Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgement.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Have you ever done anything so wrong, so destructive, so hurtful, that it was impossible to make it right? That’s the kind of prayer this is. Psalm 51 is the prayer of David after the incident known throughout scripture as “the matter of Uriah the Hittite.” You might recall–David saw Bathsheba and thought she was beautiful, he had an affair with her and she became pregnant…in order to hide the matter, he recalled her husband from his army and tried to get him to go home and sleep with his wife. When Uriah’s honor would not permit that (it was forbidden for those on duty to sleep with their wives, or even in beds, while the army was in the field), David had Uriah sent into the thick of the fighting, where the rest of the army pulled back and Uriah was killed. Then David took Bathsheba to be one of his wives. When we ask the confirmation class to count how many of the Ten Commandments David broke in this one affair, they often come up with more than 10!
On being confronted with his sin, David prays this prayer. He knows he’s in the wrong, and that it’s too late to make amends or practice reconciliation with the people he’s hurt. But God is also hurt–God put a lot of trust in David, and gave him a lot of responsibility. It’s never too late to make amends with God–and after this prayer, God does continue to love David, just as God continues to love us even when we hurt others and hurt God.
This is a classic prayer for Lent, a season of repentance. To “repent” means to Turn–to turn around, do a 180, and decide to change. A new translation of the Bible uses the phrase “change your hearts and lives” instead of “repent” because of the connotations that word has in our culture. It’s not only about apologizing, it’s about changing behavior, changing our hearts and lives.
What is something you need to change? What is something you need to put behind you and walk away from, so you can seek God with your whole heart? Can this prayer help?