Reflecting on Psalm 51 – J. Thomas Johnson

This article was originally written for A Plain Account: A Wesleyan Lectionary Commentary. You can find the original article HERE.

When we have chosen to betray the most sacred and solemn of our commitments, may we hope for restoration? When we have lived into patterns and paths that have done violence to those for whom we have covenanted to care, may we pursue reconciliation? Are some choices too dastardly, some patterns too devastating, some rebellions too grotesque for us to be redeemed? Perhaps some reading this have stood in this space, a space of utter desperation, a space in which the way before us seems to lead only into increasing darkness and distance from both God and our neighbors.

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In the tradition of the Hebrew people, this is the moment out of which Psalm 51 has arisen. What might the fallen say? How might God and our human community respond? Is there hope before us, or is hope now forever lost? Much depends on our theology—that is, on our understanding of God.

From the earliest days of the Christian Church, it has not been uncommon for the so-called ‘God of the Old Testament’ to be depicted pejoratively as a harsh, sometimes tyrannical ruler—a head-of-household patriarchal dictator who is easily disappointed and anxious to discipline His wayward children. From Marcion to Jonathan Edwards to contemporary ‘hell-fire’ expositors, the wrath of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has been emphasized and variously interpreted. And it must be confessed that the Christian Scriptures do reveal the seriousness with which God treats sin, as well as the willingness and the capability of God to act to forestall its pervasiveness.

But, of course, there is more to say. After all, if this is all there is to say of God, then the hope of those who transgress seems fleeting. And, indeed, the First Testament does have other things to contribute to the conversation. As willing and capable as God is to act in judgment, the Torah and the prophets and the writings of the First Testament insist repeatedly that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in hesed (steadfast love).

This is where the psalmist, standing on a road of deepening darkness, moving toward increasing isolation from God and neighbor, begins his turning away, his repentance, his cry to God. He cries out not to a just God or a wrathful God or a disappointed patriarch, but to a merciful and compassionate parent.

1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. [1]

The word translated ‘abundant mercy’ is the Hebrew rachamim, which refers to the innards of the lower abdomen. In the plural, as it appears in Psalm 51, it is often translated as ‘intestines’ or ‘loins’. In the singular it can refer to a uterus or womb. Among the Hebrew people this is the anatomical area associated with compassion, hence the translation above.

The psalmist does not appeal to God’s justice or even God’s holiness, but to God’s womb, to God’s intestines, to God’s compassion. Samuel Terrien in his commentary on the Psalms has written:

The compassions of Yahweh are those of his femininity, for the words “tender mercies” are the plural of majesty for the singular “uterus” or “womb,” which never forgets the child it has conceived, nourished, and brought forth.[2]

Hope in the darkness of the deepest human failure is to be sought in the compassion of God. This is humanity’s primal and only lasting hope, and it is toward this that the cry of the repentant is directed. There is no hope of forgiveness, none of reconciliation, none of cleansing or redemption or reconciliation or transformation if the God who draws near when we pray is not gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in hesed.

This is, of course, only the beginning of Psalm 51. The psalmist proceeds to confess his rebellion against the fundamental shape of the Kingdom of God (vs. 3-5), and implores God to cleanse him, create a clean heart within him and breathe a fresh breath into him which might animate him in the ways of the Kingdom (vs. 6-12). And he covenants again with God that these acts of compassion on the part of God will result in his own grateful response. He will live into God’s Kingdom, confessing with his heart, soul, mind, and strength the goodness and orderliness of God’s good creation (vs. 13-17).

There is much to explore in verse three and following. However, I want to pause and reflect on the appeal to God’s compassion with which the psalmist has begun. It is sometimes presumed that those who have fallen short must begin their journey toward God and neighbor with contrition—that is, with a confessed and perhaps ideally emotional realization of the wickedness of their actions. Of course, these features of repentance are necessary in proper time.

However, restoration and redemption of the fallen is not rooted in the individual. Restoration and redemption is rooted in the compassion of God. We do not hope in our earnestness or our contriteness, believing that somehow by our pitifulness or our authenticity or our earnestness that God might be manipulated. It is the compassion of God that is the source of our hope for deliverance. To say it another way, because God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, we can repent; we can imagine restoration and reconciliation; we can hope.

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We will not be restored by contrition or sincerity, by intention or conviction, by sacrifice or by ritual. These may describe the road that we must walk out of the darkness, but they are not the source of our deliverance, nor can we simply trust them to save and to restore us. We will be saved by the compassion of God. And so repentance begins, not with us, but with God’s compassion. And redemption proceeds in faith along the road that God’s compassion carves out of the darkness.

That road, no doubt, will include confession and contrition and forgiveness and reconciliation, and the rest of the journey revealed through the prophets of Israel, the Gospel of Jesus, and the interpretations of the Apostles. But, repentance is rooted in the compassion of God, and this is no idle observation. Bound up in this confession is the realization that our restoration does not depend on human effort or capability, but on God’s compassion. If we hope in repentance as a process or ritual, our hope lies in our capacity to complete what we’ve started. If we hope in God’s compassion then our hope rests in the capacity of God to bring to completion what has begun in Him. May it be so.

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[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Ps 51:1–2.

[2] Samuel Terrien, The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 404.

