When it comes to talking about Repentance, there are few favorite passages to study than Psalm 51. As part of this year’s Lent series on Repentance, I’d like to spend the rest of this series exploring this Psalm verse-by-verse.
So today we begin. But not with verse 1. Instead we begin with that superscription found above it:
To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.
This is actually an important place to start. Most of the Hebrew writings we have outside of the Old Testament are pieces that were written to fill in gaps left in the biblical account. It seems the people of God have always had difficulties living with what God did not tell them.
Well in this case we have the account of David’s repentance. David holds the highest place in Israelite thought, second maybe to Moses. He reigned over the height of Israel’s existence and dominance. He was their first and best King (most scholars would consider Saul a “trial run” of sorts). It’s all been downhill for them since his reign, and every Messianic and renewal hope finds its contours in David’s life and heart.
And so it’s odd that in his great moment of tragic flaw–his affair with a married woman named Bathsheba and his subsequent murder of her husband after she becomes pregnant–the biblical account is pretty silent on the process by which this archetypal Israelite responds in repentance.
The prophet Nathan confronts him (in one of the most powerful moments of the Old Testament that the new Bible miniseries decided to leave out) and David’s response is, simply, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan tells him this child will die because of his sin, and David responds in this way (click that link above for the full account):
And the Lord afflicted the child that Uriah’s wife [Bathseheba] bore to David, and he became sick. David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. And the elders of his house stood beside him, to raise him from the ground, but he would not, nor did he eat food with them. On the seventh day the child died.
After the child’s death, there’s this poignant, powerful, and heart-rending exchange:
And David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” They said, “He is dead.” Then David arose from the earth and washed and anointed himself and changed his clothes. And he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. He then went to his own house. And when he asked, they set food before him, and he ate. Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”
But still: huh?
The moral fall of Israel’s greatest man (at that time, at least) is accompanied by no real understanding of his thoughts and responses.
So, if the Israelite people (hypothetically) find themselves in a similar position, what might be their model for how to repent like “a man after God’s own heart” (as God called David)?
In my view, that’s why this Psalm was written.
Yes, yes, I know that David writing a lot of the Psalms is pretty sacrosanct, and to think otherwise, in many circles, is thought of as demeaning to the Bible, but hear me out.
First, the Hebrew phrase “A Psalm of David” can mean “A Psalm in the Spirit of David” rather than “A Psalm by David”. There is a very appropriate word in Hebrew that is often used to say something is by someone, and the choice of this word for “of” is certainly a little odd if he did write it.
Secondly, and more persuasively, are verses 18 and 19 that close out the Psalm:
Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of Jerusalem;
then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
This clearly seems to be an allusion to the time when Israel is returning to their fallen land after having been exiled due to their sin. In a sense, their “child” (the temple) has died because of their unfaithfulness, and they were trying to find out how to pick up the pieces (literally). Could David offer some help?
Nope. Not in 2 Samuel, at least.
And so, in my view (and the view of many scholars), this Psalm is written by the priests and synagogue leaders to reflect a heart of repentance that is trying to pick up the pieces after bearing the judgment of God.
They write to encourage God’s people who are feeling the sting of their sin, by writing this psalm in the spirit of a man they are striving to mirror. They write a song that the people can sing as they stand in the midst of the ruins of life, knowing it was their fault, but knowing that their God is faithful to his promises.
Even when it isn’t clear how those promises will come about in the midst of such fallenness and failure, they still sing.
I’ve written before how the Creation stories present the Creation of this world as God building a temple in which he desires to dwell for all time. He entrusts a pair of priests to care for this temple and prepare it for him, but they fail in this.
And so, in light of humanity’s sin, this temple-world falls and humanity dies. Humanity, then, is placed on a journey of discovering how to rebuild and resurrect.
They fail in this as well.
And so, God himself comes as the Archetypal Man, the King after which proper life should be modeled, as the temple in which the People of God will be gathered and enjoined.
And this Temple-Man falls and dies.
And God does good to his world–Zion–and rebuilds and resurrects the walls of this Temple-Man on Easter morning. And gathers us into that raised temple with walls higher than we cold escape, and gives us a new present reality of Repentance in which to live in this temple.
And now he delights in sacrifices, as men and women’s joyful souls are offered in praise on his altar.
What does all this have to do with the specifics of Repentance?
Well, when the Israelites were most desperate in their need for renewal that comes from Repentance, what did they do? They retold their own story within the life of their king.
And this is our first lesson. As i said on the last pussy in this series, Repentance its not an empirical (or even volitional) thing we need to achieve, but rather a Kingdom and News that needs to be believed. And when Jesus came and snubbed this Kingdom, he said it wasin himself.
And so, to repent, we do what the Israelites do: we learn to tell our story as within the greater Story of what we know of our King: who he is, what he’s done, why he’s done it, who he says we are, and how we are to live.
And that’s what this Psalm is about.
And so let us still sing.
[image credit: “Bathsheba” by Marc Chagall]