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.

1 thought on “O God, be gracious to me in your love”

  1. On the question of whether Psalm 51 is about David and his misconduct with Bathsheba, I suppose there are three considerations: (1) that various parts of the Psalm don’t match up with that situation (in particular the fact that David obviously had sinned against Bathsheba and against Uriah the Hittite, and not “against you (God) and you only”) and there’s nothing specific in the Psalm itself (apart from the title) that would suggest that situation; (2) that the Hebrew titles of the Psalms have long been regarded as being later additions and not giving reliable information about them, and (3) that the obvious context of v16-19 (you do not (currently) take pleasure in burnt offerings, but build up the walls of Jerusalem and then you will take pleasure in them) is the Exile (when the temple had been destroyed so the sacrificial system was in abeyance) and not the united monarchy. So I, for one, don’t believe this Psalm is by David.

    As a metrical version of the Psalm, I think this one is quite reasonable within its parameters. The rhythmic pattern is preserved well. The author decided not to use rhyme – well, fair enough: I happen to think myself that the main lesson to be learned from the book “Psalm Praise” (by the Jubilate Hymns people) is that without rhyme most poetry is significantly less memorable and satisfactory. So, comparing this hymn with the previous one (Hear me O Lord in my distress, Psalm 143) one immediately notices that the word-order is less forced but the lack of rhyme stands out like a sore thumb.

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