Summary of the Text
Ancient Lens: What can we learn from the historical context?
Dramatic context, deep resonance: As the introductory remark makes clear, Psalm 51 is very specifically accredited to David, and reflects a sort of his internal dialogue at the moment of his conviction of sins by the prophet Nathan (killing of Uriah, adultery with Bathsheba, 2 Samuel 12). This is a staggering moment of human drama, where David’s all-too-human sinfulness is laid bare for his nation to witness. While this will surely taint his stature as the idealized hero that establishes a national monarchy, his response seeped in raw honesty longing for restoration will allow David’s words to minister to all believers that would come after, that have ever fallen short.
The psalm therefore transcends the story of David, all the while drawing from it, to speak “thick” truth about human sinfulness, our longing for mercy and restoration, nature and qualities of genuine contrition, and ultimately, the promise of divine grace.
Communal Confession: Psalms, of course, are the prayer/songbook of the community. Though deeply personal, they were not read individualistically, and rarely read apart from the worshipping community.
We need to remember this, as our tendency (modern, American) is to make confession deeply psychological and private. So much of the biblical understanding of sin becomes distorted when we do it this way. Our liturgy of “confession” is often reduced to a privatized look of contrition in general, but of never utterly anything that might actually be damning/need to be worked out in the context of a trusting, safe community. And even then, in consideration of the narrowed spectrum of individualistic sins, we actually don’t really have to feel that bad about ourselves.
But so much of the ancient context teaches us otherwise. Read in public, in the context of the community of believers, this confession of David is deeply communal, and almost humiliatingly public. Praying Psalm 51—and confession in general—had the effort of community formation, for it opens us up to the reality that while some of our acts may be personal, all sins simultaneously damage our communion with God and our communion with one another. It made all—kings, lords, commoners, priests—equal before God in our frail humanity, preparing us equally to be eager recipients of God’s grace.
A communal confession of sin also opens us up to the reality of “communal” or “social” sin, for which we may have played a direct or an indirect role of complicity (or silence). Our failure to teach this in the church may be part of the reason for why we are still struggling with sins like racism, misogyny that are dependent on cultures/structures that do not question the status quo. But the prophets clearly spoke against such sins of structure, against classes of people marginalized by society—the poor, the foreigner, the widows. The practice of communal confession thus makes way for the practice of communal repentance (ashes, sackcloth, etc.) that acknowledges our complicity in communal sin.
Sinfulness, not just singular sin: Interesting to note that while the context is very specifically from the life of David, the sin that is being confessed is very general, and much more about our “sinfulness” as a tendency, quality of our being. It is as if the specificity of David’s sin is set aside as a way to create space for ours.
Liturgical Repetition: Psalm 51 is used as part of the liturgy of the people of God in every Scripture-formed tradition (Jewish, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant). That is to say, it was thought to be important for the believing people to repeat and revisit the confession regularly, in the context of a liturgical calendar.
“Rich Mullins said that when he was a kid he’d walk down the church aisle to be “born again again” or “rededicate” his life to Christ every year at camp. In college, he’d do it every six months, then quarterly; by the time he was in his forties it was “about four times a day.” (from Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary, p.56). While some of us may have grown up in traditions that may think such eagerness an act of theological naivete, this older tradition affirms our continual need to cry out “have mercy on me” regularly, if not continually.
Ἰησοῦς Lens: How do we point to Jesus?
Soteriology in a Nutshell
Luther: “A knowledge of this psalm is necessary and useful in many ways. It contains instruction about the chief parts of our religion, about repentance, sin, grace, and justification, as well as about the worship we ought to render God. These are divine and heavenly doctrines.” (Luther, Selected Psalms, 1:305, referenced by John Goldingay, Psalms, Vol. 2., p. 139.)
Aquinas: “This one is more often repeated in Church because it alone beseeches mercy and thus it obtains favour.”(Commentary on the Psalms, on Ps 50 (=51 in EVV), as referenced by John Goldingay, Psalms, Vol. 2., p. 124.
In other words, the driving force of Psalm 51 is grace. This psalm captures all of the elements necessary for one to understand the gospel. I have sinned; I am broken; I cannot find my way to restoration; my only hope in the steadfast love of God, in the character of God who does not despise the “broken and contrite heart.” Expectation and the need for a savior—a Messiah—is as explicit as it is anywhere in the Old Testament.
