1 O my God, have mercy on me
in your steadfast love, I pray;
In your infinite compassion
my transgressions wipe away.
2 Cleanse me from iniquity;
wash my sin away from me.
3 For I know my own transgressions;
I can see my sinful plight.
4 You, you only, I’ve offended,
and done evil in your sight;
So your words are verified,
and your verdict justified.
5 From my birth I have been sinful—
such the nature I received—
Sinful from my first beginning
in my mother’s womb conceived.
6 Truth you look for in my heart;
wisdom to me you impart.
7 Cleanse with hyssop, purify me;
I’ll be whiter than the snow.
8 Let the bones you crushed be joyful;
may I joy and gladness know.
9 From my failure hide your face;
blot out all my wickedness.
10 Lord, create a pure heart in me,
and a steadfast mind renew.
11 Do not take your Spirit from me;
cast me not away from you.
12 Give me back the joy I had;
keep my willing spirit glad.
13 Then I’ll teach your ways to sinners;
rebels will turn back to you.
14 Free me from blood-guilt, my Saviour,
God most merciful and true.
Then I’ll praise your righteousness;
15 teach my lips your name to bless.
16 Sacrifice does not delight you,
else my tribute I would bring;
Nor do you take any pleasure
in a whole burnt offering.
17 Contrite heart as sacrifice
you, O God, will not despise.
18 Let your blessing rest on Zion;
build Jerus’lem’s walls again.
19 Sacrifices then will please you—
bulls upon your altar slain,
Off’rings made for your delight,
truly righteous in your sight.
You can hear a Free Church of Scotland congregation sing this, from v7, to the tune Ottawa here.
This penitential Psalm is the source of one of the most terrifying responses in the Book of Common Prayer:
“O God make clean our hearts within us
And take not Thy Holy Spirit from us”
It is a Psalm full of contrition, self-blame, and remorse verging on despair. Its poetic language and rhythm is both seductive and masochistic. We get lost in the language and become deaf to its incoherence. Having dismissed burnt offerings and Temple ritual, it finishes up with exactly that. Having faced up to our sins and iniquities, it blames God for having conceived us this way in the womb. It can make us so full of our sins that we forget the beauty of the creator who has bestowed on us the gift of the Spirit in the first place. It can make us lose balance and forget love. It needs Jesus to restore the balance. “Whose fault is it that this man was born blind?” the disciples ask in John’s Gospel, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”” You could be forgiven for thinking that the Psalm says: ”Both – we are all conceived in sin.” Jesus says that it is neither. The man’s blindness is something to be put right so that we might all see the love of God. Our guilty hearts interpret the Psalm to say we are all blind, always. Jesus says that our shame must not blind our eyes to the beauty of our own creation, nor make us hide in a corner, consumed by shame. It is sometimes easy to be overwhelmed by our failings and forget that the light of the world shines in the darkest corners. As the blind man affirms “Whereas I was blind, now I can see”.
In moments of near despair the doxology calls us back to the beauty of our creation. This is a prayer for the forgiven:
Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
Praise God all creatures here below;
Praise God above, you heavenly Host.
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost….
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
The Rev’d Peter Moth is a retired minister and member of St Andrew’s URC Kenton, Newcastle upon Tyne.