Psalm 51 (50) Miserere: A Plea for Purification from Sin and a Heart Made Unclean

Miserere: A Plea for Purification from Sin and a Heart Made Unclean

“Lord, Open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise.”[1]


Structure and Purpose of the Psalm 51


[David said] “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this shall surely die!  And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb, because he did this thing and because he had no pity.” Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man!’”[2] We must recognize in ourselves the times we have failed, and repent, for we have a Father in heaven who longs to shower us with His mercy, if we will but come to Him with a broken spirit and a contrite heart. The title given this psalm, Miserere: A plea for purification from sin and a heart made unclean, shows it to be penitential. In fact, it is, traditionally, the greatest of the seven penitential psalms.


“Have mercy upon me, O God, According to Your loving kindness; According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, Blot out my transgressions.”[3] The psalm begins by asking God to take away the psalmist’s sins, acknowledging himself as a sinner. “For I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me.”[4] The freeing from sin asked for seems to follow a purification rite: “Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed: thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow.”[5]


But, like the sacraments, the rite is an outward sign of an inward grace. This grace, the merciful forgiveness of God, is expounded upon in verses 10-17, for example, “Turn away thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create a clean heart in me, O God: and renew a right spirit within my bowels. Cast me not away from thy face; and take not thy holy spirit from me.”[6] Once he has received a clean heart from the Lord, he will, filled with the grace of the Spirit of God, spread the good news of God’s mercy, and “will teach the unjust thy ways: and the wicked shall be converted to thee… my tongue shall extol thy justice.”[7]


The third part of the Psalm is a short conclusion; a prayer for Jerusalem. “Deal favourably, O Lord, in thy good will with Sion; that the walls of Jerusalem may be built up.”[8] This may be a sign that the psalm is post-exilic, but certainly has a personally and communally spiritual meaning as well.


Psalm 51 in the NT


If we had chosen Psalm 110, this entire essay could be devoted to the quotations to be found in the New Testament. However, even if the New Testament authors do not directly quote from Psalm 51, they do allude to its themes and ideas quite often.


In the parable of the prodigal son, after having wandered away from his father and having lost his inheritance, the son repents, saying “I will arise, and will go to my father, and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee.”[9] The psalmist did likewise, knowing that, though he has sinned against God and God alone, his father is merciful. Certainly, his father is “justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment.”[10] But he rejoices in the return of the sinner. “When he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion”[11] on him. This represents the Father in Heaven, to which David says “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy.”[12]


In chapter 9 of John’s Gospel, Jesus encounters a man blind from birth. When the man, cured of his blindness (always an allusion to being released from the darkness of sin) answered the questions of the Pharisees by saying “Unless this man were of God, he could not do anything,”[13] The Pharisees “answered, and said to him: Thou wast wholly born in sins, and dost thou teach us?”[14] This closely mirrors the understanding of the Jews of what we call original sin, espoused by David in the psalm when he said “behold I was conceived in iniquities; and in sins did my mother conceive me.”[15] Several of St. Paul’s epistles directly elucidate this doctrine as well.[16]


When Christ prays for Peter “But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren,”[17] before His passion, we may see a correlation to the psalmist’s words. For David had prayed, “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and strengthen me with a perfect spirit. I will teach the unjust thy ways: and the wicked shall be converted to thee.”[18] We know that Peter fails and denies his Master on the night of His passion. But, restored through the grace and mercy of the Lord, Peter remains the rock to which Jesus can say “feed my sheep, shepherd my lambs”[19] Like the psalmist who will tech transgressors thy ways, Peter and his brethren are, now restored in grace,  fishers of men.


Psalm 51 and Augustine


Speaking to baptized adult Christians, Augustine begins “For today how many brethren of ours we think of, and deplore their going unto vanities and lying insanities, to the neglect of that to which they have been called.”[20] This is all too common today, and in every century. Those who are nominal in their faith are many. Often, in the history of the Church, people have thought of the priests and religious as those called to holiness. But we know that all are called to one and the same holiness. “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect” [21] was spoken to all who would follow Christ.


I have often heard it said that “I would sin like David, if I could repent like David.” However, do we not sin worse than David, since we live under the law of Christ, with all the graces available to us now in the Church and the Sacraments? Nevertheless, when we fall, we have a great model of repentance. “What men should beware of, we have said; but what if they shall have fallen they should imitate, let us hear. For many men will to fall with David, and will not to rise with David…For this it was set forth, for this was written, for this in the Church often read and chanted: let them hear that have not fallen, lest they fall; let them hear that have fallen, that they may rise.”[22]


Augustine warns those who see that even so holy a man as David could sin in such a way, this should never lead them to permit themselves to sin. “David had set forth to himself none for a precedent as you have: he had fallen by lapse of concupiscence, not by the countenance of holiness: thou dost set before your eyes as it were a holy man, in order that you may sin: thou dost not copy his holiness, but dost copy his fall.”[23] Although this may seem something so obvious, man’s heart is such that it always looks to excuse itself.


