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Mary Jo Bowman
Psalms and Wisdom Literature
March 1, 2007
I’m going to be preaching on Psalm 51, and in a minute or two I’ll be asking you to read the Psalm with me from the hymnal. Please go ahead and turn to that now—it’s #818. 1
But, first let me tell you a story. It seems that a young priest in the 1970s was so taken with the latest bestseller “I'm Okay, You're Okay” that he gave it a rave review in one of his sermons. When he was greeting people at the door afterwards, he asked one of his parishioners what he thought of the sermon. The man responded, “I haven’t read the book. Maybe it really is better than the Bible. But as you were preaching I kept thinking of Adam and Eve, Moses and Aaron and the golden calf. And David and Bathsheba. Even more, I kept thinking of Christ on the Cross saying to those who were watching him die: ‘If everybody’s okay, what am I doing up here?’”2
If I’m okay and you’re okay, then we don’t need Lent or Easter. We don’t need God’s mercy. We don’t need confession, repentance, forgiveness, and a clean heart. We don’t need Psalm 51! However, I believe none of us is okay. I chose to preach on Psalm 51 because I think we need to recover the practice of confession—as individuals and as a church.
In some liturgical traditions and monastic communities, Psalm 51 is used frequently—weekly or even daily--in communal prayers. However, I’ve noticed that confession of sin is often not included in the worship services at my church, and I tend to forget to include confession in my personal prayers. I think that needs to change.
Psalm 51 can serve as a model prayer and help us revitalize the practice of confession. Taking a careful look at this psalm of penitence and lament3 may help us to reflect on our own practices of prayer and worship, and how confession of sin and God’s creative work of cleansing shapes our ministry.
If you look the psalm in the hymnal, you’ll notice that it’s basically the NRSV, with a few changes in wording. Notice that the hymnal leaves out vs. 13-14, which is kind of disappointing to me because I think they are especially important. I’ll read them myself as we come to that point, between the last two sections. There are two more verses at the very end that are also not printed here, and because of time I am not going to deal with them, except to say that vs. 18-19 are believed to have been a later addition to the Psalm, after the restoration of the temple.4 These last verses remind us that Psalm 51 has a communal as well as a personal message. I encourage you to look them up on your own.
As we read the psalm together, I invite you to notice that all the way through, the psalmist speaks directly to God. Notice the rich variety of words about who God is and what God is asked to do, about the reality of human sin and God’s creative work of cleansing and making new. And notice that towards the end the psalm the focus shifts from the inward work of confession to reaching outward in teaching and testimony.
Please join me in reading the psalm together:
II.Section 1: vs. 1-2 Plea for mercy God’s and forgiveness (Address to God)
This psalm begins with “Have mercy on me, O God.” This is the best place for confession to begin: with an appeal to God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy, or as the NIV translates it: “unfailing love and compassion.” We find the same Hebrew words about God’s mercy in Ex. 34:6, where the LORD responds to Israel’s first major rebellion—their worship of the golden calf (Ex. 32). Even though the people had broken the covenant with Yahweh, God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”5 What does a person or community do in the presence of such a merciful God? We can almost see the psalmist fall to his knees, weighed down by guilt. At the beginning of the psalm, there are three words for wrongdoing, the same words found in Ex. 34:7 6 First, “transgressions,” which means rebellion, disobedience, defiance or revolt. It implies a willful act of deviating or straying.7 Second: “iniquity” which means “bending or twistedness”8, crookedness, perverseness9 or guilt.10 And third, plain old “sin” points to “failure or missing the mark.”11
Facing the reality of guilt, the Psalmist asks for cleansing: “Blot out my transgressions,” “wash me,” “cleanse me from my sin.” In the OT, sin was understood as defilement, dirt, or stain that created a barrier between people and God. Purity laws and rituals for cleansing recognized God’s holiness and made provision for cleansing as a regular part of worship.
.III. Section 2: vs. 3-6 Confession of Sin (Complaint against self and sinfulness)
While a specific sin is not named in Psalm 51, the superscription connects it with the story of David and Bathsheba, one of the greatest OT soap operas—the king of Israel, guilty of adultery (or perhaps rape)12 and responsible for the death of a man and an illegitimate child (2 Samuel 11-12). Whether it was written at the time of David or considerably later,13 Psalm 51 acknowledges the recurring problem of sin in the story of God’s chosen people. David’s story becomes our story, and gives us an opportunity to recall our own personal sins and those of our church communities, now and throughout history.
The next verse gets more introspective: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” Like an honest look in the mirror. As Eugene Peterson (in The Message) puts it: “I know how bad I’ve been; my sins are staring me down.”14 There’s no getting around it, no place to hide.
