The title assigned to Psalm 51 in the Hebrew Psalter tells us that this Psalm of David was composed after his sin of adultery with Bathsheba. The song of David the repentant sinner eventually became the song of penitent Israel, taken into its temple liturgy and used as a plea for God's mercy upon His sinful people.


The Church, the new Israel of God, likewise took up Psalm 51 as a fervent plea for pardon. By the 13th century, it was firmly established as the Church's penitential psalm par excellence, incorporated into her liturgy and pre-eminent among her traditional "Seven Penitential Psalms."

St. Francis, the joyful penitent from Assisi, knew Psalm 51 well and prayed it often. He even legislated that his friars should pray the Miserere (the first word in Psalm 51's Latin translation) every day for the failings and negligence's of the brothers.

The Little Poor Man's esteem for this great penitential psalm is illustrated by a telling incident. One day, he agreed to preach to St. Clare and her Sisters. The nuns gathered in the choir, eager to hear their spiritual father. He entered the sanctuary, raised his eyes to heaven and prayed. Then he asked for ashes. He strewed some on the floor in a circle, put the rest on his head and sat down in silence. After a few minutes, he rose, prayed Psalm 51, and left. The Sisters were moved to tears by this "sermon" which showed the depths of Francis' humility and his deep awareness that before God, we are all sinners.


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Psalm 51

Have mercy on me, God, in Your kindness.
In Your compassion blot out my offense.
O wash me more and more from my guilt
and cleanse me from my sin.

My offenses truly I know them;
my sin is always before me.
Against You, You alone have I sinned;
what is evil in Your sight I have done.

That You may be justified when You give sentence
and be without reproach when You judge.
0 see, in guilt I was born,
a sinner was I conceived.

Indeed You love truth in the heart;
then in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom.
0 purify me, then I shall be clean;
0 wash me. I shall be whiter than snow.

Make me hear rejoicing and gladness,
that the bones You have crushed may revive.
From my sins turn away Your face
and blot out all my guilt.

A pure heart create for me, 0 God,
put a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Your presence,
nor deprive me of Your holy spirit.

Give me again the joy of Your help;
with a spirit of fervor sustain me,
that I may teach transgressors Your ways
and sinners may return to You.

0 rescue me, God, my helper,
and my tongue shall ring out Your goodness.
0 Lord, open my lips
and my mouth shall declare Your praise.

For in sacrifice You take no delight,
burnt offering from me You would refuse,
my sacrifice, a contrite spirit.
A humbled, contrite heart You will not spurn.

In Your goodness, show favor to Zion:
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Then You will be pleased with lawful sacrifice,
holocausts offered on Your altar.

The Penitent's Song
On any day, in any season, Psalm 51 offers a wonderful invitation to plumb the depths of one's personal sin and of God's infinite mercy. But it is especially appropriate for Lent, with its multiple calls to repent and return to the Lord. Why not make Psalm 51 your daily Lenten prayer and discover anew the joy of salvation?