Ash Wednesday

Psalm 51 is, by any measure, one of the best-known and most often read penitential texts in the canon, and, as such, presents both opportunities and challenges for the interpreter.

February 22, 2012

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Commentary on Psalm 51:1-17

Psalm 51 is, by any measure, one of the best-known and most often read penitential texts in the canon, and, as such, presents both opportunities and challenges for the interpreter.

Particularly if read in the context of Ash Wednesday or some other occasion where sin and repentance are particularly in view, this text’s vivid exploration of the impact of human sinfulness and the desperate need for God’s forgiving intervention will strike at the heart of any congregation.

The preacher, however, must attend very carefully to what the Psalm says about these crucial topics in order to avoid presenting a distorted picture of the nature of sin and of penitence as described in the text. A text that admits “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” is not a simple call for a person to apologize to God or endure some penance by way of making up for particular transgressions. Psalm 51 is about the consequences of and remedy for sinfulness, rather than merely sins.

As described by the Psalmist, the totality of sin’s impact is stunning. That sin causes guilt and remorse in the sinner (verse 3) and leaves the sinner liable to judgment and punishment (verse 4) are hardly shocking insights in and of themselves. These are, indeed, almost commonplace, for any reading or hearing community with any notion of law or justice. What makes the Psalm’s enumeration of sin’s consequences noteworthy is what comes after these initial observations.

The text maintains that sin isn’t merely a matter of crime and punishment in prescribed, logical proportion. Instead, it is radical and universal, pervading every human life from its beginning (verse 5), which in turn means that its effects and consequences are unavoidable. And those effects, also, are spelled out in intimidating detail. Sin, we read, deafens the sinner to gladness and causes physical agony (verse 8). It at least approximates the experience of being cast out from God’s presence, rejected, and abandoned (verse 11). It impedes the enjoyment of the good news of God’s salvation and chokes off even the willingness to attempt to follow God’s law, thus perpetuating its own malignant influence (verse 12). Sin even prevents the offering of praise (verse 15) and perverts sacrifice (verse 16).

The magnitude of the problem presented by human sinfulness requires a solution of equal, or even greater magnitude, and the Psalmist has a very clear idea about where that solution must lie. Over and over, the Psalm expresses the absolute conviction that only God’s action can deal with the sources and consequences of sin. If every human being is born sinful, then only the creation of a new, clean heart within each human breast can possibly remove the taint. And, of course, only the creator God can do such a thing (verse 10).

And as for the root cause, so for the consequences: every mention of a remedy or answer for the miserable consequences of sin is couched in terms of God’s initiative and God’s execution. The Psalmist does not entertain any fancies about human ability to cleanse, to purge, to wash away, or to blot out sins—all any human being can do is to beg God to graciously do what is beyond us to do.

If our sin has cast us out from God’s presence, or caused us to feel as alienated from God as if we had been so cast out, it is only when God instead hides the divine face from our sins that the alienation is eased (verse 9). If our transgression and corruption have silenced our will to follow and to praise, then it is only God who can open our lips (verse 15). We cannot sacrifice our way out of the consequences of sin, because only a heart that has turned toward God in repentance and supplication is an acceptable offering (verse 17). Only God, the Psalm drives home with vigor, can deal with our sins.

The horrifying breadth and depth of sin’s undermining of human nature and the clear reality that only gracious, divine action can possibly arrest or repair the damage it does are evident in the Psalm. This Word is a clear denial of any notion of so-called “works righteousness,” any contention that human beings can somehow do something on their own to “make up” for even a portion of their sins. As such, it is a valuable resource to preachers whose communities are tempted to entertain such notions, a temptation that is surely heightened during penitential seasons. Psalm 51 reminds all that the true and valuable purpose of repentance is as a means for the sinner to entreat the gracious help of the only One who can do anything about sin.