Psalm 51: In Accord with Your Merciful Love

Friday after Ash Wednesday

February 19, 2021


Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 51, that magnificent penitential psalm which is one of only seven among the 150. The psalm, set between two readings that do with fasting, suggests that what we should “fast” from is sin.

Some interpreters attribute the psalm to David, deeply repentant after his treacherous acts toward Uriah and Bathsheba. Others say that this was a subsequent assignation because the psalm so fit the incident.


Whatever the case, Psalm 51 gives of us a picture of someone profoundly aware of failure in faithfulness to God – not just a sin against another human being, but against God.

For I acknowledge my offense,
    and my sin is before me always:
“Against you only have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight.”

Psalm 51:5-6

Still, coupled with this aching repentance
is the absolute conviction
of God’s superseding Mercy.

Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
    in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
    and of my sin cleanse me.

Psalm 51: 3-4

The psalmist has a large, lyrical notion in mind:
that God should take the scattered, chaotic, failed self that he is,
and out of it form a new, restored self.
The movement from failed self to restored self
is a gift asked of God in confidence.

Walter Brueggemann: From Whom No Secrets Are Hid


Praying with this psalm, the symbol of an arrow came to mind. You might have noticed the symbol recently on Valentines Day, used to describe the power of love to engage the heart.



But if the arrow is broken, how will it be made whole again?

Lord, you will open my lips;
and my mouth will proclaim your praise.
For you do not desire sacrifice or I would give it;
a burnt offering you would not accept.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn.

Psalm 51:17-19

On this Lenten journey,
may we bring contrite hearts
– our “broken arrows” – 
to God,
asking to recognize our failures in love
and to repent sincerely of them.


Poetry: Possible Answers to Prayer by Scott Cairns

Your petitions—though they continue to bear
just the one signature—have been duly recorded.
Your anxieties—despite their constant,
relatively narrow scope and inadvertent
entertainment value—nonetheless serve
to bring your person vividly to mind.
Your repentance—all but obscured beneath
a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more
conspicuous resentment—is sufficient.
Your intermittent concern for the sick,
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes
recognizable to me, if not to them.
Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you—         
these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.

Music: Broken Arrow – Let God turn your whole world around in this song by Rod Stewart

Who else is gonna bring you a broken arrow
Who else is gonna bring you a bottle of rain
There he goes moving across the water
There he goes turning my whole world around

Do you feel what I feel
Can we make it so that's part of the deal
I gotta hold you in these arms of steel
Lay your heart on the line this time

I want to breathe when you breathe
When you whisper like that hot summer breeze
Count the beads of sweat that cover me
Didn't you show me a sign this time

Who else is gonna bring you a broken arrow
Who else is gonna bring you a bottle of rain
There he goes moving across the water
There he goes turning my whole world around, around

Do you feel what I feel
Do you feel what I feel
Ah can you see what I see
Can you cut behind the mystery
I will meet you by the witness tree
Leave the whole world behind

I want to come when you call
I'll get to you if I have to crawl
They can't hold me with these iron walls
We got mountains to climb, to climb

Who else is gonna bring you a broken arrow
Who else is gonna bring you a bottle of rain
There he goes moving across the water
There he goes turning my whole world around
Turning my whole world around
Turning my whole world around