Psalm 51 - New American Bible, Revised Edition
The Seven Penitential Psalms
During times when we wish to express repentance and especially during Lent, it is customary to pray the seven penitential psalms. The penitential designation of these psalms dates from the seventh century. Prayerfully reciting these psalms will help us to recognize our sinfulness, express our sorrow and ask for God’s forgiveness.
We are featuring here the newly released translations of the seven penitential psalms from the New American Bible, Revised Edition with reflections and discussion questions from Graziano Marcheschi, M.A. D.Min.
Psalm 51: Audio | Commentary
The Miserere: Prayer of Repentance
1For the leader. A psalm of David, 2when Nathan the prophet came to
him after he had gone in to Bathsheba.a
3Have mercy on me, God, in accord with your merciful love;
in your abundant compassion blot out my transgressions.
4Thoroughly wash away my guilt;
and from my sin cleanse me.
5For I know my transgressions;
my sin is always before me.b
6Against you, you alone have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in your eyes
So that you are just in your word,
and without reproach in your judgment.c
7Behold, I was born in guilt,
in sin my mother conceived me.*d
8Behold, you desire true sincerity;
and secretly you teach me wisdom.
9Cleanse me with hyssop,* that I may be pure;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.e
10You will let me hear gladness and joy;
the bones you have crushed will rejoice.
11Turn away your face from my sins;
blot out all my iniquities.
12A clean heart create for me, God;
renew within me a steadfast spirit.f
13Do not drive me from before your face,
nor take from me your holy spirit.g
14Restore to me the gladness of your salvation;
uphold me with a willing spirit.
15I will teach the wicked your ways,
that sinners may return to you.
16Rescue me from violent bloodshed, God, my saving God,
and my tongue will sing joyfully of your justice.h
17Lord, you will open my lips;
and my mouth will proclaim your praise.
18For you do not desire sacrifice* or I would give it;
a burnt offering you would not accept.i
19My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn.
20*Treat Zion kindly according to your good will;
build up the walls of Jerusalem.j
21Then you will desire the sacrifices of the just,
burnt offering and whole offerings;
then they will offer up young bulls on your altar.
* [Psalm 51] A lament, the most famous of the seven Penitential Psalms, prays for the removal of the personal and social disorders that sin has brought. The poem has two parts of approximately equal length: Ps 51:3–10 and Ps 51:11–19, and a conclusion in Ps 51:20–21. The two parts interlock by repetition of “blot out” in the first verse of each section (Ps 51:3, 11), of “wash (away)” just after the first verse of each section (Ps 51:4) and just before the last verse (Ps 51:9) of the first section, and of “heart,” “God,” and “spirit” in Ps 51:12, 19. The first part (Ps 51:3–10) asks deliverance from sin, not just a past act but its emotional, physical, and social consequences. The second part (Ps 51:11–19) seeks something more profound than wiping the slate clean: nearness to God, living by the spirit of God (Ps 51:12–13), like the relation between God and people described in Jer 31:33–34. Nearness to God brings joy and the authority to teach sinners (Ps 51:15–16). Such proclamation is better than offering sacrifice (Ps 51:17–19). The last two verses express the hope that God’s good will toward those who are cleansed and contrite will prompt him to look favorably on the acts of worship offered in the Jerusalem Temple (Ps 51:19 [20–21]).
* [51:7] In sin my mother conceived me: lit., “In iniquity was I conceived,” an instance of hyperbole: at no time was the psalmist ever without sin, cf. Ps 88:15, “I am mortally afflicted since youth,” i.e., I have always been afflicted. The verse does not imply that the sexual act of conception is sinful.
* [51:9] Hyssop: a small bush whose many woody twigs make a natural sprinkler. It was prescribed in the Mosaic law as an instrument for sprinkling sacrificial blood or lustral water for cleansing, cf. Ex 12:22; Lv 14:4; Nm 19:18.
* [51:18] For you do not desire sacrifice: the mere offering of the ritual sacrifice apart from good dispositions is not acceptable to God, cf. Ps 50.
