Sing A Psalm Commentary
“Be Merciful, O Lord, for We Have Sinned”
Psalm Background and Context
“A psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him after his affair with Bathsheba.” This descriptive title appears with Psalm 51, which is prayed by David himself upon admitting his sin of having slept with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. A confrontation with Nathan the prophet brings David to the point of finally admitting his guilt.
Psalm 51, known also as “The Miserere”, is one of a group of psalms referred to as “The Seven Penitential Psalms”. The others in this group are Psalm 6, Psalm 32, Psalm 38, Psalm 102, and Psalm 130. All are fairly familiar and commonly encountered in liturgical/prayer settings. In the Catholic liturgy, Psalms 51 and 130 are of particular familiarity and enjoy wide use as the two official “common psalms” of the Lenten season. Musical settings of both readily appear in many psalters and hymnals, as well as choral literature.
For Catholics, Psalm 51 occurs a number of times in both the Sunday and weekday Lectionaries. It is used in the Liturgy of the Hours, particularly Morning Prayer, on many Fridays throughout the year, for which it sets the tone as a day of penitence in preparation for the Church’s weekly celebration of Sunday, the Lord’s Day. It is the psalm for Mass heard every Ash Wednesday at the solemn beginning of Lent.
The Psalm Text
What does one say about such a beloved and oft-encountered psalm that either hasn’t already been said or that avoids over-analyzing it to the point of irrelevance or boredom? At some time or other, most anyone who regularly prays and lives with the psalms has probably read a lengthy, pious reflection or exegesis on it. These are easily found. That will not be the approach here. Instead, I wish to draw our attention to the straightforward sincerity and beauty of this text, and how God surprisingly seems to do so much of the work on our behalf when we seek forgiveness and the repairing of our damaged relationships.
Psalm 51 is the personal prayer of someone who is admitting their guilt and asking to be cleansed of their sin. One would think there is much work to be done by this person. True, the sinner does indeed bear the responsibility of owning up to their transgressions, expressing true contrition as well as a firm resolve to change their behavior. However, looking at the psalm, much of what enables this to happen is the fruit of what God does. God loves and identifies so strongly with every person He has created, that all sins against our neighbor are truly seen as sins against God himself. As the One in charge of all human relationships...the One who ordains them, calls them forth, and sets them in motion, it is God, then, whose actions figure prominently in our efforts to heal and rectify the sinful messes we create as human beings.
God Does Much of the Work
Of the four stanzas from Psalm 51 that are used here liturgically, and which appear in Jeremy’s arrangement, God seems to do so much of the work! Isn’t that so typical of our experiences with God? We go through so much of life thinking it’s all about us...or that we are the ones making it all happen. Yet it is God who, time after time, ends up doing most of the heavy lifting, either by simply extending the benefits of His Divine attributes of love, mercy, goodness, compassion and steadfastness...or by some sort of direct action. Though it is sometimes very difficult, in the end, the sinner pretty much merely needs to own up to his/her guilt and be sincere in their resolve to change. The key responsibilities for the sinner/penitent are true contrition and sincerity of heart.
God’s actions/attributes in each stanza of this setting:
Stanza 1 - God is invoked by the psalmist-penitent:
-to have mercy in His goodness,
-to show the greatness of His compassion by... -“wiping out” the offense, and -thoroughly washing guilt and cleansing sin
Stanza 2 – THE PSALMIST-PENITENT is briefly the center of attention:
-acknowledging their offense, their sin which is always before them
-They know their offenses and are well aware of them.
The focus on God returns very quickly, however:
The psalmist-penitent’s sins are cited as being against God alone. Really!? Yes! For that is how much God loves and identifies with each of us. Every sin against another person is indeed a sin against God himself!
-The penitent has done what is evil in God’s sight.
-God sees all and is aware of all, even before we ourselves acknowledge anything.
Stanza 3 - God is once again invoked by the psalmist-penitent:
-to create a clean heart in the psalmist-penitent
-to renew a steadfast spirit in them
-to refrain from casting them out from His presence -to avoid taking away His Holy Spirit
Stanza 4 - God is asked:
-to give back the joy of salvation
-to sustain a willing spirit within them -to open their lips
Only after God has done these many things can the mouth of the psalmist-penitent once again proclaim God’s praise with effectiveness and integrity.
The point here is: we often think of Psalm 51 as a psalm that’s all about us...the wrong we’ve done...and how we are now in dire straits, trying to own up to it, so that we can somehow fix the situation. What a surprise, then, to examine the psalm more closely and realize that it’s God who does so much of the work in bringing about healing and reconciliation. We simply need to be honest in naming and owning our sins, admitting our guilt, being truly sorry for what we’ve done, resolved to do better, and being properly disposed in our hearts to God’s loving forgiveness. We’ve seen this dynamic many times before in the Psalms and in other Scriptures: human beings transgress, God is grieved, and ends up bearing the brunt and burden of coming up with a plan for rescuing the situation and repairing the breach. God never ceases to reach out to us, to the point of offering His own Son as the ultimate sacrifice and atonement for all our sins and transgressions: “Love unto death.”
A Cleansed and Sincere Heart - Serenity of Mind
In addition to being a prayer of penitence asking for a clean and sincere heart, Psalm 51 might also be seen as a prayer for a return to serenity; this, especially as experienced in once again being in right relationship and at peace with all: God, ourselves, and others. As a helpful tool for us this Lenten season, may I propose for consideration five unfortunate human tendencies or behaviors...each starting with the letter “C”, which, when dispelled from our lives, might help us achieve greater serenity. These do not cover every conceivable human transgression. However, anyone who manages to master these tendencies will surely find themselves in a greatly improved situation as to their outlook, spiritual health and personal relationships.
