David, son of Jesse – the one who became King of Judah and Israel – anointed as a young lad, the one who defeated Goliath, the one who established Jerusalem as the holy city and brought the Ark of the Covenant to reside. King David of whom the Books of Kings and Chronicles hold up as favored of God, as the high-water mark of all the kings – it is his voice who cries out to the Lord. “A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn” (Ps 51:19) Such is the refrain from the Responsorial Psalm from today’s readings.
The psalm begins “A psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had gone to Bathsheba.” It describes a scene from 2 Sam 11:1 thru 12:14 in which King David was sleeping with another man’s wife (Bathsheba), impregnated her, and arranged her husband Uriah’s murder. The confessional prayer of this Psalm is deeply personal for David, but its instructional elements provide a framework for how we are to have a heart contrite and humble. The Psalm is best read as a whole taking all 19 verses into context. As you read through the Psalm, you will find a few key elements that explain what it means to have a contrite heart.
The Psalm opens with an appeal to God for mercy and forgiveness. As David openly admits his sin, he confesses God’s mercy is not something that he deserves, but desires. David does not spend his time looking inward for the answer or solution to his problem but humbles himself by looking outward towards God and His promises. A contrite heart means that we come before God acknowledging our sin and proclaiming God’s goodness. This form of humble spirit expresses our need for God alone. It does not blame God or others for our sin, but rather takes full responsibility for the actions we took. As we humble ourselves before God, we recognize and become dependent upon His mercy.
Psalm 51:3 describes David as having his sin ever before him. He feels such guilt over what he has done, and places responsibility on the proper party—himself. In verse 4 David continues to proclaim that he has sinned only against God. He is fully aware that his actions have hurt others, but points to the idea that God is the ultimate judge of all sin, and that sin grieves the Lord.
David may have experienced a guilt-ridden heart, but he didn’t sit in the guilt and shame of his sin. He found the connection between humility and joy. Psalm 51:7-14 describes the process of repentance clearly. The heart contrite and humble turns back towards the Lord. The turning away from sin and turning to the Lord – that is what it means to repent. The goal of true repentance is not shame, fear or self-deprecation, but to be restored into the joy of salvation. As we see the hand of mercy saving us, we can have no other response than deep abiding gratitude.
Our Lent begins with the refrain of Ash Wednesday: “Repent and believe in the Good News.” May we turn toward God with hearts contrite and humble.