Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)
Click on the link for the Psalm above for the text or listen to Psalm 51:
Psalm 51 is a beautiful prayer of confession and is used throughout Lent (although typically on Ash Wednesday) as a model for repentance during this season of preparation. We might not cleanse ourselves with hyssop, but we certainly engage in soul cleansing rituals of prayer, repentance, fasting, giving, and service to renew our faith and prepare our hearts for the risen Christ. Psalm 51 makes an occasional appearance in other places in the lectionary, perhaps to remind us that prayers of confession are for ordinary days as well.
While Psalm 51 evokes the image of a broken and contrite heart, it does not show the restorative acts that we might assume would come from a heart like this. If we take seriously that Psalm 51 is attributed to David as a prayer after the prophet Nathan tells him that what he did to Bathsheba and Uriah is wrong, we might expect to see David making amends with Bathsheba since she is the only surviving victim of his disgusting behavior, but the only person David seeks forgiveness from is God. This confession does not include the restitution we would hope a king after God’s own heart would provide.
But perhaps this psalm is more about God’s character than David’s. The NRSV translates the Hebrew word which shares the same root as “womb” as “mercy,” which obscures this feminine image of God; a better translation would be “womb-love” This God as Mother in Labor and Nurturing Mother is a God that “is merciful, full of grace and steadfast love, cleansing, justifying, creator, restorer, sustainer, and deliverer”. W p. 74 Of course a God with these attributes can love, forgive, and restore David, and she can do the same for us.
Psalm 51 calls us to think of others, God, and ourselves (in relation to how our actions affect others). Humility isn’t about devaluing one’s own needs or one’s own worth. Humility means acknowledging the imperfect human that each of us is and will be forever. When we think about ourselves it should not be in a selfish way (What can I get?) but in a reflective way (Did I cause harm? Did I show love?). These reflective questions help us to become more like the nurturing, merciful, loving, etc God that we profess faith in. And when we fall short, we know that God is at work to forgive, cleanse, and restore us to right relationship with God and neighbor.
The Lord’s Prayer is about the amount of time you need for hand scrubbing 😉
Breath Prayer: I am including breath prayers because this is the practice that I engage in most often. Sometimes, I simply manage my breathing as I would when I was singing as a warmup and strengthening exercise. This practice helps me to feel centered, strong, and connected with myself and the divine. Sometimes, I add words or intentions for the inhalation and exhalation.
Nicole Cardoza’s Guided Meditation For Anxiety
Try this short meditation, created by Yoga Foster and Reclamation Ventures founder Nicole Cardoza, the next time you feel yourself getting overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious. Read in Yoga Journal.
Mr. Roger’s “Taking a breath” This one is short, but Mr. Roger’s voice is calming for me (and many Pittsburghers) and even his virtual presence can summon childhood memories of calmness and safety.
Let us pray:
One way to think about breath prayer is that whatever is exhaled other people will inhale. So, sometimes we might inhale and exhale the same idea with the hope that what we receive from God, we can share with others. For example, you may imagine receiving God’s steadfast love while praying that others are receiving God’s steadfast love.
Another way to think about breath prayer is to pick something you would like to receive for your inhalation and something you would like to release for your exhalation. The idea is to keep it simple, so I encourage you to simply find one word for each inhale and one word for each exhale. That simple prayer could be something like this: God fill me with your Holy spirit. I receive your restoration and release my self-destruction.
Or you may want to use a short phrase: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)
Ok, everyone take a deep breath. Breath in. Breath out. Breath in. Breath out. Repeat as needed.
Sources and notes:
I think Marilyn Pagan-Banks says it best: Really, David? Thought and prayers seeking forgiveness from God alone are not enough Your transgression was not simply an affront to God. What about Bathsheba? Where is your apology to her? Why are there no words of remorse for the shame, pain and sorrow you caused this woman? You raped her Then summarily sent her back home — the stench of your semen between her legs. What about Uriah? Where is his apology? You tricked him– created an illusion of camaraderie, brotherhood, safety, You sat with him, broke bread with him, and then ordered his murder. And David, what about the child? The unnamed baby Bathsheba carried next to her heart? What about your baby–the one that became an offering for your sin? Where is the child’s apology? Oh David, King David. You’re sorry? Your confession is sorry. Spong, M. (Ed.). (2020). The words of her mouth: Psalms for the struggle. Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press.
