Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 21, 2021
Psalm 51:1-12 Commentary
This semester I am a co-instructor in Calvin seminary’s Psalms & Wisdom Literature course. Last week I did a class session on tips for preaching the Psalms. One warning I always give—based on past experience with student sermons that went off the rails—is never to preach the superscriptions. Whether it is simply the common superscription “Of David” or one that refers to the origin of a given psalm as the time when David hid in a cave from King Saul or the time when David was fleeing his son Absalom, the fact is that the superscriptions were not original to the Hebrew text of the Psalter.
They were added later, and I don’t know of any tradition that regards the superscriptions as part of the inspired text. Probably they were someone’s guess as to when a certain psalm could have been written. And there may have been a longer tradition behind those guesses and some of them could even be correct. But I tell my students to not get distracted by the superscriptions because sometimes it leads them to exegete the actual psalm incorrectly even as more commonly the student turns to the story referred to in the superscription and ends up preaching a 1 Kings sermon when the assignment was to preach a Psalms sermon. If you get hung up on the story referenced in the superscription, you may conveniently end up ignoring the parts of the actual psalm that don’t quite fit the narrative. And that often leads to a misinterpretation of the psalm.
As superscriptions go, however, the one attached to Psalm 51takes the prize for its length and specificity. It also names one of the most famous stories in the Old Testament and so rings lots of bells in our heads when we read this heading. Of course it could have been true that David may have penned words like these after the prophet Nathan hit David squarely between the eyes for his sins of adultery and murder. And, of course, as a penitential psalm of confession, that also means these words well fit any one of our lives at certain moments when we, too, surprise ourselves at how nasty or sinful we can be.
But if you preach on Psalm 51, let the words of the actual poem be the substance of the sermon without layering over a completely different narrative about Bathsheba. As a matter of fact, making Psalm 51 be that specific might even be a way to allow some listeners to let themselves off this psalm’s hook. Having an affair resulting in a child and then leading to arranging the actual husband’s death is the kind of thing The Sopranos is made of, not our typical daily lives. I may be sinful but goodness gracious! Not like what David did that time!
So let’s just see how the psalm itself addresses not our uncommon acts of evil but our common, everyday nature and proclivities so that we don’t have a chance to pretend that these words apply only to really big crimes.
Among the reasons not to get too hung up on the Bathsheba incident is that there is every indication in Psalm 51 that the poet is not focused on just one particular sin or act. We are mostly in the realm of the plural here: transgressions, iniquities. Even where just the word “sin” is used, it seems likely this is meant as a broad term for all of our sinfulness and not an isolated action or sequence of sins restricted to some very specific circumstances. The psalmist is talking about an abiding proclivity to do things wrong, to turn away from what we deep down know is God’s will for our lives and for this world.
This tendency to sin—what the church has traditionally called “Original Sin”—is laid out quite clearly as being something in which each of us was conceived and in whose fallen state each of us comes into the world at birth. Psalm 51 is one of key places in the Bible that dispenses with sunny notions that people are basically good or that we learn sin only by imitation (a la Pelagius). Left to our own devices from Day 1 onward we are prone to make bad, selfish choices that vandalize the shalom for which God made this world. We are born bent.
One part of the psalm that may not resonate as well with some of us as we might like is the line “For I know my sin and my transgression is always before me.” If only we were so self-aware! Yes, there are many times when we do or say or imagine something wrong and we know it. We apologize to the people we hurt. We ask God for forgiveness in Christ. There are even some past sins that haunt us. Even if we believe God long ago forgave us, we don’t always forgive ourselves as readily and on certain things we surely cannot forget that we once did such-and-such a bad thing. But on the whole, a lot of what God would likely deem sinful about us is not always “before” us. Wise Christians know to ask God to forgive ALL our sins, whether we are aware of every breach of shalom we committed or not.
Psalm 51 testifies to the wisdom behind that very short but very astute “Jesus Prayer.”
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Short, sweet, accurate. And it is basically Psalm 51 in a dozen-word nutshell.
Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our Year B Lent and Easter page.
Theologian Miroslav Volf once pondered the shape and nature of life with God in what we often call “heaven.” Volf speculated that even in our renewed state, the memory of what was bad in this world may still be there. Perhaps our conscious awareness of the good will require our being able to contrast good with evil. In other words, we will know what evil is, but we will never choose to do it because, as Volf writes, the love of God will so continually flood into our hearts that we will never have time or desire for anything else.
Our explorations of God’s New Creation, our sheer, unalloyed delight in one another, will provide a rich kaleidoscope of multi-layered and ever-changing patterns of joy. This will be a life so interesting, so filled with abiding curiosity to see what is around the next corner of God’s universe, that the thought of spoiling this will not occur to us.
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