Editor’s note: This is the fourth essay in a series on The Seven Penitential Psalms. A complete list of the essays is at the bottom of this essay.
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love;
according to thy 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 thee, thee only, have I sinned,
and done that which is evil in thy sight,
so that thou art justified in thy sentence
and blameless in thy judgment.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
6 Behold, thou desirest 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 Fill me with joy and gladness;
let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice.
9 Hide thy 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 Cast me not away from thy presence,
and take not thy holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of thy salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors thy ways,
and sinners will return to thee.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness,O God,
thou God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of thy deliverance.
15 O Lord, open thou my lips,
and my mouth shall show forth thy praise.
16 For thou hast no delight in sacrifice;
were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
18 Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
19 then wilt thou delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on thy altar. (Psalm 51)
To accompany reflection on this psalm, I would suggest getting access to one of the many musical renditions, for example, that of Josquin des Prez, J. S. Bach, or – bar none the finest – that of Gregorio Allegri.1
We have now reached the absolute center-piece of the Seven Penitential Psalms, the Miserere, prayed at Lauds or Morning Prayer every Friday in the Divine Office. Of all the psalms, we can be surest that this one was most certainly a direct composition of King David. In fact, it is introduced by this line: “A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” Thus, it would be good to review the circumstances of David’s life which brought him to this moment.
The story is told in punctilious detail in the eleventh chapter of the Second Book of Samuel. The young and beautiful Bathsheba is bathing, and David espies her from the palace roof. Rather than turning away his eyes (and heart), David succumbs to the sin of adultery (taking advantage of the absence of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah at war on behalf of Israel). That adulterous act produces a child, which causes David to wish to cover up the act by bringing home Uriah, in the hope that his presence would make the husband and others presume that the child to be born was sprung from his loins, rather than David’s. Unlike David, however, Uriah is a just man, observant of the law which required sexual abstinence for those on duty in the Temple or those engaged in warfare. And so, David’s deceitful plot is foiled by the integrity of the man against whom he had sinned. Undeterred, David hatches yet another scheme: Send Uriah to the front, so that he will be killed, allowing the original plan to be fulfilled. The cycle of evil is complete: an early version of pornography led to adultery, which led to an attempted cover-up, which led to murder.
Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there. In the following chapter of Second Samuel, the prophet Nathan poses a parable to the King, seeking his assessment of the conduct of a powerful man who takes advantage of a much lesser personage. David’s sense of justice is offended and suggests that the offender is worthy of death. The courageous Nathan shoots back: “That man is you!” A true prophet, Nathan is not afraid to speak truth to power (Would that more clergy today laid claim to their prophetic ministry, rather than sheepishly cowering before politicos!). In this way, Nathan leads David onto repentance, the theological and literary fruit of which is Psalm 51.
The powerful King of Israel is brought to his knees in abject sorrow for his sins, speaking in total honesty. God is not treated to any white-washing or shifting of blame (like our first parents in the Garden of Eden); David takes full and personal responsibility. There are no excuses proferred (“My family were all sinners.” “I came from a bad neighborhood.” “I didn’t realize how badly I was behaving.”). None of that at all. Further, because of the horrific nature of his sins, he recognizes the justice of any punishment God might mete out against him. Yes, the God of David does punish, as does the God of Jesus.
Verse 5 may give one pause. What is David talking about here? Was he the product of incest or adultery or fornication? No, the biblical record is clear that such was not the case. Then what could “in sin did my mother conceive me” mean? St. Augustine comes to the rescue: “It can only be that there is here a kind of propagation or transmission of death, which every person contracts who is born of the union of man and woman” (Sermon 170). This is what the Church has traditionally called “original sin.” This inheritance from our first parents makes us to be what St. Paul would call “children of wrath” by nature (Eph 2:3); thanks to Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, whose benefits are bestowed on us in Baptism, we become filii in Filio (sons and daughters in the Son). That said, there is still that residual damage called “concupiscence” – the propensity to sin, which would cause St. Paul to exclaim: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom 7:15).
Catholics part company with Luther or, better, Luther parted company with Catholics by asserting that – even after Baptism – we are no more than a massa damnata. No, the Church has a much more positive, hopeful view of man; to be sure, we carry around with us the baggage of concupiscence, which tilts us in the direction of sin, but we are still essentially good and, under the impulse of divine grace, we can do the good we intend.
