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14 March 2015

Herr, tue meine Lippen auf! (Judika / Lent 5)

Psalm 51

Many years ago in a large city in the far West, rumors spread that a certain Catholic woman was having visions of Jesus. The reports reached the archbishop. He decided to check out whether her visions were real.

“Is it true, ma’am, that you have visions of Jesus?” asked the cleric.

“Yes,” the woman replied simply.

“Well, the next time you have a vision, I want you to ask Jesus to tell you the sins that I confessed in my last confession.”

The woman was stunned. “Did I hear you right, bishop? You actually want me to ask Jesus to tell me the sins of your past?”

“Exactly. Please call me if anything happens.”

Ten days later the woman notified her spiritual leader of a recent apparition. “Please come,” she said.

Within the hour the archbishop arrived. He trusted eye-to-eye contact. “You just told me on the telephone that you actually had a vision of Jesus. Did you do what I asked?”

“Yes, bishop, I asked Jesus to tell me the sins you confessed in your last confession.”

The bishop leaned forward with anticipation. His eyes narrowed.

“What did Jesus say?”

She took his hand and gazed deep into his eyes. “Bishop,” she said, “these are his exact words: I CAN’T REMEMBER.’”

Like the story above, Psalm 51 is about confession, and about experiencing the gift of God's grace:

Theme and Vocabulary of Confession (VV 1-2)
1 Have mercy on me, O God, because of your loyal love! / Because of your great compassion, wipe away my rebellious acts! 2 Wash away my wrongdoing! / Cleanse me of my sin! 

Confession (VV 3-5)
3 For I am aware of my rebellious acts; / I am forever conscious of my sin. 4 Against you—you above all—I have sinned; / I have done what is evil in your sight. / So you are just when you confront me; / you are right when you condemn me. 5 Look, I was guilty of sin from birth, / a sinner the moment my mother conceived me. 

"Imperatives" (VV 6-14)
6 Look, you desire integrity in the inner being*; / you want me to possess wisdom. 7 Sprinkle me with water and I will be pure; / wash me and I will be whiter than snow. 8 Grant me the ultimate joy of being forgiven! /  May the bones you crushed rejoice! 9 Hide your face from my sins! / Wipe away all my guilt! 
10 Create for me a pure heart, O God! / Renew a resolute spirit within me! / 11 Do not reject me! / Do not take your Holy Spirit away from me! 12 Let me again experience the joy of your deliverance! / Sustain me by giving me the desire to obey! 13 Then I will teach rebels your merciful ways, / and sinners will turn to you. 14 Rescue me from the guilt of murder, O God, the God who delivers me! / Then my tongue will shout for joy because of your deliverance. 

Praise of the Unburdened (VV 15-17)
15 O Lord, open my lips, / and my mouth will declare your praise**. 16 Certainly you do not want a sacrifice, or else I would offer it; / you do not desire a burnt sacrifice. 17 The sacrifices God desires are a humble spirit / O God, a humble and repentant heart you will not reject. 

An Appendix Added at a Later Time (VV 18-19)
18 Because you favor Zion, do what is good for her! / Fortify the walls of Jerusalem! 19 Then you will accept the proper sacrifices, burnt sacrifices and whole offerings; /  then bulls will be sacrificed on your altar.

The first encounter German Lutherans have with Psalm 51 is usually in the form of the old hymn:  "Ein reines Herz, Herr, schaff in mir, schließ zu der Sünde Tor und Tür". And most American Lutherans grew up singing: "Create in me a clean heart,  O God, and renew a right spirit within me". Both are renditions of VV 10-12.

But there's so much more to this psalm, often called Miserere for its first word in Latin.

Psalm 51 has been listed under the Penitential Psalms since the early 5th century. According to the classification suggested by Walter Brueggemann, it is one of the Psalms of Disorientation. "These psalms reflect the brokenness of life when it is no longer orderly but savage.  Spoken out of the depths, they are still bold acts of faith". 

The petition that begins our psalm (VV 1-2) provides the theme and introduces the necessary vocabulary.  First, it asks for three attributes of Yahweh: mercy (chanan), loyal love (chesed), and motherly compassion (rachamim); then the Psalmist requests a threefold cleansing of her sin, in increasing intensity: blot out (machah), wash away (kabas) and purify (taher).

Brueggemann observes that the first three terms belong to the language of covenant, while the remaining terms are cultic words; he states, "the cultic acts of forgiveness are a mode through which the actual pardon of Yahweh is made available".  In other words, the transformative action of cleansing repairs the covenant.

In the actual confession (VV 3-5) the Psalmist looks at sin as a theo-logical problem ("Against you—you above all—I have sinned"), says unambiguously that God is  one hundred percent right ("you are just when you confront me") and ends by saying that she has no claim against God because she is sin-sick ("I was guilty of sin from birth").

The Psalmist begins the long section dubbed "Imperatives" (VV 6–14) with a statement Brueggemann calls "strange and noteworthy".

הֵן־אֱ֭מֶת חָפַ֣צְתָּ בַטֻּח֑וֹ
 וּ֝בְסָתֻ֗ם חָכְמָ֥ה תוֹדִיעֵֽנִי׃
Look, you desire integrity (אֱמֶת, emeth) in the inner being / you want me to possess wisdom (חָכְמָ֥ה, chokmah).

Here, chokmah is not paired with chesed (see my most recent post), but with emeth. אֱמֶת can mean firmness, faithfulness, sureness, reliability, stability, continuance, truth, or (as in the NET translation I use above) integrity. The Psalmist states that God longs for human beings who embody integrity.

The new life characterized by integrity of the inner being cannot occur before God takes some action: in the imperatives of VV 7-14 God is urged to  purge, wash, fill, hide, blot out, create, put, cast not, take not, restore, uphold and deliver.

VV 7–9 describe forgiveness in the cultic language of the psalm's introduction. The well-known subsequent passage (VV 10–12) begs for a clean slate ("clean heart"), using three times the term ר֫וּחַ, (ruach, “spirit/wind”); as this is the same word signifying the life-giving wind that swept over the formless void in the creation story, we see that the Psalmist asks God for nothing less but to start her own creation over.  VV 13-14 indicate a transition from utter misery to a faint glimmer of hope, as the Psalmist envisions teaching sinners and praising God for her deliverance.

The Praise of the Unburdened is expressed in VV 15–17.  The mood has changed.

אֲ֭דֹנָי שְׂפָתַ֣י תִּפְתָּ֑ח
O Lord, open my lips ...

This is a line many of us recognize from the liturgy of Matins.  When I was four or five years old, my Dad held Morgenandacht (Matins) every weekday morning, and I loved walking over to church with him. There was always so much to see: not just the inside of the baroque building but also the "little old ladies" that showed up with us every morning. One of the few things I remember distinctly was the chanting:

"Herr, tue meine Lippen auf / dass mein Mund deinen Ruhm verkündige. Eile, Gott, mich zu erretten / Herr, mir zu helfen".

"O Lord, open my lips, / and my mouth will declare your praise.  O God, come to my assistance! / O Lord, hasten to help me!"

Only in the context of the full anguished psalm can we fathom the power of V 15: "The very lips which diminished the self are now able to exalt God ... The dismantled self, characterized in verse 17, requires a shattering of one’s spirit, a brokenness of one’s heart ... True worship and new living require a yielding of self to begin again on God’s terms". (Brueggemann) 

*  I chose "inner being" (NRSV), rather than "inner man" (NET).
**Restored to the wording of the NRSV.

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