This is the 4th post in this blog series meditating on Psalm 51. The previous post is Psalm 51: What Do “I” Do?
The inscription at the beginning of Psalm 51 gives us a solid clue about the context in which Psalm 51 was written. It reads: “To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”
One can read the account of David’s sin with Bathsheba and the aftermath in 2 Samuel 11-12. King David lusted after Bathsheba, wife of the faithful soldier Uriah. David commits adultery with Bathsheba resulting in her being pregnant while her husband is off to war. Trying to cover up his sin, the King gives orders for a troop withdrawal during a battle that ensures that Uriah is killed in battle. Then King David feels he can legitimately claim Bathsheba as his wife. The Prophet Nathan, knowing David’s sin and God’s judgment of David, confronts the King by telling him a parable of injustice. David is outraged by the evil man in the parable but then realizes the parable is about himself and that he is guilty of grievous sin. We read in 2 Samuel 12:11-14, Nathan pronouncing judgment on King David:
Thus says the LORD, ‘Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.'” David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” And Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child that is born to you shall die.”
This is the moment to which the inscription of Psalm 51 refers. All David says is, “I have sinned against the LORD.” No remorse is expressed, no promise of reformation or change or improvement, no excuse is offered, no attempt to justify what he did. David simply acknowledges “God is right, I am wrong.” David’s reaction to knowing he has sinned is very much reflected in Psalm 51. David knows both he needs God and that God is right in judging him; whatever God is now going to do is going to be right, just, the right and needed thing. David accepts the consequences of his own behavior and of God’s judgment. David believes that his duty is to own his sin and then turn the whole ‘affair’ over to God for God to deal with. David recognizes God is legitimately the judge in his case but tells God to take into account that he is now owning his sin and asking God to do away with his guilt. David is relying on what God said after the Great Flood:
… the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.” (Genesis 8:21)
David knows the merciful nature of God, but also knows that his own sin is deserving of death. He asks God instead to be merciful, even though he showed no mercy to Uriah.
As the story unfolds David does fast and weep and pray when he realizes that the illegitimate, yet innocent child produced by his adultery was going to die. But when he learns that the baby of Uriah’s wife has died, David stops his lamentation. Note in 2 Samuel 12:15 the child is not called David’s baby, but the child of Uriah’s wife, even Bathsheba is not mentioned by name. The biblical author wants us to be clear about how egregious this sin is. Neither the baby nor Bathsheba belong to David, yet he greedily acted as if they were his. Then in 2 Samuel 12:21-23, we read:
Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while it was alive; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”
We see in the narrative exactly the idea of “repentance” expressed in the Psalm. We need to allow God to be God, and to ask God to do things according to God’s own nature. We need to learn what it is to be human – created in God’s image and likeness, created to have dominion over all creatures, but still subject to the Lordship of God. We need God to do all the things necessary to make us human despite our inclination to sin: show us mercy, cleanse us, teach us, deliver us, fill us with Himself. That happens only if we agree to it. David realizes that he has sinned, he can’t now walk that one back or change it. The deed is done and now the consequences must be accepted as well. David knows God is right in what God does. David owns the fact that his own behavior has terrible consequences for some innocent people. David is not bargaining with God but does put his hope in God. He hopes God’s mercy will include the child of Uriah’s wife not dying, but he recognizes his own deed has consequences and God is good and right in what God does.
Of course, with our modern sensibilities, we still wonder, why did the baby have to die? What did the baby do? The story is not about a judgment on the child. We could also ask, why did Uriah have to die? Because David willed it. David willed Uriah’s death so he could have Bathseba. But the other price paid is a second innocent victim, the child of Uriah’s wife dies as well. In every sense of the word, David is guilty of a double homicide in order to get his way. That is what he recognizes. Sin is not private but affects others as well.
David realizes he needs God to be God and to act toward himself as only God can do. The price David paid to experience God’s mercy is two innocent people died. Why did it take such a heavy price before David realized God’s nature? Why are we humans the way we are? Why do we keep putting God to the test? How many more sins will we commit, how many more innocent people will die before we accept the Lordship of God? That is why we should be broken-hearted when we think about our own sins, or the brokenness of the world around us. What all has to happen before we stop sinning and turn to God to receive His mercy freely without any more cost to anyone? The world pays a heavy price for our self-willfulness. While there are many more violent examples, we only have to think about our own addiction to consumption and creating waste to see how “I” impact the world. Someone, somewhere pays the price for my wastefulness.
Psalm 51 shows us that repentance brings us to the mercy of God. And then we realize where the Liturgy fits in for it shows us a different way to come to the mercy of God. We don’t need to sin to experience God’s forgiveness and mercy. We can approach God with thanksgiving for God’s goodness, and totally freely enter into the mercy and love of God in thanksgiving.
King David in repentance promises God three things in verses 51:12-15 – to teach transgressors God’s way, to sing aloud of God’s salvation and to praise God.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall show forth your praise.
A life of repentance, or spending the remaining time of our life in repentance (as we pray at the Liturgy) means being a witness to others about God’s ways and also of singing of God’s salvation and praising God in one’s life. Here we see the full connection between repentance and thanksgiving, between Psalm 51 and the Divine Liturgy.
In the Liturgy’s prayers we also tell God all the things God is to do for us, just like we do in Psalm 51. But in the Liturgy the context is thanksgiving, not penance. We pray that God’s will be done which includes our becoming the people that God created us to be to carry out His will. In repentance we can experience the mercy of God even though others and us might experience the negative consequence of our sins. In the Liturgy on the other hand, we all experience the mercy of God while giving thanks for all the blessings that others and we have received. Thus we even give thanks for the Liturgy as being the best way for the world which God loves and for us to experience the mercy of God.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
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.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Next: The Prayer of Manasseh