Camp Meeting Anyone? – J. Thomas Johnson

I’ve been attending holiness camp meetings since before I have distinct memories. Growing up in southern Massachusetts, my family attended Douglas Camp Meeting in Douglas, MA and Portsmouth Camp Meeting in Portsmouth, RI every year of my childhood and adolescence. And many of the people we worshipped with at those summertime gatherings attended other holiness campgrounds in New England–Smith Mills and Ithiel Falls, for example. Denominations, such as my own Church of the Nazarene, have summertime camps, of course. But, what has made these ‘holiness’ campgrounds unique is their interdenominational vision, their limited (and perhaps more sustainable) scope, their intergenerational experience, and their belief that there are many Christians in diverse denominations who hunger to see their faith visibly manifest in the lives they live here and now–what has long been called, ‘holiness of heart and life’.

Historians tell the story of holiness camp meetings growing out of a fractious time in nineteenth century American Christianity. The civil war had exposed many divisions within American culture, and in the midst of social, religious, and ethical upheaval, many followers of Jesus longed for a way of life characterized more by hope and transformation than had been experienced in American culture. And so, the holiness movement began in revivals and tent meetings and eventually in established camp meetings, as preachers spoke of freedom not simply from condemnation, but from the tyranny of sinfulness itself. Christians from many denominations flocked to seek this transformation.

Eventually the holiness camp meetings gave rise to organized holiness denominations. My own Church of the Nazarene is one such denomination. And though camp meetings continued to be strongly attended through the 1960s, since the 1970s the number of holiness camps along with attendance at them has decreased dramatically.

At some point, in my experience, what was birthed out of a hunger for tangible transformation in the here and now, grew into something quite different. For some, camp meeting continued to be a significant time of reconnecting with the past and with simpler, often romanticized, times. For others camp meeting became a way of indoctrinating the values of holiness into successive generations. For others camp meeting became a type of retreat from the world; a communing with God in nature; a time of quiet and disconnect from the busy-ness of life. For others, camp meeting became a family-oriented vacation, which required entertainment, opportunity, and some measure of luxury. And for others, camp meeting became a less offensive or intimidating Christian gathering, supremely suited for introducing seekers and unbelievers to Christian beliefs and practices.

I can’t say whether any of these trajectories has been good or bad. What I think I can argue is that the religious aspect of camp meeting has lost much of its appeal in American culture. I myself am devoted to camp meeting because of my own peculiar history. Camp meeting, for me, too, had become more about the past than the future, more about preserving something than pursuing something…until this year.

Camp meeting for me had become more about preserving something than pursuing something. Click To Tweet

This year I attended Portsmouth Camp Meeting in Portsmouth, RI for upwards of the thirtieth time. But this year was different. This year I caught a glimpse of what might have driven tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Christians out of their cities and homes and into the hot, inconvenient, rustic wilderness to hear preachers talk about God and the Christian life. This year I found myself, like a child after Christmas or summer vacation, wishing it would never end.

What made 2016 different? Certainly, a prophetic voice spoke to us in the person of Pastor Scott Daniels. There are many great preachers and many great evangelists in the holiness movement today. But, Pastor Daniels, in my opinion, stands as a rarity among them. Why? Pastor Daniels does not speak simply about salvation from the consequences of bad acts, nor does he speak of transformation and freedom as principles or bullet points from a doctrinal heritage to be punctuated with prooftexts.  Dr. Daniels digs deeply into the Scriptural teachings of transformation, enmeshing his preaching in the language and contexts of Scripture.

There is a hopefulness in the Gospel of Jesus as he understands it, but not simply a hopefulness that we will escape condemnation at the end of all things. Pastor Daniels speaks of a life, in the here and now, that reflects our relationship with the King of all Kings, the one God who became flesh in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth.

So, I suspect Pastor Daniels made a difference. But, then, too, singer-songwriter-composer, Steve Adams, and his supremely gifted children, Craig and Chris ministered through music and testimony, as well. Their gifts and talents are so abundant and their love for Jesus so manifest that I am sure their music alone drew a crowd, as it has in so many places at so many times.

But, then, there is a uniqueness to the Adams as there is to Pastor Daniels. They come from a rich history, but their message, again, is one of transformation, of peace in the midst of life’s storms, of perseverance…in short, of hope–hope that we are more than we have been, more than life has made us or that experience tells us we should hope to be. And, like Pastor Daniels, Steve and Craig and Chris fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and the Perfector of faith.

Jesus' message is hope--hope that we are more than we have been. Click To Tweet

I don’t know what the future of camp meetings, or even of Christianity in America, might be. But, this summer I did remember again the good news of Jesus. And the good news of Jesus speaks to something that life and experience often steal away from us. The good news of Jesus is hope. As Thomas Chisholm’s hymn, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” so aptly put it:

Strength for today And bright hope for tomorrow, Blessings all mine, With ten thousand beside.

Our pursuit of God is not a pursuit of the past, but a pursuit of the future God has promised, both one day and today. I’m not so fond of roughing it for the sake of roughing it, but I’ll sit in the heat and sleep on a cot to hear prophets in the wilderness. How about you?

J. Thomas

A Christian interaction with Scripture, theology, and practical living.

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