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Psalm 51:1-17

When we have chosen to betray the most sacred and solemn of our commitments may we hope for restoration? When we have lived into patterns and paths that have done violence to those for whom we have covenanted to care, may we pursue reconciliation? Are some choices too dastardly, some patterns too devastating, some rebellions too grotesque for us to be redeemed? Perhaps some reading this have stood in this space, a space of utter desperation, a space in which the way before us seems to lead only into increasing darkness and distance from both God and our neighbors.

In the tradition of the Hebrew people, this is the moment out of which Psalm 51 has arisen. What might the fallen say? How might God and our human community respond? Is there hope before us, or is hope now forever lost? Much depends on our theology—that is, our understanding of God.

From the earliest days of the Christian Church, it has not been uncommon for the so-called “God of the Old Testament” to be depicted pejoratively as a harsh, sometimes tyrannical ruler—a head-of-household patriarchal dictator who is easily disappointed and anxious to discipline His wayward children. From Marcion to Jonathan Edwards to contemporary ‘hell-fire’ expositors, the wrath of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has been emphasized and variously interpreted. And it must be confessed that the Christian Scriptures do reveal the seriousness with which God treats sin, as well as the willingness and the capability of God to act to forestall its pervasiveness.

But, of course, there is more to say. After all, if this is all there is to say of God, then the hope of those who transgress seems fleeting. And, indeed, the First Testament does have other things to contribute to the conversation. As willing and capable as God is to act in judgment, the Torah and the prophets and the writings of the First Testament insist repeatedly that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in hesed (steadfast love).

This is where the psalmist, standing on a road of deepening darkness, moving toward increasing isolation from God and neighbor, begins his turning away, his repentance, his cry to God. He cries out not to a just God or a wrathful God or a disappointed patriarch, but to a merciful and compassionate parent.

1 Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant mercy

blot out my transgressions.

2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,

and cleanse me from my sin. [1]

The word translated ‘abundant mercy’ is the Hebrew rachămim, which refers to the innards of the lower abdomen. In the plural, as it appears in psalm 51, it is often translated as ‘intestines’ or ‘loins’. In the singular it can refer to a uterus or womb. Among the Hebrew people this is the anatomical area associated with compassion, hence the translation above.

The psalmist does not appeal to God’s justice or even God’s holiness, but to God’s womb, to God’s intestines, to God’s compassion. Samuel Terrien in his commentary on the Psalms has written:

The compassions of Yahweh are those of his femininity, for the words “tender mercies” are the plural of majesty for the singular “uterus” or “womb,” which never forgets the child it has conceived, nourished, and brought forth.[2]

Hope in the darkness of the deepest human failure is to be sought in the compassion of God. This is humanity’s primal and only lasting hope, and it is toward this that the cry of the repentant is directed. There is no hope of forgiveness, none of reconciliation, none of cleansing or redemption or reconciliation or transformation if the God who draws near when we pray is not gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in hesed.

This is, of course, only the beginning of psalm 51. The psalmist proceeds to confess his rebellion against the fundamental shape of the Kingdom of God (vs. 3-5), and implores God to cleanse him, create a clean heart within him and breathe a fresh breath into him which might animate him in the ways of the Kingdom (vs. 6-12). And he covenants again with God that these acts of compassion on the part of God will result in his own grateful response. He will live into God’s Kingdom, confessing with his heart, soul, mind, and strength the goodness and orderliness of God’s good creation (vs. 13-17).

There is much to explore in verse three and following. However, I want to pause and reflect on the appeal to God’s compassion with which the psalmist has begun. It is sometimes presumed that those who have fallen short must begin their journey toward God and neighbor with contrition—that is, with a confessed and perhaps ideally emotional realization of the wickedness of their actions. Of course, these features of repentance are necessary in proper time.

However, restoration and redemption of the fallen is not rooted in the individual. Restoration and redemption is rooted in the compassion of God. We do not hope in our earnestness or our contriteness, believing that somehow by our pitifulness or our authenticity or our earnestness that God might be manipulated. It is the compassion of God that is the source of our hope for deliverance. To say it another way, because God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, we can repent; we can imagine restoration and reconciliation; we can hope.

We will not be restored by contrition or sincerity, by intention or conviction, by sacrifice or by ritual. These may be describe the road that we must walk out of the darkness, but they are not the source of our deliverance, nor can we simply trust them to save and to restore us. We will be saved by the compassion of God. And so repentance begins, not with us, but with God’s compassion. And redemption proceeds in faith along the road that God’s compassion carves out of the darkness.

That road, no doubt, will include confession and contrition and forgiveness and reconciliation, and the rest of the journey revealed through the prophets of Israel, the Gospel of Jesus, and the interpretations of the Apostles. But, repentance is rooted in the compassion of God, and this is no idle observation. Bound up in this confession is the realization that our restoration does not depend on human effort or capability, but on God’s compassion. If we hope in repentance as a process or ritual, our hope lies in our capacity to complete what we’ve started. If we hope in God’s compassion then our hope rests in the capacity of God to bring to completion what has begun in Him. May it be so.

[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Ps 51:1–2.

[2] Samuel Terrien, The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 404.