Psalm 51: The Whole Truth
When I first reread this psalm in preparation for this writing assignment, I was immediately transported back to Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kansas City, Missouri where I was once a chorister in the youth choir. If memory serves me correctly, when we would line up to process into the sanctuary the choir director would lead us in prayer by chanting “O God open thou our lips.” And the choir would joyously respond in an expanding four-part harmony, “and our mouth shall show forth thy praise!” It was glorious and clearly left an impression on my teenage self.
Yet, when reading the rest of the psalm, the sense of joy and praise so vividly associated in my mind with verse 15 is nowhere to be found. It is, in fact, a text of deep anguish, of brutal honesty about one’s shortcomings, and a recognition of our utter dependence on God. As an aspiring pastor who is, God willing, nearing the end of my journey toward ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), such an emphasis feels very much on point, especially since the superscription that introduces the text connects it to King David, one of the legendary leaders in the Bible and in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thought.
Psalm 51 makes it clear that all human beings fail—including monarchs and simple folk. Hard as we might try, we will make mistakes and it is crucial to be honest with ourselves and others about this fact. Some of these failings are bigger or more severe than others, all of them require us to take responsibility for our actions. It is, therefore, important to name this common human trait. This psalm, as with many within the Psalter, is also intensely personal: “Have mercy on me, O God,” “I know my transgressions,” “Do not cast me away from your presence.” It invites each reader to reflect on her own life situation openly. Yet, it is not exclusively focused on the individual in relation to God. The psalmist is also conscious of her connection to the broader community. The poet implores God to cleanse her heart and to fill her with a renewed, steadfast, and willing spirit so that she can help other transgressors—i.e., all people—to return to God. Hearkening back to the blessing God bestowed upon Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “And by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice” (Genesis 22:18), this psalm helps us understand that only by being truthful with ourselves and with God can we support others on their journeys (including future generations). We must each do our own internal work if we wish to be a “blessing” to others.
In this light, the connection to King David becomes even more important. What does it mean to lift up such a flawed human being as God’s “anointed one” and for God to remain steadfastly committed to this King and his progeny even when he has committed egregious sins? According to the text in 2 Samuel 12, while David needed to be prodded into repentance, he quickly admitted that his behavior was repugnant, declaring that he should be subject to severe punishment. This preamble to the psalm (a later literary addition) offers us an important lesson about our leaders: even one as exalted as King David did both great and terrible things. Neither the psalmist nor other narrators in the Hebrew Bible try to hide or deny that fact. That does not mean we should excuse or emulate such bad behavior. All people must be held accountable for their actions, regardless of rank or station. But it also means we cannot erase the good things flawed leaders do. It is damaging both to the individual and to the community to construct a simple narrative about a person when a more complex one is necessary. This leads to the creation of a warped, cartoon-like culture in which there are only heroes and villains, with little room for honest and hard-working people to strive, to falter, and to grow. As the Book of Psalms demonstrates in its totality, real life includes joy, anger, regret, longing, and praise.
This is a lesson that we need to internalize in our own time and place. We should be careful not to hold too tightly to mythologies that flatten and overly simplify the complicated story of our nation, past or present. As King David and the psalmist remind us, we must be honest in telling our personal and collective stories. What can we celebrate and what must we lament (often we need to do both together)? To achieve a “clean heart” and a “renewed spirit” we must weigh and measure our successes and our failures as transparently as possible and take responsibility for our actions. The founders of the United States, for example, were deeply flawed human beings, just like each one of us. The origins of this country include a bold liberatory vision, but also the unconscionable trafficking of human beings and the horrors of slave labor. To forget, deny, or minimize these facts is to sin, like David did, against God and against our fellow human beings. Cultivating a more holistic view of life invites us to hold more appropriate measures of humility and pride, challenging us to be both compassionate and critical in our assessment of our forebears, leaders, neighbors, and selves.
Rev. Tom Reid is the associate director of the Miller Center for Interreligious Learning & Leadership of Hebrew College, and a graduate of Boston University School of Theology (MDiv, 2019. He was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 2021. Previously, Tom spent over ten years working in cleantech, innovation, environmental and green building consulting, and business education.