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Praying the Penitential Psalms

Laments that reflect heartfelt penitence

By: Fr. Mitch Pacwa, SJ

Praying the Penitential Psalms : Laments that reflect heartfelt penitence by Fr. Mitch Pacwa, SJ

[One] way to pray about sin is by using the psalms. The Book of Psalms is a collection of prayers from ancient Israel that were used primarily in the Temple liturgy. 

There are many different types of psalms—psalms of praise, thanksgiving, wisdom, laments, and historical overviews—that were composed to deal with the many different needs in prayer. The Church has designated certain psalms—6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143—as “penitential,” that is, appropriate for prayer during a time of personal or communal repentance. These psalms take the form of laments because their subject is lamenting over sin and the problems that arise for the sinner.

One suggestion is that we pray these psalms as a preparation for Confession or as a penance, entering into the various attitudes and strong feelings expressed by the psalmists.

Psalm 6

Psalm 6 was used in the Jewish daily liturgy as a prayer of penitence and is used in the Church’s liturgy today. The lament of the individual in time of sickness is appropriate to the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises, since St. Ignatius suggests that we see ourselves as sick persons roaming the world.

1LORD, rebuke me not in thy anger,
nor chasten me in thy wrath.
2Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing;
O LORD, heal me, for my bones are troubled.

Verses 1-2 consist of both negative and positive petitions. First, the psalmist asks the Lord not to rebuke or chasten him, since a person cannot hold up under the power of God’s wrath. Then he asks for grace and healing because he is “languishing,” which translates a Hebrew word meaning to “droop” or “hang down” one’s head. The word “troubled” is a strong term ranging from “disturbed” to “terrified” and appears in the next verse:

3My soul also is sorely troubled.
But thou, O LORD—how long?

The description of both bones and soul being terrified indicates that this feeling comes from deep inside the person. When we pray these verses, we can reflect on those fears that come from deep inside us and then turn to God and ask, “How long?”

4Turn, O LORD, save my life;
deliver me for the sake of thy steadfast love.

The psalmist does not dwell overly long on the question “How long?” because he is more interested in petitioning the Lord to save his life and deliver him “for the sake of thy steadfast love.” Hesed is the word translated as “steadfast love.” The word describes the covenant relationship and refers to the kind of love that exists when someone has made a covenant commitment, as distinct from ahabah, the more common word for “love.”

5For in death there is no remembrance of thee;
in Sheol who can give thee praise?

In verse 5 the psalmist appeals to God’s interests: if the psalmist dies, he will go to Sheol, the place of the dead, where no one can praise God. A Christian has the hope of eternal life in heaven where the soul praises God for all eternity. However, the sinner who prays this psalm may also have a legitimate fear of hell, where no praise will be possible. With that prospect in mind, the Christian can correctly pray to remain in this life to repent of past and current sin, make reparation for it, and seek to live out the holiness that shapes us into the image and likeness of God.

6I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
7My eye wastes away because of grief,
it grows weak because of all my foes.

Verses 6-7 return to a description of the psalmist’s pain, which is less an attempt to tell God what he already knows than a way to sink into the sorrow so that the psalmist recognizes his own pain. Some speak of the necessity of “hitting bottom”—when life becomes so miserable and the pain is so great that a person is willing to seek a change.

8Depart from me, all you workers of evil;
for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.
9The LORD has heard my supplication;
the LORD accepts my prayer.
10All my enemies shall be ashamed and sorely troubled;
they shall turn back, and be put to shame in a moment.

The psalmist concludes with a prayer of confidence that the Lord has already heard his prayer. Such confidence characterizes faith: even when our “enemies” may still be present—which for the Christian could be sin, Satan, or illness—the person of faith begins to believe that the Lord will give him the victory. These enemies will be “sorely troubled,” the same words that described the feeling in his own bones and soul in verses 2-3.

Excerpted from Winning the Battle Against Sin by Fr. Mitch Pacwa, SJ (The Word Among Us Press, 2013). Available at wau.org/books

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