Jesus taught his disciples to pray. But there’s a very real sense in which the psalms taught Jesus to pray. In this series, we’re going to sit with Jesus at the feet of the Bible’s lament psalms to see what they can teach us about prayer.
Why the laments? One of my students once observed that reading the laments made her feel like the Holy Spirit had been reading her diary. Generations of the faithful have testified to these psalms’ peculiar ability to help us express our most private and sometimes painful thoughts. Yet, the laments also teach us that, even when our prayers are full of anger or anguish, they are still “praise in a minor key.”
Study #5: God’s Grading System
Read: Psalm 51
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love. (v. 1, NRSV)
Even students who aren’t particularly good at math learn to appreciate what happens when the teacher grades on a curve. As if by magic, failing grades get transformed into passing grades. The students don’t get any more answers right, it’s just that the teacher has calculated the scores differently.
Psalm 51 is the prayer of a failing student whose is pleading with his Teacher to score his test using a radically gracious grading system. And this system is even better than the “curve.” This system simply substitutes God’s “steadfast love” for the psalmist’s sins (v. 1), transforming an “F” into an “A.”
As a teacher, I can’t help feeling like this student has a lot of nerve. But as a sinner, I’m right there beside him, standing in front of the Teacher’s desk, knowing that I, too, have failed the test.
Traditionally, this prayer of repentance is linked to 2 Samuel 11’s sordid story of David’s murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah. If that’s true, then David was asking a lot when he begged God to blot out his transgressions (v. 1). Still, it’s encouraging to know that even someone who sins on that scale can pray this prayer. It invites us as believers to pray this prayer, too, filling in the blanks with our own sins. After all, when we stand before the Teacher’s desk, it’s not David’s sins that “are ever before us” (v. 3), but our own.
Prayer: Create in me a clean heart, O God.