Ash Wednesday

Most psalms picture the supplicant as an essentially righteous person.

Ash to Ash
"Ash to Ash" by Gerg1967 licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

March 5, 2014

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Commentary on Psalm 51:1-17

Most psalms picture the supplicant as an essentially righteous person.

Yet Psalm 51 presents matters very differently. Plagued by guilt, the psalmist seeks salvation through radical divine intervention. The psalmist longs to be created anew. 

Tradition has long counted Psalm 51 among a handful of penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143). As such, this text has provided a liturgical resource for centuries, as readers have heard their own anguish in the psalmist’s words and shared the psalmist’s desire for a completely new start — one that only God can initiate.

David’s penitence after his sin with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 12:1-17 fits the tone of the psalm perfectly. While it is possible that David actually wrote this psalm, it is not necessary to assume so. The body of the psalm does not actually mention any names. Likewise, it does not identify any particular sin at all, sexual or otherwise. Most scholars suggest that the superscriptions in the Psalter came about secondarily as the psalms were being edited and collected into books. So David was probably associated with the psalm at some point after its composition.

Linking the psalm primarily with David’s life story can actually limit the applicability of this psalm to its modern readers. Indeed, when this psalm is bound tightly into a narrative structure, one is less likely to hear one’s own voice in the prayer. In fact, the openness of the language of the psalm actually resists such a carefully circumscribed narrative framework.

Moreover, when one uses the superscription as the interpretive key for unlocking Psalm 51, there is also a strong tendency to elevate sexual sin above all others as the ultimate source of guilt, shame, and suffering. The superscription does name sexual sin explicitly (“after [David] had gone in to Bathsheba”).

Yet as the story plays itself out in 2 Samuel, David is guilty of far more than just sexual sin. He shirks his kingly duties, lies, murders, and exhibits astonishing arrogance. So, from a homiletical standpoint, if one does decide to interpret the psalm explicitly as an element in David’s life, one must be careful not to focus on sexual sin to the exclusion of the insidious web of destructive behaviors that David displays in this episode.

In fact, still other factors militate against associating the psalm solely with David. The last verses of Psalm 51 (sadly not included in the lectionary reading) postdate David by at least 400 years. These verses presume an exilic or post-exilic context as they describe rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Verses 18-19 were thus added by later readers who reinterpreted the voice of the penitent individual in verses 1-17 as an expression of the voice of the entire community. In a testament to the power of the psalmist’s rhetoric (whoever he or she was), a personal plea for renewal became a communal one.

The psalmist seeks a new, clean heart. In Hebrew anthropology, the heart was understood as the seat of one’s volition. So the psalmist actually desires for his will to be oriented toward what God wills. Only God can create such a radical reorientation. In fact, the word “create” in verse 10 is bara’, a term that expresses an exclusively divine activity in the Old Testament. No one else can create in this way.

In addition to imagery of recreation and reorientation, the psalm employs the language of cleansing and purification (verses 2, 7, 9-10). This imagery draws directly from the realm of ritual. In that context, sinful actions were understood to have a polluting effect.

The ritual system presumes that pollution from sin is incompatible with the holiness and glory of God. Thus sin/pollution ultimately separates one from God. And since God’s presence (cf. verse 11) was associated with protection, sin has horrible consequences; when God is far off, trouble, distress, and violence are close at hand. Avoiding sin was understood as a way to keep God close and enjoy the blessings of God’s presence.

The ritual system provided solutions to the problem of the polluting effects of sin. By dedicating costly items to God (animals, incense, and grains) one could mitigate the effects of sin and cleanse the pollution, thereby preserving one’s proximity to God. Hyssop (verse 7) was a plant or shrub used in such rituals of purification. For example, the Israelites used hyssop to spread the blood of the Passover lamb on the lintel and doorposts of their houses (Exodus 12:22; see also Leviticus 14:4 and Numbers 19:6).

While the psalm’s language clearly reflects the world of ritual, the psalmist also manifests a tension about the ultimate efficacy of the sacrificial system. A similar tension appears elsewhere in the Psalter (e.g., Psalm 50) and more widely throughout the prophetic literature.

When a sacrifice does not reflect the actual relationship between humans and God, it ceases to be effective. Put differently, if one’s will is not reconciled with God’s will, then sacrifice does no good. Offering an animal is not the same as having God recreate and transform one’s heart. This transformation of the will is what ultimately delights God.

Indeed, the exilic or post-exilic addition to the psalm (verses 18-19) suggest that the sacrificial system is not ultimately broken, but can be restored through “right sacrifices,” when God recreates the entire community in a right relationship with God and with each other.  

Through contrition and purification, the psalmist anticipates that God can transform the vilest sinner into the most dedicated member of the choir. Though the sins go unnamed, the psalmist frequently confesses his profound guilt (verses 1-5, 9).

One should not base a doctrine of original sin on the psalmist’s statement that he was “a sinner when my mother conceived me” (verse 5). Rather this verse suggests that guilt weighs so heavily on the psalmist that he cannot remember a time when he was free from it. The sin seems to stretch all the way back to birth.

The psalmist echoes the birth imagery of verse 5 when he pleads that God would create him anew in verse 10. This complete transformation will have lasting results, not simply for the psalmist but for the entire community who hears him. With a new will oriented toward God, the psalmist finds his true voice. The restored, renewed, reborn heart erupts in song extolling God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy.