Psalm 51 - Create in me
according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me....
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Psalm 51:1-3, 9-12, NRSV
11th Sunday of Pentecost, Year B, verses 1-12
This was probably the first psalm I encountered, because our church sung these words almost every Sunday: "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me." I can sing the hallowed words today with the same notes of the old red hymnal. The repetition worked them deep into me.
The psalm touches many points that can resonate with the reader/hearer.
- Recognition that sins/transgressions are first* a problem in the relationship between the person and God.
- The desire for healing, to leave behind brokenness for joy and gladness.
- God as judge, with the ability to show mercy and enact forgiveness.
- The inescapability of sin ("My sin is ever before me, I was born guilty").
- The idea that sin or its effects can be washed away or cleansed.
- Bargaining with God: "Restore me, and then I will...; Deliver me, and I will...."
- The reimagination of sacrifice as contrition, rather than bloodshed.
I'd like to focus on that one plea: "Create in me a clean heart, O God."
In the original Hebrew, that word "create," is really important, and is only used about God's actions. Humans make, but only God creates.
This prayer knows that sin is a deep enough fault that it requires more than a fix. We need God's creative action, bringing order out of chaos.
We may know this in our own experiences. What does it take for a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan to repent of his hate? What does it take to step out of dependence on a drug or self-destructive habits? What does it take to forgive an enemy who has done great harm to you, your family, your people? What does it take to turn even ordinary stony hearts into ones of flesh?
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence,
and take not thy holy spirit from me.
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation;
and renew a right spirit within me.
* Sin, of course, causes problems in human relationships which requires repair and reconciliation. This psalm focuses on the deep rupture that any kind of sin causes in the relationship between people and God.