Psalm 51 has been called “one of the most moving prayers in the Old Testament.” It hits all the right notes. There’s a full admission of guilt, acknowledgment that no pardon is deserved, and loving joy because God does forgive. There’s an expressed awareness that “unless a radical change is wrought by God, the future will be but a repetition of the past.” That’s why the psalmist “appeals to God for a clean heart and a new spirit.”
This is the psalm which appears in the liturgy with Ash Wednesday, which by the way probably never makes the list on anyone’s favorite holidays. There is a cruel and kind revelation about our very existence, who we are, down to the bone. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” There can be no pretensions.
A key verse in our psalm is verse 14. The psalmist seems to be on the precipice of some kind of horror, something to be dreaded. “Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,” is the cry, “O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.”
Opinions differ as to what “bloodshed” here is all about. Is it something the psalmist has done—or something feared yet to happen? Is it a comment about the whole nation, something we frequently see in Old Testament prayers? I would say there’s room for both.
Still, there is a painful, agonizing note sounded by an individual. The caption of the psalm refers to it as King David’s plea for pardon after raping Bathsheba. The prophet Nathan has confronted the king and exposed his guilt. There’s nothing to say. He has been caught red-handed, so to speak.
Lest we think we are free of the shedding of blood, reflect on this. Even with inflation, have you ever thought of how so many items are priced so cheaply? Consider the overwhelmingly vast number of goods coming from a single country. We support that country, which commits plenty of bloodshed, both literally and figuratively.
Recall verse 1, how this whole thing gets kicked off: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.” The Hebrew word for “abundant mercy” (or in the New Jerusalem Bible, “tenderness”) is רַחַם (raham). It means “womb.” O God, according to your compassion for your unborn child…
Recalling David’s violation of Bathsheba, the Lord can be seen (or is seen) as a female who has suffered that grievous harm—one who has been violated in that most violent way.
The king can’t undo the past; he knows a radically new way is called for.
As we recite the psalm on Ash Wednesday, we should note not all of the psalm is used. We stop at verse 17. Here are verses 16 and 17: “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
As we scroll through this poem, time and time again, we see calls for radical openness. I encourage you to read every verse and then pause and reflect on it.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity…
Against you, you alone, have I sinned…
You desire truth in the inward being…
Create in me a clean heart…
Restore to me the joy of your salvation… (I think the point is made.)
For that vision, for that reality to come alive, some radical change—as already mentioned—must come to pass. That sounds great, but then here are verses 18 and 19. These last two verses are often seen as having been added later, as a sort of appendix.
“Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem; then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.” We might ask, “Okay, so what’s the point?” It sounds like a perfectly acceptable and necessary part of repentance.
I would suggest there is a chasm between these two verses and what has gone before. I know not everyone agrees with me. They might say I’m overstating the case, pretending I’m looking at the Grand Canyon, as opposed to a babbling brook. And that’s fine. But see for yourself.
On the one hand, “For you have no delight in sacrifice…” And on the other, “Then you will delight in right sacrifices…”
On the one hand, “If I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased…” And on the other, “You will delight in burnt offerings…”
“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit.”
With those last two verses, there is a sense of “but then… There’s nothing wrong with the way we served God in the past.”
Why am I attracted to this? That’s a question for each of us.
Why am I attracted to this? Suggestions are offered. Why am I attracted to this church… this person… this place? What do I really want?
“You need to know the answer to this, for yourself. Because this will help to make or break you. Only you know the answer.”
This is hard. It is deeply uncomfortable. I want the safe. I want the secure. I want what verses 18 and 19 promise: the tried and true. I don’t like being dangled over the cliff, held only by spirit, held only by the Spirit. How badly I want to say, “In with the old, out with the new.”
Last week, we had a dinner in which a young woman invited many of her friends. Some of them were sharing experiences they had with the Holy Spirit. I appreciated a comment by another young woman who said she was asking her husband if they should leave. With these other people uttering such profound insights (my words, not hers), she said she felt “shallow.” She felt inadequate. As I just suggested, I have had feelings like that.
The author of the article says, “We need to grow up. Christianity is not comfortable. Growth and change are not comfortable so if every now and then your pastor is not preaching a message that stretches you and causes you to think about your life or calls you to repentance, then something is wrong. It means you’re only hearing the parts of the Bible that makes you feel good but there are large sections not being preached. And that should bother you.”
And that should bother me. As the apostle Paul said, “woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” (1 Co 9:16). That’s a stark warning.
God forbid I give you easy answers. God forbid I don’t encourage painful and probing questions.
Adam Neder, professor at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, says, “If our way of talking about God leaves [us] unaware of the threat he poses to our lives, perhaps that is because we no longer perceive the threat he poses to our lives.” Can we see God as a threat to our lives? What could that mean?
I would suggest we often—or perhaps always—believe our lives are limited to the way we sleepwalk through life. We don’t necessarily have to get into some deep philosophical discussion. A trip to the grocery store can be quite revealing. We see people rushing around, impatient, not smiling, without joy. What would happen if we conducted an experiment? What would happen if we decided to slow down?
The late Thomas Merton wrote, “Our ordinary waking life is a bare existence in which, most of the time, we seem to be absent from ourselves and from reality because we are involved in the vain preoccupations which dog the steps of every living [person]. But there are times when we seem suddenly to awake and discover the full meaning of our own present reality… In the light of such an experience it is easy to see the futility of all the trifles that occupy our minds. We recapture something of the calm and balance that ought always to be ours, and we understand that life is far too great a gift to be squandered on anything less than perfection.”
Thank the Lord that God is a threat to that substitute for real life, our life hidden in Christ. We fear the dangerous and delightful depth expressed by the worship chorus, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. / Cast me not away from Thy presence, O Lord / and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. / Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation, / and renew a right spirit within me.”
At the beginning I used the quote, “unless a radical change is wrought by God, the future will be but a repetition of the past.” The psalmist ready to move on. There’s no looking back. The past has involved David’s being a rapist and a murderer. The threat God poses is seen and welcomed. “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice” (v. 8).
To insert a New Testament perspective: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being!” (2 Co 5:17).
So, what now? As the song says, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going, / And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing. / That’s how it is with God’s love once you’ve experienced it; / You spread His love to everyone; You want to pass it on.” Pass it on. “I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you” (v. 13).
We aren’t made righteous in the eyes of God just for the fun of it. If we have truly experienced it, our lives will be changed. We won’t be able to do otherwise. We need not feel inadequate, as did the young woman at our dinner. We are made more than sufficient, more than conquerors.
 Anderson, 398.
 Adam Neder, “Theology as a Way of Life,” Theology Matters 28:3 (Summer 2022), 4.
 Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1951), 10.