Ash Wednesday – “The 7 Penitential Psalms” – Psalm 51 – 3/1/17


Of the seven penitential psalms, Psalm 51 is probably the one we are most familiar with. I’m sure as we spoke it together there were several verses that you recognized because they are used in some of the orders of services that we use. The background to this Psalm, the story of King David’s despicable behavior with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah is one that we are familiar with as well.

It was the same for Luther. He lectured on this Psalm to his students at Wittenberg, not only in 1517 and 1525 but again in 11 lectures in 1532. To his students Luther says, “I cannot promise that I shall lecture satisfactorily, for I admit that I have not fully grasped the Spirit who speaks there. Still it gives us an opportunity and a basis for thought and study, so that I can become a student with you and await the Spirit. Whatever He gives, we shall receive with thanks.”

Luther found that this Psalm got to the very heart and soul of the message of the Scriptures and the Christian faith. “Man is guilty of sin and condemned, and God is the justifier and savior of man the sinner.” That’s what it’s all about in a nutshell. The proper use of this Psalm is, on the one hand, “to show us our sin more deeply and show more clearly the root of wickedness of sin.” And on the other hand, that by seeing ourselves before almighty God as we truly are, “we might understand the nature of grace” more accurately.

Luther says, “Here is a description or definition of God that is full of comfort: that in His true form God is a God who loves the afflicted, has mercy upon the humbled, forgives the fallen, and revives the drooping. How can any more pleasant picture be painted of God? Since God is truly this way, we have as much of Him as we believe.” (LW 12:406)

Today we will consider verses 1 through 15. I’d invite you to recite the verses aloud with me as we go. Page 7 in the worship folder.

Verses 1 and 2:
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!

“A true and penitent heart sees nothing but its sin and miserable conscience when it stands before God. Anyone who finds some basis for confidence and security in himself cannot speak these words with any sense of sincerity, because he is not yet altogether miserable but feels some comfort in himself apart from God’s mercy.

The sense is this: ‘O God, no person or creature can help or comfort me… because my affliction is not physical or anything that this world can help with. You alone, God eternal, can help me. Have mercy on me, because without Your mercy everything is terrible and bitter to me.”

“The psalmist MAGNIFIES AND MULTIPLIES the grace of God by MAGNIFYING AND MULTIPLYING his sin. This is what St. Paul meant when he wrote in Romans, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” (Rom. 5:20). So the proud have no taste for grace because their sins do not yet taste bitter to them.”

“Not only does the psalmist pray for God to be gracious to him and forgive his sins, but he also prays that God would wash and cleanse him. Which means that he wants God to make A WHOLE NEW MAN OF HIM… Anyone who looks upon sin as something outward only cannot remain in this grace but will inevitably slide right back into it again.”

“With us, the situation is that Adam must get out and Christ must come in. Adam must become nothing, and Christ alone must remain and rule. And so there can be no end to this washing and cleansing in this lifetime, because the OLD ADAM that we were born with, makes even the good works that we do sinful, as he tells us to rely on them and find comfort in them and in our progress in righteousness and holiness. The more we listen to the OLD ADAM and follow him, the more we lose our desire for God’s grace.

Verses 3-6
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.
6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

“The difference between the TRUE SAINT and the PRETEND SAINT is this: the TRUE SAINTS see their transgressions and realize that they are not what they should be and want to be. So they judge themselves and are not concerned about the judgment of others.”

“The PRETEND SAINTS however, do not see their own wickedness; they imagine they are as they should be. They always forget about themselves and sit in judgment of others. They say, ‘I see the sin of others and the sin of others is always before me.’ This is because they have a LOG IN THEIR EYE.”

“Whoever will not admit that they are sinners, does not SIGH FOR CHRIST, even though God has promised in all His words that Christ should die because of sin. Anyone who will not consider himself, or be considered, A SINNER, tries to make God a liar – and himself the truth. THIS IS THE MOST GRIEVOUS SIN AND IDOLATRY OF ALL IDOLATRIES.

The apostle John says, “If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us… If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His Word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8,10).

“So it is true that before You, O God, I am a sinner – that even my nature, my very beginning, my conception – is sin, to say nothing of the words, works, thoughts, and life which follow. How could I be WITHOUT SIN if I was made in sin and sin is my nature and manner?”

