To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. 5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. 6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. 7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. 14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. 15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. 16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. 17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (NRSV)
Psalm 51 is normally the Psalm that we read on Ash Wednesday as a way to kick Lent off with a penitential bang.
To read Psalm 51 aloud is nothing short of an experience of worship with those who hear, and that experience of worship leaves us with a powerful sense of wonder at God’s deep and abiding love for us.
While the superscription of the Psalm relates it to the incidents recorded in 2 Samuel 11 & 12 where David either seduces or rapes Bathsheba, then murders her husband, Uriah the Hittite, and is finally confronted by the prophet Nathan, the language about sin is so universal that it speaks to everyone. Psalm 51 is composed of three movements: verses 1-9 are a request for personal cleansing; verses 10-17 are a request for personal renewal and right sacrifice; and verses 18-19—which I didn’t read—are a request to restore the city of Jerusalem and the liturgy of the Temple.
The careful way in which the poet has crafted the psalm in Hebrew is something that we easily miss in our English translations. In the first movement God is mentioned only once, and it’s in the very first line. The Hebrew word for sin is mentioned six times and other words relating to sin are also mentioned six times. In the second movement, the word for sin is only mentioned once, and another word related to sin is only mentioned once, whereas God is mentioned six times. So throughout the whole of the poem, God is mentioned seven times, and sin—including related words—is mentioned 14 times. While the image of sin is highly present in the first movement, it gradually gives way to the image of God in the second movement. Sin actually disappears at the same ratio that God appears in the Psalm. It’s an extraordinary literary and theological move as the poet is emptied of sin and filled with God’s grace.
Of course, such emptying of sin and being filled with grace comes through confession and repentance. Just as there is a literary turning from sin toward God in the psalm, true repentance requires a literal turning from sin toward God in our lives. There is something sacramental about repentance in that it is as much something which God accomplishes in us as something we do, but our own view of sin generally prevents us from seeing it in this way. We tend to think of sin predominantly in terms of action: things we either do or don’t do. And we view righteousness also in terms of action: by not breaking the rules or by how many time we pray in a day. If the Psalmist were writing this poem today according to our understanding of sin, it would probably look more like a list of petitions, “please forgive this, and please forgive that” rather than “let the bones you have crushed rejoice.” As one theologian put it, “In the popular approach to sin, we choose to address symptoms rather than endure surgery.” Sin isn’t merely the things we do or don’t do, but a condition, an illness, of the human race. Our sins of action or omission are symptoms of our sinful human condition. Our actions or omissions are more like a runny nose, which is merely a symptom of the fact that we are sick.
The language of Psalm 51 speaks to something that is deeply seated within us; a distorted part of our very nature that we—at all costs—keep hidden away in our secret heart. The psalmist is less concerned with specific actions or omissions and more focused on this condition of sinfulness that pervades each person’s very existence. It isn’t asking God to forgive this or that sin, but it’s a desperate plea for re-creation and the reordering of one’s life.
There are twenty-one imperatives in the psalm that speak to this re-creation: a few examples are, have mercy, blot out, wash, cleanse, teach, purge, let me hear, create, put a new, restore, sustain, and deliver. This concern for multiples of seven in the poem, including the seven mentions of God, the 14 mentions of sinfulness, and the 21 imperatives for restoration, literarily shows that the poet desires a complete reordering of life. The poet seeks to be thoroughly purged. The poet wants to turn toward God and away from sin.
This turning is the true meaning of the word repentance, which is meta,noia in Greek. True repentance, true turning away from sin toward God, is impossible without God’s grace. And because it involves the dreaded “C” word (change) we Church people are prone to avoid it every bit as much as the rest of the world. In our relationship with God, we act much more like our pet dogs and cats.
You guys are going to get tired of my pet comparisons.
Three years ago, at my son’s 5th birthday celebration, Joy had made a cake that looked like a Mario Kart racetrack with the little Mario Kart racing figures on it. It even had the little mushrooms, and stars, and clouds that you find in all of the Super Mario Brothers games. We had a great party. And then after we had all moved to another room our dog, Ignatius, had a little party by himself and finished off James’ cake. And, of course, when he gets caught doing something like that, he lowers his head, makes his eyes look all droopy, and wags his tail as if to say, “Love me, love me, love me, love me!”
But he didn’t repent. He just ate another cake two days ago.
