Parallelism and Penitence

gerrit-van-honthorst-king-david-playing-the-harp-1611-1156x1407x300Notice anything a bit unusual in the lectionary readings for this Sunday (Aug. 1)? Remember Psalm 51, that very long Psalm we either sing or say after the Imposition of Ashes in middle of the Ash Wednesday Liturgy? Yes, that Psalm with 20 verses? Okay, well perhaps it’s not that long; at least it’s not as long as Psalm 119 with its 22 sections and 176 verses.

In this Sunday’s first reading from Second Samuel, David displeases the Lord, finally admitting to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” With its penitential nature, Psalm 51 is the perfect response to this reading:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness;
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
Wash me through and through from my wickedness
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Psalm 51:1-3

The Protestant Bible and the Hebrew Scriptures contain 150 Psalms, while the Roman Catholic Bible contains 151 Psalms. This variation is due only to a different numbering system. In the Book of Common Prayer, we note that each Psalm has its Latin title listed after its number, which is actually only the first phrase of the Psalm in Latin. Psalm 51, titled Miserere mei, Deus, is simply “Have mercy on me, O God” in Latin.

As devotional readings, the Psalms provide consolation, instruction, inspiration and perhaps motivation. Scholars consider the Psalms to be Hebrew poetry. However, unlike much traditional poetry that ends in rhyme, the Psalms are characterized in rhythmic thought patterns of parallelism.

Scholars have identified several different types of parallelism. Synonymous parallelism is where a thought is presented and then slightly rephrased:

Wash me through and through from my wickedness
and cleanse me from my sin.
(v. 2)

Some Psalm verses are examples of antithetic parallelism, in which the second phrase is in contrast to the first:

Make me hear of joy and gladness,
that that body you have broken may rejoice.
(v. 9)

This penitential Psalm ends with a beautiful prayer to God:

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right sprit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
(v. 11-13)

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