What Are the Penitential Psalms? (How Many Penitential Psalms Are There in the Bible?)

As humans, we often fall short of God’s glory. But through repentance, we are brought closer to Him. To seek this repentance, I often rely on the Penitential Psalms to pray.

Because of how helpful these Psalms have been to me over the years, I believe that they can help you as well if you feel your actions have taken you far from God.

But first, you need to have an understanding of these Psalms, which is why I wrote this article to share my extensive knowledge of these Psalms.

So, what are the Penitential Psalms?

Scholars recognize the seven Penitential Psalms in the Bible. These are prayers of repentance that express longing for God’s mercy towards our sins and failure. Today, they’re incorporated into confessions and prayers for repentance.

Join me in exploring how many Penitential Psalms there are and how to use them in prayer. Let’s get started.

How many Penitential Psalms are there?

There are seven recognized Penitential Psalms. These are Psalms 6,32,38,51,102,130, and 143. Most of these are attributed to King David. He wrote these Psalms as prayers for repentance for various sins.

The most famous is Psalm 51, where he begged God for forgiveness after sleeping with Bathsheba and killing Uriah.

Why are they called Penitential Psalms?

As mentioned, Penitential Psalms earn their name from their use during confession.

  1. Psalm 6 is considered Penitential because David begs for relief from suffering. He believes his pain is the result of sin.
  2. Psalm 32 is Penitential because David thanks God for forgiving his sin. Scholars believe it is a follow-up to his prayer in Psalm 51.
  3. Psalm 38 is Penitential because it expresses David’s longing for forgiveness and healing. The Psalm hints at an illness believed to result from David’s sin.
  4. Psalm 51 is Penitential because it expresses David’s sorrow over what he did to Uriah. He composed this Psalm after Nathan confronted him about his sin.
  5. Psalm 102 is Penitential because the Psalmist seeks God’s forgiveness and (presumably) healing. The Psalm suggests the writer is sick or weak because of his sin.
  6. Psalm 130 is Penitential because David begs forgiveness for an unknown sin. He recognizes his part in this sin and seeks God’s mercy and forgiveness.
  7. Psalm 143 is Penitential because David seeks God’s help as he is pursued by Saul. He begs God not to respond according to His mercy.

What are the characteristics of Penitential Psalms?

How many messianic Psalms are there in the Bible?
What are the characteristics of Penitential Psalms? Image source: Pixabay

The Penitential Psalms follow a general pattern that starts with a cry for help and ends with a specific appeal for help. Here are the characteristics of the Penitential Psalms:

A general cry for help

Most of the Penitential Psalms start with a plea for help or mercy. The Psalmist seeks God’s indulgence as he presents his petition and begs God not to deal with him according to his sin. This is evident in Psalm 38:1: “Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath.”

Recognition of the Psalmist’s condition

Here, the Psalmist outlines his current condition. This could be the burden of guilt, desperation, or illness. Most Scholars agree that the Psalmist is convinced that his suffering results from his unrighteousness.

In Psalm 38:4-5, for instance, the Psalmist links his guilt and festering wounds to his sin: “My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear. My wounds fester and are loathsome because of my sinful folly.”

Presenting a specific need

After his plea, the Psalmist makes a specific request in light of his sin. For instance, in Psalm 143:11-12, he begs God to save him from his enemies (presumably Saul and his men): “For your name’s sake, Lord, preserve my life; in your righteousness, bring me out of trouble. In your unfailing love, silence my enemies; destroy all my foes, for I am your servant.”

What can Christians learn from the Penitential Psalms?

The Penitential Psalms teach believers how to approach God honestly and humbly. They are perfect for those wishing to repent their sins but don’t know where to start.

The Psalms give insight into the mindset of a truly repentant sinner. Furthermore, Christians learn the value of recognizing their own weakness and sinfulness.

These Psalms are perfect for shaping your attitude towards sin and God.

How do you use Penitential Psalms in prayer?

As mentioned, Penitential Psalms are recited during Lent and the Holy Week. However, you aren’t limited to these seasons. Here’s how you can use them in prayer.

  1. Pray the Psalm as is. Among the Catholics, this means reciting the antiphony and ending with “Glory be.”
  2. Incorporate Lectio Divina with your prayer. This practice involves reading, reflecting, responding, and resting. It’s helpful when you want to pray the scriptures.
  3. You could also pray each Psalm for a specific sin. Some believe each Penitential Psalm corresponds to one of the capital sins (pride, avarice, envy, anger, lust, gluttony, and slothfulness.

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