What does repentance look like? Some might picture a kneeling sinner, bowing and weeping while confession is made. Others might think of examples from the Bible, such as the tax collector’s prayer in the temple or the apostle Peter’s tears after denying his Lord. But whatever image comes to your mind, it’s likely your thoughts will include the deep sense of grief that is etched on the face of a sorrowing sinner. This grief is part of the artwork and poetry of the Psalms, in which a reader may find every emotion from joy to despair. J. G. Bellett wrote, “In the Psalms, truth is delivered in company with the passions of the soul.” 1 Thus it is that the doctrinal necessity of repentance is most fully developed elsewhere, but poignant experiences of repentance can be found in the Psalms. Penitential Psalms As a group, the specific psalms of this type are called the penitential psalms, or psalms of repentance. Since the sixth century, seven psalms have traditionally been identified as part of this group.2 There certainly are other psalms that feature similar expressions, and even in these seven there are various levels of depth in terms of personal confession. As expositor C. H. Bullock writes, “They are not all strictly ‘penitential.’” Yet he adds, “The tone of all seven penitential psalms, however, is one of submission to the almighty God, a necessary disposition for anyone who would seek God’s forgiveness.” 3 Thus these psalms are a good starting place for our theme.

It is important to note that the word “penitential” is sometimes used in the context of “doing penance,” referring to acts of devotion meant to indicate sorrow for sins committed. This penance is governed by sets of rules (which also began in the sixth century) that assign specific requirements for specific sins, such as the recitation of psalms, fasting, or acts of self-denial.4 However, the idea of doing penance as a way of paying for sins is strongly contradicted by the Bible. Acts of sacrifice are in themselves insufficient payments for sin (Ps. 51:16-19); and Hebrews 10:10-18 emphasizes the death of Jesus Christ as the unique and final payment: He “offered one sacrifice for sins,” and “there is no longer an offering for sin” (Heb. 10:12, 18 NKJV).

However, God does desire confession and repentance as the means of maintaining our relationship with Him (1 Jn. 1:9; Rev. 3:19). These responses of a penitent person are emphasized throughout this group of psalms, as well as in other passages of Scripture. Here, then, is a brief overview of this traditional grouping of penitential psalms.

  • Psalm 6: Written by David for the chief musician, expressing a cry for mercy in the midst of sorrow.
  • Psalm 32: A maschil (“instruction” or “contemplation”) psalm of David, describing the joy of acceptance and forgiveness. This psalm was probably written in connection with David’s sorrow for his sins involving Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Sam. 11-12).
  • Psalm 38: David’s psalm written as a memorial of his sin and God’s response.
  • Psalm 51: Another psalm for the chief musician, specifically linked in its title with David’s confession after his sin with Bathsheba was exposed.
  • Psalm 102: A “prayer of the afflicted” who sorrows alone because of his enemies.
  • Psalm 130: A song of ascents, or degrees, expressing hope in the Lord’s forgiveness.
  • Psalm 143: A psalm in which David desires God’s deliverance and loving kindness.

Five themes emerge as we read these psalms, forming a journey of sorrow, repentance, and restoration. The first theme is the burden of sin. It has always been common for people to excuse themselves when they break God’s laws. We give explanations for our excesses or failures. We train our consciences to accept or ignore our sins, making ourselves comfortable with them. But sin is like rottenness in bad fruit – it consumes the inside even if the skin looks unblemished. David said his sin had dried up his strength: “My vitality was turned into the drought of summer” (Ps. 32:4); and he felt it had even consumed his bones (Ps. 6:2; 32:3; 51:8). “There is no … health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden they are too heavy for me. My wounds are foul and festering because of my foolishness” (Ps. 38:3-5). It’s startling to consider the decaying effects of sin and guilt on our actual physical and emotional well-being, yet this is often reported to be the case by those who have come to understand the awful nature of our personal sins.

Even more significantly, the burden of sin affects us spiritually as we begin to understand how it forms a barrier that keeps us distant from God. In anguish of soul (Ps. 6:3) the psalmist asks, “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3; 102:9-11). The common notion that we are generally not such bad people begins to appear ridiculous when we think of the number of our sins, especially in comparison to God’s perfection. The awareness of our sinfulness extends beyond specific acts to the realization that we are simply inclined to sin (Ps. 51:5). On our own, we are hopelessly unable to return to God.

However, having recognized our guilt, we can begin to realize that God disciplines us, causing us to turn to Him. Our psalms contain various references to the psalmist’s enemies (6:7; 102:8; 143:3). These outside forces are adding to his misery, yet it appears God may be using them to cause him to cry to the Lord. Twice David asks the Lord not to rebuke him in anger or chasten him in displeasure (6:1; 38:1), indicating his awareness of God’s right to do so. He says, “Day and night Your hand was heavy upon me … Your arrows pierce me deeply, and Your hand presses me down” (Ps. 32:4; 38:2). When we realize we have not simply done something bad but have actually offended God (Ps. 51:4), we are another step further along the journey these psalms set before us.

