to the leader. A psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone into Bathsheba.
Have mercy on me, O God,
According to your steadfast love.
According to you abundant mercy,
Blot out my transgressions.” (Ps. 51:1)
Every prayer has a story. Whether it’s the simple cry, “Help!”, a conversational prayer with God, or the stately and intricate Psalm 119, every prayer comes imbedded in a story. It has a context, a reason it is prayed. Prayers have a situated-ness that is unavoidable. We pray to God out of the concrete situations we find ourselves in. Birth of a child. Getting a job. Taking a test. Trying to find the car keys. Loss of a friend. Loss of independence. Addiction. Abuse. Sin.
When it comes to our own prayers, the context can be vivid. We know why we are praying. Yet, when we try to enter into the psalms and adopt these words as the God-given words of our own prayers, we can easily find ourselves praying without context. In an effort to find a rhythm of prayer, we can try to ignore the situations of our own soul because we think the psalms let us off the hook.
Psalm 51 will have none of that. I’d argued that every psalm has a context and that praying words that are not our own does not pull us out of our context, but deeper into the work God is doing in our souls. Even if you disagree with that last sentence, it is hard to deny that Psalm 51 has a concrete context. This is not simply ‘a psalm of David,’ but the prayer he prayed after being confronted in his sin.
David spies a woman bathing – Bathsheba – and takes her for his wife. Only she already has a husband, who happens to serve in David’s army. Bathsheba gets pregnant and David tries to get her husband, Uriah, to go home and sleep with her to cover his crime. David’s plan fails because of Uriah’s honor. Ultimately if David can’t cover over his affair, he plans to ‘let’ Uriah be killed so he can legally take Bathsheba as his wife and the child as his own. After Uriah dies, David is visited by the prophet Nathan. Nathan tells a parable of a man with a myriad of sheep who steals the one sheep his neighbor had for a banquet. Upon hearing the story, David is furious and declares that the man who has done this deserves to die. Nathan then reveals to David, “You are the man!”
So David prays what is now known as Psalm 51. David’s prayer has context. And it is vivid. It is ugly and dark. David sins in his actions, and in his cover-up. Psalm 51 won’t let us get away with ignoring the ugliness and darkness in our own lives. But naming David’s situation at its start, the Psalm forces us to confront our own – our betrayals, our adulteries, our deceit, our attempts to cover over our sin. And it is in that space, with our own context in mind, that we pray along with David, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love, according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.” And it is in the concrete contexts that we hear grace anew in the words of Jesus, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’