Psalm 51

Psalm 51[a]

The “Miserere”: Repentance for Sin

1 For the director.[b] A psalm of David. 2 When Nathan the prophet came to him after he had sinned with Bathsheba.

3 Have mercy on me, O God,
in accord with your kindness;[c]
in your abundant compassion
wipe away my offenses.
4 Wash me completely from my guilt,
and cleanse me from my sin.
5 For I am fully aware of my offense,
and my sin is ever before me.
6 Against you, you alone,[d] have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in your sight.
Therefore, you are right in accusing me
and just in passing judgment.
7 Indeed, I was born in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.[e]
8 But you desire sincerity of heart;[f]
and you endow my innermost being with wisdom.
9 Sprinkle me with hyssop[g] so that I may be cleansed;
wash me until I am whiter than snow.
10 Let me experience joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed exult.
11 Hide your face from my sins,
and wipe out all my offenses.
12 Create[h] in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a resolute spirit within me.
13 Do not cast me out from your presence
or take away from me your Holy Spirit.[i]
14 Restore to me the joy of being saved,
and grant me the strength of a generous spirit.
15 I will teach your ways to the wicked,
and sinners will return to you.
16 Deliver me from bloodguilt,[j] O God,
the God of my salvation,
and I will proclaim your righteousness.
17 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will proclaim your praise.
18 For you take no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to make a burnt offering,
you would refuse to accept it.[k]
19 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a contrite and humble heart,[l] O God,
you will not spurn.
20 [m]In your kindness, deal favorably with Zion;
build up the walls of Jerusalem.
21 Then you will delight in righteous sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole oblations,
and young bulls will be offered on your altar.

Footnotes

  1. Psalm 51:1 This psalm, the “Miserere,” the best known of the seven Penitential Psalms (Pss 6; 32; 38; 51; 102; 130; 143), is still the most authentic expression of our prayer as human beings. The kind of sincerity in the confession of sinfulness that it expresses requires a limitless trust in the mercy of God. Whether it voices the repentance of King David after his adultery (see 2 Sam 12:13) or that of the Jewish people after their return from the Exile during which they had become aware of their infidelity, the entreaty shows authentic repentance.
    Men and women become conscious of the sin that alienates them from God (see Ezek 2:3; 16:43); evil plunges its roots deep within their being (see Jer 5:23; 7:24; 17:9; Ezek 36:26). A hasty forgiveness, an external purification, is not enough; it is the heart that must be transformed. God alone can effect this new creation and infuse a new Spirit (see Ezek 36:26). He allows sinners to come to their senses and humbly commit themselves to him again. He alone can answer the desire for complete renewal that is inscribed in a true request for forgiveness. Our thoughts turn immediately to Paul who movingly describes the dramatic situation of sinners (Rom 7:14ff) and then contrasts it with the exalted life of Christians who let themselves be led by the Holy Spirit (Rom 8).
    Especially striking in this regard is verse 7 of this psalm: the individual—or the people—has been conceived in sin, begotten in guilt. The psalmist is surely not thinking of a sin of the mother that might infect the child, nor does the Old Testament consider the conjugal union to be sinful; by this exceptionally violent image the psalmist intends rather to convey the idea that the human being is born as a prisoner of a sinful environment.
    All Christians—whether under the shock of some personal failing, under the, at times, searing impression of a life of mediocrity and nullity in God’s eyes, or in union with the entire Church imploring the mercy of the Crucified upon the sinful world—have recited this psalm with its bubbling lyricism to express contrition and distress of soul, and to ask the Savior’s mercy and their own inner renewal.
  2. Psalm 51:1 For the director: these words are thought to be a musical or liturgical notation. For the event referred to, see 2 Sam 11:1—12:25.
  3. Psalm 51:3 Kindness: see note on Ps 6:5. Wipe away: the psalmist pictures God keeping a record of a person’s deeds on a scroll as earthly kings were wont to do (see Pss 56:9; 87:6; 130:3; 139:16; Ex 32:32f; Neh 13:14; Dan 7:10), and then wiping away the evil deeds when forgiveness is given.
  4. Psalm 51:6 Against you, you alone: the very essence of sin is that it constitutes an offense against God, even though it may also entail an offense against human beings. Just in passing judgment: permitted by God, sin calls for the intervention of his judgment (see Rom 3:4).
  5. Psalm 51:7 All human beings have a congenital inclination toward evil (see Gen 8:21; 1 Ki 8:46; Job 4:17; 14:4; 15:14; 25:4; Prov 20:9). God must take account of this situation, which is a mitigating circumstance, and show mercy. Later, the doctrine of original sin will be made explicit (see Rom 5:12f; Eph 2:3).
  6. Psalm 51:8 Despite his sins against God’s teaching, the psalmist craves that teaching with his whole being; he wants to be among the wise who follow God’s law, not the fools who reject it (see Ps 37:30f). Heart: see note on Ps 4:8.
  7. Psalm 51:9 Hyssop: a plant with many branchlets that is a convenient sprinkler, prescribed for sprinkling sacrificial blood or water for cleansing (see Ex 12:22; Lev 14:4; Num 19:18). Whiter than snow: purity beyond compare (see Isa 1:18; Dan 7:9; Rev 7:14; 19:14).
  8. Psalm 51:12 Create: verb reserved only for God (see Gen 1) and describing the act by which he brings into existence something new and wonderful (see Ex 34:10; Isa 48:7; 65:17; Jer 31:22). The justification of a sinner is the divine work par excellence (see Ezek 36:25f). Heart: see note on Ps 4:8.
  9. Psalm 51:13 Holy Spirit: the full phrase is found in the Old Testament only here and in Isa 63:10f, but the word “Spirit” alone is found throughout. It is by his Spirit that God creates (see Ps 104:30; Gen 1:2; Job 33:4) and redeems (see Isa 32:15; 44:3; 63:11, 14; Hag 2:5), inspires the Prophets (see Num 24:2f; 2 Sam 23:2; Neh 9:30; Isa 59:21; 61:1; Ezek 11:5; Mic 3:8; Zec 7:12) and directs their ministries (see 1 Ki 18:12; 2 Ki 2:16; Isa 48:16; Ezek 2:2; 3:14), prepares his servants for their given work (see Ex 31:3; Num 11:29; Jdg 3:10; 1 Sam 10:6; 16:13; Isa 11:2; 42:1), and bestows on his people a “new heart and . . . a new spirit,” enabling them to live in accord with his will (see Ezek 36:26f).
  10. Psalm 51:16 Bloodguilt: the sin that brought about the death of an innocent man (see 2 Sam 12:5, 13) or the judgment passed upon a grave sin requiring the penalty of death (see Ezek 18:13).
  11. Psalm 51:18 See note on Ps 50:7-15.
  12. Psalm 51:19 Broken spirit; a contrite and humble heart: God is most pleased by a person who trusts in him despite trials of all sorts and who repents of sin and asks forgiveness. Heart: see note on Ps 4:8.
  13. Psalm 51:20 Scholars believe that these verses are a post-Exilic addition, made perhaps before the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in 445 B.C. Righteous sacrifices: sacrifices that are not mere empty ritual but filled with praise and thanksgiving to God for his great works.

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