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.

The Bible in a Year – 24 September

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

24  September. 1 Chronicles chapters 28-29

David, we are told at the end of chapter 29, had reigned as king for forty years.  Unlike many monarchs who reign until their death (as our own Queen Elizabeth has indicated she intends to do), David decided to stage a deliberate handover to his son Solomon while he was still in good health.  Partly this was for practical reasons – having many sons, and remembering the previous revolt by his son Absalom, there could have been a civil war between then after his death if he had not nominated a successor.  But also, as we read yesterday, God had told David that Solomon was the one in whose reign the Temple should be built.  This was David’s grand project, so the sooner Solomon was on the throne, the sooner building could begin.  We are told that Solomon was still “young and inexperienced” (29:1):  we are not told what age he was, but it requires more than a degree of maturity to oversee such a large project.

Israelite society at this time seems not to have had money as we know it today: metals such as gold and silver were used as common currency, along with animals and agricultural produce.  So in order to provide for the Temple large amounts of these were given, by David personally, from the treasury (presumably representing the tithes of common people), and from members of the establishment (tribal leaders, military commanders and officials).  Some of the gold and silver would have been used directly for the sacred vessels and decoration of the Temple; but much would have been used in payment for other materials and labour.  David set an example by giving freely of his own riches, to encourage others to do so.

This principle of the ‘freewill offering’ or ‘sacrificial giving’ is often quoted by Church leaders when money is needed for some building project or missionary endeavour.  Part of the prayer that follows is still used in church services today as a response to the weekly offering: “Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours … all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.” (29:11-14).

The following verse in Chronicles reminds us also that we can keep nothing earthly: “For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope.”  In other words, earthly riches mean nothing to God. The divine being cannot use money or gold, although they are given in his name for work that is carried out in his name, but then neither are money and possessions any use to us when we die.  The only things we can do with them in our will are leave them to our children or friends, or give them to what we believe to be some other good cause. So as long as we have enough to live on, any extra may as well be given away sooner or later.


The Bible in a Year – 21 September

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

21 September. 1 Chronicles chapters 21-23

Much of what will follow these chapters concerns the building of the Temple.  Chapters 21 and 22 provide the “back story” to it construction (written several hundred years later, so presumably passed down orally until then).

We already know from chapter 17 that God had told David that the Temple was to be built in his son’s lifetime and not his own.  But David, following the letter if not the spirit of God’s command, decided as an old man to start on collecting the materials and labour for the work before his death.  But where to build it?

The story in chapter 21 of the angel at the threshing floor of Ornan raises some interesting ideas.  David is tempted by Satan to take a census with the implied intention of starting another military campaign, and is punished by God for doing so.  These days only a minority of Christians believe in Satan as a real and powerful personality (but those who do, take him very seriously).  Rather more will admit the existence of spirits or angels generally, and I know a few people who claim to have seen angels. But they tend to appear to individuals with a personal message or practical support in times of danger.  The angel in this passage is different – the “destroying angel” sent by God to bring a plague on Jerusalem as punishment for David’s hubris, and visible to all who would look up and see it.  With sufficient penitence shown by David and others, God relents and spares the city. The personal cost to David of his sin was the gold with which he bought the site of the angelic appearance to build an altar.

Whatever this visible angel might have been, and whatever we are to understand by the battle for a human soul between God and Satan (as in the book of Job), the consequences were enormous.  Israel moved in the following generations from being a nation with many localised altars as centres of worship to a centralised system with one huge Temple in Jerusalem.  David acknowledged that the period of warfare over which he had presided was at an end, and instructed Solomon to reign in peace.  And from that day to this, the site of the threshing floor of Ornan has been a place of pilgrimage for millions, whether as Jewish Temple or (in its current form as the Dome of the Rock) for Muslims.

Perhaps the lesson from this is that, at a time of crisis, God will act in whatever way in necessary to guide people towards doing his will.  In none of this is there any sense of compulsion: David could have ignored the words of the prophet Gad and carried on with rearmament, probably with disastrous consequences; he could have chosen one of God’s other punishment options (famine or defeat in battle), probably losing the kingship as a result; he could have ignored the presence of the angel (as Ornan did initially), in which case presumably Jerusalem would have suffered the plaque, again with severe consequences for the whole country.

But David was a man of faith. Although he sinned by letting Satan tempt him to a wrong action at the start of the story (not that Satan appeared to him visibly; his temptations are more subtle than that), he knew when God was speaking to him, whether by prophets, angels or through religious laws, and he obeyed.  So the future of God’s people was assured for another generation.

The Bible in a Year – 19 September

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

19 September. 1 Chronicles chapters 16-17

Most of this passage is taken up with David’s psalm of praise at the dedication of the tent of the Ark; most of the text of it appears elsewhere as Psalms 96 and 105. See my commentary for 15 & 16 July.

The remainder is about how David first thought, and the prophet Nathan confirmed his thinking, that it would be right to build a “house for God” no less splendid than his own.  That may appear sensible – for to put one’s own needs before the will of God is to break the first commandment (to worship nothing other than God).  But God revealed to Nathan that this was in fact a sinful strategy, for to regard a fixed location for worship as “God’s house” is to start down the road of idolatry, thus breaking the second commandment (not to have any image of God).

