#13 of a Series on Psalm 50
“ For behold, You have loved truth, and your uncertain and hidden things you have made manifest to me.
We’ve taken a pause from this writing after the conclusion of the 2021 Lenten season and during the celebratory season of Holy Pascha, and an abbreviated Apostles’ Fast. As we now approach the Dormition Fast in the Orthodox Church we, as a Church turn once again to a more penitent posture, in preparation for and anticipation of the joyful celebration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos.[i] So it’s timely again to pick up this verse-by-verse reflection on the Psalm 50 (51), the great penitential psalm of David. We don’t stop praying Psalm 50 during those celebratory seasons like Pascha, but the penitential spirit as exemplified by the psalm is less of a focus. As the Lord told his disciples, they are not to fast[ii] while the Bridegroom is present, but when He is gone, they will fast (Mk. 2:19). In fact, the fasting seasons in the Orthodox Church are special times of penance and Psalm 50 can be a strong witness of that spirit to us.
If the previous verse was mysterious, today’s is strangely celebratory. In this part of the Psalm there is an amazing shift really – of focus and tone. The penitent David turns his attention away from Himself, his failings, his weakness, and the origins of his sin. Here we see the fruit of faith flowering, blooming and producing fruit. Here we see grace at work in the depths of the soul.
Sometimes when I read the Christmas narratives of the Nativity of Christ in the gospels, I’m struck by the language of the text and its use of the word, ‘Behold’ (in Greek ἴδε). This is one of those great high-sounding ‘biblical’ words that, is spoken not by men, but by angels. It is a strong imperative – to ‘wake up and see’. Akin is the idea of ‘stop what you’re doing and look at this!’ That which is to be beheld is too awesome to miss! Something is breaking through in time and space in a way that is outside of the realm of this world.
The entirety of the revelation of the New Testament is a Behold moment in human history. The Gospel is compelling (imperative) because the followers of Jesus have experienced something that simply cannot be passed by or ignored. From the first ‘Behold moments’ in the Nativity narratives to the shepherds and Magi – ‘Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy…’ – to the presentation of the scourged Christ by Pilate ‘ Behold the man’, to the climactic proclamation ‘He is not here, He is risen’… Behold He goes forth to meet you in Galilee’ and Matthew’s soaring words on the apostles’ encounter with the Lord, ‘Behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail!…and they worshipped Him.’ Mt, 28:6) In the same spirit, St. John wrangles our attention when he reports the Lord’s words in Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” In fact the entirety of Revelation is about ‘Beholding’ the cosmic divine encounter of Christ and our world.
So, I would posit that what follows from here on in the psalm is nothing less than revelatory, and invisible to the human ‘eye’ of the heart, unless and until illumined by grace. When we are mired in sin we see nothing of God’s goodness and will vehemently judge the entirety of our life, everyone else’s life, and the whole world as utterly depraved. But when David says, ‘Behold I was conceived in iniquity’ AND ‘Behold, You have loved Truth and your uncertain and hidden things you have made manifest to me’ we see God lifting David out of his blindness by imparting spiritual insight to his heart, which began when he saw and acknowledged himself as darkened by his sins.
Before we move on, I want to simply report what everybody knows here – that you cannot convince anyone of their sins as such. You can present evidence but our human self-protection (denial) mechanisms can be impregnable. This is why horrific world atrocities (like the Holocaust or the Holodomor or Khmer Rouge famines) can unfold in a desensitized global consciousness even in the presence of undisputable facts.[iii] But it’s much closer to home when we’ve never allowed the sting of sin to penetrate the soul in such a way that it cracks and the light of a ‘Behold’ moment of grace touches it. Until then the deceptions rule, marriages crumble, people hate and waste away in the impregnable hell of denial.
But with repentance comes the second ‘Beholding’– the grounding of life in Truth.
The Good News
God is the God of Truth and truths. Jesus said, ‘I am the Truth’ (Jn. 14:6) – meaning this is His identity in His divine nature. In God’s truth there is no mistaking, misinterpreting, fudging, covering over, diluting, or misdirecting. When God speaks we must behold – sit up, listen, obey. This Truth, as explained by David however, is interactive. For God’s love for Truth (His Son) by revelation becomes a sharing of the truth with His created world and His most blessed creatures, humankind. This leads to a manifestation of the Truth to the world – “For God so loved the world, that He sent His only-begotten Son (Truth) “ that we hear in John 3:16, “that for all who believe in Him should not perish, but have eternal life…” This is why Part B of salvation history in Christ is the sending of the Holy Spirit, the formation of the Church and the apostolic mission in the world to bring forth the Truth. All who repent will eventually long for the salvation of the world in their souls. The prayer of the Church (us) is for the ‘peace from above and the salvation of souls’ as our savior desires that, “All be saved and come to the knowledge of Truth.” (1Tim. 2)
David was first and foremost a believer. He placed His trust in the Living God, revealed to Him through the Old Covenant which he received as his spiritual inheritance, taught by his family and lived in the Hebraic community. David received that faith interiorly as well, and engaged in a way of prayerful interaction with God. In this way, his life was grounded in Truth. Until he sinned.
