1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
4 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.
5 lndeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
As the church enters the Lenten season, we are anointed with ash to signify our finitude and frailty: “Remember, O human, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” It is equally a sign of repentance, a messy memorial to our more fundamental problem: not our creaturely state, but our fallen state, our enmeshment in sin’s power. It is this reality of which, and from which, the guilt-ridden King David cries so poignantly in this psalm.
Our temptation is to psychologize this psalm, to read it simply as the anguished self-loathing of David—not, as it turns out, immediately after his adultery with Bathsheba nor even his arranged murder of Uriah her husband, but only after the prophet forces the king to acknowledge his transgressions. In this reading, David cries to God from a heart shredded by the guilt of having been found out, wallowing in the depth of a shame that most of us have never plumbed. We might even suspect David of a kind of guilt neurosis that hopes for atonement by way of self-inflicted psychic pain, a catharsis purchased at the heavy price of practically disowning himself. “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (v. 5). We may be tempted to suspect that David got carried away by his guilt feelings, and that in the interests of psychological health we need not follow him in his prayer of wallowing self-hatred.
The church’s traditional reading of this psalm, thankfully, does not encourage us to embrace such a dismissive interpretation of the text. Granted, the text’s own heading (not printed above) recalls for us that this is David’s plea. The prayer arises from a specific narrative and relational context, but it is more than solely David’s anguished prayer, more than hyperbole born of shame-drenched desperation. It is the prayer of us all as we kneel in the name of Jesus Christ, marked by ash, in the presence of the One “before [whom] no creature is hidden,” before whose eyes “all are naked and laid bare” and “to whom we must render an account” (Heb. 4:13). Our sin is ever before us.
Early in his Confessions, Augustine wondered to God about his life in Monica’s womb and later at her breast. “I do not like to think of that period as part of the same life I now lead,” Augustine confessed, “because it is dim and forgotten.” Nevertheless, the bishop of Hippo submitted the self-narrative of his earliest days to this very psalm, adding, “But if I was born in sin and guilt was with me already when my mother conceived me, where, I ask you, Lord, where or when was I, your servant, ever innocent?”
Of course, Augustine himself would be instrumental in the development of the Christian teaching on original sin. In the light of this doctrine, the reply to Augustine’s own query about his innocence is “Never.” If that is indeed the correct reply, it is not because a little child is already personally guilty, nor is it because the act of sexual intercourse is sinful per se (as Augustine unfortunately surmised on occasion). Rather, we are never innocent because the reality and power of sin—alienation from God, from one another, and from the more-than-human world—is pervasively present throughout all the webs of our interconnected lives. Like a corrosive acid, the power of sin eats away at us all in all of our relations—relations that indeed make us who we are becoming—such that none of us is a stranger to abuse, shame, fear, suspicion, and pain. This is our world. Scripture—and this psalm in particular—helps us to name it rightly.
Psalm 51 also leads us to hope in the God of Israel, who acts toward us “according to steadfast love” and “abundant mercy” (v. 1). We can hope because we confess and believe that this God of Israel is indeed the Creator of all things. Only the Creator of all things, Athanasius and other early theologians insisted, is the Power able to “create in [us] a clean heart,” to “put a new and right spirit within [us]” (v. 10). Any lesser power is not sufficient against the destructive acids of sin that are corroding creation.
Our faith further proclaims that the Creator has undertaken our collective healing and restoration not by fiat, nor from a safe distance. Rather, the God to whom David prays has answered this prayer for mercy and healing, ultimately, in and through Jesus Christ. Surely this is already implied in the genealogy of Matthew 1, in which the Messiah’s line is traced through David, “the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah” (v. 6). David’s plea for forgiveness of his transgressions, and even deliverance from the very power of sin, finds its reply in the slow, painstaking labor of God from within the course of human history and human blood—and even, in the case of David’s complicating sins, human bloodshed. Divine mercy is mediated through a Messiah who emerges from within the very midst of our sinful world of betrayal and violence, of mistrust and brokenness, and assumes it as his own.
Perhaps it is significant that this same Gospel of Matthew shares with Psalm 51 at least a mild denigration of ritual sacrifice. David offers “a broken and contrite heart” as “the sacrifice acceptable to God” (v. 17). Twice in Matthew (uniquely among the Gospels) Jesus cites the prophet Hosea (Hos. 6:6), “I [God] desire mercy, not sacrifice” (9:13; 12:7). Granted, Christian tradition has not been particularly hesitant to embrace the language of ritual sacrifice to interpret Jesus’ own death, and Lenten liturgies and sermons often are laced with sacrificial imagery. While that language surely has a legitimate place, Psalm 51 should warn us against interpreting Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion only in that way.