Fr. Wilbur David Ellsworth · March 17, 2011
During this Lenten season, Fr. Wilbur takes us through this penitential Psalm of David. Today's episode teaches on verses 1-6.
Psalm 50, or Psalm 51 in the Hebrew text, verses 1-6. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the Prophet came unto him when he went in unto Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy, and according to the multitude of thy compassions, blot out my transgression. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity and cleanse me from my sin, for I know mine iniquity and my sin is ever before me. Against thee only have I sinned, and done this evil before thee, that thou mightest be justified in thy words and prevail when thou art judged. For behold, I was conceived in iniquities and in sins did my mother bear me. For behold, thou hast loved truth, the hidden and secret things of thy wisdom hast thou made manifest unto me.
At the end of the Orthodox confession, the priest asks the crucial question: Do you repent of these sins? The response is most significant, both for the one confessing and for the father who is hearing the confession. Sometimes the answer is a straightforward “yes,” and other times the response is a modest “to the best of my knowledge” or “God helping me, to the best of my ability.”
Repentance is one of the greatest Christian issues. It was the first word in the public ministry, both of John the Forerunner and of our Lord himself. “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This command both warns and encourages us regarding our sins. As people made in God’s image, we are accountable for our sins, and as his children, when he gave his only-begotten son to redeem us, he gave us the hope for forgiveness and release from our sins.
Repentance is God’s gift that calls us into communion with him. [You’re] coming into his presence with a sincere desire to be in the light as God is in the light. So that we may receive the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the life-giving ministry of the Holy Spirit, both to release us and to cleanse us from our sins. Good repentance, then, is crucial to our receiving the restoration to full life that Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection.
Psalm 50 is the crucial prayer and teaching on what repentance really involves in all of Scripture. This prayer is prominent in the Orthodox liturgical life. It is prayed in Matins and it is prayed by the priest in the Divine Liturgy outside the Paschal season. The setting of Psalm 50 in the Liturgy is profound. As the people sing the Cherubic Hymn, envisioning them as “mystically representing the cherubim singing to the life-giving Trinity the thrice-holy hymn,” the priest is censing the altar in the church and the people, praying this psalm audibly. The contrast of our life could not be clearer. The people of God are both given the high place of the holy angels in heavenly worship and at the same time are woeful sinners, needing to repent and seek the mercy of God.
And the prayer that expresses this need is the prayer of repentance that King David prayed in the darkest moment of his walk with God. Holy Scripture never shrinks from contrasting the lowest and the highest extremities in the life of this people that call forth for God’s mercy. David, who had been called the man after God’s own heart, in a time of careless indulgence and apparent lack of watchfulness over his own soul, committed adultery that eventually resulted in the birth of a child, and then plotted to have the innocent, loyal husband killed to cover David’s sin. When the faithful prophet, Nathan, confronted David with his sin, this prayer is David’s response.
Psalm 50 gives us a life lesson on what it means to repent, to change our mind, our spiritual perception, the inner core of our spiritual vision regarding our sin. Psalm 50 is a psalm we need to understand, meditate upon, and internalize, for it is a divinely given prescription for the healing of the soul. For the present, we will meditate on the first six verses that unfold the grace of a deep diagnosis for the need to repent.
David begins before God with a plea that makes no claim for self-justification, no blame toward others, and no sense of privilege or merit for any past goodness on his part. In other words, David is prostrate and without defense before God, and in that spirit, he makes an initial plea that as a fountain from which flows his hope, “O God, have mercy on me.”
David is already putting himself into God’s light, rather than into the darkness in which he had committed his sin. “Mercy” is David’s word for hope. For God had long before proclaimed himself to Israel as “merciful and compassionate”: David’s two great words at the beginning of this psalm. As Moses stood before God on Mount Sinai, he had asked God to reveal himself to him, to show him his glory. This profound drama in Exodus reveals the great contrast between the God of heaven and the man on earth. God hides Moses on the rock and places him, hiding him, within the cleft, or, if you will, within the wound of the rock, where he may safely find protection from the fullness of the eternal glory. This rock, this safe place, where man may hide to see what is possible of the glory of God, to human vision, this rock is Christ who, on coming into the world and shedding his blood for the forgiveness of sins, brings to the repentant sinner the mercy of the gracious covenant proclaimed on Sinai, a covenant of mercy and compassion.
