by Jerilyn Watson
In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the superscription of Psalm 51 reads: “To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone into Bathsheba.”
This attention-getting attribution was apparently placed by a post-exilic editor (The New Oxford Annotated Bible). The superscription sends us to 2 Samuel to refresh our memories about David’s sin and the sparing of his life by God.
The scripture has Nathan confronting David with his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah (2 Samuel v.12). David confesses his sin, and Nathan says the Lord “has put away thy sin, thou shalt not die” (King James Version),
Here is the text of Psalm 51, according to the NRSV:
- 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 judgment.
- 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 you 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.
- Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
- Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare you praise.
- For you have no delight in sacrifice; If I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
- The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
- Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
- Then you will delight in right sacrifices in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
Psalm 51 is “an exilic individual lament”(The New Oxford Annotated Bible). Each of its two parts (vv 1-9, 10-19) begins with the psalmist asking God for forgiveness, and each refers to the rituals of the temple at the end (Ibid).
Interpreters of the Psalms count the position of Ps. 51 as the fourth of seven psalms of penance in the Christian tradition (James L. Mays, editor, HarperCollins Bible Commentary). The others are Pss. 6, 32, 38, 102, 130 and 143 (Ibid).
The HarperCollins collection notes the intensity of the psalm (Ibid). It says, however, that this quality does not interfere with the easy flow of the verses. It divides them as follows: the introduction, vv. 1-2; confession of wrongdoing, vv. 3-6; prayer for forgiveness, vv. 7-9; prayer for a renewal of morality vv. 10-12; promise of thanksgiving, vv.13-17; and a liturgical addition, vv. 18-19.
Another of Mays’ works, Psalms: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, emphasizes the importance of the psalm’s theme of contrition. The author calls Ps.51 the Bible’s most thorough exposition of the confession of sin (Ibid). He cites Martin Luther’s praise of the first person that identified ps.51 as a penitential psalm. The book notes that this quality of penitence has earned the ancient poem its reputation as “the proper psalm to introduce the season of Lent”(Ibid). It is often read or sung during Ash Wednesday services, as we did at Westmoreland earlier this week.
Confession, based on the grace of God, alternates with appeals for divine forgiveness in Ps. 51. The first words of the psalm are ‘Be gracious”, or in the NRSV, ‘Have mercy.” The prayer “is not merely an expression of human remorse or preoccupation with failure and guilt. It looks beyond self to God and lays hold on the marvelous possibilities of God’s grace” (The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume IV: 1 & 2 Maccabees – Psalms).
The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary sees our psalm as “also an invitation to be reconciled to God.” Paul understood that reconciliation takes place because God is willing to forgive and that “the result is a new creation (vv. 10-12), and the reconciled are entrusted with the message of reconciliation” (v.13)(Ibid).
Walter Brueggemann and other scholars take on two difficult themes of Ps. 51 in The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. One is that
“God is utterly in the right
(v.4).” The commentator notes that this is not always the case in psalms of lament (Ibid). “When we take into account all the texts, biblical faith always leaves open the charge that God is not in the right, a charge vigorously urged by Job. But here (in Ps 51), the point is not argued.”
Another difficult statement is in Verse 5: “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (Ibid). The commentary says the verse can easily be taken the wrong way: “It does not mean that sex is sinful, nor that this speaker has a perverted beginning, or that the mother is morally implicated. Rather the speaker asserts that he is utterly guilty, in principle, from the beginning. There never was a time when this speaker was not so burdened (Ibid).” The author’s argument concludes with, “What is important is that in this moment of drastic confrontation, the speaker has no claim. There is indeed ‘no health in him’ ” (Ibid).