The Psalmist says to God: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” This echoes the words of King David in 2 Samuel 12. When he was confronted by Nathan, David said “I have sinned against the Lord.” (2 Sam. 12:13). What are we to make of these words: “against you, you alone have I sinned”? Surely, in David’s case, he sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah, and betrayed the trust of his people. Yet, aren’t all offenses ultimately sins against God? —violation of God’s commands15 and failure to honor God?16
The Psalmist tells it like it is—“I have done evil in your sight.” He knows he deserves judgment and punishment. As Peterson puts it: “You have all the facts before you; whatever you decide about me is fair.”17
In verse 5 we find a troubling concept about guilt: The NRSV says: “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” This verse has been used by many throughout church history as a basis for the doctrine of original sin, including a negative view of sex. But let’s not get sidetracked with that. A better interpretation of this verse focuses on the universal human condition of sinfulness, 18 as expressed in wording in the hymnal: “I was born in the midst of iniquity; in the midst of sin my mother conceived me.” As the apostle Paul put it: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” ( Rom. 3:23)
Even though this section of the psalm focuses on the reality of sinfulness and God’s judgment, it ends with a message of hope: Sin is not the ultimate reality—God, in divine wisdom, provides a way that brings new life. 19“You desire truth—teach me wisdom” (v. 6). The focus on “truth” and “wisdom” here is similar to these words found in I John 1:8-9: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
IV. Section 3: vs. 7-12 Petition for Cleansing and Restoration
Let’s look at the images of “cleansing” here. First: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.”(7a) “Purge” is a strong word—not a gentle rinsing. It’s more dramatic—like the process for cleaning out the bowels in preparation for a colonoscopy. (I’ve never had that done, but I hear it requires spending all day or all night very close to a toilet—a rather smelly, painful process!) That’s purge! And what is hyssop? It’s an herb used in cleansing ceremonies, as described in Leviticus (14:2-9 and 48-53)—for persons with leprosy, and also for cleansing of contaminated houses. Also, a hyssop brush was used to sprinkle blood on the doorposts at Passover (Ex.12:22).20 So, hyssop is a metaphor for rituals of purification and deliverance. The second image of cleansing is gentler: “Wash me, and I shall be whiter that snow.” Or as the hymnal puts it: “purer than snow.” With cleansing comes joy, a kind of lightness, like the fragrance of a spring rain shower or the freshness of clean bed sheets.
But what does this sentence mean: “let the bones that you have crushed rejoice”? I’m not sure what to make of the suggestion that God is the one who crushed the bones—perhaps that is an expression of being judged and humbled by God. Several Psalms speak of problems with bones. For example, in Ps. 22:14, the psalmist’s bones are out of joint. And in Ps. 38: 3: “There is no health in my bones because of my sin.” In the ancient world, illness and other misfortunes were often understood to be a result of sin. I’m not sure what I think about this idea, but I do know about bone pain and how deep and excruciating it can be. When I broke my arm and had surgery on it—after the metal plates were screwed onto my bones, and before the morphine was hooked up--I felt like I had a truck crushing my arm!
Then there is the request: “Hide your face from my sins” (v 9a). In OT language, when God hides his face from someone, God is showing disapproval.21 Here, the psalmist asks God to turn away from the sin, not from the person. “Blot out all my iniquities” can be understood as a plea to remove the sins from God’s sight—like removing a stain from cloth, so the sin can no longer be seen or remembered.
This brings us to the most familiar part of this psalm, and a significant turning point.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” The word “create” used here is the Hebrew word that is used only for God’s work—the same word used in the creation story in Genesis, and in Isaiah 43:122: “Thus says the Lord who created you…, who formed you…; do not fear, for I have redeemed you.” God is able to make us new! Heart and spirit—the core of who we are, our breath, our life, our will. This is a chance to begin again!
With this cleansing comes a desire to be in God’s presence. “Do not cast me away from your presence. And do not take your holy spirit from me.” (v 11). Don’t reject me. As The Message says: “Don’t throw me out with the trash.”23 (v 12) “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing (or generous) spirit.”
This familiar part of the psalm reminds us God can take our brokenness and make something new—to restore our connection with God, to replace remorse with joy. This good news evokes a voluntary, public response—a vow of praise--on the part of the psalmist. This is typical of laments, but is something I had never noticed before in Psalm 51.
V. Section 4: vs. 13-17 Vow of Praise and Public Contrition
In the final section of the Psalm, we find a vow to teach others and to praise. Let me read the two verses that are missing from the version in the hymnal: (v 13) “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” This is a promise to tell others about God, with confidence that they will repent. And vs 14: “Deliver me from bloodshed, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.” Evidently, the psalmist is not quite done with asking for God’s help—“save me from ‘bloodshed’—rescue me from “guilt” or “violence.”24 There is a hint of bargaining with God here: “Help me, and I promise to praise you.” Whatever the motive, the movement is into the public, social arena of testimony and worship: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.”(v 15)
“For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.” (vs 16) This sounds very much like the OT prophets, like in Hosea 6:6 “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice; the knowledge of God and not burnt offerings.” God wants humility. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (vs 17)
The kind of worship God desires is for us to bring our whole selves to God, in honest repentance, so that we can be cleansed, made new, and given a message of joy and hope to share with others.