In pursuit of serenity, let us rid ourselves of:
“Comparison is the thief of joy” President Theodore Roosevelt
Why is comparison so damaging? Because it betrays a lack of trust that God knew what He was doing when He created us. We were created to be who we are, not to live the life of someone else or to possess everything the same as they. This goes for everything from our gifts and talents...to our personality...our bodies...our families, friends, spiritual and material blessings. Comparison is closely linked to envy and jealousy, which are the root of being covetous. “Thou shalt not covet...” (fill in the blank)
Synonyms: discord, hostility, conflict, friction, acrimony, enmity, strife, dissension, disharmony, quarreling, feuding
Difficult, but NOT IMPOSSIBLE
Ridding our hearts of these five “Cs” is a tall order, especially when they are ingrained as habits. It is difficult, yes...BUT NOT IMPOSSIBLE. What is needed is grace, which is a gift of our Baptism.
In ancient times, Lent was closely linked with the Catechumenate and the baptism/initiation of new members of the Church at Easter. Their process of initiation was the reason for the Church choosing to observe Lent in the first place. In the fourth century, Christianity became “legal”
under the Emperor Constantine. This meant that persons choosing to become Christian were no longer having to do so in secret...“underground” in catacombs. While being a Christian has never been “easy” or without its demands in any age, the fact that Christianity had now become legal lessened the likelihood of risking persecution or one’s very life for proclaiming belief in Christ. The practice of infant baptism also began to arise. Both these things affected the Catechumenate, which began to slowly disappear until it was no longer found at all by the sixth century. Along with this, the baptismal emphasis/focus of Lent changed too. Lent never completely lost these initiatory ties and overtones; however, it came to be seen more as a time for focusing on personal sin, penitence and piety. The reforms of The Second Vatican Council included a return to the ancient baptismal focus of Lent that once had been the hallmark and very reason for the season.
So, what does our Baptism have to offer us in seeking serenity, sincerity of heart or avoiding the “five Cs”? Well, we need to remember that, when we were baptized, God gave us...instilled within us...everything we need for complete holiness of life. This is something most of us rarely, if ever, call to mind. Perhaps we were never even taught this. Yes! Baptism makes an indelible mark on our souls. This means we will now always be a child of God. In her book, “Our Lady’s Feasts,” Sister Mary Jean Dorcy, O.P. says that Baptism “fixes our place in the universe”. She goes on to describe how God does not leave us to fend for ourselves on the path of holiness. Rather, God provides all that is needed, specifically grace:
(again, quoting Sister Mary Jean Dorcy, O.P.)
“For Baptism gives to us graces that can be called upon when we need them...so that our souls never need be dimmed by the mists of the world.”
The “mists of the world” are our sins...individually and as a human race. They are the result of living under the slavery of sin, including those sins committed via the five “Cs” mentioned above. Let us cleanse ourselves of all our sins...or more accurately, let us allow God and His Holy Spirit to cleanse us of them! It is when we’ve been restored as forgiven sons and daughters of God, people truly claiming and striving to live out our baptismal promises, (which Lent prepares us to renew at Easter)...that we are once again enabled to effectively exercise our proper place and status “in the universe”. Our mouths are opened to give witness to the Gospel and God’s wondrous works. We can once again proclaim God’s praise (from stanza 4 of the psalm) with sincerity of heart, integrity of spirit, and as people who know and experience serenity.
The Video and Musical Setting
Jeremy’s video of Psalm 51 is beautifully simple. The use of voice and piano only is extremely appropriate not only to the mood of the Psalm but to the Lenten season or any other penitential service/liturgical setting in which it might be used. The subtle sign of ashes on Jeremy’s forehead evokes feelings and emotions that surely are shared by the viewer as they recall countless Ash Wednesdays in their own lives, a day that has a feel and tenor all its own, unique in the liturgical year. Everyone...the entire Church family...is marked with ashes on this day. All are reminded of their humanity and mortality. There is the realization that we are beginning an important journey together as Lent begins. There is a sense of “here comes everybody”, an apt description for the pilgrim People of God.
The movement from a “C” chord to that of “G-minor7” in the first two lines of each stanza provides a “swell” of beauty and emotion which, although unexpected, feels elegant and lovely, becoming a soothing wave of tenderness with each subsequent stanza. One can almost feel viscerally the penitent’s heart beating all the harder at those moments, desiring “so much” to be cleansed of their sin. Perhaps these are moments when God’s tender love and mercy are reaching out, gently washing over us. The effect, especially the way that Jeremy “leans into” these notes, is akin to gentle waves washing ashore or like ointment being applied to a hurting soul. Jeremy renders this setting with beautiful focus, prayerfulness, captivating sincerity, and the humility that is so characteristic of all his work.
Questions for Reflection
In what way(s) do I experience God taking the brunt of the workload when it comes to reconciliation?
Do I take personal responsibility for my sins and seek to do “my part” in seeking reconciliation with God and others?
Do I truly see how sinning against another person is also sinning against God?
What does this tell me about the inherent dignity of every person or their identity as a child of God?
Which of “The Five C’s” do I struggle with the most in my life?
Is there one in particular I should focus on during this Lenten season?
Is the idea that I have been given “all that I need” in Baptism to live a life of holiness a new concept for me?
Am I even able to believe this about myself?
If so, am I able to recognize or name specific ways this grace is apparent in my life? If not, what might be preventing me from believing/recognizing this?