The penitential psalm : Psalm 50/51 (again)

Penitential psalms
Miserere mei ms
have mercy on me

Psalm 50/51 has been called the ‘most influential and beloved’ of the Penitential Psalms (New Lion Handbook to the Bible, 1999).  There are supposed to be seven of these, but it’s an arbitrary (though ancient) classification, and it’s easy to find different lists also classified as ‘penitential psalms’.  Augustine names four (fifth century), Cassiodorus (sixth century) goes for seven, other authors go for different totals.  Apart from seven being a magic number of completion or possibly (more prosaically) a number that we can remember (most Catholics can name the sacraments but it’s hard to get a full set of apostles), it’s a convenient way to take a selection of the psalms, making them easier to handle. 

Irresistible raw material for others

As a group, the penitential psalms have been translated into various forms of verse and set to music by various poets and composers down the years, including Dante, and practically every one of the Tudor poets (Mary Sidney’s version of this particular penitential psalm is notably elegant).  Books of Hours (used as personal prayerbooks from mediaeval times onwards) usually contain (among other prayers)  the Psalms of Ascents (the ‘pilgrimage psalms‘, from Ps 119/120 up to Ps 133/134), followed by the Penitential Psalms, because those are the psalms that everyone usually wants in their prayerbooks.  I looked briefly at the penitential psalms when I discussed the theme of penitence in Year A, but now I want to concentrate on Psalm 50/51 alone.

Psalm 50/51 in its context
penitential psalm illumination
David and Bathsheba in comic-strip form

One reason for the popularity of Psalm 50/51, the Miserere,  is that it comes with a particular story attached, like the rivers of Babylon psalm (Ps 136/137).  This one is supposed to be definitely and authentically by David, specifically composed by him after Nathan calls him to account over his murder of Uriah following his appropriation of Uriah’s wife (check the story at 2 Samuel 11).   Not everyone agrees with this ascription, though, and opinions also differ about whether some of the verses were added on later, after the destruction of the Temple.  Its origin is not the only (or best-known) story attached to Psalm 50/51.  There is also the web of legend around Allegri’s musical setting of it, which Mozart (aged fourteen) is said to have pirated from memory after hearing it sung in the Sistine Chapel, when no one was allowed to transcribe or publish it.  The detail I like best is that having transcribed it from memory, he then went back and made minor corrections after hearing it again.

The Penitential Psalm

According to The Nuttall Encyclopaedia (1907), Psalm 50/51 is the original ‘Penitential Psalm’ and it was recited every day at the end of Morning Prayer by the primitive Church.  This sort of usage, like the Salve Regina and the ‘Last Gospel’ (John 1), both used after Mass, indicates a genuine popular devotion.  Stephen Langton, King John’s Archbishop of Canterbury, recited it on his deathbed, Sir Thomas More on the scaffold.  If it were weaker in itself, it would be hallowed by its past use, but it also contains (even in translation) beautiful and resonant lines, including ‘O Lord, open my lips/ and my mouth shall declare your praise’, which no church musician can hear without a spontaneous lift of the heart.

Frequency of use…
penitential psalm illumination
David, penitent

Some psalms come up more often than others.  Sometimes it’s because they are very long psalms, but then often you might not even notice that it’s the same psalm recurring, as the Lectionary simply offers us three or four stanzas, plus Response.  It can be easy to miss the relationship between two short Responsorial Psalms.  But some stand-alone short psalms, without much variation in verses, come up repeatedly, and then you have to decide whether to identify that psalm with one particular tune, or allow yourself the treat of setting it all over again.

…can lead to repetition..
penitential psalm illumination
David penitent, but with instruments

Sometimes a psalm can be repeated several weeks in a row (Psalm 33/34, across three Sundays in Ordinary Time Year B), with different stanzas and/or Responses, and then you have to decide whether to keep the tune the same or not. Sometimes the words decide that for you. For Psalm 33/34 and its long run, I kept the Response the same if the Lectionary did and changed the verse tune if the Lectionary changed the verses, so we now have to be incredibly careful to sing the right one on the right day. There’s a fine line to be drawn between familiarity as a positive thing, encouraging people to sing along,  – and boring people with the same simple tune repeated.

…or not, as the case may be
Shepherds and sheep
a good shepherd

If it’s a really short psalm, the words are the same whenever it comes up. Even here, there is room for some variation. Psalm 22/23, the Lord is my shepherd, has a lot of different versions for such a short psalm, because it comes up repeatedly but with small changes either in the Response or in how the verses are arranged into stanzas, and how much regularising has been done (there tends to be more in the US Lectionary). Sometimes the valley of darkness is omitted completely.

