Psalm 51: What Do “I” Do?

24873289413_680bc62134This is the third post in his blog series exploring Psalm 51.  The previous post is Repentance: Telling God What to Do.

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).

Next:  David the Image of Repentance

In Glory Christ Ascended

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.   (1 Timothy 3:16)

One of the surprising insights of the Feast of the Ascension is that in glory Christ ascends from the earth to heaven.  In other words, Christ does not ascend to get to His glory, He is already in glory before He begins to ascend.  Glory (shekinah) is not something that Christ has to go to heaven to get or to return to.  As St Irenaeus wrote: “The glory (shekinah) of God is a human being fully alive.” Christ is in glory on earth in His humanity.  Indeed He is the King of Glory.   The fact that in glory He ascends, amazes the Bodiless Powers, for they are in wonder that God’s glory is ascending from earth to heaven rather than the other way!  As we sing in one of the Vespers hymns for the Ascension:

Not parted from the Father’s bosom, O sweetest Jesus,
and having lived among those on earth as man,
today You have been taken up in glory from the Mount of Olives,
and exalting in Your compassion our fallen nature,
You have seated it with the Father.
Therefore the heavenly ranks of the Bodiless Powers were amazed at
the wonder, and beside themselves with fear;
and seized with trembling, they magnified Your love for mankind.

Some of the earlier church fathers who believed in a tiered universe thought it is exactly because Christ is in glory on earth that He can ascend bodily through the aerial demonic realms unscathed on His way to heaven.  His glory conceals from the demons the incarnation and His humanity. Thus in this ancient worldview, the demons who stood as guards to prevent humans from bodily entering the spiritual realms don’t realize humanity has just passed them by and entered into heaven at the Ascension because they see in the ascending Christ only glory.  The angels in heaven are amazed as they see humanity enter into the spiritual realm of heaven – the divinity of Christ now hidden by His humanity.

When You ascended in glory, O Christ our God,
while the Disciples looked on.
The clouds received You with Your flesh;
the gates of heaven were lifted up;
the choirs of Angels rejoiced with gladness;
the higher Powers cried out, saying:
“Lift up your gates, you princes,
and the King of Glory will come in!”

Christ doesn’t ascend to glory or to his glory, He has the glory on earth and in glory He ascends in.  The incarnate Christ gives the proper glory to humanity as He says to the Father:  “The glory which you gave me I have given to them, that they may be one, as we are one; I in them and you in me…” (John 17:22-23)

The notion that Christ is in His glory as the incarnate God, as a human, and that in glory He ascends from earth to heaven (rather than ascending from earth to attain His glory)  is paralleled in the Third Antiphon of the church when we sing: Remember us, O Lord, when you come in your kingdom (not into your kingdom as some versions mistakenly have it).  Christ comes in His kingdom, in his glory – his glory and kingdom are wherever He is; it is not the case that He has to come into His kingdom (as if He is ever outside the Kingdom and has to wait until the day that he enters into the Kingdom).

May the glory of the LORD endure for ever, may the LORD rejoice in his works… (Psalms 104:31)


The Lord Approaches to Enter Our Hearts

The Lord said to my Lord:

‘Sit at My right hand, until I make Your enemies,

a footstool for Your feet.’  (Psalm 110:1)

“… let us consider the way in which the psalmist speaks about the divinity of Christ.  He does not try to coerce us into belief.  What we believe is a matter of indifference to him.  He simply announces a fact:  the one addressed in the psalm is a priest, a king, and my God (cf Ps 145:1).  There is no need of any further  explanation.  If you so wish, believe in Him; if not, don’t believe.  In either case, He remains the Eternal King, seated upon His throne.  If you so wish, offer Him your heart, for we encounter God in faith, in the spacious freedom of the heart.  The Lord does not approach us in order to sway us with arguments and theories.  He approaches us in order to enter our hearts.”

(Archimandrite Aimilianos, PSALMS AND THE LIFE OF FAITH, p 70)

Jesus, Your Servant

 Jesus said: For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.   (Luke 22:27)

We consider Jesus Christ to be our Lord, God and Savior.  Yet, Jesus also came as a servant – certainly some ancient prayers from the early Church speak to God as Father about “Your servant, Jesus.”   And Jesus both declared Himself to be a servant and demonstrated He was a servant in the washing of His disciples’ feet.

