Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy steadfast love; according to Thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Psalm 51:1
The numbering of the Psalms depends on which translation you read. In the Septuagint number versus the number in Bibles like the Revised Standard Version, the numbering is off by one in most places. This is why in the Orthodox Church, the Psalm we refer to as the 50th Psalm is shown as Psalm 51 in the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and other translations of the Bible.
Of the 150 Psalms, Psalm 50 is my favorite. It is heard often in our church services. It is sung or read at the Orthros service before each Divine Liturgy. The priest prays it while censing before the Great Entrance. It is part of the Holy Unction Service, the Small and Great Compline, Paraklesis and the Salutations to the Virgin Mary.
Psalm 50 is the Psalm of repentance, when we have failed at something, when we are failing at life, when we feel like we are failing in faith, when we feel like we’ve got no place else to go, this is the Psalm that we should pray. And we should pray it with “a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17), because this is the heart that God accepts in repentance.
We are going to spend several days studying this Psalm, a couple of verses at a time. The daily prayer will be the Psalm, and I encourage you to pray this Psalm every day while we are reflecting on it. Most of the Psalms were written by King David, and there was a particular reason he wrote Psalm 50, which we will reflect on today.
Most of us have heard something about King David in the Old Testament. If we know about him, it’s probably because we remember the story of David and Goliath, how David, a young shepherd boy, killed a giant named Goliath, with a sling shot. In fact, in sports, it is very popular to use the image of David versus Goliath, when one team seems unbeatable and then somehow gets beaten, when one teams seems like it can’t possibly win, and then it does.
David was the youngest of 8 brothers. No one thought he would ever be king. His brothers were all brazen soldiers. David was a simple shepherd. But he was favored by the Old Testament King Saul, and was good friends with Saul’s son, Jonathan. Saul became paranoid that David might one day take his throne and Saul turned on David. After Saul and Jonathan were killed in a battle, David was anointed as King.
David had it all, it seemed. He had the favor of God and of his fellow man. He wass a king. He was powerful. But David was not satisfied. One day, he saw from his palace window a beautiful woman named Bathsheeba sunbathing on the roof of her house. She was the wife of a man named Uriah. David commited adultery with Bathsheeba and she got pregnant. Now David had a problem. He had gotten another man’s wife pregnant. He decided to solve the problem by having Uriah sent to the front lines in battle, so that he was sure to die. And when he was killed, he took Bathsheeba as his wife and they had a son. However, what David did displeased God.
In 2 Samuel 12: 1-7, we read the story of a prophet named Nathan, whom the Lord sent to David. He told David a story:
“There were two men in one city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had exceedingly many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished; and it grew up together with him and with his children. It ate of his own food and drank from his own cup and lay in his bosom; and it was like a daughter to him. And a traveler came to the rich man, who refused to take from his own flock and from his own herd to prepare one for the wayfaring man who had come to him; but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it to the man who had come to him.” So David’s anger was greatly aroused against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this shall surely die! And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb, because he did this thing and because he had no pity.” Nathan said to David, “You are that man!”
Because David had taken the wife of Uriah and had had Uriah killed
After Nathan left, David was heartbroken, and he realized the only way his soul could mend was to turn it over to the Lord. David wrote most of the 150 Psalms. And they captured his sorrows, his repentance, as well as his joys and later restored confidence.
The beginning of the 50th Psalm therefore reflected David’s understanding that he needed God’s mercy, that’s God’s mercy was the only thing that could save him from deserved condemnation over his sins of adultery and murder.
We all sin, perhaps not as egregiously as David, but we all sin. Psalm 50, the Psalm of repentance, begins by acknowledging that we have sinned and asking God for mercy and to blot out our transgressions.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your steadfast love; according to Your abundance 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. Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in Your sight, so that You are justified in Your sentence and blameless in Your judgment. For behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear the sounds of joy and feasting, the bones that were afflicted shall rejoice. 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. Cast me not away from Your presence and take not Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of Your salvation and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I shall teach transgressors Your ways and sinners will return to You. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of Your deliverance. O Lord, You shall open my lips and my mouths shall show forth Your praise. For You have no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, You would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and humbled heart, o God, You will not despise. Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion, and let the walls of Jerusalem be rebuilt. Then You will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then they shall offer up bulls on Your altar [and have mercy on me O God]. Psalm 50 (51)
Think of your “David” story, the thing for which you need God’s greatest measure of forgiveness.
The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website! There you may find a database for past prayer team messages as well as books by Fr. Stavros and other information about his work and St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL.
The Revised Standard Version of the Bible is copyrighted 1946, 1952, 1971, and 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and used by permission. From the Online Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.