Finally, the practice of confession includes not only looking inward and telling God that we are sinners and naming what we have done wrong. The practice of confession includes affirming that we need God and that we trust God to heal us and make us new. And even more, what I noticed for the first time in Psalm 51 is that confession actually prepares us and equips us for ministry: As verse 13 says: “I will teach transgressors your ways and sinners will return to you.” There is a striking element of reaching out in mission—teaching, calling others to repentance and new life.
Praying Psalm 51 invites us into mission, to sharing the good news of God’s mercy—participation in what the apostle Paul called “the ministry of reconciliation.” In the end, Psalm 51 points us to the kind of ministry expressed in Paul’s words found in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20: 25
So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (NRSV)
Let’s pray: Have mercy on us, O God. We have sinned against you. Purge us, wash us, make us new creations by your spirit. Then we will teach others about you, as your ambassadors.
Deliver us from evil and equip us to be your ministers of reconciliation. O Lord, open our lips, and our mouths will declare your praise. Accept our humble prayer, in Jesus’ name, Amen.
Anderson, Bernhard W. Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000.
Brueggemann, Walter, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, and James D. Newsome. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the Nrsv, Year A. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995.
Forest, Jim. Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2002.
Hymnal: A Worship Book. Elgin, Illinois: Brethren Press; Newton, Kansas: Faith and Life Press; Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Mennonite Publishing House, 1992.
J. Clinton McCann, Jr. "Psalm 51:1-19." In The New Interpreter's Bible, edited by John J. Collins, 883-89. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002.
Tate, Marvin E. "A Confession of Sin and Prayer for Forgiveness (51:1-21)." In Word Biblical Commentary, edited by John D. W. Wattts. Dallas: Word Books, 1990.
Waltner, James H. Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms. Edited by Elmer A. Martens and Willard M. Swartley, Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006.
Young, Robert. Young's Analytical Concordance to the Bible. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers.
Hymnal: A Worship Book, (Elgin, Illinois: Brethren Press; Newton, Kansas: Faith and Life Press; Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Mennonite Publishing House: 1992).
Jim Forest, Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2002), 2. Adapted.
This Psalm is typically classified as the most important of the seven penitential Psalms in the Psalter. It is also usually considered a lament, with the structure of address to God (v. 1-2), complaint [against sinful self] (v. 3-6), petition (v. 7-12), vow of praise (v. 13-17).
James H. Waltner, Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms, ed. Elmer A. Martens and Willard M. Swartley, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006), 260.
Jr. J. Clinton McCann, "Psalm 51:1-19," in The New Interpreter's Bible, ed. John J. Collins (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 885. It is interesting to note that Ex. 34:7 does include a judgement on future generations.
Marvin E. Tate, "A Confession of Sin and Prayer for Forgiveness (51:1-21)," in Word Biblical Commentary, ed. John D. W. Wattts (Dallas: Word Books, 1990), 15.
Waltner, Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms, 257.
J. Clinton McCann, "Psalm 51:1-19," 885.
Waltner, Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms, 257.
Walter Brueggemann et al., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the Nrsv, Year A (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 176. Text is ambiguous about nature of David’s encounter with Bathsheba.
Waltner, Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms, 256-57.
Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 975.
Tate, "A Confession of Sin and Prayer for Forgiveness (51:1-21)," 17.
J. Clinton McCann, "Psalm 51:1-19," 885.
Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, 975.
Tate, "A Confession of Sin and Prayer for Forgiveness (51:1-21)," 19.
J. Clinton McCann, "Psalm 51:1-19," 886. “God desires not sinfulness but faithfulness or ‘truth’; see Pss 26:3, 45:4). The wisdom the psalmist requests consists of openness to Go and dependence upon God (see Pss 37:30, 49:3, 90:12, Prov 1:7, 9:10).”
Tate, "A Confession of Sin and Prayer for Forgiveness (51:1-21)," 21.
Robert Young, Young's Analytical Concordance to the Bible (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers), 210.
Waltner, Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms, 259. The term “holy spirit” (with a small h) is used only one other place in the OT, in Is. 63:10-11, in a communal psalm of lament about Israel’s history with God—“They rebelled and grieved his holy spirit.”
J. Clinton McCann, "Psalm 51:1-19," 887.
Various commentators point to this New Testament corollary.