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Psalm 51:1-12

This is the most well-known psalm of confession and is widely used in Christian worship. Verses 1-17 were used in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent. Elsewhere verse 15 has been used for many centuries as an opening verse in the daily office of religious orders.

The psalm, sometimes called the Miserere and well-known through Gregorio Allegri’s famous setting for choir, breaks naturally into a number of sections linked in a coherent progression. Themes and key words, some of particular cultic usage, tie the sections together: wash (vv. 2 and 7), cleanse/clean (vv. 2 and 7), transgressions (vv. 1 and 3), joy (vv. 8 and 12), blot out (vv. 1 and 9), face/presence (vv. 9 and 11), spirit (vv. 10, 12 and 17; cf. v. 11) and salvation (vv. 12 and 14).

The psalmist begins with a basic plea: for God to have mercy. The opening lines have set the agenda for the rest of the psalm. The mercy the psalmist seeks is forgiveness (v. 1). The basis of the psalmist’s confidence is the steadfast love, or abundant mercy, of God. It is on God’s mercy that the psalmist depends for forgiveness, conveyed through the metaphor of washing in v. 2.

The ‘transgressions’ and ‘sin’ mentioned in vv. 1-2 are developed in vv. 3-5. ‘Sin’ cannot be escaped. It is always in the psalmist’s mind. In v. 5 the psalmist adds to the sense of the all pervasiveness of sin by tracing it back to childhood, even conception. This is not a basis for a doctrine of original sin. The psalmist’s language is poetic. The point is that the psalmist is not only ever conscious of their present sin, but they have sinned all their life. This thought of the psalmist being a sinner from before birth adds the sense of helplessness in their condition. He or she can do nothing within themselves to change the condition.

It is on this last ground that the psalmist turns to God. But the psalmist also realises that the one against whom they have sinned is none other than God (verse 4). Against God and God alone has the transgression been committed. God's judgment against the psalmist is therefore justified. The nature of the psalmist's sin is not specified in the psalm but whatever it is it clearly affects the relationship with God. As Walter Brueggemann has said the point made in the psalm is that sin is primarily a theological problem, that is, a problem concerning God and his relation with us. This is so even when the sin is clearly social. This does not lessen the responsibility for sin at a personal or social level. What it does indicate is that sin is a problem that goes even deeper than its personal or social manifestation.

The psalmist turns back to seeking God’s mercy and forgiveness in vv. 6-12. The section begins (v. 6) with a statement about God, namely that he desires truth. The psalmist then asks to be taught wisdom. Each of the following statements elaborates on how such an end might be achieved.

In each statement the psalmist requests something of God, either by way of purging that which is undesirable, remaining present, or recreating. The psalmist desires to hear joy and gladness again. If the psalmist is going to remain in the presence of God, then it will depend completely on God’s action.

The psalmist remains acutely aware of being judged by God. It is God who has, to this point, crushed the psalmist (v. 8). But the psalmist seeks, in v. 9, that God will hide his face from their sins and blot out their transgressions. The reference to ‘your face’ in this verse is recalled in almost the identical Hebrew expression (translated ‘your presence’) in v. 11. The psalmist seeks to have his or her sins removed from God’s presence but not to be personally removed.

The psalmist understands that the removal of sin by God is not a simple matter. The psalmist is aware of being judged and of total dependence on the mercy of God. The wisdom and truth the psalmist seeks, and which God desires, is as much knowledge of being a sinful human being as understanding that which is right.

The psalmist also longs for a spirit that is steadfast (v. 10) and noble or generous (v. 12). This cannot be separated from the request which comes in v. 11, namely that God not take away his ‘holy spirit’ from the psalmist. This reference cannot simply be equated to the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. What the psalmist desires is made clear by the parallel line in v. 11. He or she does not want to be cast from God’s presence. God’s holy spirit thus relates to the sense of God’s presence.

Verses 13-18, which are not part of the set reading for today, outline the consequences of God acceding to the requests of the psalmist. The psalmist vows to teach others God’s ways (v. 13) and will sing aloud of the deliverance he or she has experienced (v. 14). Interwoven with these consequences are statements highlighting again the basis of the psalmist’s requests of God (vv. 16, 17). God has no delight in sacrifices, says the psalmist. What pleases God is a ‘broken and crushed’ heart, which knows its own sins, seeks cleansing and desires to be renewed by God’s spirit. It is a heart which has learnt the wisdom and truth God desires (v. 6). In the words of vv. 10-12, we are talking of a human spirit enlivened by the presence of God’s holy spirit.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:

As in many religious communities v. 15 of the Psalm would make an excellent part of the call to worship.

O Lord, open our lips,
and our mouths will declare your praise.
The whole of vv. 1-12 could form the prayer of confession for the week. A variation on some of the verses could then form the declaration of forgiveness:
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, God does not despise.
God does not cast you away from his presence,
and does not take his holy spirit from you,
but restores to you the joy of your salvation,
and sustains in you a willing spirit,
through Jesus Christ, your Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Old Testament reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34

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