We are a small Episcopal Church on the banks of the Rappahannock in Port Royal, Virginia. We acknowledge that we gather on the traditional land of the first people of Port Royal, the Nandtaughtacund, and we respect and honor with gratitude the land itself, the legacy of the ancestors, and the life of the Rappahannock Tribe. Our mission statement is to do God’s Will in all that we do.

Psalm 51

By Rev. Marek Zabriskie, Center of Biblical Studies from the Bible Challenge

It’s Lent, and if you are looking for a spiritual practice, you could not do better than to spend Lent reading Psalm 51 each day and memorizing it. Ponder and let these words penetrate you. They embody the spirit of Lent as well if not better than any other words in the Bible.

Psalm 51 is the ultimate penitential psalm. It is attributed to King David. The Bible notes that David composed this psalm after the prophet Nathan told him a parable about a rich man who took his poor neighbor’s one ewe lamb and cooked and served it for his guests. Nathan was alluding to David’s snatching Bathsheba and dispatching her husband Uriah the Hittite was killed in battle.

Nathan used what the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called “indirect communication” to convict his king. Then David blurted out, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” (II Sam. 12:5-6) Nathan responded, “You are the man!” Few words in the Bible are more powerful.

Nathan predicts that God will “raise up trouble against you from within your own house…” in a prophecy that comes true through David’s son Absalom. David realizes that he has sinned, and his sin is known in the court. Nathan told him, “Now the Lord has put away your sin.” (II Sam. 12:13) More than 2,500 years later, an Episcopal priest says these words at the end of the sacrament of Reconciliation of a Penitent (formerly Confession), “The Lord has put away all your sins.” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 451)

Clearly, the author of Psalm 51 is extremely aware of his sinfulness. David says,

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. (Ps. 51:1-3) 

David notes that he needs to be cleansed. He is no longer pure, but has blemished himself before God.

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… (Ps. 51:10-11) 

Psalm 51 is often read or sung on Ash Wednesday or while the altar is being stripped on Maundy Thursday. Nothing so captures human sin and the wrong that we humans did to Jesus. The author knows that there can be no sacrifice offered in the Temple can absolve his sin. The only thing that God make a difference is for God to transform his heart, to break it and give him a penitent heart in place of the arrogant and sinful heart that led him to do evil.

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit:
a broken and contrite heart, O God,
you will not despise. (Ps. 51:17)

Interestingly, David notes, 

Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me. (Ps. 51:5) 

In the fourth and fifth centuries, St. Augustine of Hippo quoted this verse in support of his theological claim that humans are conceived in sin. Sin, he said, is transmitted to a newborn through intercourse in much the same way that HIV/AIDS can be spread from a mother’s uterus to a child within her womb. Augustine believed that all humans were tainted by sin following the Fall of Adam and Eve.