Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏩ ⏹️
A detail from Narcissus 1598-1599, by Caravaggio. Oil on Canvas; 43.3 inches by 36.2 inches. National Gallery of Ancient Art, Rome. (Public Domain)
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
— Psalms 51:1
This psalm is supposed to have been composed by David as a confession to God after he sinned with Bathsheba.1. It is an exercise in contrition, shame-filled and deeply self-centered. This is the darker side of David. Not once throughout does David speak of the ones he wronged, Uriah and Bathsheba, nor seek a way to make amends for his wrongdoing. Instead he focuses only on himself and his relationship with God, begging forgiveness and offering sacrifice. With the words blot out my transgressions he is essentially asking God to forget his sin, wipe the slate clean. This is not taking responsibility, at all. This is David worming his way out of trouble and back into God's favour with not a thought for those he has wronged.
Christians hold this psalm up as a perfect example of begging for God's forgiveness. The Catholic church would like all its members to behave with such contriteness, no doubt many other denominations too. Charles Spurgeon says Psalm 51 is called "The Sinner's Guide", as it shows the sinner how to return to God's grace.2 It doesn't though. It shows us how to return to our own grace, so justify ourselves to ourselves. One small act of love towards those we have wronged, one attempt to make amends, to change our behaviour would outshine all this self-indulgent pleading, and bring us closer to God. I find this the saddest psalm, perhaps the primary text that has guided the post-Constantine church down the path of fear, shame and self-loathing. We can do better than this. Certainly, we deserve better.