Psalm 50: Sorry, But Love Means Always Having to Say I’m Sorry

                                                            

Those of us who lived in the 1970s might remember the movie, Love Story, which had not only a rather lovely music score, but also a catchphrase with these words, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” The phrase appears a couple of times in the movie and the book and was eventually made into a song.  So embedded in our culture, it became one of those great soundbites catchphrases that sounds so, well, loving and intimate. 

Alas, it’s not really true.

People who love must say, ‘I’m sorry’ and say it again and again.  Love relationships, like marriage, require it to clear the air in the relationship when one caused an offense against her or his beloved. It first is an acknowledgement that something ‘happened’, and my responsibility for it happening, and that it was offensive, and that I care about how you feel about it and also feel badly because of it, and how it has effected you.  Now this is a human example in a sort of generic form, but it applies in other human relationships and arguably in our relationship with God although any projection of human thoughts or behavior or feelings isn’t sound. 

It might also be said that love begins when we say “I’m sorry” or maybe more precisely, when I care so much for how my sinful thoughts and actions influence our relationship in a destructive way. 

Why is “I’m sorry” so Difficult?

There are many reasons why it’s hard to get to ‘I’m sorry.’  You probably know them all. To get to “I’m sorry.” there requires self-awareness, humility and an acknowledgment of my inadequacies and spiritual brokenness. If we lack any of these, we will be unable to (really) say “I’m sorry.”  Well maybe we can say it, but meaning it is a lot harder. 

Self-awareness is a sign of human maturity.  Children see the world as an extension of themselves. Maturing psychologically and emotionally means recognizing the (incredible) distinctiveness of other persons. They are not me or even like me, sometimes not at all.  Our inner thinking often says, “Of course they think that way or feel that or believe that.” But projecting those thoughts, emotions or beliefs on others blocks all relationship.  Similarly, sometimes people (even long married couples) will think – ‘well of course he forgives me’ or some similar thought, simply projecting one’s own thoughts or desires. Seeing this in someone today we usually label them as ‘clueless.’

Humility means humbly seeing the other in this distinctive way and then having enough self awareness that I not only can sin and offend God and others, but do.  In regard to our relationship with God, this denial is mitigated if we can honestly accepted the Ten Commandments and compare our behaviors (and thoughts) against that external standard. Self-delusion takes place when the only standard for me is myself.[i]  Living in denial means surround ourselves in this bubble of self-protection. 

But this is a spiritual reality of the soul as well.  There are certain diseases (even low level ones) that pump toxins into the bloodstream and a person gets weak, and sometimes utterly delusional.  They are wobbly psychologically and emotionally, and spiritually. The disease comes from the sinful passions that overwhelm the soul’s ‘balance’.

This is where David was, before the prophet Nathan showed up.

Here is a rather lengthy comment on this by St. John Chrysostom,

And the prophet was found in adultery, the pearl in the mud. However, he did not yet understand that he had sinned; the passion ravaged him to such a great extent. Because, when the charioteer gets drunk, the chariot moves in an irregular, disorderly manner. What the charioteer is to the chariot, the soul is to the body. If the soul becomes darkened, the body rolls in the mud. As long as the charioteer stands firm, the chariot drives smoothly. However, when he becomes exhausted and is unable to hold the reins firmly, you see this very chariot in terrible danger. The exact same thing happens to man. As long as the soul is sober and vigilant, this very body remains in purity. However, when the soul is darkened, this very body rolls in mud and in lusts. Therefore, what did David do? He committed adultery; yet neither was he aware nor was he censured by anyone. This occurred in his most venerable years, so you may learn that, if you are indolent, not even old age benefits you, nor, if you are earnest, can youthful years seriously harm you. Behavior does not depend on age but on the direction of the will. Although David was twelve years old, he was a judge; his predecessors, however, who were old in years, committed adultery; and neither did old age benefit them nor youth injure this one. So you may learn that the affairs of prudence rely upon the will and do not depend on age, just remember that David was found in his venerable years falling into adultery and committing murder; and he reached such a pathetic state that he was unaware that he had sinned, because his mind, which was the charioteer, was drunk from debauchery1

Here St. John likens this state of mind and heart as a ‘stupor’ like drunkenness.