The next step is confession. Before repentance can reach its full development, there must be a moment when we agree with God that we have sinned. David declared, “I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD’” (Ps. 32:5). This is the response to discipline that God desires! Rather than hiding his sin or explaining it away, David declared his iniquity (Ps. 38:18). We can imitate his example when we come to God with a broken and contrite heart, instead of justifying ourselves (Ps. 51:17).

It can be very difficult to travel the penitent pathway to this point. Much humility and anguish will have been experienced, with our natural self-confidence replaced by a heavy, personal sorrow for “my sin” (Ps. 32:5; 38:18; 51:3). We normally have a strong preference for secrecy and cover-up, just as David himself hid his sin with Bathsheba for nearly a year before he confessed – and that only because Nathan the prophet was sent by the Lord to expose that sin.

However, once we have reached this point, it can also be difficult to progress beyond it. Some are so grieved by their past sins that they miss the appreciation of the next two steps: forgiveness and restoration. Thankfully, God does all the work to make these steps possible! But it is important to believe that He wants to take us all the way through the process, accepting His forgiveness after we have confessed. From the New Testament we learn this: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9); and His forgiveness is not based on our worthiness or eligibility but on the perfect work of Christ (Eph. 1:7; 4:32).

The impact of God’s forgiveness brings great joy! Read David’s words in Psalm 32: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity” (32:1-2). Forgiveness is part of God’s character (Ps. 130:4). Psalm 51 adds that we are washed, cleansed, and purged; and our sins are blotted out (Ps. 51:1,2,7,9). Because of the Lord’s abundant redemption (Ps. 130:7-8), He is fully capable of buying us back from the dominion of sin.

God’s forgiveness leads us onward to appreciate our relationship with Him. Psalm 130:4 indicates that His forgiveness is what allows us even to know that relationship. Every penitential psalm highlights the hope of our restored relationship in some way: waiting for the Lord’s answer to our cry for help (6:9; 38:15); receiving renewed joy and hope in our salvation (51:12; 130:5,7); responding with praise to God for His deliverance (102:18); and asking to know God’s will for our future (143:10).

The fullness of this relationship cannot be overstated. God Himself invites us to come near to Him, offering instruction for our pathway and asking us to watch Him closely so we can be guided by His eye – a great blessing in comparison to being controlled like the horse or mule (Ps. 32:8-9). When we compare this relationship to the cries of the burdened sinner at the beginning of our meditation on these psalms, we might almost wonder if those cries could be from the same person! But God’s forgiveness and restoration are based on His own character rather than on any personal merit we might have thought we had. Therefore, we can have confidence that God does indeed forgive and restore us. In the language of the New Testament, those who have trusted Jesus as their Savior can say, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

The New Testament frequently quotes from the Psalms, including some of these penitential ones. For instance, the blessedness of forgiveness described in Psalm 32 is used to teach the principle of justification by faith in Romans 4:5-8. The righteousness of God expressed in Psalm 51:4 is presented in Romans 3:4. In this connection, however, it is good to recognize that not every line of every psalm is applicable to Christians today. For example, expressions about the nationwide repentance of Israel or the destruction of her enemies are very relevant to that nation, and many such expressions will still have a literal fulfillment as far as Israel is concerned. It would not be suitable to expect God to judge the enemies of our own nation in the same way.

Another significant example is David’s prayer in Psalm 51:11 which says, “Do not take Your Holy Spirit away from me.” While this was an appropriate desire in David’s time, when the Holy Spirit would temporarily come upon individual believers, this is not a condition that Christians today must fear. The Holy Spirit indwells every believer in this era of the Church, according to the words of Christ: “The Spirit of truth … you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you” (Jn. 14:17). Though our sins certainly grieve the Holy Spirit, He has been given to us “until the day of redemption” when we will be taken to heaven (Eph. 4:30).

Despite these limitations, the Psalms overflow with expressions that illustrate who we are and, more importantly, who God is. When it comes to the penitential psalms, we may identify with the deepest grief as we sorrow over our sins. Yet the goodness of God leads us to repentance and restoration as we walk along life’s road with Him.

1. J. G. Bellett, Psalms. /authors/bellett/Psalms.html
2. /wiki/Penitential_Psalms
3. C. Hassell Bullock, Encountering the Book of Psalms: A Literary and Theological Introduction, p. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, Baker Academic, 2001; paperback ed., 2004. /constable/notes/pdf/psalms.pdf
4. /Penitential

By Stephen Campbell

With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website:


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