This blog continues my translation of Psalms 42 with a short commentary.
For the choir leader. A psalm for David, when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had sex with Bathsheba.
God be merciful to me in your faithful love;
out of your motherly tenderness wipe away my offence;
Tread out of me the dirt of my crime
and purify me from my sin.
For I know my offences
and my sin is always in front of me.
Against you, you also, I have sinned
and done evil before your eyes,
so that you are just in your sentencing
and clean in your judgement.
Yes, I was born in evil
and in sin my mother conceived me,
Yet you desire the heart’s sincerity
and you teach me wisdom in my hidden self.
Purify me with hyssop until I am clean;
trample me until I am whiter than snow.
Let me hear happy celebrations
Let the bones you have broken, dance.
Hide your face from my sins
And cancel all my crimes.
Create in me a clean heart O God
and restore within me a steadfast spirit.
Do not banish me from your face
or remove your holy spirit from me.
Give me back joy in your deliverance
and with your generous spirit support me;
then I will teach your ways to offenders
and criminals will be turned towards you.
Rescue me from blood, O God of my deliverance
and my tongue will applaud your goodness.
Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will utter your praise.
For you take no pleasure in sacrifice;
if I gave a burnt offering you would not accept it.
Godly sacrifice is a broken spirit;
a humbled and repentant heart, O God,
you will not despise.
Do good by your grace to Zion!
Rebuild the walls of Jerusalem!
I have missed out the final verse of this psalm as it contains later additions which are impossible to disentangle from the original.
The psalm uses the story of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband by arranging his death in battle. As narrated in 2nd Samuel, this is one of the subtlest critiques of kingship in all literature.
The psalmist uses the figure of the king in the moment when the prophet Nathan confronts him with his crime by telling a parable about a rich man who feeds his guest by stealing a poor man’s pet lamb. When David denounces this crime and demands that the man be called to account, Nathan says, “You are the man!”
The speaker in the psalm identifies himself with David, even with the fact that he has spilt blood. He trusts passionately in the justice and forgiveness of God. I have used the phrase “motherly tenderness” to translate a Hebrew word which refers to the womb as the organ of compassion. But I have also used the words, “tread and trample”, to translate a Hebrew word meaning “to wash” whose root reminds me that clothes were often washed with the feet. The painful inexorability of God’s cleansing is noted by this word and even welcomed by the sinner: it is the only way he can become clean.
Most translations have the psalmist declaring that he has sinned “against you, you only” but the Hebrew really means “you in your separateness” that is, in God’s separateness from the injured human beings. Hence my translation, “Against you also.” All wrong done to others is also done to God, and only God can free the sinner from his sin.
The paradox of the human condition is noted. Human beings are part of a sinful humanity from the time of their conception. The words do not single out human sexuality as sinful but simply acknowledge that humans cannot escape being human and sinful. God neverthess demands that the human heart be truthful and wants to implant divine wisdom in the inmost self. How can this happen? Only by the human being telling the truth of his own actions, so that God can begin the cleansing process.
God may trample the person to make her clean, which may involve some broken bones, but the cleansed person can then pray for deliverance and permission for her bones to dance. The person who has opened a sinful heart to God will hope that this heart will be cleansed and restored; and that her broken human spirit will be made whole.
All this seems to me sane and profound. Human beings constantly go wrong and do wrong, especially when in our arrogance we think we can do as we like. Only a thorough acceptance of what we have done and who we are can save us from harming ourselves and others. There is no doubt that this process of confession, self- knowledge and cleansing is hard: our arrogance does not like being trampled, but it is necessary and leads to joy.
The note of joy keeps sounding in this penitential psalm. God does not desire our humiliation, but rather that in naked truth we may stand unashamed before the Holy One, who does not despise us. Near its end the psalm reminds its user of the humility and repentance which is necessary, but finally it brings together personal sin and the sin of Israel in the image of God doing good to his people and the broken walls being rebuilt.