O God, be gracious to me in your love

Today’s hymn from “Sing Praise” is “O God, be gracious to me in your love”, a setting of Psalm 51 by Ian Pitt-Watson using a tune by the 17th century composer Orlando Gibbons.

Psalm 51 as a piece of music is best known in Allegri’s setting of the Latin text known by its first word “Miserere”.  It’s a favourite choice as a “romantic” piece of music, which is rather ironic.  The words are a confession of a serious sin, the nature of which is not specified, and a commentary I consulted suggests that it was probably written after the Exile rather than before (as evidenced by the last two verses about sacrifices in the Temple), but it’s traditionally associated with King David being confronted about his adultery with Bathsheba as recounted in 2 Samuel chapters 11-12.  ‘Adultery’ is itself something of a euphemism here, as she wasn’t in a position to refuse his advances, and that sin was compounded by the arranged killing of her husband when the king found he had got her pregnant.

The words as set here are quite a close rendering of other English translations of the psalm, with a regular metre (I believe iambic pentameter, but I stand to be corrected by literary experts) without attempting to force rhymes.  It could therefore be used quite easily as a said version of the psalm rather than as a song, and the theme of confession does of course fit well with the discipline of Lent.  What can we learn from it? 

The line that stands out for me is “Against you, Lord, you only have I sinned”.  This sounds as if I (or David or whoever wrote the psalm) have not actually sinned against anyone else, which seems to fly in the face of experience: while some ‘sins’ may technically be only against God (such as pride, for example) others such as taking your neighbour’s wife as your own and having her husband murdered are obviously offences against those people and those close to them.   What might this mean? As one commentary puts it, “sin is ultimately a religious concept rather than an ethical one” – breaking human laws relating to marriage and killing (or any other law) can be dealt with by secular courts, but sin at its heart is falling short of what God expects of us as humans “made in his image”, that is to live in harmony with other people and with nature, and for that we are answerable to a higher authority.  And admitting guilt in court is not the same as admitting to God that I am a broken person needing his mercy.  If this is David’s story, as King he was probably above the secular law anyway, and it was only when the prophet Nathan turned the facts into a parable about a pet lamb that David’s defences broke down and he showed contrition.

The other point is that for confession to be meaningful there must be a genuine desire both to be forgiven and to change – “wash me and make me whiter than the snow” … “create a clean and contrite heart in me”, to use the translation given here.  The final verse of the hymn includes lines that are used at Evensong in the church of England: “O God, make clean our hearts within us, and take not thy Holy Spirit from us.”  “Heart” in the Bible tends to refer to the will or desire, rather than emotions, so this is about asking the Spirit to give us right intentions.

Awake, awake, fling off the night

Today’s hymn, keeping up the theme of light in this Epiphany season, is “Awake, awake, fling off the night”. The light of Christ is contrasted with the darkness of sin.  It is a biblical message: “light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). Sin and evil are often associated with darkness, because when we know that what we are doing is wrong – and most of the time we do – we naturally want to hide from it.  So most crime is committed at night, or down dark alleyways, or in other places where the criminal will not be disturbed. 

The constant theme of Scripture is that God is everywhere and knows everything we do, indeed every secret thought.  There are no dark places, no hidden corners, where we can hide from God to do our evil deeds unnoticed. As the psalmist puts it. “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (Ps. 139:7). 

That sounds scary – God the policeman who patrols wherever we choose to walk, as well as being the judge who passes sentence. The good news is that in Jesus, God also becomes the one who pardons.   But as in human relationships and penal systems, there can only be pardon where there is contrition. The first step is to admit our sin to God and ask forgiveness.  Then the pardon can come, and light replace the darkness.  So the last verse of the hymn encourages the forgiven sinner to sing for joy and praise God.

The Bible in a Year – 26 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this

26 December. 1 John chapters 1-5

There is so much in this deeply spiritual writing that it is impossible to summarise it neatly, and it reads more like an unscripted but passionate sermon than like one of Paul’s carefully argued theological letters.  The one unifying theme is love: the love of God for those who believe in Jesus, the importance of us loving God more than the “world”, and of loving our “brothers and sisters” (other Christians) even if we disagree with them.

There is also a second strand running through the book, that of sin and grace. John does not actually use the word ‘grace’ but describes it in other ways. He says that if we confess our sins and repent, Jesus will “cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1:9); and describes those who truly believe in Jesus as having “God’s seed abiding in them” and being “born of God” (3:9) to prevent them from sinning.