Diagnosis?

If you want to know your state of mind and heart, just monitor your thoughts of defensiveness?  If we feel that way, like David, we’re usually hiding something we’re ashamed of – and that’s usually something sinful.  And defensiveness, strangely, often accompanies psychological denial.  In our deepest selves we know we are, or have done, wrong, but can’t accept the thought so we defend ourselves. Likewise we’ll attack others and often accuse them of the very thing we have done.

 Nathan was courageous.

The antidote to sin is repentance, and what is necessary to upright the ship is the strength of moral courage.  It takes courage to confront sin, even in others, and so much easier to just avoid the conflict.  St. John Chrysostom speaks further:

What did the king say? “I have sinned against the Lord.” He did not say, “Who are you who censures me? Who sent you to speak with such boldness? With what daring did you prevail?” He did not say anything of the sort; rather, he perceived the sin. And what did he say? “I have sinned against the Lord.” Therefore, what did Nathan say to him? “And the Lord remitted your sin.” You condemned yourself; I [God] remit your sentence. You confessed prudently; you annulled the sin. You appropriated a condemnatory decision against yourself; I repeal the sentence. Can you see that what is written in Scripture was fulfilled: “Be the first one to tell of your transgressions so you may be justified” [Isaiah 43:26]? How toilsome is it to be the first one to declare the sin?”2

David perceived his sin – and regained his senses, his equilibrium. 

We can never be unaware of our sin.  We have a conscience.   We will either

– Deny it

– Blame others for it                        – Dull its pain                     

– Or Confess the sin and accuse myself as a sinner

Only this path leads to health. Our sins are confessed so that they can be forgiven.  Unless they are confessed they remain unforgiven. 

Psalm 50 is all about coming to our senses (like the Prodigal Son) and then the Psalm gives us the perspective which leads us to be able to say, in all honesty and humility, ‘Lord, I am sorry.’  Remember that Judas recognized that he had ‘done wrong’ and effectively sinned, but did not have the courage or faith to come to Jesus and say, ‘I’m sorry!’ Can you imagine what would have happened if He had?  Peter too had offended Christ, be he did say, ‘I’m sorry.’

When we come to our senses and recognize our sins and responsibility for them, we have begun the journey of forgiveness and healing which is what Great Lent is about.  This opens us to the great expanse of God’s forgiveness.


Psalm 50:  Lord, Have Mercy

#4 of a Series of Reflections on Psalm 50 (51)

Lord have mercy!

We’ll hear those words today in all kinds of situations out of the mouths of believers and non-believers alike.  It’s often blurted out when someone is exasperated, or utterly shocked when something happens to them or surprises them.  It’s not always a statement about the Lord, or about mercy, at all.

David begins Psalm 50 with these same words, more or less – “Have mercy on me, O God!”

But for believers, these words are always to be at the center of our hearts. They are our spiritual starting line in the race of faith,  when we begin to understand who we are and how we need God in our lives. The sentence has two parts, ‘Lord’ and ‘have mercy’ so we’ll approach the first in this discussion.

The NAME of the Lord

Christian life starts with speaking the name of the  ‘Lord’.  How we address the Lord is really important!  When we blurt out ‘Lord have mercy’ in exasperation or even anger, the eternal Lord is usually far from our minds.  It’s usually the opposite scenario where we’re overwhelmed by the here and now.

But the Lord Almighty commanded that His Name not be spoken ‘in vain’ (Ex. 20:7) Judaism’s reverence for the name of the Lord was so total, it was a fearful thing just to utter it.  They would not even spell it as such[i], but use the letters YHWH to stand for Him and for His name, because in the Hebrew and Semitic way of thinking, one’s name signified the very essence of a person, his character, and even her life purpose.  So, from the naming of ‘Eve’ by Adam in Gen. 2, to the naming of the sons of the Patriarchs, etc and ‘Emmanuel’ in the Book of Isaiah, this sense of the importance and reverence of any name was serious business.  But to speak the name of the All-Holy and Unknowable God of All Creation was deemed beyond man’s capability, because of our utter unworthiness to even approach, let alone speak to the Divine.  This ‘fear of the Lord’ is called in the scriptures the ‘beginning of Wisdom.’ (Prov. 9:10)  God in His holiness, in this view, was utterly inaccessible and unapproachable.