David, low and broken in his sin, goes to the only place he knows. He stands and he hides in the promised mercy and compassion of God, for though it is all the hope he has, it is all the hope he needs. The cleft of the rock—the wounds of Christ—is God’s only place he offers the sinner to stand, but it’s the only place we need. For, as St. Paul writes in Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own son but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also freely give us all things?” David, the fallen, failed man, full of sin, dares because he knows that God has given him a wounded rock where he may stand, where he may hide, where he may see the glory of God in his desperate need, has found the only safe place for himself in all the universe, and in repentant faith he asks God for mercy, the mercy that God himself had proclaimed and promised to his people.
This mercy is not slight. It is not grudging. It is not insignificant. It is not mercy that is sufficient only for a small offense, or for slight inconveniences. No, this mercy is measured by the fullness of God himself. It is according to his great mercy, the measure of infinity. This mercy, this goodwill and intention: to do good for his people, is mixed with compassion: God’s capacity to come down and to enter into the actual experience of his people. This compassion, again proportional to the divine greatness, is described as a multitude of compassions. For those who seem to regard God only as a judge, it is significant that this grievous sinner dares to ask God, not only for mercy, but for compassion, to enter into the sinner’s misery.
This introduces another rather startling reality about repentance that requires careful reflection. David’s sins—adultery and murder—do not first take David’s attention regarding the people he has sinned against. His repentance begins with and extends itself for a good part of the prayer only with the relationship that he has with God. And this has something to teach us.
In contrast to the prayer of David, today when we hear the apologies or the confessions of people, certain phrases seem to recur repeatedly, such as “And I take full responsibility.” This is usually followed by the person seemingly taking no action or activity at all to show responsibility. Another often-heard word in the public apology is “And most of all, I regret that I have let myself down” or “I have disappointed myself.” Frankly, such words are rather embarrassing revelations of how highly the person regarded himself in the first place. One wonders if perhaps the real problem is that the person has so little sense of true repentance that almost any words will do.
This is not the case with David. He truly teaches us repentance. Notice how he uses a cluster of words found in other Old Testament scriptures that carefully reflect the deeper nature of sin in its various aspects. These words serve to explain what David means when he says, “For I know mine iniquity, and my sin is ever before me.” For us to know our sin, and to have it before us, with clarity, is a key to what God is seeking in our healing.
The words that David uses are familiar words, but they need to be thought about very carefully. They are: “transgression,” “iniquity,” “sin,” and “evil.” They not only are worth our understanding, they are essential in helping us to know our sin and to keep it before us. Each of these words casts the light of God’s presence of truth upon the darkness of our sins and serves to help us understand not just what we have done in our actions but what we have done to ourselves and what the [effects] of our wrongs are.
These aftereffects are what Scripture calls “corruption,” and it is essential that we become personally aware of the resulting corruptions from our sins. So that we repent of them and then seek the healing of God and the cleansing that he offers from these corruptions.
The first word: “transgressions.” This word has in it the action of a willful violation of a relationship: the breaking of a significant boundary between yourself and another person. A transgression is an assertion of some kind of power that breaks or wounds a relationship that has been formed by a covenant. For David, his violation first violated his relationship to God. It certainly violated his relationship to the woman with whom he committed adultery. It violated his relationship to her unknowing and loyal husband. It was a violation to the child that was born. And it was a violation toward the nation whom he put at risk by sinning as he did, as king.
Beyond that, his transgression violated his relationship to himself. And in Psalm 31, David speaks there about the inner lack of peace, the inner anguish and the restlessness and even physical illness his transgression caused him. The open acknowledgment of a transgression is needed to put away its deadly and alienating power. Transgression creates broken relationships to everything it touches. It is an aggression that must be relieved.
The second word is “iniquity.” Here is the profound word of disfiguration and defacing the humanity that engages in it. Iniquity is the lie that sin doesn’t leave deadly aftereffects. Sin takes a person, created to stand in the presence of God, in blessed harmony and uprightness, and iniquity twists and bends and leaves a person in a state of enduring deviation from what God created. Iniquity is inner twisted patterns and habits, cravings that are misplaced, out of control, and out of proportion. Iniquity does to a human person what a head-on collision does to a beautiful new car: dented, broken, twisted, no longer able to be what it was made to be.