A temple or church that is seen as the “exclusive” location of the divine becomes a focus of worship in itself.   But true worship of God is always outward-looking: it has been said (by the theologian David Bosch among others) that mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an activity of God undertaken through the church.  As soon as we take our thinking away from God and what God’s mission might be, and start focussing on “the church” (building), or the objects in the church that might represent God, we lose sight of the purpose of the Church (body of God’s people).

It was not that there was never to be a “house of God” in Jerusalem. In the following verses God tells David that his son (Solomon, though not named here) would indeed build it.  But it would have been wrong for David to do so, for God’s purpose for David was to strengthen the identity of the nation of Israel and their worship. For that, they needed to have an understanding that God was everywhere among them and not restricted to the Temple or the Holy City (as other near eastern cultures would have believed).


The Bible in a Year – 18 September

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

18 September. 1 Chronicles chapters 13-15

These chapters tell of the two-stage journey of the Ark of the Covenant from its previous resting place to a new home in David’s new capital of Jerusalem.  The capture of Jerusalem had been the last major objective in the occupation of the Holy Land (Canaan), and it had been many generations, perhaps a few hundred years, since the people of Israel had first crossed the Jordan to being the process.

So it is understandable that David wanted to consolidate this victory. When one tribe or ethnic group overcomes another and establishes control if its territory, capturing its strongholds, it is usual to strengthen defences, build a palace and so on.  David certainly built his “house” which was no doubt a luxury compared with the dwellings of ordinary people, but probably nowhere near as large as Solomon’s later palace.  Likewise, it was to be another generation before Solomon built the Temple; yet David thought it important that his new capital should house the Ark, as a symbol of God’s presence, even if for the time being it had to be kept in a tent.

This Ark (not to be confused with Noah’s floating zoo) reputedly held nothing other than the stones inscribed with the Law of Moses, plus Aaron’s staff, and a sample of the miraculous manna from the desert.  These represented, in terms of what we would now call the sociology of religion, the relationship between God and his people being expressed through ethical standards, organised worship and shared meals.

But there was also the element of the miraculous: God had given the laws to Moses in a series of awesome appearances; Aaron’s staff had produced buds from a dry stick and even turned into a snake; and the manna had appeared from heaven every morning (apart from the Sabbath) for years. Any community can be identified and sustained by certain standards, rituals and meals, but what set the Israelites apart was that they believed theirs were all given by God.


The Bible in a Year – 17 September

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

17 September. 1 Chronicles chapters 11-12

The anointing of David is followed in chapter 11 by an account of the exploits of David and his band of elite warriors (the “Three” and the “Thirty”) – maybe an early version of the SAS, highly trained men who were sent in to situations regarded as too dangerous for ordinary troops.

There is an interesting incident in 11:15-19 where some of these elite soldiers go to fetch water from the well in David’s home town of Bethlehem, currently under enemy occupation.  David is no doubt grateful for the gesture, just as people in exile or expatriates will request some familiar food from their home country. He would also have been proud of their achievement, but feels unable to drink the water that has been required such risk-taking.  Instead he pours it out on the ground as an offering back to God.  What gifts have you ever received that you felt unable to receive, or unworthy to enjoy?

Chapter 12 lists the troops from all the tribes of Israel – over 340,000 of them – who amassed around David in order to support his claim as pretender to Saul’s throne. Saul was the ‘rightful’ leader who had developed dementia – see my comments earlier in the year – and turned against David to persecute him.  Such a large rebel army inspired by religious zeal could only cause problems all round, as we have witnessed with the rise of radical groups such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh.  From that perspective it is hard to have sympathy with David and his band, even although he is regarded by Jews (and therefore to some extent by Christians) as a spiritual hero.

The Bible in a Year – 16 September

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

16 September. 1 Chronicles chapters 9-10

Chapter 9 is the last in the series of genealogies. The focus in verses 17-32 is on the ‘gatekeepers’.  They had a key role in protecting the building and guarding its treasures, and preparing for worship.  There were four permanent keepers, one for each gate, with a large rota of (presumably unpaid) assistants.  Alongside them (v.33) were the Temple singers.    It seems that this organisational structure was not unlike that of a Cathedral today, with the Dean (equal in importance to the Bishop, though with a different role), Precentor, Succentor and Chapter, and again often a large rota of volunteer chaplains, visitor guides and so on.  The worship of God may be essentially a matter for the individual heart and conscience, but when there is a large gathered community and a large building in which worship can take place, a great degree of organisation is inevitable.

Chapter 10 reveals that the purpose of the preceding nine chapters of family history was to lead up to, and provide proof of the validity of, the anointing of David as King over Judah.  The rest of the book largely duplicates the history of his reign as already recorded in the books of Samuel.

The Bible in a Year – 18 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

18 July. Psalms 108-114

Three of these are classed as Psalms of David (108-110), and show a wide range of attitude, from confident praise and joy to anger, fear and despondency.  Even allowing that they were written at different times in an eventful life, they seem to have been written by someone with wide mood swings (possibly what we would now call bipolar?)