You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.   (John 13:13-15)

Jesus comes as a servant.   He behaves like a servant and tells us in this we are to imitate Him as servants of one another.  He never tells us that we are to lord it over anyone.

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”   (Matthew 20:25-28)

Was he tempted to use His power to feed the crowds in order to make them indebted to Him or so that they would have to cower before Him?   The crowd apparently was so enamored with Him – but Jesus fled this scenario:

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.    (John 6:15)

Was he tempted to gain popularity by doing miracles to win admiration and to inspire awe?   The crowd was apparently tempting Him with this kind of power, but Jesus rejected it.

Was he tempted to subject people to His authority as a mighty king?  Certainly during the crucifixion he was taunted with a claim of being the King of Israel.  The people said they would believe in Him if He proved He was king:

“He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.”    (Matthew 27:42)

And though Christ came that all might believe in Him, He does not come down from the cross to claim authority over these people or demand that they cringe before Him.

He told His disciples at His arrest, that He had the ability to appeal for power from on high, yet He chose not to do so:

Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?    (Matthew 26:53)

Was he tempted to keep others in obedience to Himself by threats of force or bribes of food?  Again, it seems to have happened on several occasions:

The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation.”  (Mark 8:11-12)

Jesus did not come to impose like a dictator, but to purpose like a servant.  We who follow Him should do the same.

He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.   (Matthew 23:11-12)

And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.  (Luke 22:25-27)

The Sabbath Day: To Rest from our Labors

4th Century Roman Icon Christ Teaching

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And there was a woman who had had a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years; she was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. And when Jesus saw her, he called her and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” And he laid his hands upon her, and immediately she was made straight, and she praised God. But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the sabbath day.” Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?” As he said this, all his adversaries were put to shame; and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.  (Luke 13:10-17)

Jesus answers the legal criticism with the principle, “The sabbath was made for people, not people made for the sabbath” (Mk 2:27). In the next chapter, Jesus is infuriated when the Pharisees watch to see whether he will heal on the sabbath (Mk 3:1-5). Jesus defiantly cures a man with a misshapen hand in front of the legal experts, who then plan to destroy Jesus (v. 60) for destroying the sabbath rest. But Jesus actually has honored the sabbath, which is a religious institution meant to honor the completion of God’s creative activity in Genesis, because Jesus has completed God’s creative work upon the man whom Jesus made whole.

Jesus’ radical reinterpretation of the Law serves to rehabilitate this symbol of God’s presence among the people. If the symbolic function of the sabbath is to celebrate God’s availability and power, then a sabbath which is a day of healing “works better” than a sabbath which is merely a day of rest from worldly activities. The emphasis is to be placed upon the God who is present through the symbol of the Law, and not upon the material prescriptions of the Law itself. (Marianne Sawicki, The Gospel in History, pp. 52-53)

Deliver Us From Evil

“The awesome force of evil does not lie in evil as such, but in its destruction of our faith in goodness – our conviction that good is stronger than evil. This is the meaning of temptation. And even the very attempt to explain evil by virtue of rational arguments, to legitimize it, if one can put it this way, is that very same temptation, it is the inner surrender before evil. For the Christian attitude towards evil consists precisely in the understanding that evil has no explanation, no justification, no basis, that it is the root of rebellion against God, falling away from God, a rupture from full life, and that God does not give us explanations for evil, but strength to resist evil and power to overcome it. And again, this victory lies not in the ability to understand and explain evil but rather in the ability to face it with the full force of faith, the full force of hope, and love that temptations are overcome, they are the answer to temptation, the victory over temptations, and therefore the victory over evil.

Here lies the victory of Christ, the one whose whole life was one seamless temptation. He was constantly in the midst of evil in all its forms, beginning with the slaughter of innocent infants at the time of his birth and ending in horrible isolation, betrayal by all, physical torture, and an accursed death on the cross. In one sense the Gospels are an account of the power of evil and the victory over it – an account of Christ’s temptation.

And Christ didn’t once explain and therefore didn’t justify and legitimize evil, but he constantly confronted it with faith, hope, and love. He didn’t destroy evil, but he did reveal the power of struggle with evil, and he gave this power to us, and it is about this power that we pray when we say: “And lead us not into temptation.”

The Gospel says about Christ that when he was suffering alone, at night, in the garden, abandoned by all, when he “began to be sorrowful and troubled” (Mt. 26:37), when all the force of temptation fell on him, an angel came from heaven and strengthened him.