The third word is “sin.” The most familiar word for “wrong.” And many understand that it is well-known as having the meaning of “missing the mark.” Sin, in other words, is the failure to meet the purpose of our life, and then to live in a perpetual state of disorientation. We miss the place or the person to whom we need to go. When we exchange the goal of doing the will of God, our sin leaves us as the old party game: a blindfolded person who has been spun around and then left to find the way home. Sin reduces us to aimless wandering, like Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness, trying to find a path, a direction, a meaning, but never finding God who alone is and always is our only true home, our safe harbor, our place of rest.
The last word is “evil.” Evil, of course, just means what is bad, and what creates badness toward God, within ourselves, and toward others. Another way to understand evil is it is what destroys peace, what removes shalom in our lives. Evil creates anxiety, fear, restlessness, irritability, and danger. The core of evil is that it is before God, and God is the source and the protector of peace. The essence of peace is to be in God’s presence, in deep communion with him. Evil destroys that experience and sends us looking for some kind of peace, some rest, satisfaction, anywhere elsewhere. Again, Psalm 31 describes the fevered restlessness, the painful thirst for peace that sin creates but cannot fulfill without God. In this deep conviction, David teaches us what it means to “know my iniquity and my sin that is ever before me.”
When we look upon our wrong-doing, this is the kind of insight God seeks for us to have: a true diagnosis of what it is. Not only what we have done in the external act, but what we have actually done to ourselves and what we cannot repair and cannot heal by ourselves. That is why David can say of a sin that robbed a woman of her purity, a man of his wife and his life, and a baby of life, still David can say that “against God only have I sinned.” That is the root and the core of all sin. The harm done beyond our personal relationship to God goes beyond this.
Repentance goes yet further. The damage to the sinner is further compounded because it is an act of violent rebellion against God. David’s sin, as the sin of Adam and Eve, and each of our sins, is a disdain for God’s true and faithful word. Sin says, “God is not true in what he says. He says, ‘This sin I’m considering is death.’ I say, ‘It is life. It is satisfaction. It is pleasure. It is success.’ ” Further, our sin is an act of open defiance, an act of the will that deeply deforms our will, so that we grow increasingly removed from seeking to know, love, and do the will of God, which is the good and the acceptable and the perfect.
Sin throws down the gauntlet in the face of God and defies him. Sin is like the giant Goliath that defies God, his people, and his truth. Sin looks into the face of God and says, “How dare you intrude on my freedom?” Here we come to the truth of I John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” To confess is literally to say the same thing. Confession, or homologia, means to say the same thing as God says about our sin, to see our sin and to say of our sin what God says. Confession means we end our disagreement and our defiance against God. We say freely from the heart, “O God, you are true, and you are right, and you are sovereign, and you are Lord.”
The last deep and enduring knowledge of our sin is that we confess that we recognize the deep difference between ourselves as sinners and God as righteous. We are not now only bound before God as creator, but also as holy. As for us, we came into this world conceived in a swirling drain of twisted desires and impulses. Iniquity is the moral air we breathe and it answers to our inborn corruption. This reality is the hard truth every father and mother recognizes in conceiving the life of another as sinners. The fallenness, the corruption of humanity is the reality into which we are born and for which we cry to the Lord for our precious newborn children. And we see as the root that, though we did not originate it, we freely add our corruption to it, and pass it on to our children. For this, we seek the mercy of God and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit in the communion of holy baptism.
In total contrast, God has loved truth. Truth, light, righteousness is the delight of God in him, and in him there is no darkness at all. And God has graciously unveiled the hidden and secret things of his wisdom to us in various ways in the goodness of his creation, through the prophets who spoke to our spiritual fathers. But now God has spoken his truth and wisdom to us by none less than a son: the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
And here, for now, we end where we began this meditation of the beginning of Psalm 50, with God’s son, our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom by our own confession, we are chief. The son of God, the Father’s ultimate and final revelation and giving of grace and truth, brings us to hope through repentance and faith, so that we may cry: “Let my prayer arise as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.” The evening sacrifice of Holy Friday is the sacrifice freely offered as the son of God, who by his death and resurrection gave life to the world and, to us, salvation.