30 Aug 2019

Ruminating on Psalm 51: Clean Hearts and the Holy Spirit

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christian hope, Discipleship, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Holy Spirit, King David, Precision Obedience, Psalms, Spiritual Disciplines

This evening I have thought about the famous Psalm 51. The heading of this psalm is what contributes to its fame for it associates the text with David’s brutal attack upon Bathsheba and her husband Uriah. You may wish to read all of Psalm 51 but my comments are focused on verses 10 to 12.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me
” (NIV)

The word “spirit” is the word ruah in Hebrew. Ruah occurs approximately 400x in the Hebrew Bible, that is a lot. About fifty of those times it is clear in the context that ruah means air or wind (in the sense of the substance of Earth’s atmosphere). That leaves about three hundred and fifty times when it is associated with God. This basic fact often surprises many because they have trouble remembering any texts about the Spirit in the Hebrew Bible.

Typical of Hebraic theology is Psalm 51. Prayer is, itself, a request for divine aid even when such is not explicitly stated. The whole presupposition of prayer is that appeal is made to God because God can and will do something. But our text is an appeal for God to work through God’s Spirit.

Psalm 51 is a text that belongs to all Israelites that come to the temple to worship, not just David. Even if the psalm is literally from David’s own pen, the fact that it was preserved and prayed by thousands and thousands of Israelites for centuries on end show that it expresses the faith of all the faithful. Psalm 51 by was preserved because it was prayed in worship by thousands upon thousands of Israelites for a thousand years before the coming of Jesus (and since).

We need to remember what the Psalter itself is. It is the glorious window into the faith of typical Israelites who loved Yahweh. So it is the Israelite in 800 BC, 500 BC, 300 BC, 100 BC and AD 33 that utters the words within the congregation in the temple. Historical context matters. Hear the plea.

Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Ps 51.10)

The context of the psalm is that of gross sin (the Israelite long after David found the Spirit’s words to be their own though their sin may be radically different. Our sin does not have to be exactly David’s sin to pray for God to create a clean heart in us). Sin, of such a nature, the psalmist believes is beyond his/her ability to conqueror. That is he/she does not have the power to overcome it through human willpower. The Israelite who prays these words denies “the will to power.” This is not some mere ceremonial uncleanness (and Israelites understood the radical distinction between mere uncleanness and sin).

The editors of the Psalter thought it was a fitting Psalm to illustrate the horrific fall of David when he raped Bathsheba and murdered Uriah to cover his crime against her. It is not our will to power but divine power that is plead for to bring about the change the heart. The power of sin (or Sin) is greater than the power of David or any Israelite (or you and me) to overcome it.

Clearly the psalm bears witness to the desire to overcome the sin but the prayer itself confess our inability to master it.

Isn’t this the desire that Moses commanded Israelites in Deuteronomy? The Prophet Moses commanded them to “circumcise your hearts” and not be “stiff necked” (10.16)? But did not the same Moses note that Israel, like David and the thousands praying Psalm 51, would fail in this?

So Moses promises that Yahweh, in an astounding act of grace, would,

The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts
and the hearts of your descendants,
SO THAT you may love him with all your heart
and with all your soul, and live
” (Deut 30.6).

This is the prayer of Psalm 51.

Significantly, this Psalm also uses the word bara (create). This is not the word “make” but “create.” This is evocative of the creation account in Genesis 1. Only God can bara in the Hebrew Bible. Of no other person is the word used of in the Bible. “In the beginning God created (bara) …”

The ancient Israelite encountered the creation stories the same way they did the psalms, in communal worship. In Genesis, God’s creation of the pristine and good world is accompanied by the “Spirit of God” filling the useless chaotic void with life and goodness.

So the psalmist pairs his/her own prayer with creation and the Spirit

… do to me what you did “in the beginning”
… make me new, fresh, and “very good”
… such an act of grace is nothing an Israelite could do by his/her strength, work, precision obedience or sheer will to power.

A new creation must ensue. It must be a new creation of God through God’s own ruah. God must work on the Israelite through the Holy Spirit to bring about the prayed for change. God’s empowerment is recognized as a necessity by the psalmist. This is a powerful conception of grace.

Psalm 51 is the prayer that thousands upon thousands of Israelites confessed and prayed in the context of their own struggles for God to do to them what Moses promised God would do. We need God to operate on our heart, we need God to do what we have proven miserable failures at.

Each pilgrim prays for Yahweh to create a clean heart, a circumcised heart, made new by the same Spirit that created the world, to make it “very good” as it was “in the beginning.” The Jew knows this is not done by their own initiative or boot straps. There is no illusion of self-sufficiency. No amount of Precision Obedience can bara a clean heart. This comes only through the act of God’s Ruah.

That Spirit binds the Israelite to God in fellowship. Thus the prayer warrior continues.

Do not cast me away from you Presence
and do not take your Holy Spirit from me
” (Ps 51.11)

John Goldingay suggests this as the proper translation of Ps 51.11-12

Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit

This is a nonsensical plea, if the average faithful Israelite had zero conception of personal fellowship with God through God’s Spirit. Further the person praying this prayer in worship recognizes that Yahweh sustains him/her through the instrumentality of the Spirit and with the parallelism makes it abundantly clear that the saving help is from the ruah.

The saving help of Psalm 51 is God’s ruah, God’s Holy Spirit. Not only is the Spirit the instrument of help in overcoming sin and the creation of the clean heart but the Spirit functions as the means of fellowship with God. Communion with God was therefore in and through the Holy ruah of God.

The psalmist hungers for a clean heart. But the psalmist wants God even more. The Holy Spirit was the means to the clean heart in order to bring communion with the God of Israel. Jesus, the Master Rabbi of the Psalms, knew from this and many other psalm texts, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Mt. 5.8).

Psalm 51 takes on even more significance for disciples of King Jesus. The Psalm is deeper and more powerful in the light of Christ and Pentecost, not less! We know the heinous depth of Sin in our hearts because of the Cross and we know the joy of the gift of the Holy Spirit. So we stand alongside David, Hezekiah, Huldah, John the Baptist, Mary, James, Peter, Paul and all the Cloud of Witnesses and make this prayer our own.

Thank you God for dwelling with, and empowering, your People through your Holy Spirit. Amen.

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