“We read in verse 17 that what God seeks from us is a broken and contrite heart. God does not expect us to be perfect, thankfully. What God does expect when we fall short is honest acknowledgement of our wrong, heartfelt regret when we hurt others, and a renewed willingness to learn and grow. Humility, it has been said, involves not thinking less of ourselves, but thinking of ourselves less. In order to achieve the kind of honest contribution described in Psalm 51, we should stop thinking about ourselves at least long enough to consider how our actions might have affected someone else. We don’t always like what we see when we do this, but fortunately God stands ready to restore us and continue the long process of removing our shortcomings.” Dafler p. 57
“Most interpreters consider Psalm 51 the quintessential model of repentance and humility. Not surprisingly, the Revised Common Lectionary assigns Psalm 51:1-17 to Ash Wednesday for Years A, B, and C to mark the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent. Traditionally, Jews pray v. 15 before the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy, the Amidah (or 18 Benedictions), a prayer of praise, petition, and thanks. Western Christian tradition has grouped Psalm 51 with six other so-called penitential laments: 6, 32, 102, 130, and 143, though only Psalms 32 and 51 actually offer confession. The superscription of Psalm 51 ties confession to a narrative moment in the life of David in 2 Samuel 12. In this intertext the prophet Nathan rebukes David by means of a parable after he rapes Bathsheba and arranges for Uriah’s murder.” W p. 71
“A striking rhetorical effect is produced by the repetition of the vocabulary of sin and forgiveness, expressed in twenty-one imperative petitions and used throughout the psalm to underscore the psalmist’s commitment to renewal. We are left with the image of a very humble David (if we take the superscription seriously as interpretive clue) who earns our sympathy. Interpreters have literally swooned over the emotional power of David’s confession.” W p. 73
“Unfortunately, the hyperbole of both text and interpreter serves to push the victims of David’s transgressions–Bathsheba, Uriah, and the chid born of rape who dies as punishment–into the background. This rhetorical effect is magnified by the appeals to God’s character that support the psalmist’s petitions. J. Clinton McCann, for example, things that Psalm 51 is “as much or more about God’s character than it is about human sinfulness.” God is merciful, full of grace and steadfast love, cleansing, justified, creator, restorer, sustainer, and deliverer.” W pp. 73-74
“The NRSV translates “mercy,” which obscures this feminine image of God; a better translation would be “womb-love” (Gen. 43:30; 1Kgs 3:16-28; Exod 33:19; Pss 25:6; 103:13; Jer 31:20; Isa 49:14).” W p. 74
“The psalmist names God’s womb-love as a warrant for forgiveness, which prompts associations with other God mages that challenge the dominant, violent Warrior-Deliverer God metaphor. The “disjunctive metaphor” of womb-love joins those of God as Mother in Labor and Nurturing Mother in the First and Second Isaiah (Isa 42:13-14; 45:9-10; 49:13-15; 66:10-13) to embody hope for the future of traumatized, exiled Israel. “Womb-love” also gives hope to the sinful psalmist. How ironic that the king who abused his power calls on womb-love that challenges abusive power in order to save himself!” W p. 74
“…Nathan’s parable in 2 Samuel 13:1-4 focuses on all the interpersonal sins David commits, drawing attention to all three offended parties–God, Bathsheba, and Uriah–but David in both 2 Samuel 12:13 and Psalm 51:4 names only God.” W p. 75
“The only punishment David accepts is purging with hyssop (v. 7), whose branches are used for sprinkling in purification rituals (see Num 19:6; Lev 14:4).” W p. 75
WBC Allen, Leslie C. 1983. Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 101-150. Vol. 21. Waco, TX: Word Books, Publisher.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1974. Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible. 8th ed. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Press.
Brueggemann, Walter. 2007. Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit. 2nd ed. Eugene, OR: Cascade.
Brueggemann Brueggemann, Walter. 2014. From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms. Edited by Brent A. Strawn. 1st ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
Chittister Chittister, Joan. (2011). Songs of the heart: reflections on the psalms. John Garratt Publishing.
WBC Craigie, Peter C. 1983. Psalms 1-50–Word Biblical Commentary. Vol. 19. Waco, TX: Word Books.
Creach Creach, Jerome Frederick Davis. 1998. Psalms: Interpretation Bible Studies. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
DAFLER, J. (2021). PSOBRIETY: A journey of recovery through the psalms. Louisville, KY: WESTMINSTER JOHN KNOX.
W de Claisse-Walford, Nancy L. WISDOM COMMENTARY: Psalms Bks. 4-5. Edited by Barbara E. Reid. Vol. 22. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2020.
W Hopkins, Denise Dombkowski. WISDOM COMMENTARY: Psalms Bks. 2-3. Edited by Barbara E. Reid. Vol. 21. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2016.
NIB Keck, Leander E. 2015. The New Interpreters Bible Commentary. Vol. 3. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Lewis, C. S. (2017). Reflections on the Psalms. Harper One, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.
