Reflections on the Seven Penitential Psalms: Psalm 51

By Graziano Marcheschi, M.A. D.Min

Psalm 51—The Miserere: Prayer of Repentance

It is the sentiment King David expresses here that assured his greatness, that set him apart from his predecessor, Saul, and that enables him to stand tall among Israel’s great heroes despite the grave sin that sits at the heart of this lament

Miserere… it begins: “Have mercy, God, in accordance with your merciful love.” From the start, the speaker, King David, does two things at once: admit his sinfulness and rely on God’s mercy. He doesn’t rely on previous good deeds or on any extenuating circumstances. He is guilty, and he knows only God’s mercy can save him.

David’s sin will have far-reaching consequences. The nation will pay for the crimes of their king just as children often suffer for the sins of their parents, employees for the sins of their bosses, and citizens and parishioners for the sins of their leaders.

David has committed adultery with Bathsheba and covered up his sin by ordering the murder of her husband. The prophet Nathan has confronted him with his crime, so now David has nowhere to hide. But David’s contrast with his royal predecessor is starkly evident. King Saul hadn’t succumbed to temptations of the flesh; he had stopped trusting God. He turned to divination and to mediums, rather than to God, to guarantee his future, so God “repented” of choosing Saul as king. Having lost God’s confidence and hearing of his son’s death, Saul despairs and falls upon his sword.

And then there’s David. Nathan presents David’s own story to him as a hypothetical, asking the king’s judgment. The ploy works and David unwittingly declares his own crimes to be worthy of death.  But when he’s identified as the guilty party, David readily admits his guilt and accepts responsibility.  And instead of falling on his sword, David falls to his knees and begs God’s mercy. Saul and David both shed light on one of the great truths of Christian faith: God will forgive any sin for which we’re truly sorry.

But that’s not really as easy as it sounds. Those who think “It’s not fair that some can sin their whole life through, then say a quick “I’m sorry” on their deathbed and thereby sneak through heaven’s gates!” can take comfort (if such a thing is comfort) in the knowledge that it’s really very difficult to turn our lives around all at once, especially at the very end. Saul couldn’t do it. Fortunately, David didn’t have to because he practiced repentance throughout his life. Deathbed confessions are the exception. The psalms show us the better way: we must recognize our sinfulness and practice repentance throughout life. And if we do, it won’t be hard to say I’m sorry—and to mean it—when we reach the end.

Questions for Reflection:

Read the story of how Nathan confronted David in 2 Samuel 12: 1-14. Then recall a time you’ve been confronted with some sin of your own. Were you able to recognize and accept your guilt or did you strive to deny it to others or yourself?

Though Scripture assures us David was forgiven his grave sins of adultery and of causing the death of an innocent man, the child he conceived with Bathsheba died, as the prophet Nathan predicted. That death is presented as the consequence of David’s sin. Is God less merciful if he allows us to endure the consequences of our sins?

The prophet Nathan’s ministry in this episode of David’s life was to confront his King with a hard truth. Today we talk of “speaking truth to power,” referring to the responsibility of bringing Gospel values to the marketplace and challenging our leaders when necessary. Do you see this as part of your Christian responsibility? How might you “speak truth to power” in your life or work?

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