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Have Mercy on Me

To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! Psalm 51.1-2.

The story to which the title of this psalm makes reference is told in 2 Samuel 11 and 12. Bathsheba is the beautiful wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of David’s soldiers who is away at war. From his palace roof, David sees this woman bathing and lusts after her; so he has her brought to him and has sex with her. When she falls pregnant, however, David has a problem: his adulterous act will be exposed. So, to try and cover up what he has done, David has Uriah brought back home on leave in the belief that he will make love to his wife and will then assume that the child is his own. But it doesn’t work — Uriah refuses to go home to his wife while his companions are still on the battlefield — so David sinks further into sin. He adds murder to his adultery by having Uriah positioned in the battle line where he will be killed, and then he takes Bathsheba as his wife. He thinks he has got away with it all, until Nathan the prophet turns up and forces David to see what he has done through God’s eyes. And this psalm is David’s response.

He begins, as he must, with a plea that God will “have mercy” on him. The Hebrew verb chanan (from which come the feminine names Hannah, Anna, Ann etc and the masculine John) is the verb describing the showing of pity in circumstances where there is not the slightest basis for gracious treatment. But, even though David knows that he has no grounds on which he might claim any favour from God, he does ask for this mercy to be shown him according to God’s chesed which is translated here as his “steadfast love”. Chesed, however, is very much a covenant word. It is the special, unending, limitless, unfailing love that God has for his chosen people (Exodus 34.6-7). So even though David knows that he has no basis on which to claim any favours from God, he knows too that he belongs to God and that there is, therefore, a special love for him out of which the mercy he seeks can flow. It is exactly what happens when, in the story Jesus told, the prodigal son comes home saying “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15.21). Again, there is no basis on which mercy can be claimed but there is knowledge of that belonging-love out of which the mercy sought can flow.

But now David uses a third term, racham. This is an emotional term. It describes a visceral type of longing and yearning that we encounter in the New Testament in the expression “moved with compassion.” What David is asking for is, in effect, that God will feel for him as the father in the story of the prodigal son felt for his boy as he made his wretched way back from the far country and its pigsties. The Hebrew racham and the Greek splagchnizomai are closely akin to each other.

And if God is moved with compassion for David, what does David want him to do? To “blot out” his transgressions. As an articled clerk in the late 1950s, training to be a chartered accountant, I had, in my first weeks, the task of checking additions in the purchase and sales journals of a large textile mill. The journals were huge leather-bound books with heavy marbled-edged pages full of beautiful handwritten entries; and if I found a mistake, I was absolutely forbidden to cross-out and correct what was there. I carried a nibbed-pen and a small bottle of bleach and I was instructed to go over the wrong entry in bleach and then, when it had vanished and the paper was dry, to write in the correct figure. The book-keeper’s “transgressions” were to be simply “blotted out” so that they could be “seen no more.”

“Do that with my transgressions,” says David. “And wash me thoroughly from my iniquity.” Kabas is a word from the laundry. It describes the process of getting rid of the filth from a garment by stamping it underfoot in a stream or a washtub. David wants what hardly seems possible. He wants it to be with God as if he had never committed adultery with Bathsheba and never murdered her husband. He want to be clean of it all.

And that is possible. David knows that it is — though he doesn’t know how; for he cannot, of course, see Jesus on the cross of Calvary a thousand years into the future. He cannot see the blotting-out blood that will be shed there and that will flow backwards in time to him, just as it flows forward in time to me today. For, yes, I too can and must join in David’s prayer this morning and I must make it my very own.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! Amen

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