Psalm 50/51 in a new version

And so I have just written another version for Psalm 50/51.  As one of the great penitential psalms, it comes up often.  It always appears in Lent (not on a Sunday in Year C, though).  It is the psalm for the First Sunday of Lent in Year A, and the Fifth in Year B, but it’s there in the weekdays as well, which are the same every year (coming up on Ash Wednesday, the Friday after Ash Wednesday, the following Wednesday, and so on), which is why I needed a new one.  It used to be even more frequent, especially on Lent Fridays.

penitential psalm illumination
Nathan reproaching David

It is strongly placed as the cry of a sinner who knows himself to be one.  It’s all about recognising the wrong that we have done and confidently asking for God’s forgiveness.  It is an intensely human psalm, admitting guilt but making excuses, admitting responsibility but throwing it back onto God, admitting past failings but trying to move the narrative on to the future when things will be better.  There is room within the psalm for a narrative that goes from the frank admission of guilt and expression of repentance, to the description of God’s goodness and the sinner’s aspiration to be remade in his image.  Then he looks forward to the good he will be able to do on God’s behalf, and the joy of God’s continued favour.   There are twentyone verses in this psalm, which add up to ten four-line stanzas, so there are choices to be made when using it as a Responsorial Psalm (usually four stanzas maximum), and it is indeed slightly different in each of its appearances in the Missal.  On Ash Wednesday, we have four stanzas, covering the admission of guilt and the firm purpose of amendment, ending with the promise of praise.  The following Friday, the emphasis is on repentance and the need for it; three stanzas this time, but the only positive is the penitent’s confidence (A humbled contrite heart you will not spurn as the last line and also chosen as the Response).  Wednesday of the 1st Week of Lent uses the same Response and first and last stanza but puts the aspirational section (A pure heart create for me, O God) as the middle stanza, so the mood is more encouraging.

The Ash Wednesday versions
penitential sermon
lining up for ashes

We’ve always had two versions of the psalm for Ash Wednesday, one like a hymn and one more spiky which works unaccompanied or with just the recorder, but I wanted to keep that exclusively for Ash Wednesday as a special day.  So when Psalm 50/51 came up on other Sundays (24 OTC, 5 Lent B), I used the hymn-style version for the stanzas, and just added a different Response.  Then I was asked to set it as a weekday psalm which used only the positive stanzas and which had the Response My mouth will declare your praise, so I had to write a new one altogether, which was faster-moving and more cheerful.  That was not going to work for the new Lent version I needed.

A Response with reverberations
penitential psalm MS
O Lord, open my lips

I have to admit, though, that the real driver of my desire to write a new one was because they had chosen A humbled contrite heart you will not spurn as the Response.  First I should clarify: I was doing this for the OZ Lectionary, which uses those words in the psalm, but then changes the Response to […] you will not scorn.  It seems odd to me not to change both or neither, especially as neither word is in common use exactly, but I don’t edit the words (ever), I just set them.  For simplicity I will just use ‘spurn’ when I’m quoting it, as it’s the word used in both places, in all the other Lectionaries.

The Heir of Redclyffe

And anyway, those are the words of the King James Version and therefore the words Charlotte Yonge uses when she wants to quote the line in a climactic moment in The Heir of Redclyffe, one of the truly great Victorian novels (and there are many, especially by women).  Just in case anyone hasn’t read it, this is a family saga, which is what Charlotte Yonge was best at, though it actually takes place over a fairly brief period (you hear at the end about how the rest of their lives turn out).  If you haven’t read it (yet), you have a treat in store.

author of Heir of Redclyffe
the great Charlotte M. Yonge

It is full of wonderful characters, pattern nephews who look like heroes but turn out to be dangerously at fault and almost-too- dashing heroes who turn out to be true as steel.  It’s too good and well-worked-out to reduce to a precis; it is a terrific read.  A broken and contrite heart… comes up twice, once when Amabel has to fetch Philip to his last meeting with the dying Guy, whom he has wronged so often and so deeply, and then a second time when she writes it in Guy’s prayer book, which has been passed on to Philip.   These are both such intense moments, deliberately almost underwritten, where these few words of the psalm carry so much weight that everything else can be understated.  I love the book dearly, it always makes me cry but it’s worth it, and when I found Psalm 50/51 with those words as the Response, I had to have another go at it.

