Psalm 51 is one of seven penitential psalms, (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143). The first three words in the Latin text of this psalm are Miserere mei, Deus (“Have mercy on me, O God”), and musical settings of the psalm — of which there have been many — are often referred to simply as Miserere.
Verse 4 has multiple translations, which may lead to some confusion. The version in the Book of Common Prayer (1928) renders the verse: “Against thee only have I sinned and done this evil in thy sight; that thou mightest be justified in thy saying and clear when thou shalt judge.” Other translations (based on the Septuagint version of the Psalter as quoted in Romans 3:4) present the last phrase as: “and clear when thou art judged.” This is a strange translation, as the sense of the text in the original Hebrew is clearly (in Derek Kidner’s words) “that no-one could find fault — even if it were our place to do so — with God’s judgment on the sinner.”
Some older editions of the Book of Common Prayer follow the lead set by the Septuagint. The recording of this psalm presented below reflects that interpretation. When we sing this Psalm in our parish, we use the text as translated in our Prayerbook.
While all psalms may be sung to any Anglican chant setting, the setting by Charles H. Wilton (1761-1832) is especially apt for the penitential spirit of the text. Wilton was an English violinist, singer, and composer, not much associated with church music, save for this Anglican chant.
The performance here includes all 19 verses of the psalm; when we use this chant liturgically, we only sing the first 13 verses, followed by the Gloria Patri. You may download a score with the text pointed for chanting here.
1 Have mercy upon me, O God | after thy • great | goodness :
according to the multitude of
thy mercies | do a|way • mine of|fences.
2 Wash me | throughly • from my | wickedness :
and | cleanse me | from my | sin.
3 For I ac|knowledge • my | faults :
and my | sin is | ever • be|fore me.
4 Against thee only have I sinned *
and done this | evil • in thy | sight :
that thou mightest be justified in thy saying *
and | clear when | thou shalt | judge.
5 Behold, I was | shapen • in | wickedness :
and in | sin • hath my | mother • con|ceived me.
6 But lo, thou requirest truth in the | inward | parts :
and shalt make me to | under • stand | wisdom | secretly.
7 Thou shalt purge me with hyssop and | I shall • be | clean :
thou shalt wash me and | I shall • be | whiter • than | snow.
8 Thou shalt make me hear of | joy and | gladness :
that the bones which thou hast | broken | may re|joice.
9 Turn thy | face • from my | sins :
and | put out | all • my mis|deeds.
10 Make me a clean | heart O | God :
and re|new a • right | spirit • with|in me.
11 Cast me not a|way • from thy | presence :
and take not thy | holy | Spirit | from me.
12 O give me the comfort of thy | help a|gain :
and | stablish me • with thy | free | Spirit.
13 Then shall I teach thy | ways • unto the | wicked :
and sinners shall be con|verted | unto | thee.
Glory be | to the | Father
and to the | Son and • to the | Holy | Ghost;
As it was in the beginning * is | now and • ever | shall be :
world without | end, A- | – | men.