Augustine goes on to speak of the true cause of sin, and the only thing that is to blame in the end. It is why, as the psalm will later declare, we must ask God to put in us a clean heart. “For from afar David saw her with whom he was captivated. Woman afar, lust near. What he saw was elsewhere, in himself that whereby he fell.”[24] We are reminded here of our Lord’s words, that “Do you not understand, that whatsoever entereth into the mouth, goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the privy? But the things which proceed out of the mouth, come forth from the heart, and those things defile a man.”[25] True, because we were born in sin (in sin my mother conceived me) we easily fall to outside influence, but as free creatures, it is from within that we fall.


An especial danger is that of the sinner, already ut of the state of grace, who thinks to himself “I have failed, why even bother?” Augustine comments “Sin with despair is certain death. Let no one therefore say, If already any evil thing I have done, already I am to be condemned: God pardons not such evil things, why add I not sins to sins?”[26] We need not despair, for all have sinned. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all iniquity.”[27]


We know that we have an advocate with the Father, the Holy Spirit. He prays with us, bringing our prayers to the Father. When we pray in words inspired by Him, we cannot go astray. This penitential psalm is a blessing for us, for “Whoever you are that hast sinned, and hesitatest to exercise penitence for your sin, despairing of your salvation, hear David groaning…David himself has been sent to you. Hear him crying, and with him cry: hear him groaning, and with him groan; hear him weeping, and mingle tears; hear him amended, and with him rejoice.”[28] This is a psalm of repentance for us all, and David’s words are words we all can speak from our own hearts.


Psalm 51 and John Fisher


St. John Fisher was not shy to lay before the faithful the horror of sin. “Within us is the most stinking abomination of our sin, by which the image of the almighty God in us is very foully deformed and we are made his enemies indeed.”[29] We have sinned against God, who made us for no other reason than pure love. And we have rejected rather than returned this love in each of our sins.


Our situation, therefore, is one that should frighten us, should we ponder its reality. “If now, under me, there were such a very deep pit…and nothing held me and kept me up but a broken bucket…hanging by a small cord…secured and held up only by the hands of one I had behaved to as an enemy and adversary…would you not think me in a perilous situation?” [30] St. John Fisher believes this is a lucky situation compared to that in which the sinner who rejects God finds himself.


“Therefore, what shall we wretched sinners do?”[31]However, Fisher also expounds the love and mercy of God. Thankfully, it is God who is holding that cord. Anyone else would have let go. God, instead, sent His only begotten Son to redeem man. In psalm 51, we find the confidence, which is hope without presumption,[32] to ask God for His mercy.


God’s mercy is a cleansing of our soul, and the putting of a new heart within us. “Our soul can be compared to a tablet on which nothing was written. Nevertheless, with many misdeeds and spots of sin we have defiled and made it deformed in the sight of God. Therefore, it is necessary that it should be scraped, washed and wiped.”[33]The martyr then goes on at length to describe in detail his analogy of scraping, washing, and wiping.


An important topic in his commentary on this and other penitential psalms is that of the gift of tears. He is careful to be clear on what tears are cleansing, and what tears are rather defiling. “At times we weep, but it does not come from God. As when we suffer adversities against our will, our tears do not profit us at all but rather do us harm.”[34] We must remember that it is not suffering that cleans the soul, but love. It was not Christ’s great suffering itself that pleased the Father, but the love with which He did it. Our love, our repentance, is shown in tears of this kind, “caused by spiritual sorrow, as when we are sorrowful that we have so much displeased God.”[35]


Strongly demanding this inner repentance of the sinner, St. John Fisher in no ways neglects the truth of the need of the sacrament of penance and satisfaction. “[W]henever a sinner will turn away from his sin, truly confess himself of it, and make satisfaction, he will live and never die everlastingly.”[36] Fisher quotes this in the context of sacramental confession, and the need to submit oneself to the apostles, on whom Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit and said “Whoevers sins you forgive, they are forgiven them.”[37]


The commentator goes into great depth, speaking on this psalm, of the weakness of man and the mercy of God. God certainly recognizes the weakness of each person due to concupiscence and is mindful of the intentions, the will of the sinner to repentance.[38] He tells us to trust the Church, both in its teachings of what we shall do, and its judgments when we have failed.[39]


Certainly, the weight of sin upon the sinner is repeated throughout the sermons that make up this commentary. We need to know the filth that sin is, as an affront to God. “To thee only have I sinned”[40] But the joy of the sinner freed of sin is likewise declared. “None can express how joyful the sinner is when he knows and understands himself to be delivered from the great burden and heaviness of sin,”[41] as so many of us can attest to after leaving the confessional; a great weight seems to have been left behind.


