Today's lectionary reading: Psalm 51:1-12; Isaiah 30:15-18; Hebrews 4:1-13
Passage selected for reflection: Psalm 51:1-12 (NLT)
Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins. 2 Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin. 3 For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night. 4 Against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight. You will be proved right in what you say, and your judgment against me is just. 5 For I was born a sinner— yes, from the moment my mother conceived me. 6 But you desire honesty from the womb, teaching me wisdom even there.
7 Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. 8 Oh, give me back my joy again; you have broken me— now let me rejoice. 9 Don’t keep looking at my sins. Remove the stain of my guilt. 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me. 11 Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you.
To me, reading Psalm 51 is an exercise in keeping distraction at bay: The king, abusing his power, rapes a woman, then kills her husband and takes her as his wife. After that, King David has the stomach to write this very song where he claims to have sinned against God, and God alone. Yes, he is allowed to exaggerate: It’s a psalm, after all. A poem. Yes, God is probably suffering because of this and is therefore also a victim of David’s acts. Yet any mention of Bathsheba is completely absent in this song. And wouldn’t God’s suffering be in response to Bathsheba’s? In that way, one of the main victims of David’s violent sins is made invisible.
But the psalm is also an exercise in compassion, by recognizing David’s humanity. Compassion requires my imagination and engagement, but not in the sense that I can pretend to understand someone’s situation fully by taking on their tormented conscience and so assimilate their experiences into mine. No, it's an exercise in compassion because even the worst of us are still human and that humanity needs our affirmation. The psalm serves its purpose: to facilitate my recognition of David so that I can also recognize myself.
Psalms give us the opportunity to borrow someone else’s words when ours are gone. When life leaves us speechless and lost, these prayers written by someone else are the gifts to us. When we do not know what to say, we can vocalize the words of someone else who has also run into the limits of being human.
So I ask this about Psalm 51: How can I make the piercing reality of someone else’s darkness, someone I don’t naturally want anything to do with, teach me about my own darkness? How is this prayer mine?
After moving beyond David as a person, and meeting myself on the page, I find in the words a desperation with a direction. What do I do when I stand before my own lack and sufficiency? As I am oscillating between being awake and asleep, tossing in my bed at night, where do I turn during moments of realization of how my actions have affected others? What do I when I have not been generous towards my partner the way I long to be, or can’t help my children navigate life the way I had hoped and our relationship becomes one of me continuously correcting their course, instead of enjoying the ride? When all my promises were never quite enough, and I couldn’t even keep them anyway? What do I say to myself and of myself when all I see inside are dead ends? When it feels like I’m finally and at last seeing myself for who I really am, and I don’t like what I see? How can I recognize that I’m limited, wholly and truly, and yet be somewhat cautiously hopeful that there is a way to live without ruining everything and everyone around me, myself included?
When I feel like that, which sometimes happens, there is only one option left and it was what David did: he sought to live with his shadow continually kept before him, yet with hope intact. When we see ourselves for who we are, we may find ourselves do what David did: ask God for a new beginning, a fresh start. David longs for a beginning that is so new that God even makes David willing to walk with God again: David doesn’t even trust himself enough to even want to do what is good. And so he throws himself, and all of who he is, into God’s care and onto God’s mercy. Because sometimes when we glimpse ourselves, that’s the only thing that we have left to do.
When new beginnings and New Year’s resolutions don’t excite me anymore because nothing seems to change anyways, Psalm 51 helps me.
What things about yourself have you lost hope in changing?
Come to God with honesty. See what happens. Notice how God meets you right where you are.
God, you know my shadow sides. When I see them too, help me turn them over to you. Show me mercy and make me new in your love. Amen.
About the author
After serving as a missionary for almost two decades, Anna returned to her native Sweden, where she lives with her husband and two girls. She has a degree in comparative literature and works part time as a teaching pastor while continuing her studies and trying to juggle this one crazy life.