Have Mercy on Me, O God

“Have Mercy on Me, O God”
Psalm 51:1-17
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Ash Wednesday
It is helpful, first, to realize the background of this psalm…
The story begins innocently enough: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to battle…” (2 Samuel 11:1). But this time the king is staying home. The onetime sling-shotting, swashbuckling, songwriting soldier is sitting this one out.
And then late one afternoon it happens. The old warrior is bored with the soaps and talk shows and takes a stroll out onto the veranda. But wait a minute! He notices a woman; a “very beautiful woman” says the Hebrew text; taking a dip in the pool next door.
Then the former man of action goes into action. A couple of calls gives him the woman’s name and reveals that her husband is away with the army. The king sends for Bathsheba and she comes to the palace. They have a few gin and tonics. They make love. Then she goes home, and that’s that.
A few months later, there’s a message for the king. David opens the envelope and reads it. Two words in Hebrew: harah anoki. “I’m pregnant. Bathsheba” Again, the king acts. To account for the pregnancy he brings her husband back from the front. “Go home and sleep with your lovely wife,” he says to him, slipping the soldier a bottle from the royal wine cellar. But Uriah refuses the offer and instead sleeps with the servants out on the lovely lawn.
The plot thickens and the story sickens. The king orders General Joab to put Uriah where the fighting is heaviest. Word comes that Uriah has been killed in action. The king does the magnanimous thing – He marries the broken-hearted war widow.
End of the story? Not quite. One day the prophet Nathan shows up at the palace. He tells the king about a rich man who has stolen a poor man’s only lamb and slaughtered it for dinner. The king is enraged. “What? Who is this guy? Tell me, and we’ll royally nail him!”
“You’re the guy!” says Nathan. David is devastated. And this psalm, says our heading, is the sort of prayer that fits such a situation. When there’s big time trouble, you call in Psalm 51.
(James Limburg, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, Luther Seminary)
Let us pray…
Lord, we come into this season of psalms to hear your Word and learn from you.
Bless us as we listen for you.
In Jesus’ name…Amen


Psalm 51 is the prayer of a man in great distress at the realization of his personal sin…
It is also a prayer we can call upon at times when we feel separated from God
because of sin…
After all, that IS what sin is – separating ourselves from God by the choices we make and the things we do.
The focus of this psalm is obviously on repentance…
The psalmist acknowledges his sin;
He asks God for forgiveness;
He accepts whatever consequences God may send his way;
He asks God’s help to make him a better person and keep him from sinning again in the future.
This is a familiar pattern for us as we frequently offer our own prayers of confession in worship.
There are a couple things about this psalm, however, that I think offer us new insight into this part of our relationship with God…
When we come to God in confession we must acknowledge our guilt and
feel remorse for our action…
God’s response to true confession is both cleansing and transforming.
All sin, no matter how seemingly minor it may be, is sin against God…
There is no such thing as a sin that does not touch God in some way…
The choices we make that lead us down the wrong path…
The things we do that do not fit within God’s will for our lives…
A little white lie; an inappropriate email; or an unkind remark – all these things hurt God because they hurt God’s people.
All sin, then, calls for us to recognize and acknowledge our shortcomings…
And all sin challenges us to actually be sorry that we did the wrong thing, said the hurtful words, had the horrible thought, or took that stamp from the office.
This part of our relationship with God is about looking at our entire lives as belonging to God…
Every choice we make, every action and reaction, should be evaluated based on what we believe God would want us to do.
This reality check will help us know when to go to God in confession and how to approach God in humility and love.
The other side of this relationship is God’s side…
It is important that we understand this word “mercy” that the psalmist seeks…
The Hebrew word that is translated “mercy” here comes from the root word for “womb”
In other words, there is a clearly feminine, maternal image at the root of “mercy”
God’s mercy…God’s love for us is like the love of a woman for the child she carries in her womb…
It is strong, protective, connected, and nourishing…
This is an image of God’s mercy wrapping around us, caring for us, and keeping us from harm….
This is an inclusive image that lets us know how much we are loved and how God is ready to embrace us – even in our sinfulness – and surround us with nurturing forgiveness.
We may come to God with a spirit broken by our sin and our regret, but God responds with a new beginning, a fresh start, a new clean spirit, born in the womb of God’s infinitely merciful grace and love for us.
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy.”
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”
We come to God and God responds…
Then let us give God all the glory:
“O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…Amen
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