Like the psalmist, we have laid our sins at the feet of Christ, and He “always lives to make intercession for us.”[42] And when we come before Christ, with “an afflicted spirit: a contrite and humbled heart,”[43] “What will he show? Everlasting peace to come upon his servants, upon those who are sorrowful and do penance for their sins.”[44]


Psalm 51 and the Liturgy


The whole Office regularly begins with an invitatory. This consists in the verse “Lord, Open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise” (Ps 51:15) and Psalm 95.[45] We see, then, that Psalm 51 holds a central place in the liturgical life of the Church.


Every Friday morning, on the day that we remember the Passion of Christ, Morning Prayer contains Psalm 51. “The Liturgy of the Hours makes us pray it at Lauds every Friday. For centuries the prayer has risen to heaven from the hearts of many faithful Jews and Christians as a sigh of repentance and hope poured out to a merciful God.”[46]


Psalm 51, although in no official or doctrinal manner, has often been given by a priest to a penitent as a penance after Confession. Personally, I have come across priests who, after hearing my confession, have given the penance of “say whatever prayers you believe will lead you closer to God.” Whether or not this is good confessional practice, Psalm 51 is certainly a good option here. To chant the beautiful Miserere before the crucifix can’t fail to bring one’s heart to a desire to serve God better and to likewise feel the presence of His great mercy.

At the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Asperges, so called from the words intoned at the beginning of the ceremony, where the congregation is sprinkled with holy water, Psalm 50 is often recited. “After intoning the antiphon the priest recites the psalm Miserere or Confitemini, according to the season, sprinkling first the front and platform of the altar, then himself, next the ministers and choir, and lastly the congregation.”[47] This historically was done to move the congregation to a spirit of penance, and the practice dates back to sometime around the 10th century. Certainly, the miserere is appropriate for personal prayer in preparation, then, before assisting at the Mass.


Concluding Thoughts


The greatest of the penitential psalms is a masterful prayer for those who are ready to follow the words of our Savior who’s first words in the Gospel of Mark were “The time is accomplished, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe the gospel.”[48] In the new heavens and new earth, where the kingdom is completely fulfilled, those who came to Christ with a contrite heart and a broken spirit will attain to eternal life, for “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”[49]


If we look at this as the new Jerusalem, we may see the fitting conclusion of the psalm, which begs “Deal favourably, O Lord, in thy good will with Sion; that the walls of Jerusalem may be built up.”[50] Speaking of these walls, St. John Fisher tells us that “[w]hoever orders himself in this way, that by his inward sorrow he can have a contrite heart, is able and fit for the high building in the heavenly city, whose walls are not yet finished. A great many stones are lacking for those walls to be built up and completed…But it is appropriate that no stone should be taken up into such a noble building without being prepared beforehand as it should be and made fit.”[51] We cannot do this on our own, but we may ask with great and confident hope: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy.”[52]


[1] Ps 50:15 (numbering of the psalms are taken from the Douay Rheims when it is quoted, even though the title of this essay is of Psalm 51. Scripture quotes are form the Douay-Rheims unless otherwise noted)

[2] 2 Sam 12:5b-7a

[3] Ps 50:3

[4] Ps 50:5

[5] Ps 50:9

[6] Ps 50:11-13

[7] Ps 50:15-16

[8] Ps 50:20

[9] Luke 15:18

[10] Ps 51:4b (RSV)

[11] Luke 15:20 (KJV)

[12] Ps 50:3

[13] John 9:33

[14] John 9:34

[15] Ps 50 7

[16] Cf Rom 5:12; 7:14;Eph 2:3

[17] Luke 22:32

[18] Ps 50:14-15

[19] Cf John 21:15-17

[20] Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms, Psalm 51

[21] Cf Matt 5:48

[22] Augustine, Ps 51

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

[25] Matthew 15:17-18

[26] Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms, Psalm 51

[27] 1 John 1:8-9

[28] Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms, Psalm 51

[29] John Fisher, Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms, 98

[30] Ibid, 96

[31] Ibid

[32] Cf. Ibid, 116-117

[33] Ibid, 102

[34] Ibid, 103

[35] Ibid

[36] Ibid, 108, quoting Ezek 18:29

[37] John 20:23

[38] Cf John Fisher, 109

[39] Ibid, 112

[40] Ps 50:6

[41] John Fisher, 114-115

[42] Heb 7:25

[43] Ps 50:19

[44] John Fisher, 115

[45] General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, 34

[46] John Paul II, General Audience, Wednesday 24 October 2001

[47] New Catholic Encyclopedia, Asperges

[48] Mark 1:15

[49] Matt 5:3

[50] Ps 50:20

[51] John Fisher, 136

[52] Ps 50:3


One Comment

  1. Posted June 26, 2014 at 22:21 | Permalink | Reply

    Awesome post.

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