The mood of the Lent setting
David penitential, but with musical solace

It’s a penitent Response but not an extravagant one.  It comes later in the psalm than the expression of guilt and grief, so I wanted the mood to be serene and reflective rather than anything else; also, it comes up with stanzas from both the repentant part and the positive part of the psalm, so the tune needs to cover both.  Unlike all the other settings of Psalm 50/51 that I have done, this one fell into 3/4.  The others are all ‘walking’ psalms, with the bass marking the slow footfalls in a penitential procession, but this one has a sway, like a lullaby, for comfort.  The comfort is there in the words : the psalmist is deeply penitent, but he has complete confidence in God’s forgiveness, and looks forward to doing better.  This is why this psalm comes up so often at the beginning of Lent, because it encapsulates the whole motivation of the season.  This isn’t my favourite of the penitential psalms (I like Out of the depths best, Ps 129/130), but I can see why so many people love it.  I hope they will like the new setting.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Theme of the psalms for Lent Year A : penitence

Pattern in the psalm sequence

Last year I looked at the flow of psalms through Lent Year C, to see whether there was an overarching theme or narrative. That post started out general, as I was planning to compare and contrast the three liturgical years, but I had to restrict it to one year to keep it a reasonable size. Now the year has gone completely round and Lent Year A is coming up from March 1st, so I am seizing the chance to look at the sequence of psalms for this year.

Classic words of penitence - miserere mei domine
setting the mood for Lent A

Different years have different themes

The theme for Lent C was mercy; we were following the readings of Luke’s Gospel, where mercy and forgiveness are one of the main messages.   Year A follows the Gospel account of Matthew, with a lot of solid teaching on various subjects.  It also takes some sections from John’s Gospel : a series of significant encounters (the woman at the well, the man born blind, the household at Bethany). I know I always emphasize that the psalm is a response to the First Reading, but in Lent particularly (as in Advent), it’s important to be able to see all the readings in a sort of interlinked dance of significance.  Even in the run-up to Lent this year, the links between the Old and New Testament readings have been very clear.

interwoven narrative arcs

Year A : the overarching theme of penitence

So the theme running through the psalms for Lent in Year A is penitence, which seems a bit obvious.   Of course Lent is the season of penitence, but the Church chooses to emphasize different aspects in Lent from year to year in the choice of different readings, and just as last year (C) is the year where we concentrate on mercy, this year (A), partly because it’s the first in the sequence, is more straightforwardly penitential.  This is clearly emphasized from the beginning, when we repeat for the First Sunday the same psalm that we used for Ash Wednesday.  Here is the call to repentance and its echo; or, if you can’t make it to church on Ash Wednesday, the Church does not want you to miss out on this bass note which will run through the whole season.

First Sunday of Lent : Psalm 50/51

Psalm 50 is one of the classic penitential psalms.  Traditionally there are seven penitential psalms :  6, 31/32, 37/38, 50/51, 101/102, 129/130, and 142/143.  Some are more positive than others, some are sadder.  Although I think the theme of the Lent A psalms is penitence, only two of these specific psalms come in the line-up for the Lent A Sundays.  Year C does not use any of the penitential psalms at all.  Year B only has one penitential psalm among its Sunday prescriptions, and it’s this one, 50/51 again, though at the end of Lent rather than the beginning.  More on that next year.

What makes Ps 50/51 stand out, even among the penitential psalms, is its frankness and directness of tone.   It describes one state of mind, pure contrition.  Some of the other psalms move from admission of guilt to thanksgiving within the course of a single psalm (e.g. Ps 31/32), but this one acknowledges guilt, expresses compunction, asks for help and looks forward to better things in the future, but stays with the expression of penitence to the end : a humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn (v 19).

Traditionally, this is the psalm David composed after Nathan rebuked him for seizing Bathsheba and having Uriah, her husband, conveniently killed.  I say, ‘traditionally’, because there is no specific internal evidence for this.   But the psalm demonstrates a generous and frank admission of guilt, no attempt at any excuses and an absolute confidence in God’s mercy, however undeserved, which all make it a good psalm to follow on from the account of the Fall.  It is a much better response than Adam’s, when God questions him in the garden.  The second reading is St Paul explaining the parallel of Adam/sin and Jesus/redemption,  before we move on to a replay of the tempter with the encounter of Jesus in the desert with the three temptations and his answer to them.  Temptation – sin- repentance; temptation – victory – glory.

Second Sunday of Lent : Psalm 32/33

This is the next psalm after one of the penitential psalms, and it asserts the trustworthiness of God, because it follows the reading where God makes promises to Abram.   The Responsorial Psalm as set here is only a small part of a joyful thanksgiving psalm, but it keeps the emphasis firmly on the Law of God and the agreement between him and his people.  As long as they do what they promised, so will he.  The Gospel is the Transfiguration : this is the way God behaves with those who keep the covenant set up so long ago.

This is a solid cheerful psalm which comes up quite often.  We will have it again during the Easter Vigil and in the Sundays after Easter (where the emphasis is more on the thanksgiving aspect), and it appears in Ordinary Time as well.  It appears with several different Responses and with different selections of stanzas.   The Response here, Let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you, and the stanzas which refer to God’s love of justice and right, and the perils from which he will save his people (death and famine), continue the penitential theme in a low-key way.

