To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. 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 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. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. 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 crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Psalm 51:1-12, lectionary psalter for March 21, 2021; from Psalm 51
This is how spring comes in the neighborhood. Birdsong backed by notes of yard work and home improvement projects. The rustle of a rake pulling last season’s leaves from the garden, then scraping across a paving stone. A new fence going in: the buzz of saws cutting wood, and the sw’thuk of the power hammer fixing pickets to the rail. We walk past a house being renovated. For weeks this winter, that house had trash set for bulk pick-up (old furniture, luggage, board games, stuffed animals that looked at the sky from atop the pile). I’d mourned the dismantling of a family home and prayed at the passing of people I did not know. Now the for-sale signs have been replaced with a home design board. A dumpster sits by the curb. The battered metal awnings are gone; windows replaced; bricks fresh painted. A new porch is being put on. The smell of sawdust hangs in the air. We wonder if the interior is being totally gutted. We wonder when it will be done.
I’ve been in Psalm 51 since Ash Wednesday. I wonder when it will be done.
‘Have mercy on me, O God … blot out my transgressions.’ Wash, cleanse, blot, purge. A litany of demands, starting from that first: ‘Grace me, as is your faithfulness, as is your compassion,’ your rechem, or womb-love. The psalmist’s ‘I’ pleads with the ‘you’ of God. As if these two (we two?) are the only two in the world. ‘Against you, you alone, have I sinned,’ the psalmist proclaims, yet the proclamation of exclusivity rings false to me because the ancient superscription connects this psalm with a context. The psalmist’s sin against the LORD was suffered in the bodies of a woman taken and her husband killed. The superscription opens up the psalm, resists sin’s spiritualization. Sin, transgression, iniquity: these are more than imperfect ideation. The suffering we cause our neighbors is the suffering we cause our LORD, the offense from which we need to be cleansed, the brokenness which needs restoration. However ardent the plea, it is a sham unless the reconciliation between self and God is broadened to include reconciliation with the other.
The litany proceeds from wiping away the old iniquity to creating a clean heart. It’s not a steady progress. The first series pertains to erasing what was: wash, cleanse, purge. Verse 8, then, is Janus-faced: bones already crushed naming the hope for joy bone-deep. But not joy yet: ‘Hide your face from my sins.’ Are God’s eyes covered? Maybe God’s gaze is not averted so much as intensified: looking past and through all the evil that has been, back to the goodness of creation’s original intent and future hope. Rebuilding the psalmist in that sight.
‘A clean heart create in me, God, and a firm spirit renew within me.’ William Ross** argues that the psalm’s verbs evoke damaged structures reconstructed by God: ‘do not scrap me … refurbish the joy of your salvation for me, reinforce me with a willing spirit.…’ Crushed bones as broken walls, self as built city. ‘In sin I was birthed’ [v.5] describes the sin of the broken world into which I was born, in which I live, the structures from which I suffer and the structures from which I benefit. The bones that need to be broken, the spirit re-founded and firmed and renewed, are not just mine alone but those of the community. Yet the psalm makes plain that I am not absolved from my responsibility. Suddenly its ardent individuality seems not fraud but summons: I am involved in the world. I myself need to repent. I myself need to ask for — and to work for — holy joy, renewed and firm and amid — leavening? — the whole.
I’ve been in Psalm 51 for weeks. I’ve read it, resisted it, returned to it. I wonder when it will be done. So much needs to be ripped out. Some was good for a time but not good for all time. That too must be given over. Torn out, broken, crushed. The metaphors are so violent! Dust clouds over the dumpster as pieces of an old life are hauled out and thrown away. It hurts. Who wants to have part of your heart torn away? Maybe the only way it can be borne is in community. All of us needing to repent. Each of us saying to God, ‘Against you, you only, have I sinned.’ I can speak only in the midst of others also confessing in the voice of the psalm’s ‘I’; all of us together trusting that the tearing out of the old will result in a newer-firmer, wider whole.
I can’t make myself new in this same-old life. The psalm reminds me that I’m not expected to. The newness is God’s work. Mine is study and prayer and proclamation in community.
This is how spring comes. The first green of the daffodils spears through the ground. We look daily to see the spires grown higher. One morning the green is topped with yellow. It is as if the daffs had waited for us to look away so to surprise us with the flowers’ arrival. Oh. Spring.
‘A clean heart create in me, God, and a firm spirit renew within me.’
** William Ross, ‘David’s spiritual walls and conceptual blending in Psalm 51.’ JSOT 43(4) p. 607-29, 622-223 (2019).