God, Be Merciful to Me

Joint Committee on a Uniform Version of the Psalms in Meter, 1909
Based on Psalm 51
Addressed to God
God, be merciful to me,Ps. 51:1; 130:2; 143:1; Jer. 31:9; Luke 18:13
on thy grace I rest my plea;Heb. 4:16
plenteous in compassion thou,Ps. 78:38; 103:13; Is. 54:7–8; Lam. 3:32
blot out my transgressions now;Is. 43:25; Acts 3:19
wash me, make me pure within,Ps. 51:2; John 13:8; Acts 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11
cleanse, oh, cleanse me from my sin.Lev. 16:30; Zech. 13:1; 1 John 1:9b
My transgressions I confess,Ps. 51:3; 32:5; Lev. 26:40–42; 1 John 1:9a
grief and guilt my soul oppress;
I have sinned against thy gracePs. 51:4; 2 Sam. 12:13; Luke 15:18; Rom. 2:4
and provoked thee to thy face;Is. 65:3
I confess thy judgment just,Zech. 3:3; Rom. 3:5–6; Rev. 9:2
speechless, I thy mercy trust.Neh. 5:8; Ps. 39:9
I am evil, born in sin;Ps. 51:5; Is. 48:8
thou desirest truth within.Ps. 51:6; John 18:37
Thou alone my Savior art,Is. 43:11; Hos. 13:4; Jude 25
teach thy wisdom to my heart;
make me pure, thy grace bestow,Ps. 51:7; Mal. 3:3; Tit. 2:14; Heb 9:14
wash me whiter than the snow.Is. 1:18
Broken, humbled to the dustPs. 51:8; 2 Chr. 12:6
by thy wrath and judgment just,Rev. 16:5–8
let my contrite heart rejoicePs. 13:5; Matt. 23:12
and in gladness hear thy voice;John 5:25
from my sins, oh, hide thy face,Ps. 51:9
blot them out in boundless grace.
Gracious God, my heart renew,Ps. 51:10; Eph. 4:24
make my spirit right and true;
cast me not away from thee,Ps. 51:11; 88:14
let thy Spirit dwell in me;1 Cor. 3:16
thy salvation’s joy impart,Ps. 51:12; Is. 12:3; Hab. 3:18
steadfast make my willing heart.Ps. 57:7
Sinners then shall learn from mePs. 51:13; Luke 22:32
and return, O God, to thee;
Savior, all my guilt remove,Ps. 51:14
and my tongue shall sing thy love;Ps. 101:1; 119:172; Is. 35:6
touch my silent lips, O Lord,Ps. 51:15; Is. 6:7; Dan. 10:16
and my mouth shall praise accord.

One early reader of Alexander Pope’s (1688–1744) now much-beloved translation of Homer’s Iliad remarked, “It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.” To be fair to Pope, the burdens of translation are great and if he failed at retaining many of Homer’s beauties he nevertheless substituted beauties of his own. Such freedom, however, is not allowed to the poet who sets out to paraphrase a psalm, especially when he proposes to make an actual paraphrase and not merely a hymn rich in psalm-like language. The writers of the 1912 Psalter hoped to provide poetically beautiful, yet conceptually faithful hymns on the psalms in an idiom useful to English congregational singing. This hymn is one example of their successes.

Psalm 51’s opening parallelism includes two lines about mercy.

Have mercy on me, O God,
   according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
   blot out my transgressions.

The translating poets here observe, however, that the Hebrew hesed (God’s covenant love) is as much a part of the proposition as mercy, and so, while the hymn’s first line mentions mercy, the parallel second line turns to “grace,” and a grace upon which we rest our plea. The “now” at the end of the fourth line may seem like a concession for the sake of rhyme, but it adds a sense of urgency pervasive in the original psalm that may not easily come out in the hymn otherwise. The poetic parallelism of the Hebrew original is captured well in the last lines of the first stanza. Ideas are repeated between lines 5 and 6, while line 6 itself contains an internal repetition (“cleanse, oh, cleanse”) to make the plea emphatic (compare with the ESV’s exclamation mark at the end of verse two).

The second stanza explains for us what is meant by the original’s “I have known my transgressions.” In the hymn, this idea is expressed as confession. Indeed, what truly Christian confession does not begin with a full admission of sin to oneself? Its opposite, as Wordsworth put it, dwells in a land “where passions [have] the privilege to work / and never hear the sound of their own names.” The hymn-writers add and take away in the second couplet, omitting the original’s “against you only” as too abstruse for congregational song but turning “in your sight” into something much more fierce—“provoked thee to thy face.” Another addition at the end of the stanza is useful, too. We are speechless in the face of God’s judgment. We cannot defend ourselves. We can, however, turn in trust to Christ for mercy, an idea which is not mentioned in the Psalm but certainly should be mentioned in the Christian’s corporate prayer.

The third stanza cuts the parallelism from verses 5 and 6 to create room for “thou alone my Savior art” and “thy grace bestow,” useful phrases that lend context to the original’s “teach me wisdom in the secret heart” and “purge me with hyssop.” The hymn generalizes the psalm’s “let the bones that you have broken rejoice” as “broken, humbled to the dust” so that it is our heart, not our actual bones, that rejoice. This follows the model of other scriptural passages. And again, rather than follow the psalm’s exactly parallel structure in verse 9, the last couplet of stanza 4 adds “boundless grace.” All these additions make the psalm more fit for corporate Christian (rather than its originally private Hebrew) usage.

The addition of “O God” in the second line of stanza 6 may seem only useful for the sake of scansion, but consider that the antecedent of “thee” in the psalm itself must be searched for by looking upward three whole verses. The addition is an aid to clarity. Note, too, that the most context-specific word of the whole psalm, “bloodguiltiness,” which links the psalm to David’s murder of Uriah the Hittite, has been here wisely changed to “all my guilt.”

So, in its sense, the hymn shares much beauty with the psalm but also adds its own beauties which Christianize and contextualize the original. But what of the poetry itself? The trochaic rhythm of the hymn is relentless. So, too, are the end-stopped lines. So, indeed, is the line length. Six lines of seven syllables each, every one with the same unfailing rhythm, every one ending with a final stressed rhyme against a neighboring line, make the form of the poem work like a battering ram against the gate of heaven.

The first two measures of REDHEAD (PETRA/GETHSEMANE), setting the first line of the text’s first couplet, also set the first line of the last couplet. Sandwiched in between is a pair of melodically identical phrases. The pattern of musical repetition across the three couplets, then, can be schematically diagramed aa' bb aa''. The broad and decorous antecedent–consequent relations of the aa' material, temporarily suspended by the piecemeal repetition of b, return at measure 9, as the tune submits to the logic of its own structure. What ties the melodic phrases together is their generally ascending motion. The melody of line 1 ascends from E-flat to A-flat (an ascent of three steps) and lands on G (two steps higher than it began). The melody of line 3 ascends from E-flat to C (higher than before) and lands on B-flat. When this gesture is repeated in line 4, its importance is more clear. The tune stops short of a climax every time. This pitiable upward longing rather suits the contrition emphasized in the text. The repeated ascent of the middle period (labeled bb above) is useful as a gesture of importunity for “blot out my transgressions now” in stanza 1, for the confession in lines 3–4 of stanza 2, and for the expectancy in stanza 4; the quarter notes of measure 6 aggressively displace the dotted rhythm sung at the analogous place in measure 2, and the repetition in measures 7–8 asserts itself like an interjection. But there’s a humility, too, in the relatively small range of the melody and in the way every phrase begins on the same note.