What John is trying to get at, although it is such a deep mystery that even he struggles to convey it in simple language, is that since Jesus Christ came into the world there is now a clear division between people, greater than any division caused by barriers of race, language and even religious background.  On the one hand are those who have come to him, described as “walking in the light and having fellowship with one another” (1:7), who obey the commandments of Jesus, particularly those regarding loving others (2:3), do the will of God (2:17) and are called his children (3:2), no longer commit sin (3:9) – although the epilogue at the end of chapter 5 admits that this is not quite true – and have the Holy Spirit (4:13).  The opposite is true of those who do not yet walk in the light but remain in darkness: they do not obey God or Jesus, cannot be called his children, live in sin and do not have the Spirit in them. They “love the world and the things in the world” (2:15).  The distinction is summed up starkly at the end of the letter: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (5:12).

The good news is that the only way to move from darkness to light is to believe in Jesus – not simply in assenting that he lived and died, or that he was a good teacher, but in wanting to become part of him and be open to the Holy Spirit.  Only in that way can we share in the light that comes from God the Father.

There are no doubt many better summaries of John’s teaching than mine.  But the message is clear – anyone can become part of God’s family, but Jesus is the only way in.

The Bible in a Year – 5 November

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5 November. Mark chapters 1-3

As I mentioned at the start of Matthew’s gospel, Mark is widely believed to have been written first, and although he covers much the same ground as Matthew he tells the story in a more compact way, with more of a sense of movement and excitement.

Mark is uninterested in Jesus’ birth and childhood, only the stories from his adult life. These first few chapters show Jesus appearing first as one of John the Baptist’s disciples, but being marked out by the appearance of the Holy Spirit and the voice of God as having a unique relationship to God.  Mark has no time for plot development – he reveals immediately who Jesus is, and then goes on to the miracle stories.

The idea of an itinerant religious teacher drawing crowds by his captivating way of speaking, the power of his message and the healing miracles he performed was not new.  Some of the old Jewish prophets such as Elisha and Jeremiah were similar, and right down to our own day the same can be seen with ministries such as that of John Wimber.  But most such people are forgotten soon after their lifetimes – who talks of Smith Wigglesworth today, for example?

Mark wants us to know from the outset that Jesus was not just another rabbi or faith-healer.  His opening line is “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Gospel means “good news”, Christ (or Messiah) means “anointed one” and Jesus’ name – a common one for Jewish  men – means something like “God saves”.  So, “The beginning of the good news of the God who saves, the anointed one, the Son of God.”

Not everyone believed in him, of course.  Towards the end of chapter 3 we read of those who thought that Jesus himself was possessed by the Devil or some other evil spirit.  In explaining why that could not be so, Jesus adds that while all ordinary sins can be forgiven, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (3:29-30).  This “Unforgivable sin”, then, seems to mean doubting that a work of God really is from God, or not being able to distinguish between the Holy Spirit and evil spirits.  If you cannot see God at work, you are not in a position to receive the healing and wholeness that he offers.

The Bible in a Year. 14 August.

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

14 August. Job chapters 32-34

A new voice now enters the argument, that of the young man Elihu, who criticises the three elders for not having come up with a strong argument against Job.  He explains that he sees himself as an equal to Job, not a superior (33:6,7). But that does not mean he is taking Job’s side, rather he too seeks to prove that Job’s protestations of innocence are in themselves sinful.


In chapter 33 Elihu argues that God uses dreams, visions and angels to try and warn people of the error of their ways and bring them back into right paths.  It is through penitence and prayer that one is forgiven.  In the following chapter he also asserts, as others did, that suffering must be the result of sin, and that Job, in presenting himself as righteous, is “speaking without knowledge or insight”.


The idea that there is a causal connection between sin and suffering is one that does not go away easily.  Even after 2000 years of Christianity, the gospel message is still shocking – that God does not count our sins against us, and is always willing to accept our repentance. Suffering, far from being a punishment for sin, is something in which God himself, through the incarnation of Jesus, has shared with us.

The Bible in a Year – 15 June

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15 June. Hosea chapters 1-7

There are two interesting points even in the first chapter of this action-packed book of prophecy. Firstly, Hosea was a prophet, a man of God.  And yet God’s first call to him was to do something that would make him ritually ‘unclean’: to marry a sex worker and have children by her.  What does that tell us?  Principally, that in God’s sight anyone can be redeemed, and that love is the way of redemption.


