“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!” Psalm 51:1-2
King David, the writer of this Psalm, appeals to God’s mercy. There is such a contrast, a real gulf, between God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy and David’s transgressions, iniquity and sin. God hates sin, but at the same time He is compassionate and merciful, “He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD.” (Psalm 33.5) Psalm 116.5 sums up God’s nature in these words, “Gracious and righteous is the LORD, full of compassion is our God.” Psalm 51 is in the Bible because it is applicable to us all. The title indicates that this Psalm relates to David’s penitence after Nathan the prophet confronted him about Bathsheba. The details are in 1 Samuel chapters 11-12. David thought he had got away with adultery and murder. But God saw. God knew. God sent His messenger, Nathan the prophet. Via the parable of the lamb, David condemned himself with his own words, “The man who has done this deserves to die.” Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” (12.6-7)
We may not be adulterers or murderers, but Jesus teaches that there is a higher standard in the Kingdom of God . Lust is as serious as adultery, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5.28) Anger is as serious as murder (Matthew 5.21-22). Jesus perceived that the breaking of the commandments starts in the mind: adultery starts with lust and murder starts with anger. These sins of the mind are not public, but God sees; God knows! We try to excuse ourselves. We may say, “I was only appreciating the beautiful form of natural beauty – that is not lust.” Maybe. Maybe not! Likewise with anger – we may be seething in our hearts, but not disclose our inner thoughts, even by an expression on our faces, but God sees; God knows! God’s standard is perfection, “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5.48)
Psalm 51 inspired one of the most beautiful pieces of Church music – indeed of all music – “Allegri’s Miserere”. With its soaring, ethereal treble notes it is exquisitely beautiful. So much so that the music was a closely guarded secret by the Vatican, until Mozart went to the Sistine Chapel and heard the Miserere. Later Mozart wrote down every single note from memory. (For the details, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miserere_(Allegri) )
But the purpose of the music and the purpose of the poetry is not to provoke us to say, “How beautiful!” Its purpose is to provoke sincere repentance. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer in the confession of the Lord’s Supper says “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness.” There is a feeling today that this is overstated, but just look at the weak state of the church generally in our society! David could only hope for God’s mercy, but we have assurance that if we are truly penitent, God will forgive us, because of what His Son Jesus did for us on the cross at Calvary.
Thank You for that mercy and forgiveness, O Lord! Amen.