In another recent event, I was having an evening snack on my couch. I had a plate of golden tortilla chips covered in melted sharp-cheddar cheese and I was dipping them in delicious Picante sauce. Then Joy came over to talk to me, so I set my plate of chips and salsa on the ottoman (the better to pay attention to her, I thought). Just as Joy and I began our conversation, her large long-haired cat—whose name is Monk but she acts more like Friar Tuck—jumped up onto the ottoman and started eating the few cheesy chips that were left on my plate. When I asked Joy what her fat cat thought she was doing, Monk looked up at me, and licked her lips as if to say, “What? Is there a problem here?”
Neither Ignatius nor Monk really ever really confessed to their sins, so they never truly repented. Oh, they paid for their sins in other ways. Have you ever fed a cat cheese? Nobody could go near Monk’s litter box for days. And it seemed like Ignatius had to go outside every 10 minutes after his cake-eating caper. They paid for their sins alright, they suffered the temporal consequences, but they never confessed or repented in such a way to fully restore the master-to-pet relationship.
On the one hand, Ignatius tried to restore the good feelings of our master-to-pet relationship by looking as innocent and pitiable as possible with his “Love me, love me, love me” eyes and wagging tail. Monk, on the other hand, tried to keep the good feelings in our master-to-pet relationship by completely ignoring the fact that there was even a problem, not that she would ever acknowledge a human being as her master anyway. Even today they both act as if everything is fine between us, and they probably think that it is, but I know better. I don’t trust either of them around food today any more than I did after their first incident of eating my family’s food.
For repentance to happen there has to be—at the very least—an acknowledgement, not just that we have sinned in some particular way, but that we are sinful. The psalmist has a profound understanding of their sinful nature, not merely individual deeds of wrongdoing or failures to do good. Verse 3 says, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” That’s a profound confession. And the psalmist further recognizes in the confession that all sin is an offense against God when he says, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned.”
Now, what this does not mean is that when we commit a crime or other sinful act against a neighbor we aren’t really causing that person any harm because sins are against God alone. If we look back to the events of 2 Samuel, David did Bathsheba and Uriah real harm. I would doubt Bathsheba ever forgot that David either raped or seduced her, and then murdered her husband. Real harm, real violence, real pain was done to Uriah and Bathsheba, and the psalmist isn’t minimizing that fact. But the psalmist is speaking poetically. God is the author of our human relationships and any sin against a neighbor is an offense against God. In the psalm the author is not confessing individual acts, but the human condition of sinfulness.
Many of the ancient baptismal fonts in the Holy Land are cross-shaped, and large enough to accommodate more than one person at a time. A priest or deacon would often be in the font with the candidate for baptism, and the candidate would be facing west. Then, as the candidate was baptized, they would be turned to face the east. The turning from west to east, from darkness to dawn, was symbolic of our desperate need to repent.
True repentance comes from turning away from sin—not just turning from this deed and that deed—but turning away from the deep seated nature of our sinfulness by reaching toward God. True repentance comes from the desperate cry, as the Psalmist gives, for the recreation of our selves. When we cry out in repentance to God, God graciously helps us make the turn from west to east, from darkness to light, from death to life, from weeping to rejoicing.
In Psalm 51, the poet doesn’t appeal to personal efforts at penitence, tears, or remorse, but the appeal is to God’s abundant mercy and loving-kindness. The poet doesn’t turn inward to wallow in self-pity, regret, or guilt. Instead, the poet turns toward God and reaches for the fountain of grace. The poet recognizes that the condition of sin is beyond human ability to repair. This kind of heart surgery requires the Great Physician. Verse 10, which begins the second movement of the psalm, opens with the word “create.” This is a word that, in the Old Testament, is only used in regard to what God does. Only God creates. We might make things, craft things, build things, but only God creates. The request for God to create a new heart is a request for God to bring something into existence that wasn’t there before. This is no simple reshaping or retooling, it’s not an upgrade, but something totally new.
This is one of the places where worship is supposed to lead us: to an acknowledgment of our sinful nature and a desire to be made new, to be re-created into the image of God. Worship is, in fact, where Psalm 51 takes us. Through this worship, we are called to see that grace is not cheap. It does not come without grief.
Even God paid a price so that we might be healed. Yet, for us to heal, we first have to be honest about the fact that we are sick, that we are broken, that we are sinners, that our lives are not what they ought to be.
So in the liturgy within Psalm 51 we begin with a plea for mercy. We follow our plea with confession of sin. Then we ask for renewal. By the time we get to verse 15 we’re able to proclaim, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise!”
As it happens in the Psalm, when we offer our worship, the image of sin gradually gives way to the image of God. And as God’s grace enfolds us, fills us, and covers us, we can only feel a sense of wonder and awe that the Lord would give so much for us.
This is where our relationship with God is—by God’s immeasurable grace—set right. True repentance is nothing short of being created anew.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
(Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV] unless otherwise noted).