Deeply Relational: At the heart of the psalm is a longing not for a restoration of an imputed status, or entry into paradise, but a return to intimacy, a restoration of a broken relationship. “Against you, you alone I have sinned”; “do not cast me away from your presence.” The psalm has all the feelings of someone who knows that they have hurt a beloved. It is remorse expressed from the deepest of one’s emotional well. Salvation for David is reconciliation, a restoration to relationship.
Sin Gives Way to God: John Goldingay makes the following observation: words for sin appear 12 times in vv 1-9. And 2 times in verses 10-19. Conversely, God is named once in vv. 1-9. And 6 times in 10-19. “Sin gives way to God: with confession, sin gives way to God’s presence. “The poet literally and literarily is emptied with sin and filled with grace.”” (Goldingay, Psalms, Vol. 2., 140.)
Modern Lens: How does this touch our heart, life, emotions, thoughts and relationships today?
If it is not already clear, Psalm 51 does not miss a beat in being able to express the modern person’s heart. Whether sung to the melody provided by Keith Green, or even just recited, the psalm moves our hearts with almost preternatural resonance to this day. Its words of vulnerable honesty gives words and voice to anyone who has ever encountered the depths of their own sinfulness.
The psalmist’s cry “Create in a me a clean heart” rightly focuses the attention on our “desires, and passions”—the orientation of our heart—rather than on singular activities of sin. So much of the church’s push for “practicality of faith” and “relevance” in the past couple of decades have focused our attention (wrongly, I would submit) on the symptoms of our disease, rather than our wayward heart that desires the wrong things in the first place.
In recent times, theologians such as James K. A. Smith have returned a much-needed focus back on our “heart” as a better way to understand our human problem. “Jesus’s command to follow him is a command to align our loves and longings with his—to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he is all in all.” (Smith, You Are What You Love). Thus, to cry “create in a me a clean heart”—a heart that desires after the right things—is the cry of every faithful disciple.
What then does it mean to be “broken and contrite” in our “heart”? How do we do this so that this is not mere uttering of word (paying lip service), whereby we fool ourselves… about ourselves? Most of us have seen abuses of this sort of push for premature reconciliation personally, whereby someone will demand our forgiveness for them—might it be possible for us to do that to God as well?
As with all reconciliation, there needs to be a “truth telling”—a deep confession—about what it is that is wrong. A corresponding spirit of contrition that is genuine is also in order. Lastly, we need to be willing to make restitution for the wrong that we have caused. Without willing to undergo such hard work, the call for a relational reconciliation is almost always abusive.
Psalm 51 models for us a better path.
The Rev. Jin Cho is an Anglican priest serving in the diocese of the Churches for the Sake of Others. He has 25-plus years experience as a pastor and a church planter and received his Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Seminary, writing on the topic of race, evangelicalism, and the local church.
Currently he works with churches and non-profits to have courageous conversations around justice issues. He and his far more interesting wife Esther will celebrate their 25th anniversary this year, and they have two extremely extroverted middle-schoolers. They reside in Orange County, California.
The church must suffer for speaking the truth, for pointing out sin, for uprooting sin. No one wants to have a sore spot touched, and therefore a society with so many sores twitches when someone has the courage to touch it and say: “You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that. Believe in Christ. Be converted.
Confession Reminds Us
Confession reminds us that none of us gather for worship because we are “pretty good people.” But we are new people, people marked by grace in spite of ourselves because of the work of Christ. Our communal practice of confession reminds us that failure in the Christian life is the norm.
We—each and all—take part in gathered worship as unworthy people who, left on our own, deserve God’s condemnation. But we are not left on our own… Once a close friend visited my church, and she was concerned by this part of our service. She didn’t like that the priest pronounced absolution.
She asked, “Don’t we receive forgiveness from God, not a priest?” Why use a go-between? I told her that forgiveness is from God, and yet I still need to be told. I need to hear in a loud voice that I am forgiven and loved, a voice that is truer, louder, and more tangible than the accusing voices within and without that tell me I’m not.
Taken from Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren. Copyright (c) 2016 by Tish Harrison Warren, pp.57-58. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com