Follow the bulls: part 2, the return of the bulls (Psalm 51)

A couple of days ago I was struck, on reading Psalms 50 and 51 in sequence, by the continuity between them, which I had never really noticed before. I noted that in Psalm 50 God is depicted storming in to hold court, and that the defendants in this case were God’s own covenant people. They are charged with making their professed worship of God meaningless—a sham, a diversion. When the psalmist finally gets around to indicating the content of their offense it is this sequence:

  • They see a thief and are pleased with this thief.
  • They see adulterers and decide to hang out with them.
  • They slander freely against their siblings.

I asked how anyone—any worshiper of God—could come to such a state, and the only thing I could think of was delusion and self-deception: misidentification of the actual thief and adulterer as a person who shares their devotion to God or at least is on their side.

In terms of the focus of the first part of that psalm: God will have nothing to do with the bulls that such false worshipers sacrifice in their religious services, because while people can deceive themselves—it happens all the time!—no one deceives God. The recipient of the sacrifices knows the difference between bulls and bullshit. (See the first post for the explanation of the appropriateness of this term.) So my metaphor in the title of the previous post: the bulls are banished, i.e., God rejects their worship.

So at the beginning of the indictment (50:14), the putative worshipers are not living in thanksgiving to God and in fidelity to their covenantal vows. At the end of the Psalm, after pronouncing judgment on the thief-consorting covenant-breakers, the psalmist affirms that those who do offer thanksgiving, and who do act in accord with their commitment, will find salvation (50:23). But how can anyone who has fallen into such deep delusion as to warrant the judgment threatened in 50:22 (God says: “I will tear you apart, and there will be none to deliver”) possibly be restored? It seems hopeless.

This predicament catches and holds my attention because I think it is not a predicament that is foreign to us. It may be unimaginable to us. But it is not in fact foreign to us. It is close to us. It is all around us. And if we are ourselves caught up in it—then we certainly do not know that we are. The deluded never know that they are deluded. This is the definition of delusion. So delusion would thus seem to be a hopeless and irredeemable condition.


Is it accidental that Psalm 51 follows Psalm 50? Or does Psalm 51 point to the only solution to the problem so graphically portrayed in Psalm 50? Is it possible that the only exit from the locked room of delusion and self-deception, from the state of bad faith that erroneously sees itself as faithfulness, is: confession and repentance?

Who should pray Psalm 51? Should we infer from verse 3 (“For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me”) that this psalm is only for those who know themselves to be in a state of active transgression? Is that not the clear implication? Well, certainly those who know their sinfulness in detail, or think that they do, should pray this psalm.

But it occurs to me, from seeing the juxtaposition of Psalms 50 and 51, that also those who believe themselves to be in a state of faithfulness must pray this psalm, because while some who believe themselves to be living within the covenant are, some who think they are, are not!

This is the terrible but also liberating realization that must dawn upon us. It is terrible because the possibility that we are deluded means that we could be wrong about everything. But it is liberating because admitting that we do not live and die to ourselves, that we live and die to God, and thus that whatever evil we commit is committed in God’s sight and against God and only God (51:4), means that we constantly place ourselves at God’s mercy—not just once, after which we are all set and never again need doubt ourselves because we are now infallible and indefectible, but constantly. And in so doing we say: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love  . . . blot out my transgressions.”

While one meaning of “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (51:3) is “I am aware of my concrete sins; I see them clearly, so I am able to turn from them,” another, more profound and important meaning is: “I know what I am: I am a creature that is utterly incapable of knowing itself perfectly; I am a person who cannot possibly see myself clearly enough to know what my transgressions are”; the “sin” that “is ever before me” is the perpetual possibility of my being embroiled in sin that I cannot see, transgression that I do not know. This is my being—it is my origin (51:5). Only God can bring me to awareness of my sin. This is the “wisdom” that God can teach me “in the secret heart” (51:6).

Knowing that this is my condition—that I am fallible and may be embroiled in sin that I do not recognize, that I may think that I am righteously offering up my daily bull upon the altar when the one to whom I tell myself I am offering it can see and smell that my sacrifice is not bull but bullshit—must motivate me to pray:

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.


Deep calls to deep, the saying goes, and Psalm 51 inevitably reminds every believer, I expect, of Psalm 139:

O LORD, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
. . .
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!

This, it seems to me, is the only solution, the only possible solution, to the problem of failure in self-knowledge, the problem of the locked room of delusion and self-deception. The only solution is to be known by The Other, to invite and open oneself to the knowledge that only The Other has, but which The Other has offered to share.


Back to Psalm 51. Only after a clean heart and and right spirit have been renewed within me, and the joy of God’s salvation has been restored to me—which is not a permanent elevation to a superior position but a renewal that will constantly need renewing, because my self-deception is not one layer, like the top crust of an apple pie, but many-layered, like a piece of baklava or mille-feuille—only after I am renewed or restored, or am on my way in a lifelong journey of repentance and restoration, can I “teach transgressors your ways” so that “sinners will return to you” (51:13). And really even then I cannot really be their teacher, nor they mine, but only God’s own Spirit can teach any of us, and may sometimes use us to teach each other.

This course of daily repentance is hard. This is why Bonhoeffer said that when Jesus Christ calls someone, he calls that person to come and die. This is why St. Paul says “I die daily”—not “I face death daily,” as some translations water it down, but “I die every day.” This is why the psalmist (51:17) speaks of a broken and contrite heart.

The Christian who is deluded and treating the thief and adulterer as some kind of messiah, prophet, hero, or even tolerable traveling companion is offering bullshit on the altar of God. And the person who is sure that he is not deluded, and is confident that he is rightly seeing the thief and adulterer as a thief and adulterer, and who is railing against the thief-worshiper and adulterers-consorter-with from a secure position of moral and spiritual superiority, is also offering bullshit on the altar of God. The ones who are offering thanksgiving and obedience are the ones who know themselves to be fallible, to be in constant need of further, deeper repentance. These are the ones in whose right sacrifices God will delight, on whose altars bulls will be offered—and accepted.

2 thoughts on “Follow the bulls: part 2, the return of the bulls (Psalm 51)

  1. Humbling, for sure. This is complicated by the fact that we all live in and operate by structures that in themselves are sinful. Yesterday I read this in Jacques Ellul’s book “Presence in the Modern World”: “Christians cannot consider themselves unaffected by the world’s sin. A major fact of our civilization is that sin is becoming more and more collective, and each individual person is constrained to participate in it. Each one bears the consequences of others’ transgressions. . . . The illusion is passing away that one can be ‘perfect’ in the midst of a lost world.”

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