Repentance and introspection are the theme as we approach Yom Kippur on Saturday. Today my mind is on an ancient prayer of repentance. Its meaning may be surprising to some, who are of the strange opinion that grace started in the book of Matthew (even worse, some would say Romans).
I am frequently reminding people that while revelation is progressive, that doesn’t mean ancient Israel was the stone age. In fact, I challenge people regularly to find teaching in the New Testament that isn’t already contained in seed form in the Hebrew Bible. Other than a few specifics, there is nothing new about the New Testament. (Okay, that was a little extreme, but my short list of New Testament innovations would include only a few things like: God’s triune nature and the deity of Messiah).
So, as I look at this 3,000 year old prayer of repentance, I want to do two things:
1. Show you the depths of grace in the prayer.
2. Suggest this prayer as a resource for your High Holiday praying.
The 3,000 year old prayer that amazes me with its grace and complexity is Psalm 51:12 (51:10 in English Bibles):
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
It’s possible to quibble a tiny bit about translation, but this verse is amazingly simple in Hebrew. If there is any variation in translation, it is of minor consequence. Consider the Jewish Publication Society version:
Create me a clean heart, O God; and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Consider what this prayer is asking for. What does David mean by heart and spirit? How can God clean our heart or give us a right spirit? Doesn’t that violate the principle of free will?
Another writer, about 1,400 years after David, famously said to God, “Command what you will and grant what you command.” The writer? Augustine in his Confessions.
Can we really ask God to change something about our inner nature? Will he do it?
First, the idea that a leader in ancient Israel (writing in the “Old” Testament, for crying out loud) would ask and expect to receive inner change goes against the ludicrous maxim that before the cross or before Acts 2 people had no inner presence of the divine. I frequently hear people, based on verses like John 7:39, suggest that the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit is a new thing. Not exactly. David expected God to effect change in his inner person with this prayer.
Now, let’s break the prayer down and consider its meaning. The first question should be: what does David mean by heart and spirit?
Let’s not be overly complex here. I won’t try to write a 2,000 word lexical study. I’ll simply say that heart stands for emotions and thoughts. Spirit here also means a person’s emotional state. It is not being used in the technical sense for a person’s soul or spirit.
Why do I say that? If you think about it, David’s prayer (and other uses of the word spirit) could not mean the inner person of David. He is not asking God, “Take away the spirit I was born with and give me a new one.” That would make David another person.
No, by spirit, he means an emotional/ethical state. David was in a lustful frame of mind in the Bathsheba incident. He asked for God to change his lustful state and replace it with an inner sense of holiness and with greater priorities.
Those of us who have experienced sin, and even gross sin, within ourselves, can readily admit to experiencing this phenomena. I sometimes use the image of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There are times when pure selfishness/greed/lust/desire/covetousness seems to possess my heart and will. At other times, I am possessed by a spirit of holiness and shudder at the thought of sin. Most of the time I am somewhere in between.
The prayer of Psalm 51:12 (10 in English Bibles) is a prayer for a pure state of mind. It is asking God to enter our inner being and clean out the impurity. It is inviting God to meddle with our emotional/ethical state of mind. It is surrendering a piece of ourselves to God and asking him to temporarily take it over since we are managing it poorly. What a radical prayer!
Psalm 51:12 assumes the most intimate connection between ourselves and God. This is not the prayer of a religion-at-arms-length. This is a prayer of immanence, accepting the idea that God surrounds us rather than believing the notion that God is too far away or too busy to notice.
The rest of the Psalm is great as well. It is a prayer fitting for Yom Kippur and the days leading up to Yom Kippur. It is a prayer worth reciting each time God reveals to us a bit of the ugliness he wants to purge from our inner being.