10 September 2015

Greatest Hits: Psalm 51

What started as project to methodically read the psalms in order has turned into hoping in and skipping around the psalms based on what other reading I have been doing, searches for the occurrence of particular words or phrases, and in following the lectionary.

As I was looking at some of the lessons for August, I read Psalm 51 and realized that it is one of what I think of as "the greatest hits" in Psalms. Unlike many of the psalms that I examined when I was reading them in order, this psalm is so familiar to me that, less than halfway though reading, it I remembered how it went.

Curious, I went and looked it up in the Book of Common Prayer (which can be downloaded as a searchable PDF!) and found that, in addition to appearing in the Psalter, Psalm 51 also appears in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday services, and a section of it is presented in the Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families for Morning.

Since I had a searchable version of the BCP I looked for Psalm 51 in the lectionary and found, before I lost count, that it is called on at least 10 different times throughout the entire liturgical calender.

This is the psalm as I stumbled upon it during my reading:

51 Miserere mei, Deus
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; *
          in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
Wash me through and through from my wickedness *
          and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, *
          and my sin is ever before me.
Against you only have I sinned *
          and done what is evil in your sight.
And so you are justified when you speak *
          and upright in your judgment.
Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *
          a sinner from my mother's womb.
For behold, you look for truth deep within me, *
          and will make me understand wisdom secretly.
Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *
          wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.
Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
          that the body you have broken may 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.
Give me the joy of your saving help again *
          and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
I shall teach your ways to the wicked, *
          and sinners shall return to you.
Deliver me from death, O God, *
          and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness, O God of my salvation.
Open my lips, O Lord, *
          and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice, *
          but you take no delight in burnt-offerings.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; *
          a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Be favorable and gracious to Zion, *
          and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will be pleased with the appointed sacrifices, with burnt-offerings and oblations; *
          then shall they offer young bullocks upon your altar.
                            ~(BCP, Psalm 51, pp 656-657)

This seems like an excellent opportunity to look at this frequently used psalm from a different point of view.

Robert Alter makes the case that the first and last two lines of this psalm were added by a later editor. The first two were likely added by editors to set the psalm during David's time even though it was probably composed centuries later (and those two are left off of the psalm as it appears in the BCP). The last two were added to rebut or soften the original author's focus on personal atonement (as opposed to making burnt-offerings at the temple). Both of these ideas make sense in the context as provided and once pointed out are hard not to see. There is a sudden shift from a historical setting to a personal plea and then back to an institutional setting at the close (which hints that perhaps some burnt-offerings would be welcome by God- in direct contradiction to the main authors heartfelt plea only a few verses earlier).
Here is the psalm from Mr Alter's book as it would appear if he had left the 'added' verses off.

3 Grant me grace, God, as befits Your kindness,
          with Your great mercy wipe away my crimes.
4 Thoroughly wash my transgressions away
          and cleanse me from my offense.
5 For my crimes I know,
          and my offense is before me always
6 You alone have I offended
          and what is evil in Your eyes I have done.
7 So you are just when You sentence,
          You are right when You judge.
8 Look, You desired truth in what is hidden,
          in what is concealed make wisdom known to me.
9 Purify me with a hyssop, that I be clean.
          Wash me, that I be whiter than snow.
10 Let me hear gladness and joy,
          let the bones that You crushed exult.
11 Avert Your face from my offenses,
          and all my misdeeds wipe away.
12 A pure heart create for me, God,
          and a firm spirit renew within me
13 Do not fling me from Your presence,
          and Your holy spirit take not from me.
14 Give me back the gladness of Your rescue
          and with a noble spirit sustain me.
15 Let me teach transgressors Your ways,
          and offenders will come back to You.
16 Save me from bloodshed, O God,
          God of my rescue,
                    Let my tongue sing out Your bounty.
17 O Master, open my lips,
          that my mouth may tell Your praise.
18 For You desire not that I should give sacrifice,
          burnt-offering You greet not with pleasure.
19 God's sacrifices-- a broken spirit.
          A broken, crushed heart God spurns not.

Striped of its familiar wording, of the editorializing verses, and with the much more vigorous 'fling' used in place of the less emphatic 'cast' this 'greatest hits' psalm takes on a much more personal and immediate feel. It also keeps the focus on the grace of God that is mentioned in the first line. At no point does the author claim to be worthy of rescue. Instead the author lists out all the brokenness that needs healing or purifying or strengthening. The offering is not 'young bullocks upon Your altar' but is, instead, 'a broken spirit, a broken, crushed heart.'

The author lives in hope, hoping to teach others and hoping to show them the way back to God but it is an offer of service, rather than a demand for such a gift.

Unlike young bullocks, broken spirits and crushed hearts are not in short supply as suitable offerings to God.


This essay originally published at Episcopal Cafe: Speaking to the Soul in September 2015.
Resources used in this essay:
The downloadable Book of Common Prayer

Alter, R. (2007). The Book of Psalms:: A translation with commentary (pp. 180-183). New York: W.W. Norton.

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