Ash Wednesday March 5, 2014 Psalm 51
Rev. Catherine Purves
Psalms are kind of like poems, poetic prayers or hymns. I read at least two Psalms every day as part of my morning prayers. I read them, and I try to be attentive to what I’m reading, but sometimes, I hate to confess, they don’t stick. Afterwards I can’t even remember what I’ve read. They are words without a context, abstract phrases describing hopes or fears, regrets or thanksgivings. I read them and I try to feel them, but they seldom change me. Even this Psalm, Psalm 51, the quintessential Psalm of penitence that gives voice to our deepest need for transformation and forgiveness, even this Psalm sounds somehow abstract to me. That is, until you know the story behind the Psalm.
Psalms often come with stage directions for the one who will be using the Psalm in worship. They appear right above the first verse. Sometimes these hints and helps just say, “A Psalm of David” and sometimes they suggest when it should be used or how it should be accompanied. Before Psalms 55, 61, 76 and several others we are told that they are to be sung with stringed instruments. Some of these directions to the worship leader are quite obscure and we don’t know what they mean. But occasionally, one of these little Psalm notes actually tells us something that gives the Psalm a context and a purpose. The note for Psalm 51 reads, “To the leader: A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”
Now we have a story and a reason for the Psalm. Now we have a context so that we can understand the deep guilt, the immensity of the sin, and the desire for forgiveness. We know why David needed to be cleansed, why he longed for a new heart and spirit, for a fresh start. David was begging for deliverance from the consequences of his past deeds and for the gift of a restored relationship with God. When we know the story, we see why David’s life was in ashes and why he was longing to be made pure and white as snow.
The story of David and Bathsheba is a story of great sin, we might think unforgivable sin. David saw Bathsheba bathing when he was walking on the roof of his house, and he coveted her. Since he was the king, he simply sent for her, and he slept with her, and she became pregnant. Then David tried to cover his sin. He brought Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, back from the battlefield in hopes that he would sleep with his wife, providing an explanation for the child she carried. But Uriah did not go down to his house when he was in Jerusalem, not even when David got him drunk and told him to go.
Plan B was even more sinful. David sent word to his commander, Joab, to put Uriah at the forefront of the battle so that he would be killed. He even had Uriah deliver the letter. Joab obeyed his king and Uriah was sent into the thick of the battle where he died. David was pleased that his plan had worked. After Bathsheba completed her time of mourning for her husband, David sent for her again and made her his wife, and she bore him a son.
Nathan the prophet was sent by God to David to confront him with his sin. Nathan told David a story about a poor man who had just one lamb that he loved. A rich man who had many flocks and herds was preparing a banquet for a visitor, and he didn’t want to give up one of his own lambs, so he took the poor man’s lamb and had it slaughtered. David was incensed by this story and the great injustice that was done to the poor man. “As the Lord lives,” David said, “the man who has done this deserves to die.” Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”
That moment was when David’s life turned to ashes. He recognized the depths of his own depravity, the terrible consequences of his sin. This is why he wrote Psalm 51. Now we can understand the desperate passion of this prayer and why David wanted his sins blotted out, how he felt his bones crushed by God’s righteous judgment. He needed to be washed, purged, cleansed. But, in spite of the horror of his sinfulness, he still turned to God hoping that the ashes of his life could become whiter than snow. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”
There were still more consequences to David’s sin. The child that Bathsheba bore him was struck down with a grave illness. David prayed and fasted for his son, but on the seventh day the child died. It is such a story of sin and tragedy. How could anyone come back from that? How could anything good follow after that? How can ashes become snow? How can life follow death? The Bible tells us that David went in to console his wife, Bathsheba. He slept with her and again she became pregnant and bore him another son. And that son was Solomon, the future king, beloved by God, the builder of the Temple, and the son of Bathsheba.
On this day of ashes, this day of repentance, the first day of the penitential season of Lent, we are thus reminded that God can turn ashes into snow. God can cleanse the deepest, darkest sin. God can give you a clean heart and a new and right spirit. God can create a future for you. If God can forgive David and his terrible sin with Bathsheba, how much more will he be able and willing to forgive you?
But that forgiveness that is offered must be received with repentance. We must wear the ashes and recognize our sin. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit,” David wrote, “a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” The ashes are a sign of our sin and of our repentance. We join David in praying Psalm 51. Reaching out to God from the ashes of our lives, the sins and the mistakes, the regrets and the failures, we too can pray in hope, “Purge me…, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”