“GOD, BE MERCIFUL TO ME” (Psalm 51)
“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindness” (Ps. 51:1)
INTRO.: A song which asks God to have mercy upon us according to His lovingkindness is “God, Be Merciful to Me” (#501 in Hymns for Worship Revised). The text is a poetic rendering of Psalm 51:1-15 which first appeared in The Book of Psalms for Singing, published in 1973 by the Board of Education and Publication of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, Pittsburgh, PA. A slightly altered version of it appeared in the 1974 Selected Psalms for Church Singing edited by Edward Fudge and originally published by the C. E. I. Publishing Company of Athens, AL. From there, it made its way into Hymns for Worship.
All three of these books set it to a tune (Toplady) composed in 1830 by Thomas Hastings and most commonly associated with Augustus M. Toplady’s hymn “Rock of Ages.” The first edition of Hymns for Worship had words only of vs. 9-15 with the suggested tune of “For the Beauty of the Earth.” The second edition had words only of vs. 1-4 and 9-15 with the suggested tune of “Rock of Ages,” following Selected Psalms for Church Singing. The Book of Psalms for Singing actually had only vs. 1-8 with the “Rock of Ages” tune and had vs. 9-15 with another tune (Redhead, Ajalon, or Petra) composed by Richard Redhead and often associated with James Montgomery’s “Go to Dark Gethsemane.”
The newer Book of Psalms for Worship, published in 2010 by Crown and Covenant Publications for the Board of Education and Publication of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America has slightly altered arrangements of both vs. 1-8 and 9-15, adding vs. 16-19 to the latter which The Book of Psalms for Singing had set to a separate tune (Guide), with the same tunes, but adds another tune (Jesu Meine Zuversicht) composed in 1653 by Johann Cruger and usually associated with “Jesus Lives, and So Shall I,” as an alternate tune for vs. 1-8. The fact is that any tune of six lines each having seven syllables will do, such as one (Heathlands) composed in 1866 by Henry Thomas Smart and used with Charles Wesley’s “Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies” in Kelly Hersey’s Hymn Supplement 2007.
The song expresses repentance and seeks God’s forgiveness.
I. Stanza 1 emphasizes God’s mercy
God, be merciful to me; On Thy grace I rest my plea;
In Thy vast, abounding grace, My transgressions all erase.
Wash me wholly from my sin; Cleanse from every ill within.
A. Our God is a God who is merciful and gracious: Ps. 103:8
B. Therefore, we can depend on His grace for salvation: Eph. 2:8-9
C. Because of His mercy, He will wash or cleanse us from our sins: Acts 22:16
II. Stanza 2 emphasizes our sin
For my sins before me rise, Ever present to my eyes.
I have sinned ‘gainst Thee alone, In Thy sight this evil done;
That Thy judgment may be clear, And Thy sentence just appear.
A. All of us have sinned: Rom. 3:23
B. All sin is against God, a transgression of His law: 1 Jn. 3:4
C. When God judges sin, it will be in justice or righteousness: Acts 17:30-31
III. Stanza 3 emphasizes the truth
Lo, brought forth was I in sin; When conceived, I was unclean.
Lo, Thou doest desire to find Truth sincere within the mind:
And Thou wilt within my heart Wisdom unto me impart.
A. I suspect that this stanza is omitted in our books because it sounds like “total inherited depravity,” but the verse does say, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me,” so the question is, if we can understand Scriptures to teach that we are conceived and born into a world of sin, then we can understand the first line to mean the same thing, again implying the universality of sin: Rom. 5:12 (I will admit, the second line, “When conceived, I was unclean,” still is somewhat problematic because the verse isn’t saying anything about David’s personal spiritual condition, or ours either)
B. However, part of God’s antidote to the problem of sin is the truth: Jn. 8:32
C. And those who fear God and seek His truth will find wisdom: Prov. 9:10
IV. Stanza 4 emphasizes God’s cleansing
Then with hyssop sprinkle me, And from sin I clean shall be.