Approach with the Fear of God

But for one who had a heart for the Lord, like David, he had come to know that he could approach God in all humility. As David begins this great psalm, he begins not with himself, but with the God who is the eternal Point of Reference of all that is and lives. This becomes, in this amazing moment of penance, David’s singular focus, to somehow dare to approach God in his sin!  This he could do because he had approached God many times before – in other times and circumstances not so bitter.  He could praise Him, thank Him as the psalms and scriptures attest, and ask for deliverance.  But now could he approach God to receive forgiveness?   It is a fearful thing to approach the Living God – let alone when we are clothed in sin! In fact, as we read in Genesis as well, our forefather Adam could not approach the Lord, but hid from him (physically, emotionally, spiritually). Faith then requires both humility and courage.

I suspect we may be comfortable chatting with God about our lives or lifting up concerns or the present or future state of things.  This dialogue of what could be called ‘prayer’ sets a grounding and framework for a relationship with God that is personal – not just words from some book, but impacting what is here and now for us.  But if you’re like me, God is probably wondering when I, in my prayers, will actually get around to what’s really going on in my life because the messy things like sin, rebellion, love for this world, hatred of others and other sinful thoughts and behaviors are not the stuff of a daily prayer chat.  Rather, we find ourselves naked and asking ourselves whether, like David, we dare approach God with such things – knowing that they are utterly unworthy of Him.

Jesus opened the door to us in this matter, not only giving us the command to repent, but offering us a way to come to repentance before God – as Father.  When Jesus prayed, He spoke to God as Father.  When the apostles asked Him, ‘How should we pray?’ He said, “When you pray, say, ‘Father…’” (Mt.5). 

Our Father

So now, for us, the eternal, unknowable and All Powerful God is actually ‘Father’ and we are to approach Him as such!  Now this is the good news and the bad news!

The good news of course is that God is indeed approachable to us,  just as we read in the first week of Great Lent from Genesis, ehrn He walked in the garden with Adam, and looked for Adam even after He had sinned.  He could have, in all righteousness, simply struck Adam down in His sin then and there and obliterated him from the Garden, the face of the earth, and the Cosmos in an instant.  Perfect love did not permit this despite how seemingly ‘just[ii]’ it would have been.

But a Father does not do that to his children.

Instead, as Jesus repeats in the story of the Prodigal Son, the Father patiently waits until the movements of life force the fallen son to come to his senses, and recognize the Truth for what it is – his rebellion in sin, his disregard for His Father, his squandering of the precious treasures entrusted to him, his chasing after this life pleasures, etc.  And the son only need make the first step in returning so that the Father can reconcile him and restore him again. 

The ‘Bad’ news is that, when we really recognize how we have sinned, it’s one thing to deal with them as past events, or ‘something to work on’.  But when we realize that we have offended God our Father Who loves us so!  It’s heartbreaking!  Or as the holy Fathers would say, it is heart softening.  (There will be more said about this a little later.)

David did not have the benefit of the Gospel of Jesus to give him the sense when he finally came to his senses that he could actually reach out to God.  This is at the crux of the story for each of us – when the chips are down can we, will we, and do we actually turn to God in a way that is not ‘in vain’ but in faith?  Those who do the former will only find exasperation amplified, even anger, as we read in the scriptures about people like Cain and Judas Iscariot.  When they sinned they had nowhere to go.  They were unable – in their critical moment – to turn to God as their Lord as David could, and I believe, ultimately, Adam could.  When we cannot turn to God in such a moment we are spiritually  lost.  The demons soon swarm in, and convince us that our anger at God is justified, and we can become utterly lost spiritually, like Cain and Judas.  So many people feel emotionally empty and defeated, because they too have only their own feelings confronting them and overwhelming them with their own self-defeating self-talk, leading to depression and even suicidal thoughts.  In such a terrible place we need to look beyond our selves – and cry out to that true God, who is Somewhere, to hear us.[iii]

The words of Jesus to the Apostolic Church after His Resurrection were, “Those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Rom. 19:13)  Is this not the Good News? We can call upon the name of the Lord, that it as spoken from our lips, can be heard and that we, like Adam and David can come out from our hiding and darkness to receive healing, purification and a restored relationship with God as Father? 

St. Marks’ Gospel speaks a parallel word from Jesus Himself,

“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.6 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”

Here the Lord refers to the need to approach God in faith and receive Baptism (of repentance). But it goes further speaking another possibility – those who won’t repent and call upon the name of the Lord, won’t be saved.   They will find no salvation, because they distance themselves from the Lord and without Him there is No One who can save them.  They have not learned, nor been taught, to call upon the Name of the Lord. 

Now this points to another spiritual reality and responsibility.  If we have learned from our forebears to call upon the name of the Lord, so as to be saved from our sins, then it behooves us to teach others to call upon the name of the Lord.  This is the Church’s role[iv]  – no other religion or place on earth is in a place or position to bring salvation of Jesus and the awareness of the possibility of God as Father – it is the privilege of the Church to introduce the children of God to their Father.  The Church teaches us with the words of Jesus to come to our Father, that He might “forgive us our trespasses (offenses)” We can call upon our God directly, and as the introduction to the Our Father in the Divine Liturgy vividly says,

And make us worthy O Master, that we may dare call upon You, our Heavenly God, as Father, and to say…’Our Father…’”…

So here is this amazing irony, that the sinners recognize two things – first that they are utterly unworthy to approach God, yet by faith they are compelled inwardly to nonetheless with fear and faith so approach God as Father.”

This is the recipe for repentance and redemption, which comes not from any sense of ourselves that somehow we are worthy of anything good (as like David our sins reveal) but that nevertheless we can so approach God, as Lord and Father, and that He is one Who will deal with us with great mercy, as a Father always does.

David knew this, so his prayer of repentance could so begin.

The Not so Good News?

I mentioned above that being able to call God our Father also had it’s ‘down’ side?  What could that possibly be?  Well it’s a downer, only in so much that it makes it harder in some ways, to say ‘Father, I have sinned’ rather than Eternal God of the Cosmos I am a sinner.  When God is personal, even Father, the emotional sadness of penance has an even deeper reach in our heart.  This is the case with our sins when we realize the love of God in our hearts.  It’s why the saints were so profoundly penitential – because they realized how much our sins were an offense to our loving Father, even unbearably so.  Likewise when we realize the personal aspects of our personal sins – that the effect our loved ones deeply and intimately, makes our repentance so much harder – really.  I think this is one of the reasons why some people live in denial – simply because the thought of having so offended someone they love is unbearable.  How much more so for our All-loving Father.  But the Lord Himself gives us the grace to so approach Him – as the Father was known by the Prodigal Son as One who was full of forgiveness and could be approached.

So the not-so-good news is, of course, good news. Our hearts are capable of deep love, hence we are capable of deep repentance. +


[i] Of the several names for the Lord in Hebrew, Yahweh was used, essentially meaning ‘I am Who Am” 

[ii] The Old Testament notions of justice, and all human limited perceptions of justice pale in comparison to the justice of God. It is beyond us and there is no contradiction between His justice and mercy.

[iii] The Orthodox Church sings Psalm 140 daily at vespers, beginning with these words, “Lord, I have cried to you hear me, He me O Lord.” These words ‘inhaled’ daily help us to instinctively turn to the Lord in our need.

[iv] To fulfill His command in Mk. 16 and as St. Paul was doing by example to the Roman Church in Rom 10 above.

On Psalm 50 (#3) – The Sins of Our Fathers – the Holy Prophet David

Holy Prophet David – Iconsart

Before going verse by verse through Psalm 50, it’s important to look at the Psalm as it is presented to us even in the Psalter itself and the scriptures.  David is recognized as the author[i] of the Psalms, and as such these psalms are often a quite intimate reflection of his inner thinking, his very heart, as he reaches out to the God Whom he loves.  The psalms reflect the circumstances of his life and his turning of the circumstances of his life over to God. For example, in the introductory words preceding the psalm texts we get a hint of what is to come, such as in Psalm 17,

By the child of the Lord, David, what things he spoke to the Lord even the words of this ode, in the day the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. “  (OSB)

So far so good. So the psalms reflect the glorious triumphs of David, his wondrous praise of the living God, Who so loved Him and delivered him from his enemies.  Then we hear this

David – and his Sins

In the introduction to Psalm 50, we read:

“When Nathan the prophet came to him, at the time he went into Bathsheba.”

Riveting isn’t it? X-rated. A dagger to the fraud of David’s ‘spirituality’.  David was a sinner, and a hideous one. 

The event alluded to the terrible double sin of David that we read in 2Kingdoms[ii] 11. It is the story of the fall of David from the sins of lust, to adultery, to murder.  Having cast his gaze upon Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite he lusted  for her, he sent for her and slept with her. Then, probably fearing the possibility of pregnancy, he brought her husband back from the battle to lay with his wife so that if she had a child it was presumed by him. But Uriah, in humble righteousness, would not allow himself this pleasure, given the circumstances of his life as a soldier and the state of the people of Israel. David tried again to get Uriah to go to his wife, by getting him drunk, but he would not. Then David, in a fury, sent Uriah to the front with specific instruction that he should be sent to the fiercest battle, where he would die.  And so it was – Uriah was killed and David effectively removed his male ‘competitor’ for Bathsheba, her rightful husband, Uriah and took her as his wife. 

Chapter 11 verse 27 is as riveting as it is explicit, “But what David did was evil in the eyes of the Lord.”

We can see that David was losing ground rapidly to his sins – and being overwhelmed by them. They were multiplying one on another. From lust to adultery, to fear of the truth, to lying, to manipulation, to drunkenness, to anger, to conspiracy, to murder, to cover-up and justification, and blindness to more lust, etc.[iii]

 But because God loved David he was not about to let David remain in his sin.  He sent the prophet Nathan to speak His words directly to him in the form of a parable describing a cruel injustice. And when David heard the words, “You are the man.” as the unjust ruler represented in the parable, the scales fell  from David’s eyes, and he was crushed with the truth of what he had been running from – how sin had first penetrated his thoughts, his heart and his behavior leading to adultery and murder, and so much more.  This was an epic moral failure, and fall in his life.

Can you bear the Truth?

Nathan the prophet speaks the Truth to David and it saves him.  Truth cut through his fog of denial.  The truth was about not only what David had done – but all that he had thought, said, felt and plotted in his heart.  His anger toward Uriah in Uriah’s extraordinary goodness and witness to his calling as a warrior for the Israelites. But the truth was also that despite David’s sin, God still loved Him and desired to forgive him. It would be required of David to acknowledge the Truth and his sin so as to receive The Lord’s mercy and forgiveness.

God loves us too; He wills that we not remain in sin.  Instead, He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, who is the Word (Gr. Logos)to speak the truth to us about our sins and its effects on our lives. The words of Jesus become the eternal witness of Truth to the falsehoods and half-truths of sins. Christ commands with these words, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Mk. 1)  He sends other people to us to speak His Word – like Nathan – those who bear His Word in their own lives – parents, brothers/sisters, believers in the Church, etc. who are led to say things to help us recognize our sin – sometimes directly, other times mysteriously or in a parable of life. This is the path to peace and inner freedom in the Truth. 

Jesus warned the Pharisees again and again about their blindness to their own sin, especially pride.  “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”  (Jn. 9:41)  The whole purpose and mission of Christ on earth and His Church is simply to lead people to acknowledge their sins, that they might repent, be forgiven, and be saved from them.  When sin is committed repeatedly, it becomes a lifestyle as in addiction, the one who cannot, or refuses to acknowledge the woeful state of her life will remain in that state.  A prophetic Word is needed to bring the truth, clarity, repentance and a change of life. 

The Forgiveness of Christ through the Church

This is why receiving Sacrament of Penance (Confession) is so important in the Church – so much that every Orthodox Christian is directed to confess their sins during the Lenten season as a preparation for Pascha. The ministry of priests is explicitly that of Jesus, in the same manner which He empowered His apostles to do, ‘Forgive sins’. (John 20:21f)   In fact, the prayer of forgiveness the priest pronounces is not from him, but from God, for the prayer of absolution makes reference to the forgiveness of David through a reference to the words of the prophet Nathan.[iv] The Word is the One who forgives sins.

So, we Christians, who like David love and desire God, must swiftly seek forgiveness of sins when we fall into them, lest we, like David, begin to lose all consciousness of the truth, our lives spin out of control and we’re overwhelmed by the darkness of sin.  If it could happen to David, who was a ‘man after the Lord’s heart’ it can, and will happen to us.

With that as a little background, perhaps it’s worthwhile to ponder  a few questions:

  • Honestly, what are the real sins have I committed that are offensive to God and destructive of my relationship with Him?
  • Have I gone from sin-to-sin in my own thinking, feeling, actions and willfulness?
  • How is the Word of God speaking to me, calling me to repentance?  Who has the Lord sent as the ‘Nathan’ of my life?

May we heed His Word Who speaks the truth in our hearts, to acknowledge and confess our personal sins in humility as David did.  During this Great Lent let us seek forgiveness and freedom from their bondage.  May the most intimate and sorrowful words of David become our words as we reach out to God for forgiveness!


[i] Biblical scholarship today tends to emphasize that authorship of biblical writings is a complex subject beyond the scope of this discussion. Suffice it to say that the Church’s perspective on this has the person of the David clearly at the center of these thoughts and feelings expressed, which is reflected throughout Orthodoxy in her liturgical texts and patristic writings.

[ii] This is called the Second Book of Samuel in the western Church use.

[iii] Perhaps at another time we will be able to explore how sin moves more and more freely the more we sin

[iv] I don’t know if this is true for other priests or not, but part of my prayer in hearing Confessions was that  the words that I would speak to the penitent at Confession would  only be the words of Christ’s forgiveness, but also the prophetic words of the Spirit that could somehow directly open the person’s life to His work through spiritual insight and spiritual therapy through actions.  Only penitents could tell you whether or how that prayer was answered.

How do we use Psalm 50 as Orthodox Christians?

#2 in a Series of Reflections on Psalm 50 during Great Lent

For those of us who are Orthodox Christians, Psalm 50 is not unknown to us.  How do we know it?  Because it’s everywhere!

The Church places an emphasis on certain prayers by prescribing that we pray them frequently. Examples include of course, the ‘Our Father’, ‘The Prayer to the Holy Trinity’ (Trisagion -Holy God, Holy Mighty…etc.) and hymns to Mary such as the hymn ‘It is right in truth to glorify You, the Birthgiver of God…‘  These repetitions are not just the ‘multiplying of words’ that Jesus warned about, but a way of increasing a kind of spiritual clarity and intensity by their repetition.  So when I say that Psalm 50 is like that, here are a few examples of places in our common Orthodox prayers where Psalm 50 shows up:

Morning Prayers – The traditional longer forms of the Morning Prayers include Psalm 50 as a way of ‘level-setting’ our day in seeking God’s mercy and avoiding sin.

Formal Liturgical Services – It is found explicitly in the middle of Matins and almost all the time, except during the Resurrection Matins at Pascha, which is not penitential but fully celebratory.  It is also found in Great Compline and the Midnight Office when these are prayed especially in monasteries.  As mentioned before, it is prayed quietly by the priest whenever he incenses at the Divine Liturgy and at the Cherubic Hymn.

Sacraments of Penance – In preparation for the Sacrament and as with other penitential prayers it forms a basis of a holistic understanding of the call to repent of our sins and our internal  penitential spirit in acknowledgement of those sins. The psalm helps us take our external offenses and internalize them.

Other Prayers and Spiritual Images: There are many penitential prayers in the Church, and most of them include language from Psalm 50 somewhere.  So even the verse that we pray during the first week of Lent when we recite the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, we say ‘Have mercy on me O God, have mercy on me.’  This is the first verse of Psalm 50, repeated.  The prayer ‘Kyrie eleison – Lord have mercy.’ is repeated on the lips of Orthodox Christians constantly.  These are the words of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!”  spoken perhaps thousands of times a day quietly in the heart by Orthodox Christians. The spiritual ‘air’ of Orthodoxy is permeated with the penitential and humble spirit of Psalm 50. 

The Internal and external sin.

