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51. Be Merciful, Be Merciful, O God

Text Information
First Line: Be merciful, be merciful, O God
Title: Be Merciful, Be Merciful, O God
Versifier: Stanley Wiersma (1980)
Meter: PM
Language: English
Publication Date: 1987
Topic: Biblical Names & Places: Jerusalem; Confession of Sin; Forgiveness (5 more...)
Copyright: Text © 1987, CRC Publications
Tune Information
Name: GENEVAN 51
Composer: Louis Bourgeois (1551)
Harmonizer: Claude Goudimel (1564)
Meter: PM
Key: a minor

Text Information:

A fervent prayer for pardon, renewal, and reconciliation with God.

Scripture References:
st. 1 = vv. 1-5
st. 2 = vv. 6-9
st. 3 = vv. 10-13
st. 4 = vv. 14-17
st. 5 = vv. 18-19

Tradition ascribes this prayer to David on the occasion "when the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba." No other psalm matches the frankness and fullness with which Psalm 51 faces the problem of human sinfulness. Sin is first of all sin against God, and no animal sacrifice can effect reconciliation. Only a heart "contrite and broken" can expect God's forgiveness. Moreover, sin springs from a heart so defiled that it must be recreated, made new, to be clean.

The psalm offers an unparalleled confession of sin and a fervent plea for pardon (st. 1); a prayer for forgiveness and restoration to joy (st. 2); a prayer for a new, undefiled heart and for reconciliation with God (st. 3); and a vow to praise when God grants pardon to a "contrite and broken" heart (st. 4). Added to this is a prayer that God's mercy will extend to the whole city of Zion (st. 5)–in Christian terms, to the whole church of Christ.

Stanley Wiersma (PHH 25), who prepared this unrhymed versification in 1980 for the Psalter Hymnal, often spoke of this psalm sung to GENEVAN 51 as the "Calvinist Kyrie" (see PHH 258 for information on the Kyrie). Psalm 51 is also one of the traditional penitential psalms (along with 6, 32, 38,102,130, and 143). Other settings of Psalm 51 are at 167 and 255.

Liturgical Use:
Traditionally in the service of confession of sin; also appropriate for the liturgy of the Lord's Supper and during Lent.

--Psalter Hymnal Handbook

Tune Information:

GENEVAN 51 first appeared in the 1551 edition of the Genevan Psalter and is attributed to Louis Bourgeois (PHH 3). Claude Goudimel (PHH 6) composed the harmonization in 1564; the melody was originally in the tenor. One of the longer and more difficult Genevan tunes in the Psalter Hymnal, this Phrygian melody is one of the most hauntingly suitable tunes for a penitential psalm. Though the initial stanzas of this psalm are subdued, it should not be sung too slowly, and the final stanzas have many phrases that abound in confidence and joy. Sing harmony on stanzas 3, 4, and/ or 5.

--Psalter Hymnal Handbook

MIDI file: MIDI Preview
(Faith Alive Christian Resources)

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