Commentary on Psalm 51:1-10
Psalm 51 is one of the most common psalms recited by Protestant Christians.
They know it as a familiar component of weekly worship services. It has been a mainstay for decades in corporate prayers of confession. People affirm together their individual and corporate guilt within a service of worship and seek as individuals and communities right relationships with the living God. The prayer is generally followed by the presiding minister’s affirmation that affirms in Christ Jesus all sins are forgiven. People are given a clean slate to begin again. The hope for joy and gladness is restored through a work of God’s grace and mercy in and through Christ. It is a palpable event that can evoke tears of sadness and joy.
I have heard it said more than once in life that confession is good for the soul. In one of the former churches I served as a minister, a worship leader would often state publicly when leading worship that he was going to provide the congregation with a full minute of silence during the prayer of confession. He claimed this was necessary because when people gave only 10 or 15 seconds of silence he had usually only made it to Tuesday.
The encouragement to engage in heartfelt confession is easier said than done. The depth of anyone’s sins can often thwart a capacity to confess personal sins openly, let alone publicly. Pastoral care professionals have suggested in recent years that people and pastoral care givers ought to follow an axiom of “do no harm,” given the nature of sin and the power of it to cause years of heartache. Sometimes it seems that the wisest course of action may be to do what the psalmist did — pour out your heart before God and seek God’s mercy. The silent prayer of confession is one way by which people can corporately engage in this activity publicly.
The ability to articulate sins coupled with a desire to be made right with God and others percolates through this psalm. The psalm itself claims that it is set immediately after the prophet Nathan had uncovered and confronted David with his sins of adultery with Bathsheba and his involvement with the murder of her former husband, Uriah. It is Nathan’s act of exposure to the light of God’s commands in midday that reveal David’s inner sins he had ferreted away from public scrutiny.
In the first ten verses the psalmist offers a prayer of confession and request for absolution. It is the cry of one brought face to face with one’s own personal human failings. It is a lament of inner recognition about a disparity between their own actions of sin and God’s capacity to work love and mercy in the places that deserve neither. It is an exposé on personal guilt and the recognition that no human act can erase the stain caused by personal sin. Only God’s act of forgiveness will wipe the slate clean. Only God can make things right where a lack of right remains.
Separated by over three thousand years, the psalmist’s words ring as true today as they did then. People can and do harm others and often commit great offenses against others and against their own personhood through various acts of sin. The psalmist connects with human experience and invites a way forward where it appears at first there is no way. Through confession the hope for renewal is born.
The psalmist is clear that things are not right within and as long as they are not right within they cannot be right at all between the psalmist and God. It is a plea for God to upright the capsized ship. It is the cry of one crushed in spirit by the weight of personal recognition that their sin and the consequences of it constitute a weight too heavy to bear. The writer has hit bottom and is without hope, except for the grace of God.
The common human experience of hitting bottom or falling into a pit from which they cannot extricate themselves is widespread. I have discovered that throughout the world, people of faith have tried to find ways to heal the rifts within, between themselves and others, and between themselves and God. Cultural ideas about repentance and reconciliation are blended and sifted with biblical notions of confession and renewal in many and varied ways.
When I taught at Pacific Theological College in Suva, Fiji I discovered that there is an abundance of ways by which people of faith seek to heal the rifts between them caused by sin. In the South Pacific, cultural practices and beliefs are connected with biblical, hermeneutical concerns and thereby propel creative thinking about correlations and congruencies between cultural ideas and biblical concepts of grace, mercy, repentance, and koinonia. Scholars and people of faith have sought hosts of ways by which they might honor historic cultural practices as they engage in Christian practices — such as those involving repentance and reconciliation.
Cultural practices about how to embrace confession or repentance are varied. Traditional Samoans practiced a form of repentance that involved the penitent sitting beneath a fine mat outside the home of an offended person(s) until the offended person lifted the mat and forgave the penitent of their sin. Reconciliation occurred when the offended physically lifted a burden that the offender could not. Contemporary Fijian culture is permeated by the use of the tambua (sperm whale’s tooth) for communal acts of reconciliation. It is the primary cultural means by which divisions are healed and community is restored. The “tooth” used ritually can cut through any offense, reconcile people, and restore communal harmony. The ritual and the object are an embodiment of the grace and mercy of God that cuts through human offenses and heals rifts so that restoration might occur.
Rene Padilla, in his essay, The Contextualization of the Gospel, claimed, “If the Gospel is not contextualized, the Word of God is a logos asarkos (unincarnate word), a message that touches our lives only on a tangent. This is precisely one of the most tragic consequences of the lack of theological reflection among us — that the Gospel still has a foreign sound, or no sound at all, in relation to many of the dreams and anxieties, problems and questions, values and customs in the Third World. [And] A Xeroxed copy of a theology made in Europe or North America can never satisfy the theological needs of the Church in the Third World (Kraft and Wisley, 303, 305).
An example of a contextually specific practice is included in this psalm. In general, contemporary Christians do not use hyssop as means for cleansing or in ritual activities. Most may not be even clear about what it is and why it is referenced here. According to the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, it is a “small, bushy plant … [that was used] … as a brush for daubing the lintels of the Hebrew homes with blood from the sacrificed lamb at the first Passover …” (IDB, Vol II, 669). It was used for sprinkling sacrificial blood on lepers to be cleansed (Numbers 19). And here the psalmist uses the imagery to suggest that the psalmist’s sin requires nothing less than a direct act of God’s intervention to provide the cleansing required.
The psalms in general and Psalm 51 in particular invite contextualized reading and performance. Through a poetic prayer, the writer provides windows and doors into new ways of perceiving the world in which we live. The writer provides a timeless connection with human experience and the activity of a loving God. How might Psalm 51 be read contextually in your congregation? What local practices exist that provide tangible expressions of reconciliation and renewal? Although our reading of the text may vary, I suspect we might affirm together, “Create in me [us] a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me [us].”
Buttrick, George A., ed. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Volume II. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1982.
Kraft, Charles H. and Wisley, Tom N., eds. Readings in Dynamic Indigeneity. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1979.