The concept of “making an honest woman” [or man] of someone by marrying them may seem archaic or patriarchal, but the principle is still valid that for those whose lives are broken by their own upbringing or the circumstances of life, patient, forgiving, accepting love is the only way out.  In chapter 3 this is spelled out – Gomer has been bought by Hosea to redeem her from prostitution, as God had redeemed his people from their sins, and she was therefore expected to remain chaste during their marriage, as Israel was expected to remain faithful to God.


To understand the rest of the book we need to note that in this wandering through the Bible, we have jumped back a couple of centuries in time from that of the exile of Jerusalem to the time of Uzziah (which dates Hosea’s prophecy to the same era as that of Isaiah).  The northern kingdom of Israel is about to be punished, but not yet the southern kingdom of Judah.


The second thing we learn, then, is that their first three children were to be called Jezreel, Lo-Ruhamah, and Lo-Ammi. Names are vitally important in the Bible, and we need the footnotes in a modern translation to explain them.  These children were called “God sows”, “Not pitied” and Not my people”.  Explanation for the latter two is given in the text, as God would love Judah but not Israel, and just as the husband of the prostitute would love her children as his own, so God as the husband of Israel (who had been unfaithful to him) would love her descendants, i.e. the generations to come.


Chapters 4 and 5 set out the ways in which Israel has been unfaithful: idolatry of course, but also “swearing, lying, murder, stealing, adultery and bloodshed … drunkenness and orgies”.  In other words they have broken every one of the commandments given through Moses which are the basis of civilisation to this day.   Chapter 7 adds to this the charge that Israel relied on the military support of Egypt whence their ancestors had been rescued by God, rather than on God himself.


In and among all this, chapter 6 offers a sudden and refreshing change.  Its opening verse, “Come, let us return to the Lord” is one that echoes down the ages, an offer that is always open.  The results of turning to him are many: he has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up; after two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up that we may live before him” (6:1-3) The latter verse may be understood as a reference to the resurrection of Christ.   And: “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings (6:6) is another them found running through the words of the Prophets.   Repentance, love, faith, understanding: these are the only antidotes to sin.





The Bible in a Year – 3 June

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

3 June. Ezekiel chapters 13-15

In chapter 13 the prophecy is against false prophets (both women and men); and against the women who “sew bands on their wrists to hunt lives”- a rather obscure reference, as is the meaning of the ‘whitewashed wall’.


The commentary I looked at suggests that Ezekiel is quite a turning point in the Old testament, as it marks the beginning of a new understanding of sin and judgement. Until then sin was seen as mainly a corporate matter – if a lot of people in one family, town or nation were evil, the whole community would be under God’s judgement and suffer the consequences.  Conversely the prayer and actions of a righteous few could avert Gods judgement on all.  But now we read (14:12-20) that righteous people can only save themselves; and elsewhere the emphasis is on people being punished for their own sins.



The Bible in a Year – 1 March (Ash Wednesday)

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

1 March. Deuteronomy chapters 5-7

It may be no coincidence that the Bible reading plan I am following includes Deuteronomy 5 today, for it is a reprise (in slightly different words) of the Ten Commandments. Today is Ash Wednesday when Christians particularly focus on confessing sins in order that we may make a new start with God and make new resolutions to be more holy, whether that is by giving up something that takes us away from God, or doing more of something that brings us closer to him such as prayer, volunteering in the community or charitable giving.


Note what Moses says to the people – “Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today” (5:3). These commandments are for all people at all time, universal rules for living in harmony with our creator and the creation. Whereas the more detailed rules and regulations already given through the books of Leviticus and Numbers were, as Moses says in chapter 6, for this specific nation at the time they were settling that particular country, so not all of them will be applicable to us today.


Chapter 7 stresses again the importance of keeping the commandments. Why?  “God maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays in their own person those who reject him.” (7:9-10)  The results of sin can be seen in someone’s own life very quickly, but the fruits of good works may not be evident until future generations.  That’s a lesson within families as intended – a bad parent creates a dysfunctional family easily, but good parenting only really shows itself as one generation succeeds another.  But it’s also true when it comes to something like tackling climate change (something that many Christian charities now ask us to think about in Lent as well) – cutting my energy use now will not make much difference to me in my lifetime, but it’s a small contribution to preventing changes that will massively impact billions of people in the future.