The vocabulary for sin
The psalm appointed for Ash Wednesday is Psalm 51. It is one of the seven penitential psalms in the psalter and it resonates with us as we hear it in the liturgy. It begins as follows …
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
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.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit. (Psalm 51:1-12 ESV)
There is an intensity here – you can sense it in the words – a realisation that the person is repentant. If we overheard this confession, then we wouldn’t be sure what sins were in focus but the penitent has rightly identified that no matter the wrong done in the world – the wrong he has done – or the right he hasn’t done – what has happened is that he has sinned against God. It’s far worse than being caught with his hand in the cookie jar and smiling sheepishly and copping the consequences. We sense here a realisation, a landscape, a vision of the ways things are with him. He doesn’t like what he sees. He sees he’s trapped and can’t fix it. And so he does the one thing humanity struggles with at a deep level – he cries for mercy. He acknowledges that he is not the master of his destiny and that, as a god, he has made a lousy life and a lousy world – well, the parts he’s in contact with.
You sense his feelings with the English words – somewhat antiquated these days – sadly – transgression, iniquity, sin, evil. These words reflect the Hebrew used which present four different word groups that try and encapsulate the issues of our broken relationship with God.
The cry for mercy to blot out my transgressions is an acknowledgement of my rebellion – פּשׁע – pesha – revolt, rebellion, transgression. Blot out my rebellion. Blot out my insurrection, my revolution. These are not unconscious slips while meaning to do well. No, this is rebellion. You want me to do what? I will do my own thing! And when it blows up in our face so to speak then we might blame others but at some point we see that it is our fault, our own fault, our own most grievous fault.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity – the Hebrew word group is עוּךּ – aw-vone – an activity that is crooked, an offense, a perversity, an evil (particularly a moral evil) – and cleanse me from my sin – my חטא –
cha-tta-ah – my missing the mark, the goal, the target, my fault, my offense, my guilt. Three lines of poetry, three different words each with their own constellation of meanings and contexts.
In the next verse we hear ‘against you, you only have I sinned’ – חטא – cha-tta-ah – missed the mark – and done what is evil – רע / רעא – ra / ra’ah – evil, harm, wickedness, perverseness.
The rest of the psalm then paints the ongoing sin landscape – the personal sin landscape – using these words. It isn’t a pretty picture. Mysteriously sin and amniotic fluid are linked but that doesn’t excuse the penitent, in fact it does the opposite, it confirms the depth of trouble he is in. My sins are my fault. My rebellion are my deeds. My guilt is mine and there’s no passing the buck.
Perhaps that’s what did it for him – no self justifications left, no delusions that others are worse, no excuses.
Confessions are truly horrible things. If the confessor doesn’t mean it then it is horrible for the person receiving the confession. If the confessor does mean it, then it is horrible for him / her. The whole point is that this sin isn’t going away – it is there – the deed is done – it can’t be taken up – it is part of the record of his / her life always.
In this case we know a little more. There’s a title to this psalm, a context – when Nathan confronted King David over his actions towards Bathsheba (adultery, coercion, rape, who knows) and her husband Uriah (murder). There’s a part of me that thinks it is good to know the context and that God’s forgiveness exists for even such sins. There’s a part of me that wishes I didn’t know the context because of the me that still rebels against God and his word and stores that knowledge and then tells me, ‘Don’t worry, you’re not as bad as King David’.
What intrigues me is not the prurient details of the sin but how David could live with it. Did he stop attending the tabernacle? That’s one response. If he kept up with his royal religious duties, what was going through his mind? The fact that Nathan had to approach him sideways through a story suggests to me some pretty high fortifications that needed to be tunnelled under.
David and his family didn’t escape the consequences of his behaviour. Does it really take shame to confront us? Sin likes the darkness and will not willingly be exposed. And yet God was gracious to him.
Many people think that Lent is really about the theology and psychology of repentance – what it takes to expose us, our behaviours, our lives to God and his light, his Word. That’s part of it. I won’t deny it and it is salutary for us to contemplate and have devotional exercises tied to acknowledging our sin. But Lent is not about us.
‘Have mercy on me, O Lord’ is only worth saying if mercy is in the listeners’ vocabulary and is actually possible. Mercy is the only quality and action that truly deals with sin. Justice mutes sin and shuts it up on the surface but it still lurks beneath. Only mercy destroys it. The punishment is gone. However the memory may still linger and rise from time to time or be evident in the consequences that occurred because of this sin and so that is why need to hear more words – merciful words – why we return to the merciful Lord – and why we struggle to look at and own our sin.
That’s what Lent is all about at its core. Mercy. And what it cost. That is the message that must never be silenced.
- Psalm 51:1 - 12