Third Sunday of Lent : Psalm 94/95

Real water, symbolic water and the springs of everlasting life are the themes of this Sunday, and all the readings hang closely together.  The  First Reading and psalm however have a note of warning about them.  The story is of Moses striking the rock to find water for the grumbling and resentful people whom he led out of Egypt.  It’s a wonderful story which we almost miss because of all the resentment and grumpiness being expressed.  Moses is at his wits’ end (you have the clear feeling that they have been nagging at him for a long time), he knows no more than they do, and there is almost a note of exasperation in the way he talks to God.  But God doesn’t waste time explaining or persuading, he just gives clear instructions, and Moses simply performs the miracle with no more discussion.  Then they name the place , not after the miracle or the water, but after the grumbling.

And on to the psalm, which starts Come, ring out our joy to the Lord, but the words, and above all the repeated Response (….Harden not your hearts), indicate very clearly that we are here in the character of the resentful people who are causing trouble by not listening to what God is trying to tell us.  St Paul emphasizes the point by reminding us that Christ died for us while we still sinners; and then the water theme is picked up again and transformed by the Gospel.  This is the fascinating and wonderful encounter at the well between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, one of the rare examples of a talking woman in the Bible.  This reading is borrowed from John’s Gospel.

Jesus talking with woman at the well - penitence
Sir, give me some of that water

Fourth Sunday of Lent : Ps 22/23

Mid-Lent Sunday, Pink Sunday, and traditionally an easing of the Lent gloom.  The First Reading is the choosing of David the young shepherd boy to be the King chosen by God to lead Israel, and the psalm is the shepherd-king psalm, so loved and familiar.  Who are we in this psalm?  We are the sheep.  The psalm itself lets us down fairly gently, but if you think of some of the other translations, penitence is warranted (Perverse and foolish oft I strayed from the paraphrase ‘The King of Love my shepherd is’ out of Hymns Ancient and Modern).  St Paul tells us that we were in the darkness but now we are in the light; and this leads into the Gospel of Jesus’ encounter with the man born blind.  Again, we are borrowing from John’s Gospel.  This whole discussion is about sin, the causes of sin, the results of sin, who is a sinner, and so on.

Fifth Sunday of Lent : Ps 129/130

In the First Reading, God speaks directly to his people, calling them up out of their graves and bringing them back to the land which he promised to them. It is a short but very arresting reading, especially taken in conjunction with the Gospel we will hear.  The psalm to follow it is another of the penitential psalms, Ps 129/130, the great De profundis.  From being sinful sheep, we have become confident supplicants.  We are still aware of being sinful (If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, Lord, who can stand? ), but we ask for forgiveness with full confidence and trust, repeated in the Response.  St Paul emphasizes the Spirit raising the dead to life, and the Gospel is the raising of Lazarus.  It is also Martha’s declaration of faith and Jesus’ calling himself the resurrection and the life.  Again, this Gospel is borrowed from John.

This is a glorious high note to end the run of Lent Sundays, and just like last year, the psalm for Palm Sunday will come as a crashing shock.  Last year we came down from a crest of joy; this year we have not been joyful, but we have moved with penitence to confidence and assurance of God’s mercy.  Out of the depths; but with the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.  There is also an indication that we will need to wait and have faith (Let the watchman count on daybreak and Israel on the Lord).

Our place in salvation history

Jesse tree with descendants pictured
the patriarchs in order

There is another shaping thread running through the First Readings.  Like the Readings at the Easter Vigil, they are carefully chosen to move us through salvation history.  So we start with Adam in Week 1, move on to Abram’s mission in Week 2, see Moses in action in Week 3 and the choice of David in Week 4.  All of these are forerunners or types of the Messiah.  In Week 5, the protagonists are God himself and the people of Israel.  Again the interaction between the early readings and the Gospels is not hard to pick out.  Jesus mirrors the patriarchs.

Christ on cross superimposed on tree in Paradise
Jesus in the Garden of Eden

Jesus overcomes the tempter in Week 1, is picked out for mission in Week 2 (the transfiguration, God’s voice, and so on), gives living water to the thirsty in Week 3, and brings sight to the blind in Week 4, fulfilling the prophecies about the coming of the Kingdom and the true King in Isaiah and elsewhere.  Then in Week 5, he raises the dead and redeems them, only as the psalms indicate, by now it’s not ‘them’, it’s us.

The next Sunday will be Palm Sunday.  We are the people who sing Hosanna and wave palms;  we are the people who call out,’Crucify him!’ during the Gospel.  In Holy Week, we are part of the action on stage.  Lent has been our preparation, and the psalms have placed us into our role.

[And you can now read about Lent Year B too]

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


%d bloggers like this: