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.

Author: Fr Robert Holet - UOC of USA Office of Stewardship

A semi-retired Priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA.

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