Mays Mays, James Luther. 1994. Psalms. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press.
McCann McCann, J. C. (1993). A theological introduction to the book of Psalms: The Psalms as Torah. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
McCann, J. C., & Howell, J. C. 2001. Preaching the Psalms. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Merrill, N. C. (2020). Psalms for praying an invitation to wholeness (10th Anniversary Edition ed.). London, England: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Miller Miller, Patrick D. 1986. Interpreting the Psalms. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press.
Schlimm Schlimm, Matthew Richard. 2018. 70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know.Nashville, TN: Abington Press.
Spong Spong, M. (Ed.). (2020). The words of her mouth: Psalms for the struggle. Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press.
WBC Tate, Marvin E. 1990. Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 51-100. Edited by David Allan. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker. Vol. 20. Waco, TX: Word.
OTL Weiser, Artur. 1998. Old Testament Library: Psalms. Translated by Herbert Hartwell. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Manchester University Press.
I began writing Psalm reflections during Lent of 2020 shortly after we decided to close the church building, work from home, and worship via zoom. Many churches use the revised common lectionary that rotates scripture on a three-year cycle (A, B, and C). Starting in Advent 2019, Third Church decided to worship with the texts from Year D, which is still not circulated as are years A, B, and C. Year D was created with the goal of including scriptures that were left out or not used as frequently as others. Reflections exploring the Psalms in year D. While we were using Year D, most other lectionary followers were using Year A. Now that we are rejoining those who use the lectionary, we are on Year B. This we hope will keep all of us planning and preparing worship on the same page.
I use the Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s resource for lectionary readings to make text selections when I’m following the Revised Common Lectionary.
Other Year B Psalm blog posts:
Advent – Transfiguration: 1st Sunday in Advent Psalm 80, 2nd Sunday in Advent Psalm 85, 3rdSunday in Advent Psalm 126, 4th Sunday in Advent Psalm 89, Christmas Eve or Christmas Day Psalm 96, Psalm 97, Psalm 98, 1st Sunday after Christmas, Psalm 148, New Year’s Day Psalm 8, 2nd Sunday after Christmas Psalm 147, Epiphany Psalm 72, 1st Sunday after Epiphany Psalm 29, 2nd Sunday after Epiphany Psalm 139, 3rd Sunday after Epiphany Psalm 62, 4th Sunday after Epiphany Psalm 111, 5th Sunday after Epiphany Psalm 147, Transfiguration Sunday (Sunday before Lent) Psalm 50
Lent: Ash Wednesday Psalm 51, 1st Sunday in Lent Psalm 25, 2nd Sunday in Lent Psalm 22, 3rdSunday in Lent Psalm 19, 4th Sunday in Lent Psalm 107, 5th Sunday in Lent Psalm 51 or Psalm 119:9-16, 6th Sunday in Lent (Palm or Passion Sunday) Psalm 118 or 31
Holy Week: Monday Psalm 36, Tuesday Psalm 71, Wednesday Psalm 70, Maundy Thursday Psalm 116, Good Friday Psalm 22, Holy Saturday Psalm 31
Easter: Easter Psalm 118 or 114, 2nd Sunday of Easter Psalm 133, 3rd Sunday of Easter Psalm 4, 4th Sunday of Easter Psalm 23, 5th Sunday of Easter Psalm 22, 6th Sunday of Easter Psalm 98, Ascension Psalm 47 or Psalm 93, 7th Sunday of Easter Psalm 1, Day of Pentecost Psalm 104
Season After Pentecost (Ordinary Time): 1st Sunday after Pentecost (Trinity Sunday) Psalm 29, 2nd Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 138 or Psalm 130, 3rd Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 20 or Psalm 92, 4th Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 9 or Psalm 133 or Psalm 107, 5th Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 130 or Psalm 30, 6th Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 48 or Psalm 123, 7th Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 24 or Psalm 85, 8th Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 89 or Psalm 23, 9th Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 14 or Psalm 145, 10th Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 51 or Psalm 78, 11th Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 130 or Psalm 34, 12th Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 111 or Psalm 34, 13th Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 84 or Psalm 34, 14th Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 45 or Psalm 15, 15th Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 125 or Psalm 146, 16th Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 19 or Psalm 116, 17th Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 1 or Psalm 54, 18th Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 124 or Psalm 19, 19th Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 26 or Psalm 8, 20th Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 22 or Psalm 90, 21st Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 104 or Psalm 91, 22nd Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 34 or Psalm 126, 23rd Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 146 or 119, 24th Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 127 or Psalm 146, 25th Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 16, 26th Sunday after Pentecost (Christ the King) Psalm 132 or Psalm 93.