Commentary on Psalm 51:1-10
Liturgical context can make all the difference in how a biblical texts sounds, in how it is interpreted, and in how it may be preached.
It is quite common for Psalm 51 to be read or sung on Ash Wednesday, when the liturgical context is obviously about a very somber aspect of repentance.
How different the text sounds in September—toward the end of the Pentecost season and at the start of the church’s program year in North America—as a psalm paired both with the story of God turning away (relenting) from punishing the Israelites for forging the golden calf (Exodus 32) and also with the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Here, the emphasis is on the joy that comes with repentance and forgiveness.
In the first two stories that Jesus tells in Luke 15—the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin—there is no emphasis on repentance. Indeed, neither the sheep nor the coin can repent in any moral or spiritual sense. The emphasis is rather on the tenacity of the searching shepherd and woman. And the emphasis is on the joy that the shepherd, the woman, and the company “in heaven” experience. The shepherd says to his friends, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the sheep that was lost.” The woman says to her friends and neighbors, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” And Jesus declares, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance”; and again, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
The stories do indeed have an element of repentance, because Jesus tells the stories to Pharisees and scribes who grumble because Jesus is eating with “sinners and tax collectors.” But the emphasis in this liturgical context is about the joy that comes with repentance, forgiveness, and the reconciliation that follows.
In this context, Psalm 51 is to be interpreted as a liturgical text that facilitates reconciliation and joyful reunion between a sinner (sinners) and God. The sinner—David, you, me, us—pleads for forgiveness not on the basis of the sincerity of the repentance or the promise to amend one’s life. Rather, the plea for forgiveness is based solely on the penitent’s awareness of the reality of the sin and on the character of God.
The penitent is aware of the reality of sin:
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me (verses 3-5).
Awareness of sin can come through many different ways. In David’s case, awareness came as the prophet Nathan proclaimed it to him through his parable and his condemnation, “You are the man.” For many of us, awareness of our sin comes through the teaching of the church and personal reflection on our own shortcomings and sins. Awareness of sin can come through hearing the stories of those whom we have sinned against—either directly or indirectly, through systems of sin and oppression. Such awareness is crucial to the process of repentance and forgiveness and reconciliation. Traditionally, preaching “the law” (in its second use) has been an important part of Christian preaching. The preacher announces and explicates the law in order to bring about awareness of sin—so that repentance and reconciliation can follow.
The plea for forgiveness—it is important to note—is based solely on the character of God. Note the added emphasis:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions (verses 1-2).
The very character of God according to the creedal-like formulas in Exodus 34 and other passages is that God is:
The LORD, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (verses 6-7).
We approach God and dare to ask for forgiveness not because we deserve it, not because we will do better next time, not because we are truly sincere, not because of anything about us or what we do. We approach God and dare ask for forgiveness because of who God is. Because we dare to believe and hope and cast our entire future on the trust that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”
And God’s mercy, when it comes, washes us in an ocean of forgiveness that makes us clean, that gives us truth in our inner beings, that blots out sins, and most importantly that brings “joy and gladness.” Repentance is not simply somber or about rolling around in misery. It is about the joy of reunion, the gladness of reconciliation, and the celebration of new life. The new and right spirit that the Lord bestows on us is about joy in God’s presence. And if you add two more verses to the psalm reading this week, it is about the joy of salvation itself:
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit (verses 11-12).
In the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—there is mercy and forgiveness for all. And where there is forgiveness there is reconciliation. And where there is forgiveness and reconciliation, there is joy in God’s presence.