The seventh verse should be familiar as it is the text used to accompany the Rite of Sprinkling at Mass (outside Paschaltide): “Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor,
Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.” Hyssop, of course, was the saving instrument for the first-born boys of the Hebrews as the Lord God prepared to visit the final plague on the Egyptians: “Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood which is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood which is in the basin; and none of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning” (Ex 12:22). St. John the Evangelist, recounting the death of the Lord Christ, notes: “But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (19:34). Hence, in the New Dispensation, we are saved from original sin by the waters of Baptism and from our personal sins by the Blood of the Lamb, received in the Holy Eucharist. Interestingly, St. Faustina Kowalska, the “secretary” of Divine Mercy tells us: “During prayer I heard these words within me: The two rays denote Blood and Water. The pale ray stands for the water that makes souls righteous. The red ray stands for the Blood which is the life of souls …’”
The psalmist-king prays for a “clean heart”; that gift was ours on the day of our Baptism. He then humbly asks that God’s Holy Spirit not be taken from him; that can only happen to us when we allow ourselves to fall into mortal sin. The pagan Socrates urged his students: “Know thyself.” The Holy Spirit is the source of the grace of true self-awareness, which is also the grace given for self-conviction. The Gospel of John will identify that Holy Spirit as the Paraclete, who gives us the wisdom to see ourselves as God sees us and then defends us from the assaults of the Evil One, as well as on the Day of Judgment.
The psalmist’s faith in the ever-provident God leads him to conclude that he has truly been forgiven, which brings him to the experience of joy. We need to know that “joy” is not a synonym for “hilarity,” which is nothing other than a silly, superficial approach to life. Joy allows us to view all things – even seemingly disastrous ones – sub specie aeternitatis (from the perspective of eternity). In other words, we are imbued with the conviction that carried St. Paul through all the vicissitudes of life: “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39). Men like Victor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning) and Father Walter Ciszek (He Leadeth Me; With God in Russia) were able to maintain their own humanity and so assist others in doing so in such inhumane environments as the Nazi concentration camps or the Soviet gulags: Faith led them to hope, and hope brought them to joy.
By verse 13, King David has known both forgiveness and the joy of forgiveness; he has also learned a powerful lesson taught in the longest psalm: “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!” (Ps 119:1). And now, he is in the position to teach that lesson to others. This puts one in mind of the oft-quoted assertion of Pope Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (n. 41).
Verse 15 has been used by the Church for centuries to begin her praise of God each day in the Divine Office, which is her daily sacrifice of praise, sanctifying every hour of the day as a pure offering to our Creator, to whom we owe the debt of adoration. The biblical prophets taught – and the Church assuming her prophetic mantle teaches – that a beautiful liturgy, however, is repulsive to God if it does not arise from a contrite and sincere heart. The solution, of course, is not to absent oneself from holy worship; the solution is to avail oneself of the graces flowing from the Sacred Liturgy to engage in a true conversion of mind and heart. Then, and only then, is God pleased by our ritual, liturgical actions.
St. Augustine hears his listeners’ concern that, if God is so demanding, they might have nothing to offer God. And so, in his commentary on this psalm, he offers this reply:
. . . You do have something to offer. Don’t look around the flock, don’t fit out ships and travel to far distant regions to bring back incense. Look into your own heart for what may be acceptable to God. The heart has to be crushed. Why be afraid it will be destroyed if you crush it? There you have the answer: “Create a clean heart in me, O God.” For a clean heart to be created, let the unclean heart be crushed.
If we have lived a holy and observant Lent, our “unclean heart” should have been crushed, to be replaced by a “clean heart.”
1Allegri composed this piece around 1638 for the papal liturgy of Good Friday. At the time, there was still a controversy about whether or not something other than Gregorian Chant could be used. The polyphony of this composition was so pure that the Pope readily accepted it for the Sistine Chapel; oddly, though, he forbade its publication or performance elsewhere. Music lore tells us that in Holy Week of 1770, a fourteen-year-old boy heard this piece – merely heard it, never saw the score – during the papal liturgy; a short time later, it was published as he jotted it all down from the one hearing. The boy and his father were summoned into the Pope’s presence; fearful of what might happen, they were astonished when the Pope gave the young protégé a high honor. The youth was none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!
Essays on the Seven Penitential Psalms:
• The Seven Penitential Psalms in time of pandemic/Psalm 6 (April 4, 2020)
• Psalm 32: The Joy of Forgiveness (April 5, 2020)
• Psalm 38: A Penitent Sufferer’s Plea for Healing (April 6, 2020)
• Psalm 51: Prayer for Cleansing and Pardon (April 7, 2020)
• Psalm 102: Prayer to the Eternal King for Help (April 8, 2020)
• Psalm 130: Waiting for Divine Redemption (April 9, 2020)
• Psalm 143: Prayer for Deliverance from Enemies (April 9, 2020)
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