Wash me from its stain, and, lo, I shall whiter be than snow.
Make me hear joy’s cheering voice; Make my broken bones rejoice.
A. Under the old covenant, the use of hyssop was part of the process by which cleansing was made: Heb. 9:19
B. When God washes our sins away, we are made whiter than snow: Isa. 1:18
C. And by being thus cleansed, we can rejoice in the Lord: Phil. 4:4
V. Stanza 5 emphasizes renewal
From my sins hide Thou Thy face; My iniquities erase.
O my God, renew my heart, And a spirit right impart,
Cast me not away from Thee, Nor Thy Spirit take from me.
A. Of course, we cannot be right with God until our iniquities are erased: Heb. 10:17-18
B. But once we turn to God and find forgiveness, our inward man can be renewed day by day: 2 Cor. 4:16
C. It is the influence of the Holy Spirit in our lives which brings about this renewal: Gal. 5:22-23
VI. Stanza 6 emphasizes joy
Give salvation’s joy again, And a willing mind sustain.
Then Thy perfect ways I’ll show, That transgressors may them know.
They converted then shall be; Sinners shall be turned to Thee.
A. Salvation brings joy to one’s life: Acts 16:30-34
B. Only when we ourselves have the joy of salvation in our lives can we hope to show God’s ways to others and convert sinners by teaching them: 2 Tim. 2:2
C. Our books substitute for lines five and six, a couple of lines from stanza 7 below, “Open Thou my lips, O Lord; Then my mouth shall praise accord,” perhaps to bring the song down to verse 15; certainly, the joy of salvation will motivate us to praise the Lord: Heb. 13:15
CONCL.: Here are the final three stanzas which cover vs. 14-19.
7. Free me from the guilt of blood, God, of my salvation God;
Then with joy my tongue shall raise Songs Thy righteousness to praise.
Open Thou my lips, O Lord; Then my mouth shall praise accord.
8. Sacrifice Thou wilt not take, Else would I the offering make.
Offerings burnt bring no delight, But a broken heart, contrite,
God’s accepted sacrifice, Thou, O God, wilt not despise.
9. Prosper Zion in Thy grace; Salem’s broken walls replace.
Then shall sacrifices right, Whole burnt offerings Thee delight;
So will men, their vows to pay, Bullocks on Thine altar lay.
Actually, this is simply an “updated” and expanded arrangement of this same Psalm from the Psalter 1912:
1. God, be merciful to me; On Thy grace I rest my plea;
Plenteous in compassion Thou, Blot out my transgressions now;
Wash me, make me pure within; Cleanse, O cleanse me from my sin.
2. My transgressions I confess; Grief and guilt my soul oppress.
I have sinned against Thy grace, And provoked Thee to Thy face.
I confess Thy judgement just; Speechless, I Thy mercy trust.
3. I am evil, born in sin; Thou desirest truth within.
Thou alone my Savior art, Teach Thy wisdom to my heart;
Make me pure, Thy grace bestow, Wash me whiter than the snow.
4. Broken, humbled to the dust By Thy wrath and judgment just,
Let my contrite heart rejoice, And in gladness hear Thy voice;
From my sins O hide Thy face, Blot them out in boundless grace.
5. Gracious God, my heart renew, Make my spirit right and true.
Cast me not away from Thee, Let Thy Spirit dwell in me;
Thy salvation’s joy impart, Steadfast make my willing heart.
6. Sinners then shall learn from me, And return, O God, to Thee
Savior all my guilt remove, And my tongue shall sing Thy love
Touch my silent lips, O Lord, And my mouth shall praise accord.
I want to live for God, but, like David, I sometimes transgress His law and fall into sin. And, like David, I need to repent. When I do, therefore, my request to my heavenly Father, who loves me and wants me to be saved, is “God, Be Merciful to Me.”