During this strange time, I’d been engaged with Psalm 31. Before posting the reflection on Psalm 31, I checked to see what Walter Brueggemann might have written about it. This sermon from the pulpit of Duke University Chapel fits our experience in 2020 as much as it did in 2009. Here are the opening words:
The young woman who sits across from me at Church is there every Sunday. She sits in a wheelchair close to the pulpit. She cannot control the movement of her legs, and mostly not her arms either. She groans and occasionally shrieks. My priest tells me she is fed only with a feeding tube. One of her parents must sleep on the floor of her room every night. She takes a fragment of the Eucharist every Sunday. Her mother said, reported my priest, “Do you think I am bad person if sometimes I wish this were all over?” The priest answered, “You would be a pitiful person if you did not think that sometimes.”
I do not know what the young woman is thinking when she communes. But I have thought, perhaps, that she is reciting Psalm 31 . . . ,a complaint to God about the experience of unbearable suffering and a sense of social isolation . . . .
Walter Brueggemann, Sermon "Continuing through the Disruptive Conjunctive" - Duke University Chapel, Palm/Passion Sunday, 2009.
About Walter Brueggemann & most recently published Books
The Rev. Dr. Walter Brueggemann is William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament Emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary. Click HERE for more information on the official website of Walter Brueggemann, or click the following titles titles for his latest publications.
Leonard Bernstein’s “Simple Song” is a rendering of Psalm 121. It also calls to mind “Blessed are the pure of heart” — the Beatitude from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. It’s music that calms my whirling soul among the clanging cymbals.
The comforter feels heavy. My body is sore. So is my spirit. I shift from one side to the other and turn on my back, but it doesn’t help.
I look over to the night table at the old digital clock that once told my parents the time of day or night — the inheritance with the BIG red numbers that glow in the dark to help old folks read them.
The red numbers read 3:13.
I throw off the covers, stumble down the 18 steps to the first floor, make a pot of coffee, pour myself a cup, turn on the small table lamp by the fireplace, and sit down for an early morning conversation with the psalmist in the copy of The Book of Common Prayer Sue Kahn put in my hand years ago.
MEDITATION ON PSALM 5 (SELECTED VERSES)
In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; early in the morning I make my appeal and watch for you.[v.3]
I will put my trust in You. I will not surrender to powers that know no higher power.
You, Lord, are the Breath that breathes in all and makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and unjust — “Lord of lords and King of kings,” the Eternal One from Whom the little kings and usurpers cannot flee.
I make my appeal to You for Whom the darkness is as light. Things are dark here in America. We are divided. The future looks dark. Although my faith tells me You are present everywhere, I do not feel hopeful. It seems as though You have left us to our own devises.
For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness, and evil cannot dwell with You. [v.4]
Though it feels as though You are hiding, I have to believe You do not take pleasure in wickedness, and that the partisan evil, as bold and obvious as the big red numbers on my parents’ digital clock at 3:13 A.M, will not prevail. Evil cannot dwell with You.
Braggarts cannot stand in your sight; you hate all those who work wickedness. [v.5]
Does it matter to You?
If braggarts cannot stand in Your sight, come into sight. Show Yourself. Take Your seat on the judgment throne to hold the braggarts accountable for their treason against You and all that breathes. Summon the braggarts to stand before You before it is too late.
Do You hate wickedness? Does Love also hate? Do You shrug and let it go?
But as for me, through the greatness of your mercy I will go into your house; I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you. (v.7)
I will bow down in awe of You. The good green Earth is Your temple. I will look to the greatness of Your mercy. When it feels as though You are hiding, I will seek You. I will remember the wisdom of the Hasidic grandfather teach his grandson about You, when young Yechiel came home in tears because his friend had stopped looking for him in a game of hide-and-seek.
“Rebbe Barukh caressed Yechiel’s face, and with tears welling up in his eyes, he whispered softly, ‘God too Yechiel, God too is weeping. For, He too has been hidden with no one looking for Him’.” (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim).
“Create in me a clean heart, O God…” is a well-known prayer from the Psalms. It’s context — its back-story — is not so familiar.
Psalm 51 is a prayer attributed to David. It is not a quiet prayer. It is a wrenching, sobbing prayer, the words tumbling from David’s mouth in halting phrases and stammers with tears flooding his eyes, streaming down his cheeks.
The Inward Being
“Behold, You seek truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” (Psalm 51:6)
Is the secret heart the deepest place in us, the place where God is: the equivalent or synonym for “the inward being” – a poetic parallelism of Hebrew poetry? Or is it, perhaps, the secret place where we hide from God: the hiding place where we go off to a different heart than the Divine heart? Or could it be both at the same time?
David’s secret heart is dirty and he knows it. He cannot wash the stain of blood from his hands. “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,” he cries out, “and cleanse from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” It is a scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:
“Out, damn spot! OUT, I say…. all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!”
The Hebrew Psalms are like that. They are not sanitized. They plunge the reader into the conflict between the reader’s inmost being, the true secret heart, you might say – the heart that pumps life into us – and the secret heart of our flight from truth and goodness, the heart of deception and self-deception.
Why is David crying out? What has he done? What is the sin that is ever before him, the blood he can’t wash from his own hands?
A Response to Accusation
Psalm 51 comes in response to an accusation that has exposed the bloody behavior his secretive heart has produced. It is Nathan, David’s commander on the battlefront, who confronts David with the truth.
Nathan has just returned from the front to tell David that Uriah, the King’s next door neighbor, a man of impeccable loyalty valor, Bathsheba’s husband, whom David’s scheming heart has sent off to war, is dead! His blood is on David! Nathan has spoken the truth to power.
There is no wisdom in David’s secret heart. There is treachery there.
“Purge me!” cries David. Imagine Richard Burton at his most dramatic. “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow!” (Ps. 51:7)
Hyssop, the foliage of an aromatic plant named in the Passover story (Exodus 12:21-27), was used in the cleansing of a leper (Leviticus 4:51).
Two Small Birds
The rite of cleansing centers on two small birds. One bird is killed. The other bird is washed in the blood of the other under the flow of water and the sweetness of hyssop. The one bird dies. The second bird lives.
“Thus he (the priest) shall cleanse the house with the blood of the bird, and with the running water, and with the living bird, and with the cedarwood and hyssop and the scarlet stuff; and he shall let the living bird go out of the city into the open field; so he shall make atonement for the house, and it shall be clean.” (Lev. 14:52-53)
“Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation” cries Uriah’s killer curled up in a ball, hoping against all hope, “and my tongue will sing aloud of Your deliverance.” (Ps. 51:14)
Release Into the Open Field
David is both birds. He is the one who deserves to die. He is also the one who is living. He lives not because of the secretive heart that had conspired against Uriah, betraying his own inward being – “Against You only have I sinned…” (Ps. 51:4). He lives on because there is more mercy in God (the inward being) than there is sin in him.
“The sacrifice acceptable to God,” he concludes with tears, is “a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”
His body quivers as he imagines himself as the bird released into the open field by mercy alone, “according to Your steadfast love; according to Your abundant mercy.” (Ps. 51:1)