Psalm 51 is a much loved Psalm. We especially revere a few specific verses. 10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 7Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 17The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
The traditional introduction to this Psalm makes it one of a few with an explicit reference to the context in which it was written. The opening verse found in the Complete Jewish Bible reads: For the leader. A psalm of David, 2 when Natan the prophet came to him after his affair with Bat-Sheva. Understanding this Psalm requires that we are aware of the situation out of which it grew, both David’s folly and Nathan’s obedience.
There was an article in a recent edition of the Spokesman-Review challenging the facts of the capture and release of American hostages by Iran in 1981 as portrayed in the movie Argo. This Spokanite had been intimately involved in the situation at the time and felt that the movie did a disservice to the Canadians. As the movie Argo demonstrates, what claims to be historically accurate is only so from one person’s point of view. History, we come to understand, is, in fact, always someone else’s story told from someone else’s perspective.
In a similar vein historians have weighed in on the recent movie Lincoln. The screen writers say that what is portrayed is “enormously accurate. “What we’re describing absolutely happened.” A scholarly historian Eric Foner commented on what he felt was the films inadequacy: “The emancipation of the slaves is a long, complicated, historical process. It’s not the work of one man, no matter how great he was”.
I can’t help but wonder how history will account for the origination and ultimate outcome of across the board reductions in Federal spending now taking place. There are already debates over where it originated and who should get the credit or blame.
A simple reading would be that David broke the sixth and seventh commandments in committing adultery with Bathsheba and then in trying to cover up that sin by ordering the murder of her husband. I think a more accurate view is that in this incident David broke every one of the ten commandments. Nathan presents David’s own story to him in a hypothetical way, asking the king’s judgment. The ploy worked and David unwittingly declared his own crimes to be worthy of death. David left himself nowhere to hide. He readily admits his guilt and accepts responsibility. We live in more sterile and politically correct times than did the psalmist. Today, eyes would roll if we voiced such a prayer as this that dares tell God what to do. Notice the number of imperatives within the first six lines: “hear my prayer,” “let my cry come,” “do not hide your face,” “turn your ear to me.” But the more striking difference between then and now is not the audacity of the psalmist but his willingness to admit his sin and abandon all excuses. The psalmist begs for mercy, and that requires an admission of sin. Mercy he receives. He begs to be spared the consequences that flow from all his sins, that would not be so.
1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
3For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
4Against 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. 5Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. 6You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.7Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.8Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
11Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 12Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.13Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.14Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
15O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
16For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.17The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. 18Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, 19then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
We can’t overlook the role Nathan plays. For Nathan to be obedient to the call on his life to confront his King with a hard truth took a great deal of courage. The call to “speak truth to power,” referring to the responsibility of challenging leaders by bringing Gospel values to the policy makers and the marketplace is not new. Being part of the advantaged and entitled majority and having been well represented by the authorities it is painfully difficult to advocate for the those unjustly treated. Do you see this as part of your Christian responsibility? How might you “speak truth to power” in your life or work?
David’s prayer consists of a number of noteworthy elements, most prominently, perhaps, the emphasis on the theme of “cleansing.” He begs not merely for forgiveness, that he escape punishment, but also that he be “laundered” and “purified” from his sin. He asks for purification with “hyssop” which refers to the purification process required of a leper before they could enter the Temple. David recognizes that his misdeed not only renders him worthy of punishment, but also leaves an indelible impression upon his soul; it hampers his ability to reach greater spiritual heights, just as the leper’s condition bars him from entering the Temple. He calls on God for not only forgiveness, but for purification, for the complete eradication of the sin’s effects from his being so that he can continue his life of sanctity and Godliness. He prays “Create for me a pure heart, O God, and renew within me a proper spirit. Do not cast me away from You, and do not take from me Your sacred spirit.”
For me, one of the most disturbing verses of this Psalm reads: 4Against 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. My problem is that David didn’t just sin against God – he sinned against Bathsheba and her family; against the child of their union, he sinned against Uriah, both in the loss of his life but in taking from him his wife and denying him his rightful progeny. He sinned against his people, not unlike some of our present day elected officials and representatives of faith communities when they conduct themselves in shameful ways. Sometimes I think David got off easy. It reminds me of how Dietrich Bonhoeffer characterized cheap grace. “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance….
What saves that for me is that toward the end of this Psalm, David proclaims that God is interested less in sacrificial offerings than in sincere, wholehearted repentance: “The offerings of God are a broken spirit, a broken and sorrowful heart – God will not reject”. This was extremely important to the Jewish community once the Temple was destroyed. Even in the absence of the Temple sinners can earn atonement and God’s favor through the process of repentance – the one “sacrifice” that the Almighty will never reject.
David understood full well the prominent place he would hold in Jewish history and that everything he did and what happened to him would be carefully studied for generations to come. He embraces the classic expression of God’s mercy and forgiveness in Exodus 34:6: “A God of loving-kindness and mercy… extending compassion … forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin.” So, David asks God to accept his repentance and in so doing establish a hopeful precedent for all who follow in the future.
This story reveals a contrast between King Saul and David. Saul hadn’t succumbed to temptations of the flesh; he stopped trusting God. To guarantee his future he turned to divination and to mediums. As a result God “repented” of choosing Saul as king. Having lost God’s confidence and hearing of his son’s death, Saul despairs and falls on his own sword. David when confronted by God’s prophet Nathan falls to his knees and begs God’s mercy. David illustrates our belief that God will forgive any sin for which we’re truly sorry.
Following the humiliation of Nathan’s revelation David composed this stirring prayer begging the Almighty to forgive his wrong doing. It begins: “Have mercy, God, in accordance with your merciful love.” From the start, David, does two things at once: he admits his sinfulness and chooses to rely on God’s mercy. He doesn’t rely on previous good deeds or on any extenuating circumstances. He is guilty, and he knows only God’s mercy can save him.
Still David’s sin will have far-reaching consequences. One is the death of the child conceived in his liaison with Bathsheba. The nation will also pay for the crimes of their king just as today children often suffer for the sins of their parents, employees for the sins of their bosses, and citizens and members of worshipping communities for the sins of their leaders.
It is said that when he was dying Augustine asked that the Psalms be hung from the wall facing his bed. Famous for his years of flagrant sinning, Augustine sought the comfort of the Psalms as he prepared to meet God face to face. The Psalms ought to give us courage and confidence as we reflect on our own lives and on the struggles, sins, and “enemies” that afflict us. They teach us to plead without restraint, to hold nothing back in begging for God’s mercy. I’m “skin and bones,” the psalmist says or as in Psalm 102 “I am like a desert owl, like an owl among the ruins” whose mournful cry and solitary life make it the very emblem of desolation. Such talk is not born of arrogance or overconfidence, but from a deep conviction that God is merciful and loves us like a parent.