The other four in this set (111-114) turn back to exploring God, his character and his dealings with people. I will focus on Ps.112. It deals with “those who fear the Lord, [and] delight in his commandments”.  ‘Fear’ of God in the Bible does not mean trembling and anxiety, like fear of an earthly enemy or bully, but rather a healthy respect for God’s power over all aspects of our lives, including life and death, and an awareness of the consequences of rebelling against him.


So what is promised to those who fear God?  There is a promise of material prosperity in verse 3, but the more important reward is righteousness before God and “being remembered for ever”, in contrast to the “wicked” who “gnash their teeth and melt away; their desire comes to nothing.”  This “Being remembered for ever” is possibly by their descendants, but maybe this refers more to God himself “remembering”, i.e. acknowledging them in eternal life.


It is not only such people themselves who obtain blessings; their “descendants” and their “generation” will also be blessed. How? Because those who fear the Lord are “gracious, merciful, and righteous” (attributes of God himself), they are generous and honest.  But they are also  characterised by stability: consistent in their faith, not afraid of evil, nor of anyone.


So the lesson seems to be that fearing God and being generous to others seems to be a win-win strategy: you will be blessed, and so will they and your descendants.

The Bible in a Year – 2 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

2 July. Psalms 32-35

Three of these psalms (32, 34 and 35) are attributed to King David, as are several others. The title of Ps.34 is more explicit: “Of David, when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.” As an aside, the account is told in 1 Samuel 21:10-15, although the incident is ascribed there to Achish king of Gath, not Abimelech, who does not appear in the stories of David elsewhere.   I suppose it is possible David used the same trick twice.


The point is, that titles such as this help us to remember that the Bible, and perhaps the Psalms especially, are based on real life.  David did not write these songs for commercial gain, or as a hobby.  He had a very eventful life, from being a shepherd boy, to a young warrior, to a military commander, to King, but it was not a smooth progression.  Along the way he made enemies, some of whom he defeated but others not.  Even after being king for a while, he had to flee, hide and rely on the protection of strangers.  He also got into trouble with his love for women.


But throughout his life David knew that he was supposed to be doing God’s will.  These songs are his honest response to those experiences.  To take just a couple of verses from one of them: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.  … O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.” (Ps.34:4,8).


Many people today find that creative writing, or music, help them cope with difficulty. Putting your thoughts and feelings down on paper, or even better saying or singing them out loud, are better than bottling them up unspoken.  While seeing a counsellor may well be helpful, God himself is the great counsellor. Talking to him in prayer and singing his praise are good therapy too.

The Bible in a Year – 27 June

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

27 June. Psalms 1-8.

The Psalms – all 150 of them – are so diverse and rich in meaning that it is going to be difficult to write just a few paragraphs about each batch of them.  Some days I may write a little about each one, other days pick a single psalm to explore.  If I have missed your favourite, do let me know why you like it!  I will be using the ‘protestant’ rather than ‘catholic’ numbering of the psalms, since that is what I am more familiar with, and sometimes I will quote from the traditional translations rather than the modern (NRSV). But let’s start with the first one.


Some Bibles give each psalm the Latin title by which it was known in the days when they were regularly changed by monks and parish choirs in that ancient language.  The first is known as Beatus vir  – “Blessed is the man”.  Modern translations render this as “Happy are those (… who do not follow the advice of the wicked)”.  Right at the start of this collection of wisdom poetry and sacred songs is the assertion that the route to true happiness is not through “success”, wealth or even good health, but in moral virtue.  Those who follow God’s way are like well-watered trees: strong, resistant to anything life can throw at them, and (though the psalmist would not have realised this) producing life-giving oxygen to sustain human life.  The wicked by contrast are “chaff” – straw in the wind – and of no use to anyone.


Psalm 2 is the bold statement of the king in Jerusalem that he is God’s son and that through him God will bring victory over those who conspire against him.  No doubt written by or for one of the kings of Judah, probably David to whom several of the psalms are attributed, but Christians see this as a prophecy fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, whom God addressed audibly as “son” at his baptism, and whose “reign” from Jerusalem started with his resurrection.


Psalm 4 is one of those regularly sung at Compline (the last prayer time of the day in the monastic tradition), owing to its last verse: “In peace will I lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.”  Combined with verse 4 “When you are angry do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent”, this helps us to relax and forget our worries at the end of the day.


Psalms 5, 6 and 7 are among the many written in times of anguish by David (or others) who were in terror of their enemies.  From them we learn that God is never with those who wield terror and threats, rather he is with their intended victims, for he is the defender of the weak and oppressed.  Never forget that, and always consider which side you are on in times of dispute.


Psalm 8 is definitely one of my favourites.  For a rare moment in the Bible, which normally pays little attention to the skies (perhaps as a reaction against the sun-worship and astrology of other religions), we are reminded that this earth is just a tiny part of a vast and wonderful creation, the whole purpose of which is to bring praise and glory to its creator.  The writer of this psalm could not have begun to imagine the vastness of the universe as scientists now describe it, but even so he or she was over-awed by creation and moved to worship.  So should we be.