Psalm 51:1-17 (NIV)
For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
you who are God my Savior,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.
Psalm 51 is quintessential Lent – repentance, turning toward God, and asking for God’s help to “Create in me a pure heart.” In this Psalm, King David, to whom it is traditionally ascribed, cries out to God for forgiveness, after being confronted by the prophet Nathan for adultery with Bathsheba, and having her husband Uriah murdered [2 Samuel 12].
Psalm 51, aka “Miserere,” or “Miserere mei, Deus” (Have mercy on me, O God; the first three words in the Latin text), is central to the spiritual practice of Jewish and Christian faith. Portions are regular parts of Jewish liturgy. It was recited at the close of daily morning services in the early church. Sir Thomas More (1535) and 17-year-old Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Day Queen (1554), recited it at their executions. Martin Luther viewed Psalm 51 as instructional: “In it David truly teaches what sin is, where it comes from, what damage it does—and how one may be freed from it.”
The Psalm provides us a sinner’s guide to repentance. Speaking directly to God, David confesses the depth and breadth of his sin using three different Hebrew terms, translated as sin (missing the mark set by God), transgression (willful disobedience of God), and iniquity (perversity, moral evil, distortion of God’s law). David appeals to God to have mercy, blot out, and cleanse. He relies solely on God’s mercy (not prior good deeds or extenuating circumstances). David asks for forgiveness and escape from the consequences of his sin, and seeks nearness to God.
God, I humbly come to You, as David did 3,000 years ago, confessing my sins which have weakened my relationship with You and harmed others, asking You to forgive me, cleanse me, create in me a pure heart, and reorient my life toward You and Your will. Amen.
- Beautiful Choral Composition: Miserere mei, Deus – by Gregorio Allegri (1630)
- If you only have time for one, I suggest this first video link, sung by the Tenebrae Choir
- But if you have time, I also suggest this video, which has helpful captions, sung by The Sixteen
- Note: Allegri’s Miserere is the composition that a teenaged Mozart supposedly “stole” from the Vatican
- Painting: Thou Art the Man, (1884) by Peter Frederick Rothermel: Nathan confronting King David
- Painting: King David Playing the Harp (1622) by Gerard van HonthorstCommentaries: You may have been surprised, as I was, by verse 4 – “Against you, you only, have I sinned” — given what David had done to Uriah, Bathsheba, and others.
- Commentaries such as the following suggest this statement may have been: a response to Nathan’s accusation that David “despised the word of God,” a narrow theological definition of sin, a view that sins against humans are considered sins against God, a view that God is present in everyone including David’s human victims, or hyperbole.
- Martin Luther’s Exposition of the 51st Psalm: