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I Really Blew It This Time

Date: July 14, 2019

Scripture: Psalm 51

Doesn’t it seem like other people’s sins are so much more interesting—not to mention so much worse—than our own?

After the incident with Bathsheba and the cover-up resulting in the murder of her husband Uriah, King David got a visit from the prophet Nathan. [1]

Nathan didn’t yell and scream; he just told a story.

“Once upon a time there was a poor man who had one lamb.

He loved that lamb; it was a pet to him, not livestock.

One day a wealthy neighbor, who had flocks and flocks of sheep of his own, decided to throw a dinner party.

But instead of using one of his own sheep for the feast, he stole the poor man’s one, single, pet lamb and used it.”

David was outraged, and said, “That rich man can’t be allowed to get away with that!

He should have to pay back that poor man with four lambs!”

And then Nathan said four words that cut David to the heart:

“YOU ARE THE MAN.”

“Hasn’t God given you everything you could possibly ask for—wealth, power, a throne for you and your sons for ever—and you still went and took some other man’s wife, the wife of one of your most loyal soldiers, and then had him killed?

No, God won’t be letting you get away with this; since you can’t give Uriah his life back, God’s going to take your child with Bathsheba and your kingdom from you.”

(I’m going to have to argue with the notion here that God should kill a baby for its father’s sin—for one thing, it’s Bathsheba’s baby, too!

Would God really break a mother’s heart like that?)

And then, David repented and prayed to God for mercy.

The superscription at the top of Psalm 51 tells us that this psalm was David’s prayer.

It is, as I have mentioned as we’ve looked at other psalms, impossible to know if it really was or not.

It could have been; but it just as easily could have been written by someone else who said, “Maybe this is what David would have said”; or an editor came along and added the superscription later, “This sounds like a prayer that would fit into that story.”

But if you read the psalm itself, without the superscription, there is nothing there that points specifically to the incident between David and Bathsheba.

The nature of the psalmist’s sin is never mentioned. [2]

As a result, whether or not it originally referred to David’s sin, this psalm is one of the seven Penitential Psalms, which the Church has traditionally prayed at various times during the Christian year, especially during Lent. [3]

Without the superscription that tells us it belongs to David after Nathan called him out for what he had done to Bathsheba and Uriah,[4] it’s a good, all-purpose prayer of confession.

The psalmist begins by throwing herself on God’s mercy, appealing to God’s main attribute, steadfast love.

The psalmist confesses that he has sinned against God, and that God would be justified in administering punishment—but he has already thrown himself on God’s mercy.

Many times the psalmist asks for her sins to be forgiven, blotted out, washed away, purged.

And the psalmist demonstrates genuine repentance, a genuine change of mind and desire to change his behavior.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”

The psalmist promises, once she is forgiven and restored and set on the right path, to teach other sinners to do the same.

And like the prophets, the psalmist acknowledges that all the burnt offerings in the world mean nothing if his heart is not in the right place. [5]

The final two verses are a puzzle.

For one thing, they don’t have anything to do with the rest of the psalm.

Also, they are clearly about a time period much later than when David ruled.

What do they mean?

And what does the psalm mean because they’re part of it?

There’s a branch of Bible scholarship that is called textual criticism.

Textual criticism looks at what’s in the Bible and tries to figure out how everything that is in there got to be there.

In the case of Psalm 51, a scholar might ask whether these last two verses had always been part of the psalm, and if not how they got there.

They might look at the various ancient manuscripts are available and compare them to see if those verses are in every one, and if not, which of the manuscripts can be considered the most reliable.

(Remember that we do not have the original of anything in the Bible; the best we have is second- or third-generation copies, and before the printing press, copies weren’t always 100% exact.)

If they are original, then it’s impossible for David to have been the author of the psalm; because the walls of Jerusalem didn’t need to be rebuilt during his time.

It sounds to me like these verses belong to the time of the exile, when the upper classes of Jerusalem were taken away to Babylon; or just after that, when they went home to rebuild their ruined city and temple.