* [51:20–21] Most scholars think that these verses were added to the Psalm some time after the destruction of the Temple in 587 B.C. The verses assume that the rebuilt Temple will be an ideal site for national reconciliation.
a. [51:2] 2 Sm 12.
b. [51:5] Ps 32:5; 38:19; Is 59:12.
c. [51:6] Rom 3:4.
d. [51:7] Jb 14:4.
e. [51:9] Jb 9:30; Is 1:18; Ez 36:25.
f. [51:12] Ez 11:19.
g. [51:13] Wis 1:5; 9:17; Is 63:11; Hg 2:5; Rom 8:9.
h. [51:16] Ps 30:10.
i. [51:18] Ps 40:7; 50:8; Am 5:21–22; Hos 6:6; Is 1:11–15; Heb 10:5–7.
j. [51:20] Jer 31:4; Ez 36:33.
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The Miserere: Prayer of Repentance
It is the sentiment King David expresses here that assured his greatness, that set him apart from his predecessor, Saul, and that enables him to stand tall among Israel’s great heroes despite the grave sin that sits at the heart of this lament
Miserere… it begins: “Have mercy, God, in accordance with your merciful love.” From the start, the speaker, King David, does two things at once: admit his sinfulness and rely on God’s mercy. He doesn’t rely on previous good deeds or on any extenuating circumstances. He is guilty, and he knows only God’s mercy can save him.
David’s sin will have far-reaching consequences. The nation will pay for the crimes of their king just as children often suffer for the sins of their parents, employees for the sins of their bosses, and citizens and parishioners for the sins of their leaders.
David has committed adultery with Bathsheba and covered up his sin by ordering the murder of her husband. The prophet Nathan has confronted him with his crime, so now David has nowhere to hide. But David’s contrast with his royal predecessor is starkly evident. King Saul hadn’t succumbed to temptations of the flesh; he had stopped trusting God. He turned to divination and to mediums, rather than to God, to guarantee his future, so God “repented” of choosing Saul as king. Having lost God’s confidence and hearing of his son’s death, Saul despairs and falls upon his sword.
And then there’s David. Nathan presents David’s own story to him as a hypothetical, asking the king’s judgment. The ploy works and David unwittingly declares his own crimes to be worthy of death. But when he’s identified as the guilty party, David readily admits his guilt and accepts responsibility. And instead of falling on his sword, David falls to his knees and begs God’s mercy. Saul and David both shed light on one of the great truths of Christian faith: God will forgive any sin for which we’re truly sorry.
But that’s not really as easy as it sounds. Those who think “It’s not fair that some can sin their whole life through, then say a quick “I’m sorry” on their deathbed and thereby sneak through heaven’s gates!” can take comfort (if such a thing is comfort) in the knowledge that it’s really very difficult to turn our lives around all at once, especially at the very end. Saul couldn’t do it. Fortunately, David didn’t have to because he practiced repentance throughout his life. Deathbed confessions are the exception. The psalms show us the better way: we must recognize our sinfulness and practice repentance throughout life. And if we do, it won’t be hard to say I’m sorry—and to mean it—when we reach the end.
Questions for Reflection:
Read the story of how Nathan confronted David in 2 Samuel 12: 1-14. Then recall a time you’ve been confronted with some sin of your own. Were you able to recognize and accept your guilt or did you strive to deny it to others or yourself?
Though Scripture assures us David was forgiven his grave sins of adultery and of causing the death of an innocent man, the child he conceived with Bathsheba died, as the prophet Nathan predicted. That death is presented as the consequence of David’s sin. Is God less merciful if he allows us to endure the consequences of our sins?
The prophets Nathan’s ministry in this episode of David’s life was to confront his King with a hard truth. Today we talk of “speaking truth to power,” referring to the responsibility of bringing Gospel values to the marketplace and challenging our leaders when necessary. Do you see this as part of your Christian responsibility? How might you “speak truth to power” in your life or work?