A multitude of tender mercies

“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindness: according to the multitude of Thy tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” (Psalm 51.1-2)

I seldom read the King James Version. While the English Lit graduate in me revels in the solemn beauty of the cadences in the same way as I would revel in a passage of, say, Shakespeare or Milton, couching all my thoughts about God in 17th century language serves only to make Him feel like a religious object, removed from daily life, rather than my dear and familiar Father. But when it comes to Psalm 51, I do like the KJV. I want a God who is merciful according to His lovingkindness, and who has a multitude of tender mercies for me. Not just great mercy or abundant mercy, but a multitude of tender mercies. The Father who, in the words of Psalm 103, pities me as a father pities his children, because He knows my frame and remembers that I am dust. A God who doesn’t beat me up the way I beat myself up, because He is so thoroughly conversant with my frailties, and has so much more patience and compassion with them than I do. A God whose whole heart towards me is tenderness. (To quote Frederick William Faber, “There is no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt than up in heaven; there is no place where earth’s failings have such kindly judgment given.”)

The KJV sounds much deeper and more moving than some of the modern versions (NLT: “Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins.” GNB: “Be merciful to me, O God, because of your constant love. Because of your great mercy wipe away my sins!” The Message: “Generous in love — God, give grace! Huge in mercy — wipe out my bad record. Scrub away my guilt, soak out my sins in your laundry.”) All due respect to the translators/paraphrasers but to me this just doesn’t do justice to the sentiments or carry the same force. And that delicious word “throughly” somehow conjures up a much more vivid picture than the modern equivalent, “thoroughly” – “throughly” sounds somehow more efficaciously penetrating than “thoroughly”.

And I particularly want God to be merciful. I want Him to have a multitude of tender mercies towards me; that sounds like exactly the balm my soul is in need of. I want to be cleansed throughly from my sins, not just thoroughly but throughly, no half measures; I just want to be shot of the whole lot, to feel the entire burden fall from me like Bunyan’s Pilgrim at the cross. But I can’t be the child of a Father who lavishes a multitude of tender mercies on me unless I’m also prepared to do the same for those who’ve offended me. And there’s the rub. As I come face to face with one who has wronged me, can I find in my heart a multitude of tender mercies? Can I blot out their transgression according to the measure of lovingkindness that God has lavished on me?

The answer ought to be yes. Last February I had a magazine article published on forgiveness. Several people wrote to me and to the magazine to say it had been helpful. So to find myself struggling with feelings of unforgiveness feels at best embarrassing, at worst hypocritical. Worse still, Jesus was clear that God forgives in the way and to the extent that we forgive others. I don’t want a measly, grudging let-off from God. I want that multitude of tender mercies, the cleansing “throughly” from my sins. So Psalm 51 is a good starting place for me. For my unforgiveness and resentment is as much an offence, in need of forgiveness and cleansing, as any offence done to me. So humbling myself to seek mercy and forgiveness is a good place to start, and I know my Father will give it freely, if He knows that I intend to pass it on – and I do, so help me God.

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