Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
*Thoroughly wash me from my guilt,
and of my sin cleanse me.
For I acknowledge my offense,
and my sin is before me always.
And so begins the most famous of the penitential psalms. According to biblical tradition David has committed adultery, conspiracy, and murder to gain for himself the beloved wife of one of his generals. The prophet Nathan knows his king has a back door through which he can bring the psalmist’s sense of justice to light. And he does so with devastating effect on the man’s conscience.
From the asterisk, verses 4-5 are given in the section of Prayers of the Penitent (RP 85-92). Verse 3 doesn’t subtract away from the confessional nature of this piece.
I’m used to the ICEL Psalter’s “Have mercy, tender God, forget that I defied you.” Direct and to the point. And what an acknowledgement for the penitent: we haven’t just offended God. (Who can be sure of God’s direct reaction to our major transgressions?) But we can say without hesitation that we have defied God. And that deeper admission carries a lot of weight.
Verse 5b strikes me, but not because I identify with it. In fact, more the opposite. My sin is before me always? Really? I think not so much. The whole point of sin is often our lack of recognition of it. Or our self-deception in shielding our consciences from it. The psalmist is engaged in wishful thinking. Or perhaps an attempt to wool-pull on God’s eyes. But God knows. And when we are deep in penitence, so do we.
I’d like to take several posts over the coming week to delve deeper into Psalm 51. It appears in the Lectionary frequently, even outside of Lent. It is a staple of Ash Wednesday. It is the most common text associated with the plainchant antiphon, “Parce Domine,” which itself is based on Joel 2:17. Always a fitting way to leap into Lent, and delve deeply into our experience of contrition and penance.