Psalm 51 is probably the most famous of the penitential psalms. Unsurprisingly, it has been set to one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written by a human being. Traditionally it is sung (or just read and prayed) as part of the Ash Wednesday service every year. Apart from its liturgical use, though, it has been a favorite prayer of penitence for Christians the world over for centuries.
It was originally written by King David, according to its introduction in the Bible, as an expression of his penitence after he was called out by Nathan the Prophet for his heinous crime of adultery. To match this, medieval devotional books suggested this psalm as a particularly fitting biblical resource to combat (or repent of) the deadly sin of lust.
Additionally, the structure of this Psalm reveals a three-part movement of confession consisting of contrition, absolution, and penance. Contrition is the surrender of the heart to God, recognizing one’s sins and being truly sorry for them. Absolution is the cleansing act of God that removes the guilt of sin from the person. Penance is the joyful (though sometimes also painful) process of healing one’s relationship with God in light of His gift of forgiveness.
Part One: Contrition
The first six verses describe the cry of the contrite heart.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
Here we recognize our sinfulness and turn to God as the only one who can blot out our transgressions and wash us from our iniquity. This is not only true of our sinful acts, but also true of our sinful nature. “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” is part of the Scriptural basis of the doctrine of Original Sin. This is the teaching that every human being is tainted by sin from the very beginning of their existence; children and infants may be “innocent” in the ways of the world, but even they are not entirely “innocent” from sin.
Part Two: Absolution
Verses 7-12 form the appeal for absolution.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.
Sometimes Christians are hesitant to pray for the forgiveness of their sins, arguing that God has already promised forgiveness, or better yet, has already forgiven them on the Cross, or on the day that they were first converted to Christ. This Psalm shows us both that we should ask for forgiveness constantly, and how we should ask. Remembering that this is a psalm of David, who had been a devoted follower of the Lord God all his life, we find that prayers of confession like this are most certainly appropriate for all Christians to make. And, as these verses reveal, we are to ask for forgiveness with confidence. “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow,” it says, having the uttermost trust that if God’s people honestly ask for cleansing, God will do it.
These verses also contain the words that inspired a modern song of worship. Again, sometimes the words “take not your Holy Spirit from me” come under fire as inappropriate for Christians, as if they only belong in the Old Covenant of Law and fear, and not in the New Covenant of grace and hope. Stereotyping issues with the covenants aside, suffice it to say here that the Psalms are just as valid as Christian prayers as they were Jewish before Christ. Whether it’s possible or not for a Christian to “lose” the Holy Spirit, or whether it simply means to lose some degree of the Spirit’s active presence within us, it should be of every believer’s concern to remain in full communion with God’s Spirit at all times as well as possible. Any turning from God should be a grievous event that causes us to seek Him out, looking to “restore the joy of Your salvation.”
Part Three: Penance
With the contrite heart established, and the plea for absolution made, we finish in penance.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
Two acts of penance, so to speak, are highlighted as a response to God’s absolution and cleansing. One is to “teach transgressors your ways.” This is not elaborated on beyond that verse, but it seems to show that by the penitent’s example and testimony, other sinners will be encouraged to “return” to God also. The rest of the final verses focus instead on worship. In light of God’s forgiveness we are moved to “sing aloud,” and “declare” God’s praise, and offer “right sacrifices” of “burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings” and “bulls.”
Some of this is generic worship language that could translate into just about anything today. Singing of God’s righteousness and declaring His praises are acts that can take many forms and in many styles. Freed from the burden of guilt, the Christian is able to praise God with joy through music or Bible-reading or prayer or even other acts of good work and service to others, though the emphasis in this psalm is definitely on verbal acts of worship.
But the final verses that deal with the topic of sacrifices point us to something rather more specific in the Christian context. Despite how many Protestants today use the word “sacrifice” to describe worship offerings of music or money or self-commitment, the Christian sacrifice is rather more defined than that. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” Considering this alongside his other teachings, such as in later in the same book, we’re directed to see that the Christian sacrifice, centered on Christ on the Cross, is “our Passover” feast, Holy Communion. Just as the Old Covenant animal sacrificial offerings were signs of peace (or communion) with God, so too is the New Covenant bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharist a sign of peace (or communion) with God. Thus, one of the most appropriate things for a freshly-forgiven sinner to do is to come forward to the Lord’s Table and receive Him in the bread and the wine.
Or, to consider this the other way around, it is valuable and important to make sure that we have undergone self-examination for the purpose of confessing our sins to God before going to Holy Communion. As this psalm says, “a broken and contrite heart [God] will not despise.” Plus, St. Paul said the exact same thing. Don’t you just love the consistency of the Bible throughout the ages of its writing!?