Lectionary Passage for Ash Wednesday and the Season of Lent – Psalm 51 vv 1 – 17
Our Penitence and God’s Mercy and Forgiveness
Wednesday of this last week was marked as Ash Wednesday and so we have just begun the Christian Season of Lent. Traditionally, Lent has been a time of fasting, a time of abstinence but also a time of reflection and penitence. Partly because the Gospel passage designated for this Sunday is from the opening part of the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel – again – this week’s reflection is a bit different.
The Book of Psalms is an easy book to find. The way our Bibles are printed, Psalms comes just about in the middle. We find a collection of 150 Psalms. The word itself is a transliteration of a Greek word which was derived from a Hebrew word with a connotation of the twanging of strings – a plucked instrument. The Psalms were meant to be sung and the collection is often referred to as the Hymn Book of the Second Temple. On pilgrimage journeys towards Jerusalem and in the worship of the Temple itself people sang the Psalms.
As in any collection of Hymns, in the Psalms we find expression of a whole range of human emotion and religious experience. There is a great variety of subjects, from Harvest Festivals through Coronations to pure Praise of God -and many moods are reflected – hope, fear, success, frustration, joy, elation, sorrow and despair. Every mood and experience is brought into relation with God. We are very familiar with some of them, in particular Psalm 23, Psalm 8 with its question ’What is man?’, and in Psalm 139 ‘Where could I get away from your presence?’.
Seven of the Psalms are referred to as the Penitential Psalms – Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. It is Psalm 51 that is the most familiar of these. Like any collection of Hymns, the Psalms were written over a long span of time and by many different authors. Scholars no longer accept the old view that they were written by David, the superscription ‘A Psalm of David’ could equally be expressed ‘A Psalm for David’ and there is evidence of the origin of at least some of them from long after David’s time. Even the traditional view that Psalm 51 owes its origin to David’s penitence following Nathan’s rebuke over his affair with Bathsheba 2 Samuel (12 vv 1 – 1 3) is questioned. But that doesn’t alter its abiding value for us as twenty-first century Christians.
‘Be merciful to me, O God, because of your constant love,
Because of your great mercy wipe away my sins!
Wash away all my evil and make me clean from my sin.’
Verses 1 & 2
Aware of God’s mercy and love, the worshipper reaches out towards God and pleads for a cleansing from his sins. He is dependent on God and longs for the relationship, which he had broken, to be restored.
‘I recognise my faults; I am always conscious of my sins.’
The first step of penitence is an awareness of our sin. The Psalmist is honest with himself and with God. His sins confront him inescapably.
‘I have sinned against you- only against you – and done what you consider evil.
So you are right in judging me; and you are justified in condemning me.’
Confession is a recognition that we have sinned against God. It’s not that we haven’t sinned in ways that affect other people but rather that every sin is, at a very basic level, against the laws and the person of God. God is right all along in His judgement on us.
‘I have been evil from the time I was born; from the day of my birth, I have been sinful.’
Without even delving into the Doctrine of Original Sin, I believe that we can recognise that within us, from our earliest days, there is a bias, a propensity to do the things we know we shouldn’t do. The Psalmist acknowledges this – as does Paul – see Romans 7 v 15. We are both sinners and saints.
‘Sincerity and truth are what you require; fill my mind with your wisdom.’
Verse 6 presents difficulty to translators; the Hebrew is unclear. Some versions here speak of our inmost parts. From deep within, the Psalmist knows what God really requires of us in terms of sincerity and he prays for God’s wisdom.
‘Remove my sin, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear the sounds of joy and gladness;
and though you have crushed me and broken me,
I will be happy once again.
Close your eyes to my sins and wipe out all my evil.’
Verses 7,8 & 9
This is the verse where in other translations we read ’purge me – or cleanse me – with hyssop.’ It seems that a leafy branch of hyssop was used in Temple worship and religious ritual as a sort of sprinkler in the same way that holy water is sprinkled in some Church traditions using an aspergillum – only then it was sacrificial blood that was meant to be the cleansing agent! They knew about snow from snow-capped Mount Hermon and saw its whiteness as purity. The Psalmist yearned to be made clean and restored to purity and looked forward to hearing God’s word of forgiveness and the promise of salvation.
‘Create a pure heart in me, O God, and put a new and loyal spirit in me. Do not banish me from your presence; do not take your holy spirit away from me.
Give me again the joy that comes from your salvation and make me willing to obey you.
Then will I teach sinners your commands, and they will turn back to you.’
Verses 10 – 13
The Psalmist knows that it is only God who can recreate us with a pure heart and a new spirit. Although holy and spirit are printed with lower case initial letters, this verse, and other references in the Old Testament to the spirit of God, anticipate the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. God’s salvation is joyous and brings a willing obedience to Him. These verses contain the implication of our responsibility and our desire, having found the joy of our salvation, to share it and tell others.
Spare my life, O God, and save me,
And I will gladly proclaim your righteousness.
Help me to speak, Lord, and I will praise you.
Verses 14 & 15
The Psalmist prays for deliverance – we can’t be sure about any particular threat to him, but as a result of his safety, he promises to sing aloud God’s praises. Verse 15 is well known in a different form from the liturgies of the daily patterns of prayer – ‘O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise.’
‘You do not want sacrifices, or I would offer them;
you are not pleased with burnt offerings.
My sacrifice is a humble spirit, O God;
you will not reject a humble and repentant heart.’
Verses 16 & 17
In some ways these are very surprising verses. Given that the Psalms were sung as part of Temple Worship in Jerusalem as well as elsewhere, and given that part, at least, of that Worship involved the sacrifice of animals, the Psalmist seems to question the very basis of what took place. In other parts of the Old Testament the practice of sacrifice is called into question. Certainly, the prophet Micah asks questions about ‘what does the Lord require when I come to worship Him?’ Micah 6 vv 6 – 8. Here the Psalmist is clear – he has found acceptance and forgiveness through his repentance and humility.
Psalm 51 is a tremendous and meaningful Psalm. For well over two thousand years people have found in it words that reflect their experience and have used it to express their penitence and faith. We – the Jesus people, find in Him the perfect, and final, sacrifice. We hear, through Him, God’s continuing promise of mercy and forgiveness in response to our sincere penitence. We receive, in Him, the assurance of a new heart and a renewed spirit. We are blessed by Him with the joy of our salvation.