This Psalm is one of the most frequently used in the services of the Orthodox Church, mostly due to its penitential character; it is prayed during the service of Compline, as well as in the Order of Confession. It is also present as part of my daily rule of prayer.
According to tradition, this psalm was written by King David after his affair with Bathsheba. There is no doubt that his heart was torn by the weight of his sin and the guilt he felt over what he had done; no one with a heart who reads these words can possibly come away thinking that David was not truly penitent, truly and deeply sorrowful over his sins.
Have mercy on me, O God
according to thy steadfast love;
according to thy abundant mercy
blot out my trangressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
From the opening lines, the character of this psalm is evident. The imploring of God to take away the stain of our sins...notice, that David does not begin by justifying himself or placing the blame elsewhere. He comes to God fully aware of his own failures, and literally throws himself on the mercy of God in earnest repentance. It is God's steadfast love and his abundant mercy that David counts on; not on his own ability to "do better next time,"--he makes no promises to God to somehow try to balance the scales. He has come to the realization that we all must come to...we in ourselves are worthless, and we must come to God in true humility, true contrition of heart, in order to be cleansed and healed.
For I know my transgressions
and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, and thee only, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in thy sight,
so that thou art justified in thy sentence
and blameless in thy judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Notice that the first person David blames is himself; his own conscience convicts him of having done evil in the sight of the Lord. And more than this, he does not say "I am basically a good man, but I have done this one thing..." or some variation thereof; no, indeed, he tells God how he knows that the urge to sin is something deep within him, the perversion of the world that he was born into. Therefore, it is not God's fault--and here is the admission of this psalm that rends the heart of me--to be able to so freely say "thou art justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment." To be able to say so freely to God, "I am a wretched, debauched human being and you have every right to blast me into oblivion with fire from heaven"--and to mean every word of it! Not to say it with any sense of "We know what I'm saying is true, but I can say it because I know you won't." Wow. Just wow. This is why I pray that God will teach me to repent more fully.
Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean;
wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.
Fill me with joy and gladness;
let the bones which thou has broken rejoice.
Hide thy face from my sins,
and blot out my iniquities.
This may be my favorite part of this psalm. God desires nothing half so much as for us to understand, truly, who we are in our inward being. However, we cover over our true personhood with the mask of individuality...which is the foolish lie of our corrupted wills. The recognition that without God to help up, we cannot become the clean, pure, good people we want to be. And then comes the kicker, "Fill me with joy and gladness; let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice." In effect, David is saying, "Punish me, O Lord, and let me do more than endure it, but to rejoice in knowing that my suffering is your will...and I'd rather do your will than seek my own comfort!" I pray that I will one day be able to pray that in earnest; truly, this is God using what is foolish in the eyes of the world to confound the wise. Only when we can embrace this can we truly be called repentant.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence
and take not thy holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of thy salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
This, of course, is further recognition of the fact that we are incapable of achieving our own salvation. Self justification is not possible, and if we want to be truly righteous (not merely self-righteous), then we must pray, as David does, for God to uphold us and help us effect the changes in ourselves that we wish to make, so that we may be in communion with him.
Then I will teach transgressors thy ways,
and sinners will return to thee.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
thou God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of thy deliverance.
Truly, David is saying to us, if God can effect this change in someone as sinful and wanton as I am, he can bring anyone to repentance and salvation. Lord, let this be true for me, thy unprofitable servant, also. Is there any greater joy, any greater reason to sing aloud, than the the mercy of God being poured out upon us--than our deliverance from the corruption of the grave that follows from our broken communion with God?
O Lord, open thou my lips,
and my mouth will show forth thy praise.
For thou hast no delight in sacrifice;
were I to give a burnt offering
thou wouldst not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God,
thou wilt not despise.
Again, amazing is the fact that this psalm, so focused at the outset on very human self-loathing and the need for repentance, turns now at the end to utter and complete praise of our God--the God of our salvation--who desires from us not the burnt flesh of animals upon the altar of the law...not the juridical understanding of salvation as the price paid to balance the scales---but the healing that comes from true repentance, the broken and contrite heart that truly desires that communion with God restored. That is what God desires from us, his fallen creatures; and praised and glorified forever is Jesus, the Christ, the Lamb of God who takest away the sin of the world!
Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure;
Rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
then wilt thou delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on thy altar.
The pslam ends in recognition of the need for community. "Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure" means that the community of the faithful, the old Isreal of history (and the spiritual Isreal of the New Covenant--the Church), is necessary for the right and proper relationship to God. It is through the good pleasure of God that he has brought us to him through his Church, and in it we are meant to come to the rebuilding of the Kingdom--not from stone and mortar, but through the eternal love and mercy of Christ, the stone the builders rejected that has become the head of the corner. Then and only then can we understand the sacrificial nature of our repentance; only then will be be able to offer the right sacrifices unto God, because then we will be doing it not out of blind, strict obedience to a law that demands restiution y for sin x, but offering our sacrifices out of a willing heart, a willingness to praise God as fully as we can--not merely in words, but in deeds as well.