Bones and the Penitential Psalms

Over the last five posts on five of the penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, and 102) I noted that the penitent’s bones kept showing up. I wondered what this was all about. I’ve done some digging around in Hebrew Lexicons and in Theological Wordbooks, so here is a preliminary report.

Psalm 6 parallels the penitent’s bones with the penitent’s soul:

2 Have mercy on me, LORD, for I am faint;
heal me, LORD, for my bones are in agony.
3 My soul is in deep anguish.
How long, LORD, how long?

The parallel structure is more obvious in Hebrew where verse 2 starts with Because my bones are in agony… and verse three begins and my soul is in agony. The soul and the bones are with the same verb and begin the two verses.

Psalm 32 has the penitent’s bones wasting away:

3 When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.

Other translations say “my body” instead of “my bones” but it is the same Hebrew word as for bones in Psalm 6, ‘etsem. The word is used to symbolize the whole of a person, not just their bones. Some translators must think that is the use here in Psalm 32, though I’m not sure that is clear from the context.

Psalm 38 parallels bones with body:

3 Because of your wrath there is no health in my body;
there is no soundness in my bones because of my sin.

The parallels with soul and body Psalm 6 and 38 make it seem like the penitent’s bones can stand for the whole body or the physical substance of the person in some way.

In Psalm 51 the penitent’s bones were crushed:

8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.

One of the theological wordbooks I consulted indicated that “bones” might stand for the core physical and psychological being of a person. That might be the case here. The penitent says his or her whole self is crushed, but that crushed self may yet rejoice.

Psalm 102 shows the penitent in deep distress:

3 For my days vanish like smoke;
my bones burn like glowing embers.
4 My heart is blighted and withered like grass;
I forget to eat my food.
5 In my distress I groan aloud
and am reduced to skin and bones.

The penitent’s “skin and bones” is a reference to loss of substance from forgetting to eat. The burning bones are something else, though, and don’t appear to tie into the previous patterns of referencing the penitent’s whole being.

Any thoughts on the whole bone thing? I think that the metaphorical use of bones to stand for the whole physical and psychological substance of a person makes good sense in most of these cases — but the burning bones in Psalm 102 is a different story.


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