Hymn Guide: God Be Merciful To Me

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“God be merciful to me” is a setting of Psalm 51, David’s great hymn of repentance, forgiveness, and faith. More than most hymns and worship songs, it sets forth the stark reality of human sin and turns to God as our only hope for salvation and spiritual renewal.

Composed anonymously for the 1912 Psalter, it has since been copied and incorporated into a growing number of hymnals. The traditional tune is REDHEAD, also known for its use in “Go to Dark Gethsemane.” A contemporary tune by Chris Miner for Indelible Grace is also gaining popularity. It is fitting to be sung on Ash Wednesday, during Lent, or anytime the service focuses on repentance and forgiveness.

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Verse by Verse

Verse 1

David wrote Psalm 51 when he felt convicted of his sin for sleeping with Bathsheba and murdering her husband, Uriah. David’s key insight is that he has no excuse or possibility of shifting the blame. And so David appeals directly to God’s mercy at the beginning of the psalm, which is captured in the opening verse of this hymn:

God be merciful to me
On thy grace I rest my plea
Plenteous in compassion thou
Blot out my transgressions now
Wash me make me pure within
Cleanse, O cleanse me from my sin

Notice that the first three lines refer to God’s merciful character, with his mercy, grace, and compassion. The following three lines refer to God’s merciful action in blotting out, washing, and cleansing.

Verse 2

The next verse shifts the focus from God to our sin itself:

My transgressions I confess
Grief and guilt my soul oppress
I have sinned against thy grace
And provoked thee to thy face
I confess thy judgment just
Speechless I thy mercy trust

Nobody wants to be judged. That’s why we are so good at making excuses. But in the second verse, we not only confess transgression, we also confess that God’s judgment of that transgression is just. This is the sense in which we are “speechless”—not that we have no words at all, but that we have no words to excuse our sin.

Verse 3

I am evil, born in sin
Thou desirest truth within
Thou alone my savior art
Teach thy wisdom to my heart
Make me pure, thy grace bestow
Wash me whiter than the snow

It can be hard to sing this third verse, especially the opening line: “I am evil, born in sin.” I’ve searched both hymn directories and Google, and I think this is the only time in English hymnody we sing the phrase “I am evil.” Given how striking this phrase is, it’s worth thinking about a bit more.

The inspiration for the line is Psalm 51:5, which reads, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” In other words, the key idea here is that we are sinful not only in our actions but in our nature. The theological term for this is original sin, or the inclination of our hearts to evil since the fall of Adam and Eve (see also Articles IX and X in the 39 Articles of Religion).

What this means is that we cannot save ourselves. We need God, who alone can save us. Only God can “make me pure” and “wash me whiter than the snow.”

Verse 4

Broken, humbled to the dust
By thy wrath and judgment just
Let my contrite heart rejoice
And in gladness hear thy voice
From my sins O hide thy face
Blot them out in boundless grace

The fourth verse begins to show the paradoxical result of humble contrition. When we submit ourselves to God’s wrath and judgment, we hear the glad sound of God’s grace instead.

Verse 5

Sometimes, only these first four verses of the hymn are sung, but the following two verses continue in a more hopeful vein. I’d encourage congregations to add at least verse five, which draws from the psalm’s wonderful discussion of the Holy Spirit.

Gracious God, my heart renew
Make my spirit right and true
Cast me not away from thee
Let thy Spirit dwell in me
Thy salvation’s joy impart
Steadfast make my willing heart

The emphasis here is on the indwelling of God’s Spirit in our spirit, giving us the joy that we earnestly desire, especially after confessing our sin!

Verse 6

The final verse expands the scope of the hymn to include others who learn from our witness and return to God:

Sinners then shall learn from me
And return, O God to thee
Savior, all my guilt remove
And my tongue shall sing thy love
Touch my silent lips O Lord,
And my mouth shall praise accord

The logic of this final verse is like the aspiration of a collect, which explains why God ought to grant our request. Here, the request is that God grant full forgiveness so we might sing his praises and draw others to him.

Thanks be to God: he has already forgiven us through his Son Jesus Christ, removing the guilt of all who repent of their sins and turn to Christ as Lord and Savior!

A Note On Psalm Singing

Anglican churches sang metrical psalms for more than 300 years, following the pioneering work of the reformer Thomas Sternhold. Though the practice fell out of favor in the 20th century, the 21st century is seeing an exciting revival. “God be merciful to me,” together with other settings of Psalm 51, illustrate the importance of this effort.

The psalms can be blunt, repetitive, and emotionally raw, stylistic features often avoided in hymns and praise songs. Yet it is precisely these features that the church often needs, both as an expression of doctrine and also to draw the whole of the human experience into the worship of God. Perhaps this is why Paul called for a full musical repertoire—for the singing of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:19).

On Video

The first video, from the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, features an organ and congregation. The second video is a contemporary rendition, with music originally composed by Chris Miner of Indelible Grace, here performed by the Christian band Jars of Clay.


Photo by ImagineGolf from GettyImages. Courtesy of Canva.

Published on

February 29, 2024

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their eight children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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