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Psalm 51 is the 51st psalm of the Book of Psalms, generally known in English by its first verse, in the King James Version, "Have mercy upon me, O God". In the Greek Septuagint version of the bible, and in its Latin translation Vulgate, this psalm is Psalm 50 in a slightly different numbering system. In Latin, it is known as "Miserere mei, Deus"[1] (Ancient Greek: ἐλέησόν με ὁ θεός, romanizedeléēsón me ho theós), for which it is traditionally known as the Miserere (or the Miserere mei; in Ancient Greek:  Ἥ Ἐλεήμων, romanizedHḗ Eleḗmōn), especially in musical settings. Psalm 51 is one of the Penitential Psalms.[2] It is traditionally claimed to have been composed by David as a confession to God after he sinned with Bathsheba.

Psalm 51
"Have mercy upon me, O God"
Penitential Psalm
Holy Water Font.jpg
Verse 7 (KJV) inscribed on a holy water font
Other name
  • Psalm 50
  • "Miserere mei, Deus"
LanguageHebrew (original)

The psalm is a regular part of Jewish, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant liturgies.


Background and themesEdit

Psalm 51 is based on the incident recorded in 2 Samuel, chapters 11–12.[3] David's confession is regarded as a model for repentance in both Judaism and Christianity.[4][5][6]

The Midrash Tehillim states that one who acknowledges that he has sinned and is fearful and prays to God about it, as David did, will be forgiven. But one who tries to ignore his sin will be punished by God.[7] The Talmud (Yoma 86b) cites verse 5 in the Hebrew, "My sin is always before me", as a reminder to the penitent to maintain continual vigilance in the area in which he transgressed, even after he has confessed and been absolved.[8]

Spurgeon says Psalm 51 is called "The Sinner's Guide", as it shows the sinner how to return to God's grace.[9] Athanasius would recommend that this chapter be recited each night by some of his disciples.[9] According to James Montgomery Boice, this psalm was recited by both Thomas More and Lady Jane Grey at their executions.[3]

Verse 19 in the Hebrew states that God desires a "broken and contrite heart" more than he does sacrificial offerings. The idea of using brokenheartedness as a way to reconnect to God was emphasized in numerous teachings by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.[10] In Sichot HaRan #41 he taught: "It would be very good to be brokenhearted all day. But for the average person, this can easily degenerate into depression. You should therefore set aside some time each day for heartbreak. You should isolate yourself with a broken heart before God for a given time. But the rest of the day you should be joyful".[10]

Parallels between Psalm 51 and the Ancient Egyptian ritual text Opening of the mouth ceremony have been pointed out by scholar Benjamin Urrutia. These include:[11]

  • Mentions of ritual washing with special herbs (verses 2, 7)
  • Restoration of broken bones (verse 8)
  • "O Lord, open my lips" (verse 15)
  • Sacrifices (verses 16, 17, 19)



Several verses from Psalm 51 are regular parts of Jewish liturgy. Verses (in Hebrew) 3, 4, 9, 13, 19, 20, and 21 are said in Selichot. Verses 9, 12, and 19 are said during Tefillas Zakkah prior to the Kol Nidrei service on Yom Kippur eve. Verse 17, "O Lord, open my lips", is recited as a preface to the Amidah in all prayer services. Verse 20 is said by Ashkenazi Jews before the removal of the Sefer Torah from the ark on Shabbat and Yom Tov morning; it is also said in the Atah Horaisa ("You have been shown") prayer recited before opening the ark on Simchat Torah.[12] In the Sephardi liturgy, Psalm 51 is one of the additional psalms recited on Yom Kippur night.[13]

Verse 4 is part of the Ushpizin ceremony on Sukkot.[12]

In the Siddur Avodas Yisroel, Psalm 51 is the Song of the Day for Shabbat Parah and Shabbat Ki Tavo. This psalm is also said on Wednesday nights after the recital of Aleinu in Maariv.[12]

The entire psalm is part of Tikkun Chatzot.[14] It is also recited as a prayer for forgiveness.[15]

New TestamentEdit

Verse 4 is quoted in Romans 3:4[16]

Eastern OrthodoxEdit

The most frequently used psalm in the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic Churches, Psalm 50 (Septuagint numbering) it is called in the Greek language  Ἥ Ἐλεήμων He Eleḯmon, and begins in Greek  Ἐλέησόν με, ὁ Θεός Eléïsón me, o Theós.

In the Daily Office it is recited in each of three aggregates (evening, morning and noonday).

In the Divine Liturgy it is recited by the deacon while he censing the entire church at the conclusion of the Proskomedie, which is also known as killing Satan. It is also a part of many sacraments and other services, notably, as a penitential psalm, during the Mystery of Repentance.

In the Agpeya, Coptic Church's book of hours, it is recited at every office throughout the day as a prayer of confession and repentance.

Catholic ChurchEdit

In Western Christianity, Psalm 51 (using the Masoretic numbering) is also used liturgically.

In the Roman Catholic Church this psalm may be assigned by a priest to a penitent as a penance after Confession. Verse 7 of the psalm is traditionally sung as the priest sprinkles holy water over the congregation before Mass, in a rite known as the Asperges me, the first two words of the verse in Latin. This reference lends a striking significance to the Mass as Sacrifice, given that Hyssop was used for the smearing of blood on the lintels at the first Passover.

