Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 17, 2024

Psalm 51:1-12 Commentary

For the fifth Sunday in Lent, the Year B Lectionary serves up a quintessential Lenten-type psalm in the well-known words of Psalm 51.  In preaching classes I always say to my students to not make too big of a deal over any superscriptions that accompany some psalms.  In this case it is the superscription that claims the origin of Psalm 51 to be David’s reflections after that bad business with Bathsheba and Uriah as recorded in 2 Samuel 11.

But superscriptions are not original and are not considered part of the canonical text of Scripture so there is no certainty that they are accurate but were likely some editor’s guess at some point as to where in the life of David Psalm X might have fit.  But I tell students to steer clear of making too much of them because then the temptation becomes to preach on the alleged background narrative instead of on the psalm itself (which is a problem if in class I am expecting a Psalm 51 sermon and not a 2 Samuel 11 sermon!).  The other difficulty is that reading the poem ever and only through the alleged narrative lens tempts the preacher to make something like Psalm 51 fit the story rather than let the psalm speak for itself.  And then any parts of the psalm that seem not to fit conveniently into that other story get cast aside.  Not good hermeneutics or exegesis there!

If we let Psalm 51—the first dozen verses anyway assigned by the RCL—speak for itself, what do we learn?  First, this is one of the more clear-cut portions of Scripture that teach what has traditionally been called the Doctrine of Original Sin.  Classically this doctrine has two primary components: Guilt and Corruption.  Psalm 51 clearly teaches the corruption part.  Pace Augustine and his dispute with Pelagius, Psalm 51 says that we are born bent, born with a corrupt nature.  We do not become sinners when we first commit a sin.  We commit sins because we were born with the corrupt proclivity to do so.

The Guilt component to Original Sin is the dodgier of the two because though no one denies that we expect every human being to sin at some point because being prone to do that is just how we come into the world, the idea that we are also guilty (even absent a specific sin) feels to some to be a bit unfair.  Why am I blameworthy before I ever do something wrong?  Yet Psalm 51, in claiming we are sinful already in our mother’s womb, would seem to lend credence to the idea that we stand under the judgment of sin as guilty people.  We seem to inherit both Corruption and Guilt.  I suppose that if someone wanted to deny Original Guilt it would in one sense not matter in that every single human being will be also guilty of sin soon enough.  But the orthodox understanding is that we come into the world with both parts of Original Sin. We are considered guilty even before we commit a sin and we commit sins because we are also born corrupt and after that the Guilt and the Corruption are mutually reinforcing in a spiral of decidedly bad momentum.

Secondly, Psalm 51 is also premised on a core truth of all Scripture: God is loving, compassionate, and is eager not to issue judgments but to pour out forgiveness in lavish ways.  We confess our sins confident that our penitent words are never going to fall on divine deaf ears.  Fast forward to the New Testament and we can recall the words of Hebrews that we can always approach God’s throne of grace with confidence in no small measure because we have an incarnate high priest in Jesus Christ who although never caving in to sin himself is more than acutely aware of sin’s allure and the power of the Tempter to make us mess up.

A third observation from Psalm 51 is that all sin is finally sin against God.  We tend to see our sins as primarily hurting the people around us.  When we sin, we often sin against someone else.  We can even sin against our own selves, becoming guilty of self-inflicted harms to our persons and spirits and hearts.  But in the wider view of Psalm 51, although there is indeed that proximate sense of sinning against one another, ultimately all our sins offend also God.

This is why in the New Testament when Jesus would forgive sins that had nothing to do with him, it was seen as blasphemy because only God is in the position to forgive all sins and every sin.  Otherwise if my best friend sins against another friend, I am in no position to forgive the sin because it has nothing to do with me.  I have no standing to forgive the sins of others if I am not the offended or wounded party.  God, however, is the Creator God who never wanted sin to mar his good Creation so when this happens and when we vandalize shalom in multiple ways, it finally hurts God above all.

Fourth and finally from Psalm 51 we see that it is not enough to ask God to forgive our sins, turn his face away from our sins, blot out our sins.  All of that is important but this needs to be accompanied by a concomitant earnest desire to be also renewed.  We need a new heart, we need a willing spirit to be implanted in us.  Because if we really understand God’s amazing grace, then we will know it not only pardons, it also renews.  We have to want to be better people as a result of receiving God’s grace.  We have to want to move into a position where we are less likely (and certainly not more likely or even just as likely) to keep committing the same sins over and over.  Yes, sometimes we all do anyway.  Those of us—and it’s pretty much all of us—who have areas of weakness are going to lapse more than once in that specific area of our lives.  But we need to have a deep-seated desire not to perpetuate our sins.

Although fundamentally a penitent psalm of confession, then, Psalm 51 also contains the essence of the Gospel.  God is gracious and eager to forgive us when we confess.  And God is kind in also being willing to implant his very Spirit within us to not only cleanse but also renew as we all do our best faithfully to stay on the path of discipleship.

[Note: In addition to our weekly sermon commentaries, we have a special resource page for Lent and Easter for you to explore!]

Illustration Idea

William Willimon noted in one of this books that someone asked him one occasion where the Garden of Eden had been located.  I am paraphrasing here but Willimon replied, “315 West Elm Street in my hometown.”  “You’re kidding” the other person replied.  “I thought it was somewhere in Mesopotamia.”  “Well,” Willimon went on, “maybe.  But it was at my home on West Elm Street that one day that I stole a cookie after my mother told me I may not have any.  I felt so ashamed I hid in the closet in my room.  Eventually my mother came looking for me.  “Where are you?” she asked.  And once she found me she asked “What have you done?”

Obviously the upshot of this anecdote is to say that the tragedy of the original Fall into sin as we read about it in Genesis 3 now gets repeated in all of our lives because of all the ways the entire human race got corrupted in the sinful deeds of Adam and Eve.  It’s something the author of Psalm 51 knew only too well.

For a commentary on Psalm 119:9-16 on the CEP website, look here:


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