lent 2023 day #2

Psalm 51:1-12

To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan

came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

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.

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.

6 You desire truth in the inward being;
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
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.

We hear the painful remorse and desperation of the Psalmist as he pleads "Have mercy on me, O God."  And perhaps each of us can come up with a time in our lives when we've felt the deep shame of having done something incredibly wrong, whether that's been by way of hurting someone or having committed an atrocious act, either purposefully or by accident. The shame we feel can be overwhelming.  The debt of our wrongdoing can feel unpayable and insurmountable.  Shame is the deep sense of alienation from communal relationship and isolation we embody after we feel we've committed an act (or believe our very selves to have such ugliness) that ostracizes us from home.  We want to come back, but we are too dirty and loathsome.  You may have heard it said, "shame is not from God," and perhaps you intellectually understand that God's grace is the only power that lifts us from the miry clay of despair and back into the arms of the Beloved.  But emotionally, we are often ruined and paralyzed by shame.  The hardest lessons to learn are the most often the least complicated to understand.

The phrase "steadfast love" in v.1 points to the Hebrew word, hesed, which refers to the reciprocal love relationship between God and His people.  The covenantal relationship that says God is your beloved and you are His.  The one that comes with a promise:  that he will keep you and protect you and have your back, if you lean into him and trust.  And even in our fickleness as we break promise after promise, and walk away from God over and over again--still it is God's own magnanimous power that brings us back to relationship again, even when we are too lost and don't have the strength to.  Hesed--God's steadfast, covenantal love.  The Psalmist is asking: could a world in which you show mercy to me exist even as I have been so sinful?  Only by the hesed of God.

The next phrase in v1 deepens the motif of intimate relationship with God in the use of the word raham here translated, “abundant mercy.”  Raham, is rooted in the term for “womb.” The psalmist is calling on the mother-like love of God with the nearness of an infant safe and protected in the womb, the very first of all loves.  We see this image of womb and mother paralleled in v5, yet here it is a human womb--and still the shame of sin runs deeper as he was "born guilty."  Still the darkness can't be blotted out, and the psalmist digs deeper to the "inward being," where the "secret heart" resides.  The secret place so deep and original that only God can touch.  It is here in the core soil that God's Spirit, like a perfect excavator, digs out all contaminated soil so that something new can grow:  Create in me a clean heart, Oh God, and put a new and right Spirit within me.

In God is perfect Mercy and Grace.  The exile experienced in shamefulness is erased--we are no longer cast from the presence of God.  God says you are no longer not my people but you are children of the living God.  We know from the subtitle of Psalm 51 the context of this psalm.  We can read about Nathan exhorting King David in 2 Samuel 12.  And if we really dwell on David's actions they are triggering in how atrocious they are.  A King, a person in power and privilege, lusting after that which is not his.  A man, because of unchecked desire, uses the power of his station to sexually take a woman.  This is an assault further compounded by the fact that David uses his power and station to murder Bathsheba's husband.  These acts are unforgivable, and it is difficult now with these eyes to see King David as a Biblical hero no matter your time period or context.  And yet, how much deeper does God's grace and mercy and presence and hesed and womb-love run?