In the Divine Office, it was traditionally said at Lauds on all ferias; the 1911 reform restricted this use to the ferias of Advent and Lent. It is otherwise said as part of the weekly cycle on Wednesday at Matins. In the Liturgy of the Hours, it is prayed during Lauds (Morning Prayer) every Friday.

A section of verse 17 is often used as the invitatory antiphon the Liturgy of the Hours.

Parts of Psalm 51 are used as a responsorial psalm in both the Revised Common Lectionary and the Roman Catholic Lectionary on Ash Wednesday and on other days.

Musical settingsEdit

The Miserere was a frequently used text in Catholic liturgical music before the Second Vatican Council. Most of the settings, which are often used at Tenebrae, are in a simple falsobordone style. During the Renaissance many composers wrote settings. The earliest known polyphonic setting, probably dating from the 1480s, is by Johannes Martini, a composer working in the Este court in Ferrara.[17] The extended polyphonic setting by Josquin des Prez, probably written in 1503/1504 in Ferrara, was likely inspired by the prison meditation Infelix ego by Girolamo Savonarola, who had been burned at the stake just five years before. Later in the 16th century Orlande de Lassus wrote an elaborate setting as part of his Penitential Psalms, and Palestrina, Andrea Gabrieli, Giovanni Gabrieli, and Carlo Gesualdo also wrote settings.[18] Antonio Vivaldi may have written a setting or settings, but such composition(s) have been lost, with only two introductory motets remaining.

One of the best-known settings of the Miserere is the 17th century version by Roman School composer Gregorio Allegri.[19] According to a famous story, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, aged only fourteen, heard the piece performed once, on April 11, 1770, and after going back to his lodging for the night was able to write out the entire score from memory.[19] He went back a day or two later with his draft to correct some errors.[20] That the final chorus comprises a ten-part harmony underscores the prodigiousness of the young Mozart's musical genius. The piece is also noteworthy in having numerous high Cs in the treble solos.

Settings were also written by Costanzo Festa, Johann Sebastian Bach, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and Saverio Selecchy.

Modern composers who have written notable settings of the Miserere include Michael Nyman, Arvo Pärt, and James MacMillan. References in secular popular music include the Antestor song "Mercy Lord", from the album Martyrium (1994), "In Manus Tuas" (Salvation 2003) by the group Funeral Mist, "White As Snow" (Winter 2008) by Jon Foreman, the song "Restore To Me" by Mac Powell and Candi Pearson-Shelton from Glory Revealed (2007). Bukas Palad Music Ministry includes their version of "Miserere" in their album "Christify" (2010).

Verses 12-13 have been set to music as a popular Jewish inspirational song.[by whom?][year needed][21] Titled Lev Tahor ("A pure heart"), this song is commonly sung at Seudah Shlishit (the third Shabbat meal).[22]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Parallel Latin/English Psalter / Psalmus 50 (51) Archived 7 July 2017 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ Freedman, David Noel, ed. (2000). Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Amsterdam University Press. p. 1093. ISBN 9789053565032.
  3. ^ a b Guzik, David (2018). "Psalm 51 – Restoration of a Broken and Contrite King". Enduring Word. Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  4. ^ Conservative Yeshiva Online. "King David – A Model for Teshuva?". Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  5. ^ Wellman, Jack (23 September 2015). "Psalm 51 Commentary and Bible Study". Patheos. Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  6. ^ "Luther on the Psalm 51 by Pless". 10 April 2017. Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  7. ^ "Midrash Tehillim / Psalms 51" (PDF). October 2012. Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  8. ^ Abramowitz, Rabbi Jack (2018). "Psalms – Chapter 51". Orthodox Union. Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  9. ^ a b Spurgeon, Charles. "Psalm 51:1". Bible Study Tools. Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  10. ^ a b "The Difference Between Heartbreak and Depression". 6 May 2009. Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  11. ^ Urrutia, Benjamin (1982), "Psalm 51 and the 'Opening of the Mouth' Ceremony", Scripta Hierosolymitana, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 28: 222–223
  12. ^ a b c Brauner, Reuven (2013). "Shimush Pesukim: Comprehensive Index to Liturgical and Ceremonial Uses of Biblical Verses and Passages" (PDF) (2nd ed.). pp. 38–39.
  13. ^ Nulman, Macy (1996). The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer: The Ashkenazic and Sephardic Rites. Jason Aronson. p. 317. ISBN 1461631246.
  14. ^ Gonzales, Shmuel, ed. (December 2010). "Tikkun Chatzot - The Midnight Rite" (PDF). Open Siddur Project. p. 11. Retrieved November 27, 2018.
  15. ^ "Repentance". Daily Tehillim. Retrieved October 13, 2018.
  16. ^ Kirkpatrick, A. F. (1901). The Book of Psalms: with Introduction and Notes. The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges. Book IV and V: Psalms XC-CL. Cambridge: At the University Press. p. 839. Retrieved February 28, 2019.
  17. ^ Macey, p. 185
  18. ^ Caldwell, Grove
  19. ^ a b   Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Allegri, Gregorio" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 690.
  20. ^ Sadie, Grove; Boorman, Grove
  21. ^ Weintraub, Rabbi Simkha Y. (2018). "Psalms as the Ultimate Self-Help Tool". My Jewish Learning. Retrieved November 27, 2018.
  22. ^ "Lev Tahor". Zemirot Database. Retrieved November 27, 2018.


External linksEdit