The question is whether they have always been part of the psalm, or if someone added them to the original version, which could possibly have been written by David.

But I don’t know for sure, and I haven’t done enough studying to know what the scholars think.

In any case, as we have the psalm today, with the last two verses included, it could be used as a communal prayer of repentance—maybe prayed by a group of worshipers in Babylon or in Jerusalem or somewhere else—just as easily as it could be prayed by just one individual.

It turns out that a great many psalms, even if they speak in the first person as this one does (“Have mercy on me, O God”), can be prayed or sung by a whole congregation together, as their community prayer.

The trouble is, a lot of us mainline Protestants don’t much care for prayers of confession or penitence.

We may connect them with the Catholic sacrament of Reconciliation, in which believers confess their sins to their priest, who then assigns some kind of penance and then pronounces absolution (telling the believers that their sins are forgiven).

Protestants will say that we don’t need to confess our sins to another person, because we can go directly to God through Jesus Christ.

And while some Protestant churches do include a community prayer of confession and declaration of pardon in their worship services, many others don’t.

We might argue that the words someone else chooses for us to pray together may have nothing at all to do with our individual lives.

Does the confession, for instance, say that we have been less than loving in our actions toward our families?

What if we haven’t been less than loving in our actions toward our families during that week?

Why are we asking forgiveness for a sin we have not committed?

I’d argue several things.

For one thing, those prayers are a great deal more relatable than we want to admit.

Maybe we haven’t behaved badly in the particular way the prayer covers this week, but it’s a fairly safe bet that we have at some point in the past.

Also, I think the public acknowledgment of our sin can help us, if we let it, avoid the notion that people have to get their act together before they can bring it to church.

Finally, and I think this is most important, rejecting the regular practice of examining our lives and confessing our shortcomings—whether during public worship or privately, in a small group or to a close friend, spiritual director, or pastor—allows us to delude ourselves.

In many churches where prayers of confession are regularly part of worship, the time of confession begins when a worship leader quotes 1 John 1:8: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

If we don’t regularly acknowledge that we have done things that are wrong—some of them accidental, some thoughtless, some downright malicious—then we can pretend we’re just fine.

We can put up a glittering image so that everyone around us thinks we’re just fine.

And do you know what a church full of people wearing that mask is?

It’s a cold church—a church where we can’t talk honestly to one another, because we’re always hiding something.

It’s an unwelcoming church—it’s the sort of church where folks don’t feel like they can walk through the doors if they are lost, if they’re sinful, if they’re in need of some grace and compassion.

Personally, I don’t want to be part of that kind of church.

Do you?

Let’s be honest with ourselves and with one another about the reality that we are human and we make mistakes.

Let’s confess our shortcomings to God and, as appropriate, to one another, and let’s also tell one another what the psalmist, whether or not it was David, knew: our God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness; and always ready to forgive when we realize we need forgiving.

[1] This whole sordid tale is found in 2 Samuel 11:1—12:25.

[2] I’d argue against this being about David’s misdeed, actually, based on verse 4a:  “Against you, you alone, have I sinned…”  David assuredly sinned against others besides God:  Bathsheba, Uriah, his other wives, and the whole people of Israel who looked to him for wise leadership.

[3] The others are Psalms 6; 32; 38; 102; 130; and 143.

[4] Note that preposition, “…what he had done to Bathsheba and Uriah.”  There has been a lot written or put on screen that portrays Bathsheba as a willing participant in this incident.  She likely was not.  Because of the difference in power between her and David, she did not have agency to consent or not consent to David’s decision to sleep with her.  And David, for his part, is not shown to have said one word to her:  he had her brought to him, he did what he wanted with her, and then she went away.  Bathsheba is the only person who speaks, and that in a message sent to the palace:  “I am pregnant.”  Technically, what David did to Bathsheba can be considered rape, and the story should be told as such.

[5] Similar sentiment may be found in Isaiah 58; Hosea 6:6 (which Jesus quotes in Matthew 9:13 and 12:7); and Amos 5:21-24.