Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
The 51st Psalm is used frequently in Orthodox prayers and services as the Psalm of repentance. King David, the Psalmist and author of Psalm 51, is portrayed at times in Orthodox prayers as the model of a person who repents of their sin. David is a prophet and saint in the church, but he certainly was not sinless and pure. He does through his own life choices come to know why he needs God’s mercy and cleansing. He asks God in his penitential Psalm twice to “blot out” first his transgressions and then his iniquities. Why “blot out? What does this imply? It is an unusual phrase whose meaning is very revealing. In this blog series, I intend to pursue uncovering some of the depth of Psalm 51. In this first post I will rely mostly on the work of Theophan Whitfield in his insightful article, “Hearing Psalm 51: Masoretic Hebrew vs. LXX Greek“, (in FESTSCHRIFT IN HONOR OF PROFESSOR PAUL NADIM TARAZI), who mentions two themes we can see in the psalm – the theme of cleansing but also a legal theme. Whitfield ties the themes together and helps make the Psalm more understandable.
First Whitfield explains the importance of the imagery of “blotting out” which the Psalmist applies to his iniquities.
“… mahah, which is translated most frequently in the RSV as the verb ‘to blot out.’ In antiquity, especially where writing was done on leather scrolls, erasures required ink to be washed and wiped away. Consequently, mahah has strong associations with accounting, with maintaining and adjusting records. There are several references in Torah to the act of blotting out names and deeds as just punishment for evil deeds. Most vivid in this respect is the prayer of Moses that God will forgive the Israelites for their idolatrous worship of the golden calf:
‘But now, if thou wilt forgive their sin-and if not, blot me (mahani), I pray thee, out of they book which thou hast written. But the LORD said to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me, him will I blot out (’emhennu) of my book’ (Exod 33:32-33).
Here, the image involves erasure of names out of the divine Book of Life itself, names of those whom God will remember no more.” (p 40-41)
We see the purpose of the metaphor of blotting out when we understand how it was used in the ancient world. The only way to erase a mistake in a document written on an animal skin was to wash the document or blot out the mistake and then write it again. Since accounting and inventory requires frequent changes in the records, blotting out is certainly associated with giving account, or judgment. Thus the metaphor of blotting out works well with the concept of sin.
In the Exodus text referred to by Whitfield, we see the accounting concept being used by Moses but now for a divine accounting with the book of life where God records the names of those God wishes to remember –or not! The same concept appears in Revelation 3:5 where Christ says:
He who conquers shall be clad thus in white garments, and I will not blot his name out of the book of life; I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.
In this we also come to see a baptismal reference – our sins are washed away or blotted out, not just from us but maybe even more importantly from the book that will be opened at the great judgment.
And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. (Revelation 20:12)
We want our sins, not our names, blotted out of God’s books. In the end the written texts, the scriptures which are truly important are the ones God has written about us, not what is recorded in the Bible. Thus the importance of baptism in which our sins are washed away from ourselves as well as blotted out from God’s book which God will read on the great day of judgment. The Word became flesh (John 1:14), but we are to become God’s word in the kingdom! In this case it is truly God who writes us into His book, who makes us His Word. Whitfield writes:
“In v. 11, the psalmist begs God to turn away-not from him, but from his sins. He asks God to ‘blot out’ his iniquities as a substitute for blotting out the psalmist himself.” (p 48)
God became human so that we might become god. In the end we want to be noted by God – by being written in God’s book. We must not simply read or even memorize scripture, we must become the word of God in God’s judgment. Scripture truly is not a book that a publisher prints but really is that record God keeps of us.
Getting back to Whitfield, he continues unwrapping the concept of “blotting out”:
“…in the flood narrative in particular. [Gen 6-9]
So the LORD said, ‘I will blot out (’emheh) man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and east and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them’ (Gen 6:7).
The use is not merely metaphorical. Here, God is ‘sorry’ that he made man and beast. He made a mistake, and in the context of bookkeeping (and the context of Scripture!) the appropriate response to a mistake is to wipe away what one has done.
In Psalm 51, however, mahah is used in connection with God’s mercy, not with divine punishment. The psalmist pleads for mercy through the wiping away of his sins.” (p 41)
Here we see the full extent of “blotting out” for now we realize that the erasure of our names means we will disappear from the face of the earth. God is sorry in Genesis 6 that He created humans, but for God all the sins of humanity which cause Him grief can be blotted out. The waters of the flood are going to cleanse them away, just like baptism cleanses our sins today. The great difference is baptism does not drown us, just our sins. In Genesis 6-9, God is requiring an accounting and realizes that the humans God created were a mistake and being impermanent beings it is possible to blot them out! The imagery is powerful, God’s heart is broken by His human creation (Genesis 6:6). It is this broken heartedness which God can recognize in us as true repentance. The value of the story of the flood is not in its literalness but in what it reveals about God, us, sin and repentance. Repentance is God blotting out our sins to cleanse us and make us a new creation.
The blotting out of sin is used to bring to our minds how mistakes or wrongs are corrected in accounting. It is difficult, but possible, to wash away what is wrong in the written ledgers. Wrongs can be washed away with some effort and corrected. It is an image that God calls to mind at the time of the great flood as well as at the great judgment day. In both cases, we humans end up standing before God to await the sentence being pronounced – what is written in the book of life: our names or our sins?
Whitfield says this standing before the judge is referred to in the Psalm in another way when the Psalmist says his sin is ever before him:
“The description of sin sitting ‘in front of me’ and ‘in front of you’ indicates that the psalmist is face to face with God, which is the traditional image of standing under judgment in a court of law.” (p 45)
The imagery of Psalm 51 calls to mind judgment but also the possibility of mercy. God can wash away our sin while leaving our names in the book of life. We are to become scripture, God’s written word, if we are to live with God forever. Scripture thus is not a book exterior to us in which we learn about God, but rather is what we are to become to be with God in the Kingdom. Christ is the Logos of God and we are the logoi of God written in God’s book of life.