“So, as long as this same nature and essence remains with us, we will be sinners and must say: “FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES” until the body dies and is destroyed.”

“This is the wisdom of God – that Paul tells the Corinthians is pure foolishness in the eyes of the world. The proud person believes that he serves God with his many words, thoughts and works, and measures up to God’s standard. IT’S ALL AN OUTWARD SHOW. The proud man seeks God under the pretext of studying and learning about God when really he is only serving himself.”

“The inner and hidden wisdom is nothing else than knowing oneself thoroughly, and therefore HATING ONESELF BEFORE GOD. It is seeking all righteousness NOT IN ONESELF, but in God, always dissatisfied with oneself and yearning for God. THIS IS REALITY, and God LOVES REALITY AND TRUTH – but hates those who cling to the lie of outward appearances.”

Verses 7-8
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.

“Here the Psalmist uses an example from Moses to support what he has said so far. It is as if he were saying, ‘When Moses and the priest of the Law sprinkled themselves and the people with hyssop dipped in the blood of goat and considered themselves clean (Numbers 19:18ff), – this was only an outward sign and type of the REAL THING which You had in mind, O my God.

Sprinkle me with the TRUE GOAT’S BLOOD OF JESUS CHRIST. Then I will be truly and thoroughly cleansed, WITHOUT all my works and efforts.”

“It is the same with the water. Unless You wash me with what the water only signified – which is the washing of my heart with the grace of the Holy Spirit – then I shall remain sinful and unclean.”

“This is the way that THE OLD BELOVED FATHERS looked upon the type in the Old Testament, and in it they understood the inward and hidden things of the true meaning and wisdom of God.”

“Only if You purge and wash me with Your grace and create in me a good conscience so that I may hear that mysterious prompting: ‘YOUR SINS ARE FORGIVEN,’ only then will my soul be at rest and my conscience be joyful and only then will I stand in confidence before You.”

Verses 9-12
9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.

“Do not take notice of my works because they are all sin if they should be set before Your face, O God… Whatever is lacking in righteousness, FORGIVE, just as I have prayed You to turn Your face from the evil that is still present in me.”

“Man has the ability to GIVE THE APPEARANCE of clean hands and noble words. But a clean heart, DEVOID OF THE LOVE OF ALL THINGS, is the work of the Creator and His divine power.

We are all born with a CROOKED SPIRIT that is directed only towards itself and only seeks its own will. The ‘RIGHT SPIRIT’ is the good will directed straight to God, seeking God alone.”

“This will must be made anew and poured into our heart by God, so that we may love the will of God from the bottom of our heart… WITH A ‘WILLING SPIRIT.’ That is, my heart now wants nothing else than to do God’s will and make His will my own. What is done because of force does not last, but what is done willingly remains firm.”

Verses 13-15
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltness, O God, O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.

Luther makes the point in what follows, that the Psalmist has learned the most important lesson any person can ever learn. Now, filled with such good news and freedom, he cannot keep it to himself. He must teach others how to join him in his joy.

“I will never again teach others that the way of righteousness before You, O God, is according to the way that seems right to man, BUT THE WAY OF GRACE AND YOUR RIGHTEOUSNESS. This is how sinners will come to you and be converted.

But if I teach that men are righteous before You according to what seems right to man, they will be filled with pride and self-confidence and see no desire to repent and be saved by grace alone.”

“There is no sin that is too great for God to forgive – even the sin of murder. Here David refers especially to the sin committed with Bathsheba and against Uriah, because of which he deserved death.”

“And so, David here asks for strength and courage to preach this freely and courageously.”

“That is, let me be bold through Your strength – to admonish and convince all men that they are sinners and that nothing in them is worthy of honor and praise, but that they have deserved only shame and punishment – in order that they might realize that honor and praise are Yours alone because You alone are righteousness and wisdom, etc.

For no one can HONOR AND PRAISE You without REBUKING AND DISHONORING himself. No one can ascribe to You WISDOM AND RIGHTEOUSNESS unless he takes it from himself and ascribes to himself only SIN AND FOLLY.”

“This is the greatest thing that we can do for God. This is also what He desires above all else, that we give PRAISE AND HONOR AND EVERY POSSIBLE GOOD to Him.”


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