Catholic liturgies on this day usually include Psalm 51, which is one of the best-known penitential psalms. The writer of this psalm acknowledges personal sinfulness and great need for God’s forgiveness and the cleansing of soul and refreshing of life that only God can offer. I’m including the psalm in full and have added some commentary for information and reflection—that text is in brackets and in bold.
To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. [David took Bathsheba, a married women, into his bed and got her pregnant; then he manipulated circumstances to assure that her husband, a trusted commander in David’s army, would be killed in action. It wasn’t until the prophet Nathan came to visit the king, and used a clever story to trick David into facing his actions, that David repented. And when he did, he articulated it in this psalm.]
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
[David, who has acknowledged his sins of adultery and murder, believes that it is possible to be clean again, if God will have mercy on him.]
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
[He recognizes that any sin against another person is also a sin against God, that there is a fundamental wrongness that transcends mere human interactions.]
6 You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
[Here is insight about the human being; there are layers of self that must be understood—“secret” hearts and thoughts and feelings. We need God’s wisdom to comprehend ourselves.]
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
[All of these go together: a clean heart, our ability to perceive God’s presence, a restoration of joy, and the capacity to want and do what is good, right, and in line with holy purpose.]
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
[My spiritual state has a direct impact on others.]
15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
[At the heart of our relationship with God is . . . the heart. Is it open? Do we allow ourselves to experience sorrow that leads to healing and the mending of our ways? Am I brave enough to let my heart be broken and to grant access to my deepest self?]
18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
19 then you will delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt-offerings and whole burnt-offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
[David was looking for the restoration of order in the life of the nation; this included the religious rituals they had at the time—burnt sacrifice—which would convey to everyone that they chose to be faithful to their God and no other. Perhaps David the king recognized that his own sin could stand in the way of God blessing the whole nation.]
During this Lenten retreat, we will not examine every psalm as we have this one. But on this Ash Wednesday, when we reflect on how fragile we are—that death could come at any moment, that God grants us life, watches over our death, and takes us toward resurrection—it is appropriate to linger awhile on what it means to be penitent.
Did any particular part of this psalm speak to you?
What is your personal experience of penitence—of recognizing sin and brokenness and bringing it before God’s mercy?