A disease can exist inside of a person’s body, but be invisible to others, or even unknown to the patient him/hereself. Similarly, when we sin it is not always external or known to others.  But all sin is always internal – sin is a matter of the state of our hearts.  Just like denial of a disease, we may choose to ignore our symptoms especially if they are not externally obvious to others. We will even hide our symptoms from a doctor sometimes, saying, ‘It’s not that bad.’

When we sin we may tend to view it just in these external terms – what we did wrong or against another.  Today many never even say ‘I did this wrong, or this evil – but more often skirt the issue saying, ‘made a mistake’. Sin is a mistake – a big mistake – but more than a mistake.  When we speak this way there is no internal sensitivity or awareness of sin or its toxic effects and in fact it is easy to cast our sin as caused by others.  However, our recitation of Psalm 50 for us is meant to be intensely personal – just as personal as each of our sins.

Because Psalm 50 arose from a specific event – David’s double sin with Bathsheba followed by the hideous murder of her husband, Uriah  – it prompts a review.  So our next step will be to explore this Psalm by seeking a  better understand of its context in the Bible narrative.

During this holy Lenten season, let’s pray for one another, that we will recognize our sins, and pray to God for forgiveness and in His mercy will be heard. +

Lenten Series: Reflections on Psalm 50

March 2021

I’ve always felt that the evening services of Great Lent provided a special Moment to probe the truths of our Faith and to engage in our Faith in that distinctive way that Great Lent makes possible. There are many templates for bible studies and liturgical texts for this time, starting with the readings of Genesis, Proverbs, Isaiah, the Psalmody, etc. that are part of the fabric of our services, and over the years of parish priestly service I would often offer a few thoughts on these during the weekly liturgical services. In 2019, I endeavored to preach a series on Psalm 50.  I say endeavored because I discovered it a daunting task to try to probe the meaning of greatest of penitential psalms, which reveal the mind and heart of the Holy Prophet David, and upon which so much of the Orthodox spirit of penance and worship is established.  Failing to try, however, would be to leave unopened the treasure chest of spiritual depth that Psalm 50 opens to us. 

I was asked, at one point, about several of the talks I had done that year, so I looked for my outlines.  Finding some of them I thought I would approach the topic again, in written form this time. While there are occasional references to other Scriptures and the quotations from the Holy Fathers, my perspective on this is how the text resonates so profoundly to basic human experience, so that was the reflective stance that I used in my consideration of the subject.

My experience of encountering this psalm is remembered somewhat vividly.  I was an older child, sitting in church (I was Greek Catholic at the time), reading my prayer book.  This was the prayer book with the red edging suitable for the older kids – and even adults – not the simpler ‘First Communion’ Prayer Book.  I seem to recall reading it during the Liturgy, which was going on in Old Slavonic, so I had time on my hands since I didn’t understand Old Slavonic!  As part of the Morning Prayers as compiled in the prayer book, even as a child, I remember it being something unusual and special.  I read it many times and some of the phrases over the years became embedded in memory– which became a problem when I later had to memorize Psalm 50[i] as a  deacon and the version I needed to learn was a different translation.  I stumble over the translations to this day – the old one keeps popping up in my head messing things up!

It’s been six decades since I first encountered the psalm, and it remains something special. Rarely, if I read it slowly, does it fail to deliver some striking truth about myself, about God, and the possibilities of a restored relationship between us. It thoroughly reminds me that I am a sinner, and I go to it especially when, like David, I can admit in all honesty, “Against you only have I sinned.” As such, it can be a grounding ‘home base’ for one’s spiritual life.

 I hope and pray that this Psalm speaks to you as it has to me, since childhood, in a manner that illumines your relationship with God and His total mercy and forgiveness as first discovered, and exclaimed by the Prophet David who ‘Have mercy on me O God!”


[i] The Orthodox Church (as did the old Douay Reims Bible) used the Septuagint numbering of the psalms. But many of today’s bibles based on the Hebrew text number this as Psalm 51.  However, I’ll use the Church’s traditional numbering. I will not be doing much in-depth exegesis of Hebrew nor Greek texts as such although this can open new vistas of understanding of any biblical text. Rather I’ll rely more on secondary sources, especially the Church’s liturgical texts founded on patristic thought.