Read the text below, preferably aloud. As you hear the word, “listen with the ear of your heart” for a word or short phrase that God has for you this day.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 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 judgement. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
COMMENTS: “Have mercy, O God, according to your steadfast love.” This is what stands out to me when I listen to this psalm.
Psalm 51, found in the second of five books of the Psalter, is traditionally attributed to King David, when the king’s prophet, Nathan, came to David after he had gone in to Bathsheba. Of all the stories of David found in the Bible, after the story of David and Goliath, the one of David and Bathsheba is perhaps the most famous. Where the first narrative highlights David’s boyish heroism and faith in God, the latter story is saturated with lust, adultery, and murder. It begins in the spring of the year. When most kings go out with their troops to war, David stayed in Jerusalem. One evening he went out on his palace rooftop to catch the breeze, and because his residence was more grand than the others, he was able to see down into the roofless inner courtyards of his neighbors. There was Bathsheba, bathing in the privacy of her own home. Her husband, Uriah, one of David’s soldiers, was away fighting as soldiers do in spring. When David sees her, thoughts of her beauty become desire to take her, which he does. When Bathsheba sends word that she is pregnant, David attempts to cover up his sin by arranging for Uriah to come home and sleep with his wife. However, Uriah, mindful of his soldier status in time of war, does not sleep with his wife. Instead, David sends word to his general to place Uriah in the front line, where Uriah is conveniently killed.
These are the transgressions of David of which the psalmist writes. With the use of story, Nathan the prophet has made it painfully clear that David’s sin is known to God. So David comes before the Lord to beg for mercy and to be washed clean of his sin. He understands that he does not deserve to be made ‘whiter than snow’. In fact, his iniquity is so great, it is as if he had been guilty from the womb. David also understands that forgiveness is based on the very nature of God; the Lord is merciful and full of steadfast love. This God is in covenant relationship with David, which means that God desires more than anything to forgive his beloved servant of the bone-crushing weight of his sin in order to renew a right relationship with him.
In this fourth week of Lent, how does this psalm of repentance touch your life?
© Psalm 51, Donald Jackson, 2004. The Saint John’s Bible, Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota. Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Catholic Edition, © 1993, 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.