Commentary on Psalm 51:1-12
This is a text that must be handled with care.
It is not one to be read lightly, and certainly not one to be preached on lightly. The voice that we hear in Psalm 51:1-12 is one of desperation, which could very well echo the unheard voices of desperation among our sermons’ hearers. It is these desperate hearers whom we must consider when preaching on a text such as Psalm 51: what word do those in despair need to hear, and what words do they not need?
The speaker in this Psalm is utterly engulfed by a sense of worthlessness, the stain of sin felt so deep as to be irremovable. The psalmist feels beyond mercy, and yet utters this prayer of desperation to the one from whom mercy is assured. Here is where we find the word for those in despair: despite our conviction that we are beyond mercy, the God who is mercy has bound Godself to us eternally.
The text begins with this cry for mercy, and is rooted in the speaker’s prior experience of who God is. The Hebrew word hesed, translated in verse 1 as “steadfast love,” refers to the covenantal relationship between God and the people of Israel. God has promised to be theirs and they have promised to be God’s; the covenant is a mutual promise to “be for” each other. The word translated “abundant mercy,” raham, is rooted in rehem, or “womb.” The speaker is calling on God’s “womb love,” the overflowing, eternally-connected love that a mother has for her child. Both of these refer to a love that can be counted on, rooted in, and rested in. The speaker knows who God is, and pleads for mercy from within the fold of God’s never-ending compassion.
Yet the speaker also seems to fear that sin has irreparably broken that unbreakable bond. “Against you, you alone, have I sinned,” the psalmist writes, addressing God (verse 4). This is not meant to imply that other humans are unaffected by this sin, but rather it emphasizes the writer’s understanding that all sin is a betrayal of God’s love for us. Such a betrayal is so egregious that the psalmist is convinced that God would be justified in removing the divine presence from the sinner (verse 4), and the speaker pleads with God not to be cast away (verse 11). The psalmist’s pleas for God to “blot out my transgressions” (verse 1) and to “hide your face from my sins” (verse 9) are rooted in the fear that if God sees the depth of the betrayal, that is all that God will see. It is as if the psalmist is saying, “Look at me, see me, your beloved, not the treachery that I have committed.”
The psalmist’s desire to be “washed” and “purged” of sin reflects an understanding of sin not only as treachery, but as a stain or corruption. The psalmist pleads multiple times for God to “wash me” (verses 2 and 7b), to “cleanse me from my sin” (verse 2), to be made “clean” (verses 7a and 10). Sin, in the psalmist’s understanding, is a deep-set stain on the soul, which only God can make clean.
This stain is so deep that the psalmist feels that it has always been present; “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (verse 5). This verse is not expressing a notion of the much-later Christian concept of original sin, whereby all human beings have inherited the depravity of Adam and Eve. Rather, the psalmist is seeking words to describe not only the depth of sin, but also the depth of the guilt that sin has engendered.
The plea in verse 7 to “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” probably refers to a cleansing ceremony for one who has been cured of a skin disease, as described in Leviticus 14:2-9. This ceremony, in which hyssop is dipped into the blood of a sacrificed bird and sprinkled on the person who has been healed, enables that person to be reintegrated into the community. Just as one with leprosy or a similar disease is exiled from community, the psalmist believes that the corruption wrought by sin justifies exile from God’s presence. The speaker is longing to be cleansed, so that communion with God can be restored.
“Let me hear joy and gladness. Let the bones that you have crushed rejoice” (verse 8). The rent that sin has caused in the relationship between God and the psalmist has drained all joy from the psalmist’s life. Joy is found in God’s “salvation” (verse 12), in the communion with God from which the psalmist feels exiled. Only when the corrupted soul has been purified, when God creates in the sinner “a clean heart” and “a new and right spirit” (verse 10) can the joy of salvation be restored.
The words of Psalm 51 are the desperate words of one who feels desperately cut off from the presence of God. The psalmist here is broken by sin and guilt, and is pleading with God for restoration. There are many among our congregants who share such brokenness. There are those who will hear the words that we preach who are convinced that God is justified in abandoning them, that sin has rendered them utterly unworthy of communion with God. What words do we offer to the desperate? Do we offer confirmation of their worthlessness, by driving home the destructive consequences of their sin?
Lent is a season of calling us back to right relationship with God. For some, even during Lent, repentance is not the path that leads to restoration. For some, especially during Lent, restoration is enabled when they are freed from the guilt that has for too long crushed their bones. The word that Psalm 51 offers to the desperate is the reiteration of the nature of the God to whom we pray: steadfast love and abundant mercy, a God who is eternally “for us” with the endless love of a mother for her child. The God who is everlasting love will never abandon us, no matter what our guilt says. Steadfast love and abundant mercy not only heal us of the stain of sin, but also of the lie of our worthlessness. Who among us doesn’t need to hear that word?