If we take Psalm 51 to be the Psalm of repentance, and that David as the author of this Psalm to be a model of repentance, we can then learn from David’s own behavior how he understood repentance. What does King David the Psalmist promise to do in Psalm 51? We’ve already seen that much of the Psalm is telling God what to do. Only in a few verses does David talk about what he is doing as a person who is repenting:
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Theophan Whitfield writes that King David “acknowledges his guilt and presents this acknowledgment as the reason, which justifies his plea for mercy.” (“Hearing Psalm 51: Masoretic Hebrew vs. LXX Greek”, FESTSCHRIFT IN HONOR OF PROFESSOR PAUL NADIM TARAZI, p 45). We don’t ask God’s mercy as if bargaining – be merciful to me God and I promise to … repent, be better, change my ways, be good, sin no more. In Psalm 51, THE Psalm of repentance, David seeks God’s forgiveness based purely on his own acknowledgement that he needs God’s mercy because he has sinned against God. He is saying, I come before you God because you want sinners to stand before you and recognize their sinfulness. We are to do what Adam and Eve failed to do from the beginning. We are to learn from their failure and admit our faults and acknowledge that there is no reason for God to forgive us because in fact we are not going to become perfect, sinless beings. We approach God not because we are sinless but precisely because we are sinners in need of God’s mercy. So we have to stand before God in humble honesty about own our behavior (including our sins) and realize God is right in whatever or however God decides to deal with us. We do tell God – “remember you are merciful” and then we admit our sin and say to God, now be God. David in the Psalm takes the stance that being honest to God is all we can do. Don’t deny your sin or blame someone else. Be courageous and humble, acknowledging who you are and what you have done. The Psalmist in effect is saying to God, I will not behave like Adam and Eve – I will not try to hide from you (or hide my sin from you). I will not blame anyone else for what I’ve done. I come forward and boldly stand in your presence because You are good and love humankind. Show me Your love and mercy which I don’t deserve, but I so greatly need.
King David goes on in the Psalm to say:
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
my mouth shall show forth your praise.
were I to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Note David never promises that he will become sinless or that he will reform his life. In the great Psalm of repentance, David never repents, nor even mentions repentance. Literally, neither the word “repent” or “repentance” is found in Psalm 51. While the Psalm clearly is that of a sinner, caught in sin, approaching God, it shows us a side to repentance that we often forget – we approach God despite our sinfulness because God is the Lord and we proclaim that even as sinners. God is merciful and forgiving, that is the truth on which we rely. It is why we do the Divine Liturgy. As Good Shepherd, God calls us to the Liturgy, not because we are shining, spotless, pure and sinless, but because we each are the Psalmist who has sinned and we need God to be God (merciful, forgiving) so that we can become fully human.
King David in Psalm 51 promises little to God but acknowledges his sinfulness. I might say “merely” acknowledges, but it appears in the Psalm that acknowledging one’s sinfulness is what required of us. We don’t have to promise God anything – reform, change, improvement, a new me. We do have to acknowledge that we sin before God and that God has every right to judge us. We don’t reject that God is Lord, but accept it and humbly acknowledge that God determines what is good, not us. Then David says he will praise God for His salvation. He recognizes that he may not be able to put things right in his own life, or change his ways, but he should feel the brokenness of his life. That should make him brokenhearted. The world is a mess because each “I” fails to be human.
Repentance and the Liturgy do not require that we be angels, but rather that we be fully human. Repentance and the Liturgy do not demand from us that we consider ourselves to be worthless worms wallowing in dung, but rather calls us to be the humans that God created us to be – the creature which is greater than angels or any of the greatest of animals.
For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere, “What is man that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels, you crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. … For surely it is not with angels that he is concerned but with the descendants of Abraham. (Hebrews 2:5-8, 16)
In calling us to repent, God does not tell us to see ourselves as nothing, rather God tells us to “man up” – be a human being, be what God has created us to be. Humans are created to be greater than the angels and God is far more concerned with us than with the heavenly host. (As we sing about the Theotokos, the human par excellence – more honorable than the Cherubim, beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim).
Our phrase, “he or she is only human,” has got it all wrong, for being human is not an admission of weakness nor of failure, but of being created in God’s image and likeness, created to have dominion over all the rest of creation, including the angels. Even the Sabbath Day (the only thing created by God in the first creation story of Genesis 1-2 that God both blesses and makes holy) is made for us humans (Mark 2:27). The most blessed thing of creation, the Sabbath, is made for humans not for angels. Christ is lord of this Sabbath which is made for us:
And Jesus said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27-28)
In all things God as Lord is serving us, and this is reflected both in the imperative commands given to God in Psalm 51 and throughout the Divine Liturgy. Repentance in King David’s experience is telling God, we recognize that we need you to be God and Lord, and we are saying we want you to be our God and Lord – so do it! And we are emboldened by the truth that God is love, and even if God scourges us, it will be with God’s love to help us be perfect human beings.
Of course, we might then ask, but if change, repentance, new direction, metanoia is not required in the Psalm, what good does it do to acknowledge our sinfulness? If we are simply going to continue to sin, what good does it do to recognize sin or to admit to being a sinner? Doesn’t it then end up being like the character in (I think) a John Updike novel who says something to the effect that God made a perfect world – it is God’s duty to forgive sins and my duty to sin. Is there nothing more to repentance?
The acknowledgement of being a sinner is also acknowledgment of God’s Lordship and right to judge and right to determine what is good and what is wrong. God is the Lord and God is love. The metanoia part of repentance first requires us to recognize there is a Lord to whom we answer. When we stop ourselves from all we are doing, saying or thinking to consciously (and conscientiously) stand still before God, we have also the opportunity to stop our self-willfulness. The first step in repentance is stopping what we are currently doing. Only when we stop ourselves can we feel the brokenness of our life, and feel the broken heartedness which the Psalmist says is the condition for God to accept us again. Even if we can’t change ourselves, we can put ourselves before God and ask God to do all that is according to His nature to save us – from sin, from death and from ourselves. The habitual sinner, the addict and the lazy can all recognize their own need to stand in God’s presence even when sin is active in their life. St. John Climacus (d. 649AD) wrote: “That all should attain to complete detachment is impossible. But it is not impossible that all should be saved and reconciled to God ” (The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p 304).