Miserere mei, Deus (Have Mercy on Me, O God)
Most likely you have read, sang, or at least heard the words of Psalm 51, the Bible’s most well-known and beloved “penitential” psalm, in one form or another (you might enjoy the performance at the bottom of this post while reading). In many traditions, Psalm 51 is specially chosen for prayerful reflection during Holy Week and Lent (especially Ash Wednesday), but it can also be frequently heard in regular services throughout the year. For instance, do these verses sound familiar?
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. (Verses 1–2)
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit. (Verses 10–12)
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Verse 17)*
According to the title line that precedes the psalm, this prayer was composed by King David “when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” It might have as well said, “…after he committed adultery with Bathsheba, secretly ordered her husband’s death, and took her as his wife.” If you do not know the story well, take a few minutes and read it in 2 Samuel 11–12.
*I am quoting from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). Of course, there are small differences in wording among the various versions (KJV, NRSV, JPS, ESV, NIV, etc.), but I think they are close enough that you can hear your favorite version pulsing behind any of them if you are at all familiar with this psalm. Also, note that the passage in question is the 6th verse in some translations. And in Eastern Orthodox versions that follow the Septuagint, the psalm in question is the 50th psalm instead of the 51st.
Against you, you alone…?
Now, with the story of David and Bathsheba in mind, look at the first half of verse 4:
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight…
Taken by itself, this line is easy enough to understand. But how about when you read it as David’s prayer of repentance after the prophet Nathan confronted him? I will not rehearse that episode here. For the moment, it is enough to consider Nathan’s charge against David:
Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. (2 Samuel 12:9)
This was no simple affair between consenting adults. King David used his position of power to take another man’s wife for his sexual pleasure. And when he failed to cover it up, he essentially sentenced Uriah to death (and possibly other soldiers who died along with him).
King David’s Sin in Light of the Decalogue
To put it in simple, “biblical” terms, one might argue that King David broke the last six of the Ten Commandments, namely, all of the commandments that regulate human relationships. The obvious ones are these:
“You shall not covet . . . your neighbor’s wife.”
“You shall not commit adultery.”
“You shall not murder.”
But how about the others? Though he may not have broken the letter of the following commandments, it is not difficult to see how he violated ethical principles behind them.
“You shall not steal.”
Of course, David’s “theft” of another man’s wife is covered under the commandment against adultery. But the prophet himself characterized David’s crime as one of theft (2 Samuel 12:1–4, 7–9).
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
Though the original command may be primarily applicable in legal settings where people are taking oaths and testifying before elders or judges in order to settle lawsuits and the like, the spirit of the commandment prohibits deceitfulness and false reports that hurt one’s “neighbor.” If King David had been successful with his coverup, his deception would have led Uriah and nearly everyone around him — including David’s own child and future descendants — to believe that Uriah was the father of King David’s child. When that failed, King David’s secret ruse resulted in Uriah’s death; it threatened to undermine Joab’s reputation as a competent commander on the battlefield (see Joab’s concern in 2 Samuel 11:18–21); and it placed public blame for Uriah’s death on the Ammonites instead of King David himself, the real conspirator behind it.
“Honor your father and your mother.”
Even in highly individualistic societies, parents are shamed by the crimes of their children. How much more so in communitarian societies such as ancient Israel (for instance, consider the nature and significance of the “house of the father,” or bet ‘ab, as a social unit in ancient Israel)? As the prophet declares, David’s crimes would have lasting repercussions for his family, and very public ones at that (see 2 Samuel 12:10–12). Though David did not intentionally act to dishonor his father and mother, he brought shame to them and their extended family nonetheless.
Confessing Sin Against . . . Whom, Exactly?
Whatever one might conclude about David’s violation of certain commandments, the point is this: King David committed heinous crimes against his loyal servants, against his neighbors. In light of all this, then, how can a reader who views this psalm as King David’s own confession make sense of the statement in Psalm 51:4, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned”?
In fact, most Bible scholars today do not think that David was the actual author of this psalm. They are fairly certain that the psalm “titles” (or “superscriptions,” as scholars often call them) were added long, long after the psalms were composed and adopted for use in ancient Israel’s worship. But apart from a few notable exceptions, even scholars who think Psalm 51 was composed centuries after King David’s time still view the psalm as a prayer composed for the purpose of confessing personal and/or communal sins . . . including, if not especially, sins against other people.
So whatever you think about the psalm’s origins, this basic problem remains:
What does it mean for someone who has deeply hurt his or her neighbor to tell God, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned”?
How would you answer this question? Give it some thought. Then come back to see how commentators from ancient to modern times have answered it, and to consider what we might learn from (and about) their approaches to this confession of sin.