It is about this same mystical assistance that we pray, so that in the face of evil, suffering, and temptation our faith would not waver, our hope not weaken, our love not dry up, that the darkness of evil not reign in our hearts and become itself the fuel for evil. Our prayer is that we can trust in God, as Christ trusted in him, that all the temptations would be smashed against our strength.

We pray also that God would deliver us from the evil one, and here we are given not an explanation but one more revelation, this time about the personal nature of evil, about the person as the bearer and source of evil.”   (Alexander Schmemann, Our Father, pp. 78-81)

From, Through and to God

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”

For from him

and through him

and to him

are all things.

To him be glory for ever.


(Romans 11:33-36)

The Ascension: God’s Sovereignty Over All

The exalted Jesus participates in God’s unique sovereignty over all things.

At a very early stage, which is presupposed and reflected in all the New Testament writings, early Christians understood Jesus to have been exalted after his death to the throne of God in the highest heaven. There, seated with God on God’s throne, Jesus exercises or participates in God’s unique sovereignty over the whole cosmos. This decisive step of understanding a human being to be participating now in the unique divine sovereignty over the cosmos was unprecedented. The principal angels and exalted patriarchs of Second Temple.

Jewish literature provide no precedent. It is this radical novelty which leads to all the other exalted christological claims of the New Testament texts. But, although a novelty, its meaning depends upon the Jewish monotheistic conceptual context in which the early Christians believed it. Because the unique sovereignty of God over all things was precisely one of the two major features which characterized the unique identity of God in distinction from all other reality, this confession of Jesus reigning on the divine throne was precisely a recognition of his inclusion in the unique divine identity, himself decisively distinguished, as God himself is, from any exalted heavenly servant of God.

(Richard J. Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament, Kindle Location 302-309)

Be an Example to Believers

Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.   (1 Timothy 4:12)

St. Alexander Schmorell (d. 1943AD)

Abba Isaac said: “As a young man I was staying with Abba Cronios and he never told me to do a task even though he was aged and tremulous. Of his own accord he would get up and offer the water bottle to me and likewise to all. After that I stayed with Abba Theodore of Pherme and neither did he ever tell me to do anything. He would lay the table himself and then say: ‘Brother, come and eat if you like.’ I would say to him: ‘Abba, I came to you to reap some benefit; why do you never tell me to do anything?’ The elder said to them: ‘Am I the superior of a coenobium to order him around?’ For the time being I didn’t tell him [to do] anything. He will do what he sees me doing if he wants to.’

So from then on I began anticipating, doing whatever the elder was about to do. For his part, if he was doing anything, he used to do it in silence This taught me to act in silence.” (Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 147)

So the Evangelist Luke writes:

A dispute also arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.   (Luke 22:24-27)

When Jesus had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.  (John 13:12-17)

Jesus as Temple

The Feast of the  Meeting of the Lord Jesus in the Temple is based upon the events recorded in  Luke 2:22-40 when Mary and Joseph, fulfilling the Torah command and thus righteousness, bring the 40 day old infant Jesus to the Jerusalem temple.  Biblical scholar Richard Hays says both ancient Jewish and Christian sources saw the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70AD as being theologically significant.

“Once the Temple has been destroyed and the holy of holies no longer stands in a building made with hands, the community must seek to discern how the God of all the earth will be made known in the world. In this situation, Matthew emphatically locates the divine presence in the figure of Jesus himself, who promises (in a saying that anticipates the resurrection and the ending of the Gospel) to be forever present wherever his followers gather and invoke his name.

In short, in Matthew 18:20 Jesus now declares himself, for the first time, to be the Emmanuel promised in the narrator’s opening fulfillment citation in 1:23. ‘My words will not pass away.’ Precisely because Jesus is Emmanuel, in his subsequent discourse on the end of the age (Matthew 24) he can offer the further remarkable assurance that his words will outlast all creation: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away‘ (24:35). If we ask ourselves who might legitimately say such a thing, once again there can be only one answer: we find ourselves face-to-face with the God of the Old Testament. Isaiah gives definitive expression to this theological truth: The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isa 40:7-8)     (Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness, Kindle Loc 1197-1209)

Christ in the temple is God in the temple.  The temple was a sign of God’s incarnation and Christ is that incarnation in the temple.  The Christian understanding of Jesus as the incarnate God is the Christian reading of the Scriptures of Israel.  It is not the Christians reading “into” the text but recognizing the claims of the text in Jesus Christ.