Sunday, February 13, 2005

On Psalm 51, from Neil
Psalm 51 is “ledawid” – “Of David.” Who is this David? Sirach tells us what we need to know, “The Lord took away his sins, and exalted his power forever; he gave him a covenant of kingship and a glorious throne in Israel” (47.11). The verb for “take away” – “hiphil” – is also used in 2 Samuel: “And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die” (12.13). David’s sin was adultery with Bathsheba, whom he had seen bathing from his rooftop. As the exegete Frederick J. Gaiser tells us, “From his rooftop, his place of privilege, David was, he thought, master of all he surveyed. The rooftop gave him access to things meant to be private, leading, perhaps inevitably, to temptation. So David simply took what he wanted.” On a more prosaic level, we might think of Paul Schrader’s disturbingly brilliant Autofocus, in which video technology intensifies the lust of a thoughtless man to the point of complete self-absorption. But we all have our rooftops, don’t we? And, like David, we must come down from our delusional “seeing” and instead become conscious of “being seen” by God. Because of the prophet Nathan, David is finally able to realize that he is subject to divine judgment - “I have sinned against the Lord.” Psalm 51 is a lament, but there are no accusations against God or an enemy – “MY sin is ever before me,” a chastened David says. This realization is often very painful. But the Lutheran exegete Gaiser reminds us that we must not desperately turn inwards, to ourselves, for healing. We must instead come into the presence of God, trusting in his “lovingkindness” and maternal “tender mercies” - qualities immediately invoked by David. We must not trust our own capacities for renewal, but in the promises of this God. “A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (51.19). Perhaps we can say that David does not counsel regret, but repentance. Brother Roger of Taize has said, “Regret keeps us focused on ourselves. When I repent, however, I turn towards God, forgetting myself and surrendering myself to him. Regret makes no amends for the wrong done, but God, when I come to him in repentance, ‘dispels my sins like the morning mist (Is 44:22).’” Sin, then, is simply a lack of trust. Nothing more. But nothing less. Psalm 51 challenges us even further when it is read alongside Psalm 50. Then, we can see David as the “villain” in 50.16, but we can also see all the violators of the commandments listed in Psalm 50 as David-figures whose sins should also be “ever before” them. Psalm 50 is “leasaph,” of the singing priest Asaph (Ez 2.41); we see that priests must take the role of Nathan, bringing authority and power to repentance. Lastly, both Psalm 50 and Psalm 51 challenge the manipulation of God through sacrifice. God asks through Asaph whether he will eat the flesh of bulls in 50.13, and David must concede, “Thou hast no pleasure in burnt offering” (51.18). Instead, God must open David’s lips (51.17), and only then shall his “mouth show forth thy praise” (51.17). And God must indeed open the lips of all Israel, for whom David has become paradigmatic. Do we – if not adulterers, surely “villains” of some sort – really trust that God will open our lips and create in us clean hearts, that he will “dispel our sins like the morning mist”? Not always. We are on our rooftops, foolishly believing that we are still masters of all we survey. Or, knowing our transgressions, we try to broker good relations with God through so many “burnt offerings.” There was a reason, as Dr. Gaiser reminds us, that Psalm 51 was required for regular usage in the Rule of St Francis “for the failings and negligence of the brothers,” and in the offertory response in English Lutheran liturgies ever since the Common Service of 1888. There is a reason why we heard it on this First Sunday of Lent.

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