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.
You don’t even have to attend a Reformed church to be familiar with these lyrics based on Psalm 51. According to Hymnary.org, “God, Be Merciful to Me” appears in at least 14 hymnals, including the 1976 and 1987 Psalter Hymnals and both editions of the Trinity Hymnal. On YouTube, these lyrics have been recorded by musicians both popular and obscure, from Jars of Clay to “The Wretched Brothers” to the First Presbyterian Church in Perkasie, PA. Today we’ll consider the three versifications of Psalm 51 in the blue Psalter Hymnal.
94, “God, Be Merciful to Me”
What is it about this song that makes it so perennially popular? First of all, the text is eloquent yet clear, simple but heartfelt, and concise but full of meaning. No, the authors of this setting didn’t exactly match the literal text of Psalm 51, yet “God, Be Merciful to Me” is just as sincerely penitential as David’s original. The text is especially poignant when sung to the tune provided here, AJALON (also called GETHSEMANE and REDHEAD 76). If you’re accompanying a congregation, try to find a suitably mellow organ registration, or use the una corda (left) pedal on the piano. You might even consider singing the third stanza a cappella. (Note: The trend of newer hymnals to lower the key of AJALON to D is totally unnecessary and completely ruins the warmth of the melody.)
As a solo piece, “God, Be Merciful to Me” is one of the best selections for communion (if your church has background music during the administration of the Lord’s Supper). Experiment with the modal quality of the tune: you can play the melody line unaltered, yet replace the E-flat-major harmonies with c-minor progressions. This is also one of those extremely rare cases in which adding dissonant harmonies can actually enhance the music. As you play always remember the horror of sin portrayed by the text! Don’t ease the dismal quality of the melody until at least the third verse, if not the fourth; if necessary, you can balance out the mood with the more tranquil tone of number 95.
95, “Gracious God, My Heart Renew”
Since this text is a continuation of number 94, it is often sung in connection with the words of “God, Be Merciful to Me.” Like its counterpart, number 95 is built on four stanzas of well-crafted poetry, accurately reflecting the message of Psalm 51:10-19. The tune, named GETHSEMANE (confusing when compared to number 94), is extremely suitable for these words. While it preserves the key, meter, and motifs of AJALON, the phrases at the end of each line rise rather than fall. This lends a reverent, passionate, and hopeful tone to the melody, particularly fitting for stanzas 2 and 4.
Again, this selection is best played with a mellow timbre for congregational singing, but the conclusion of Psalm 51 offers more opportunity to build up the sound on the last verse. Opinions vary on whether or not to hold the quarter note at the end of each line; the best choice is usually whatever your congregation is more familiar with. Just like number 94, “Gracious God, My Heart Renew” is an excellent choice for the Lord’s Supper, or even for a simple offertory.
96, “O God, the God That Saveth Me”
Since the entirety of Psalm 51 is represented by numbers 94 and 95, why did the editors of the blue Psalter Hymnal decide to include yet another setting? The most likely explanation is that “O God, the God That Saveth Me” is considerably more literal than the previous two numbers. Although the focus of the text only encompasses vv. 14-19, the lyrics closely follow the original Scripture. SERENITY, the tune, is in the uniform key of E-flat, making it easily combinable with AJALON and GETHSEMANE for a beautiful Psalm 51 medley. For worship service use, playing through an entire stanza before the singing begins is probably a good idea, since the sudden leap in the middle line and the unexpected pause in the second-to-last measure can easily throw the congregation. Still, the union of text and tune in this case is both solid and singable.
You may notice that I haven’t directly commented on the content of Psalm 51 so far. That’s not because there’s nothing for the Christian to learn from this passage! Rather, the content of Psalm 51 is so replete with the gospel message that I intend to look at it separately. Thus, I plan to follow up on this post with a piece about the Scripture itself.
All in all, it’s no wonder that these versions of Psalm 51 are so beloved today. Endeared to many over the years, Psalter Hymnal numbers 94-96 are rich with examples of excellent psalmody.