When It’s All a Lie
In every case, sin is the result of a lie which has been heard, interiorized and acted upon. From Genesis 3 onward, the pattern is so well known and repeatable – a temptation of the Devil, based on a lie, triggers within the soul a desire for something intemperate and outside of God’s good, life-giving will for us. When we act upon that (like David acting upon his lustful urge) we can’t bear the truth of our fallenness, so more lies are engendered. Life becomes a Lie. Lies are tolerated because they reinforce a narrative we want to hear. Sorry, but “I’m OK, You’re Ok” is a lie.
Behold, You have Loved Truth
But David has had a Behold Moment, and it is undeniable. It’s a bridge of Truth that leads to God. It is narrow but walkable and David sees God’s love for Truth and that love comes to dwell in his heart. He can’t stand to have anything else. Love of Truth truly is ‘bullet-proof’. This is what empowered the Christian martyrs of every age to endure all manner of suffering. Suffering and death to self are the gateway to Truth about God, and the Truth Who is God. When people acquire this Truth it is the ‘Pearl of Great Price’ and nothing will keep them from it. No longer are the lies of the Evil One to be tolerated but they must be purged from the heart through the tears of penance. This then shows us why St. Mark’s Gospel, announcing the Christian way, begins with the word Repent. That can be lived, only when the God of Truth is directing one’s life. Otherwise even our ‘penance’ is self-willed and self-directed and goes only as far as our Self.
The Gospel as a Mystery Revealed
We can see here not only what David saw, but what was previewed prophetically to him, in the fulfillment of the manifestation of the Truth in the Messiah, Jesus Christ. In the Christian Church, the path of ‘Beholding’ is called illumination, and in the ancient Church, the process of initiation into the life of Christ through Baptism was called the Mystery of Illumination. Preceded by a process of deep, personal penance (like David), the immersion of the person into the waters of Baptism was their ‘Behold’ moment of salvation and the beginning movement from darkness to light. Born again in the baptismal waters of grace, this was the Mystery, hidden before the ages, revealed now on earth in the Person of Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Note that the Orthodox Church prefers the term ‘Mystery’ regarding what are called in the West, ‘sacraments.’ There is always preserved the notion that the fundamental essence of the Mystery cannot be humanly understood. However, through Christian maturity (in the East, called theosis[iv]), that which is seen in some way is understood in the heart and reflected in the whole of human life. It is revealed as love, because God is love. David’s path is one of the discovery of divine love as a Mystery, overcoming sin within his heart, by aiding him through repentance. Behold, even the uncertain and hidden things beyond human knowledge are made manifest to those who have been illumined through the Mystery of God’s grace wrought through repentance.
David’s tears[v] have been a type of Baptism, which has led to his awareness of God and Truth. His life is now able to bear fruit once again as He has not only been washed of his sin, but illumined by the Truth of the Lord. David says that God has loved Truth – but that also means that God has loved us, because His Truth abides in us.[vi] While God’s love for us does not end when we sin, we face His judgment because the Truth cannot be found in our midst. (Is. 59:15) Ω
[i] Mary is called ‘Theotokos’ or God-bearer in the Christian East. Her Dormition was her falling asleep in this life (death) which was a miraculous event reported in Church tradition and celebrated on August 15/28 (Gregorian calendar/Julian calendar)
[ii] The Orthodox Church follows the seasons marked by Pascha and Pentecost, with two short fasting periods – the first running from the Sunday of All Saints (First Sunday After Pentecost) until the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul (Gregorian caledar – June 29). The Dormition Fast anticipates the Feast of the Dormition running from August 1-14th.The whole relationship of fasting to penance is important, but adjunct to the discussion here.
[iii] The Devil, as the Father of Lies, always obscures facts – either by hiding them, revealing only half of the truth, excusing them, etc. This happens in both the individual and societal conscience.
[iv] Meaning becoming ‘God-like’. This is the fulfillment of our creation in the likeness of God wrought by our participation with His grace – divine energies.
[v] Hopefully, there will be an opportunity to address at some point the ‘Gift of Tears’, which is a grace afforded to those who repent deeply, as this is described in the Church’s spiritual tradition, particularly in the writings of the monastic fathers and mothers.
[vi] The interplay of truth, love, grace, sin and judgment is profoundly explored in St. John’s Gospel, epistles and Revelation.