Friday after Ash Wednesday – Psalm 51

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin!

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
    and blameless in your judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
    and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
    and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,
    and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and uphold me with a willing spirit.

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
    O God of my salvation,
    and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
    you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
    build up the walls of Jerusalem;
19 then will you delight in right sacrifices,
    in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
    then bulls will be offered on your altar.

We know this psalm of David. After his famous words in the 23rd Psalm this might be his other most famous poem. But we also know it for the occasion for which David wrote these words. The prophet Nathan has accused him, and David has admitted his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband to cover it up. It is a story which remains familiar to us today. Just a little while ago, a prince of England settled a very large lawsuit brought by a woman who had been so young when they had met. It is a sordid tale. So was David’s

But it is not just royalty and mighty sinners who sing this psalm. It is people like you and me. For sin is not measured on a scale. Yes, of course, some sins seem worse to us, but in God’s eyes the sins we consider great and small are far more alike than dislike. One commentator I read compared our penchant for grading the severity of sin to being at the head of a line of people or somewhere further back. If the line is heading in the wrong direction, you end up in the same place. It doesn’t matter where your place in line really is.

David’s prayer in vs 7 is the prayer of us all. Purge me and I will be clean, wash me and I will be whiter than snow. Create a clean heart in me for this old heart is broken by sin and sorrow. It is not fit for heaven or your presence. It is only fit for the grave and destruction. I need your washing and purging.

The monks of the Benedictine tradition sing words from the psalm every morning. After the last service of the day, they retire to their cells to observe the grand silence. They speak to no one. They are awoken, often before dawn, with a bell. They gather in silence in the church. One of them intones the first half of verse 15 and the rest respond with the second: O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. Every day they acknowledge their need for God to open their mouths and for God to fill those mouths with praise. Every day they repent. Repent with David today. God is merciful.

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