A Lenten Psalm: Psalm 51

Eleison me Kyrie

One of the most popular Psalms of all time (right up there with 23 and bits of 119) is Psalm 51, Miserere mei. If you were at an Ash Wednesday service at the beginning of this holy season of Lent, you probably recited this Psalm, or at least heard it sung in Renaissance Latin polyphony by a beautiful choir (as I did).

The popularity of Psalm 51 is visible beyond worldwide Ash Wednesday services. It was part of the Daily Office in the mediaeval British Use of Sarum at both Lauds and Vespers. I have heard it sung at Eastern Orthodox Vespers on more than one occasion. Psalm 51’s presence in the Daily Office of the western church is no surprise, given that Benedict lists it explicitly as part of Sunday Matins (ch. 12). If one were to scour liturgical books, Psalm 51 would be one of those items that crops up fairly often.

The cause of Psalm 51’s popularity is given by St. Athanasius (d. 373) in his very interesting Letter to Marcellinus:

It seems to me, moreover, that because the Psalms thus serve him who sings them as a mirror, wherein he sees himself and his own soul, he cannot help but render them in such a manner that their words go home with equal force to those who hear him sing, and stir them also to a like reaction. Sometimes it is repentance that is generated in this way, as by the conscience-stirring words of Psalm 51 …

But suppose now that you have sinned and, having been put to confusion, are repenting and begging for forgiveness, then you have the words of confession and repentance in Psalm 51. (Trans. ‘A religious of CSMV’, 1982 ed., pp. 105, 110)

This is what Psalms are for. They are for singing and for praying. They are for providing us with a biblical outlet for our spiritual lives. Psalm 51, written by King David after he had been confronted by Nathan the Prophet following the death of Uriah the Hittite and David’s adultery with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, is a wondrously apt Psalm for repentance.

There are two great levellers in human experience — sin and grace. All Christians everywhere have felt the weight of their own sin at times. Even as grace lifts us up as children and heirs of God, sin brings us down to remind us that we are unworthy of this honour. And so time and again, we turn to Psalm 51 to lament our sins and acknowledge our wretchedness (as in the BCP collect for Ash Wednesday).

So let us all reflect upon the words of this Psalm. In 1662, you would have sung it or recited it in the words of Coverdale’s translation. If you know how to do a basic Anglican chant and you’re not in an office or a Postgrad study space, William Law encourages you to sing the Psalms aloud. Athanasius assures you that in singing you take up the role of the Psalmist more fully.

Here it is:

Psalm 51. Miserere mei, DeusHave mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness : according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offences.
2. Wash me throughly from my wickedness : and cleanse me from my sin.
3. For I acknowledge my faults : and my sin is ever before me.
4. Against thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight : that thou mightest be justified in thy saying, and clear when thou art judged.
5. Behold, I was shapen in wickedness : and in sin hath my mother conceived me.
6. But lo, thou requirest truth in the inward parts: and shalt make me to understand wisdom secretly.
7. Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean : thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8. Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness : that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.
9. Turn thy face from my sins : and put out all my misdeeds.
10. Make me a clean heart, O God : and renew a right spirit within me.
11. Cast me not away from thy presence : and take not thy holy Spirit from me.
12. O give me the comfort of thy help again : and stablish me with thy free Spirit.
13. Then shall I teach thy ways unto the wicked : and sinners shall be converted unto thee.
14. Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, thou that art the God of my health : and my tongue shall sing of thy righteousness.
15. Thou shalt open my lips, O Lord : and my mouth shall shew thy praise.
16. For thou desirest no sacrifice, else would I give it thee : but thou delightest not in burnt-offerings.
17. The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit : a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise.
18. O be favourable and gracious unto Sion : build thou the walls of Jerusalem.
19. Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifice of righteousness, with the burnt-offerings and oblations : then shall they offer young bullocks upon thine altar.