you need to “cry out” to the Lord? What emotions come forth as you think about this? Hang out with Jesus and listen to what he says to you.
Psalm 143: A Prayer for Distress
This lament is a prayer to be freed from death-dealing enemies. The psalmist addressed God, aware that there is no equality between God and human beings; salvation is a gift. Victimized by evil people, the psalmist remembers God’s past actions on behalf of the innocent. The psalm continues with fervent prayer and a strong desire for guidance and protection.
Reflection: What “guidance and protection” do you need from God right now? Where is God’s mercy most needed in your life?