Gleanings from the Text
A cursory reading of this Psalm would surely convince any reader of the paramount importance of penitential themes. Contained with the first few verses are enough words for sin as to constitute a Hebrew grammar lesson: “transgression” (vv. 1, 3), “iniquity” (vv. 2, 5, 9), “sin” (vv. 2, 3, 5, 9), and “doing evil” (v. 4). Correspondingly, notice the plethora of forgiveness verbs: “having mercy” (v. 1), “blotting out” (v. 1, 9), “washing” (v. 2, 7), “cleansing” (v. 2, 7), “purging” (v. 7), and “restoring” (v. 12). Compare and contrast how these words are used in other texts – Brown, Driver, and Briggs are our friends! Such word study will flesh out and deepen their meanings in this specific Psalm.
Personally, I am intrigued by three other words that directly describe God:
In verse 1, the word translated as “mercy” (NRSV, RSV), “compassion” (TNK), or the poetically rendered “tender mercies” (KJV – of course!) is actually a cognate of the word for “womb.” What do you think is the significance of this feminine imagery?
Secondly, the verb in verse 6 most often rendered as “desire” carries with it the connotation of “delighting in.” Is there a notable difference between desiring verses delighting in truth?
Finally, in perhaps the most famous verse of the Psalm, God is begged “to create” a clean heart. The same verb, which is also used in the Genesis Creation accounts (for example, 1: 1 and 1:27), only takes the Divine as its subject; grammatically (as well as theologically) speaking, only God can grant the psalmist’s request.
For me, the alternative nuances of these words invite rich contemplation of the Divine in new and powerful ways. I would love to hear a sermon or lesson exploring and unpacking a womb-y God, who delights in the truth of doing what only this God can do!
Food for Thought
The Psalm itself directly links with a specific account in the Hebrew narrative: the rape of Bathsheba by King David and the subsequent condemnation by the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 11:2–17, 26–27; 12:1–7). In recent years, scholars have investigated this pericope from liberationist and feminist points of view in an effort to view the story from “the underside” or in solidarity with historically oppressed peoples. As Psalm 51 purports to give David’s perspective, these types of critical readings would present a balanced view, if not a helpful corrective. Jo Ann Hackett and Alice Ogden Bellis have each written an accessible critique, both of which are wonderfully illustrative of feminist hermeneutics. For a more extensive treatment of the entire pericope from a liberation perspective, see Robert McAfee Brown. Finally, Union-PSCE’s own James L. Mays has written a brilliant sermon on Psalm 51 – a must read for its interplay between ancient text and modern context with Mays’ trademark lucidity.
Sink Your Teeth Into This!
My mother-in-law, who runs her own business coaching company, recently informed me about a book by Reginald Johnson that applied the Myers-Briggs personality categories to important figures in the Bible. David is an extrovert, sensing, feeling, perceiver (ESFP); this happens to be the exact same type as my wife, Ginny! Due to David’s sordid history of rape, lying, betrayal, and murder referenced in Psalm 51, Ginny is admittedly not thrilled to be in the same company. However, I have witnessed her praying in a Psalm 51-like way: expressive, self-aware, passionate, and devoted. These are qualities that seem to fit what I know about an ESFP personality type.
My point, though, is that this type of prayer style is inspiring. While I have a different personality (INFJ for those keeping score at home), Ginny’s prayers and the way she lives her life cause me to think deeper about myself in relation to God and challenge me to share these insights with others. It seems to me that such inspiration for personal and communal piety is the essence of Psalm 51 – available to all personalities.
Bellis, Alice Ogden. Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible. See pages 149 – 151
Brown, Robert McAfee. Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes. See pages 49 – 62
Hackett, Jo Ann. Women’s Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition with Apocrypha. See pages 91 – 95; 97 – 99
Johnson, Reginald. Your Personality and the Spiritual Life.
Mays, James L. Preaching and Teaching the Psalms. See “Getting a New Heart: Psalm 51” pages 171 – 174
A personal note from first-year editor
Andrew Taylor-Troutman (MDiv, Union-PSCE 2009)
I have thoroughly enjoyed the “Join the Feast” from its nascent beginning as a twinkle in Gayle Haglund’s eye to its fruition into a living entity on the web. To all our writers, I have a deep sense of gratitude for your profound contributions, communicated creatively and in a uniquely personal sense. In particular, I want to publicly thank Josh Andrzejewski for his invaluable work as co-editor and web manager. To all of our readers, I cannot thank you enough for your support.
Beginning in September, I am continuing graduate work in biblical studies at the University of Virginia Charlottesville and will no longer serve JTF as editor. In my stead, I welcome the extremely competent and committed Jenny McDevitt (MDiv, Union-PSCE 2009). Under Jenny’s leadership, the future is bright … or better yet, the table is set!