Just a Bit O’ History… Psalm 51. A Psalm of Judgment, as well as a Miserere: The Last Cry of Mercy From the Saints…

Psalm 51

ridley--latimer-1555-grangerThis is a psalm which is the cry for mercy and purity rising from the view of judgment…

…and in this, too, harmonizing with the tone of the “Dies Irae.” that is, “Day of judgment, day of burning,” which adds to its power as it falls from the bosom of distant centuries, like the tones of a cathedral bell, dropping slow and solemn from the tower at midnight.

‘Guilt and shame my soul assailing,
Where shall I find friend availing,
When the righteous man is quailing?’

Psalm 51 is one of the Pauline psalms which delighted Luther, and has had a manifold history, open and secret. It was sung by George Wishart and his friends at the Laird of Ormiston’s, in East Lothian, on the night when he was taken prisoner, to be afterwards burned at St. Andrews. ‘ After supper he held comfortable as regarding his death and the deaths of God’s chosen children, to which he pleasantly said, “Methinks that I desire earnestly to sleep,” and therewith he said, “will we sing a psalm?” and so he appointed the 51st, which was put in Scottish metre (Wedderburn’s Version), and began thus:

“Have mercy on me, God of might,
Of mercy Lord and king ;
For thy mercy is set full right
Above all earthly thing;
Therefore I cry both day and night,
And with my heart shall sing;
To thy mercy with thee will I go.”

For a long period in the Middle Ages, and after the Reformation, it was the “Miserere,” the last cry for mercy, sung, or heard, by those who were about to step into the presence of the judgment seat.

When it was read to Henry V. of England on his death-bed, the closing words, ‘Build thou the walls of Jerusalem,” seemed to fall on the ear of the dying man as a reproach, for he had cherished a vow, and he murmured, ‘If I had finished the war in France, and established peace, I would have gone to Palestine to rescue the Holy City from the Saracens.”

It was read to Lady Jane Grey and her husband, Guildford Dudley, when they were executed together, Aug. 22, 1553, read to her in Latin, and repeated by her in English. It was read also at Norfolk’s execution a few years later. It was the last prayer of Oecolampadius, who had his sickness aggravated and his death hastened by the untimely end of his friend Zwingli in 1531. He called the ministers of the churches round him, exhorted them to fidelity and purity of doctrine, prayed earnestly in the words of David in the 51st Psalm, and soon after died.

It would be too long to tell of all the Protestants in France who made it their death song, during that long agony in which it is difficult to say whether we wonder most at the cruelty of the persecutors or the constancy of the sufferers. Pierre Milet was one of the earliest burned, in 1550, on the Place Maubert, Paris, with the refinements of cruelty common at the time; and more than 200 years after, March 27, 1752, Francis Benezet met his death, both of them with this psalm on their lips.

There is a remarkable similarity in the manner of death of the French and Scottish martyrs, arising from the frequent intercourse between the Churches in the early days of the Reformation, and from their common devotion to the book of Psalms.

One of the most interesting of these is that of Thomas Forret, who suffered martyrdom on the Castle Hill of Edinburgh, nearly a quarter of a century before the Reformation gained firm footing in the land. He was of a family that had owned the estate of Forret in Fife from the time of William the Lion, and was Canon of Inchcolm in the Firth of Forth. A volume of Augustine led him to the Bible, and there he found salvation through Christ alone. When the people came to have pardon for money, he would say, ‘I am bound to speak the truth to you. There is no pardon for our sins that can come to us from Pope or any other, but only by the blood of Christ.” This, and the abundance of his work in preaching,brought him before the Bishop of Dunkeld and the Abbot of St. Colm’s, who urged him to keep silence. ‘You are a friend to my body,’ he replied,’but not to my soul. Before I deny a word I have spoken, you shall see this body of mine blow away with the wind in ashes.’

The account of his death has been preserved by his faithful servant, Andrew Kirkie. When he was brought to the stake on the Castle Hill, he cried first in Latin and then in English,’ God be merciful to me, a sinner; ‘then, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,’ and ended with the Miserere, ‘Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving-kindness.’

Verse 7. Probably the northernmost grave on the surface of the earth is one made for a member of the expedition of Sir George Nares to the Arctic Sea, in the ship Alert. It is near Cape Beechy, on the brow of a hill covered with snow, and commanding a view of crowded masses of ice which stretch away into the mysterious Northern Ocean, where, hung like a lamp over the door of the unknown, shines the polar star. A large stone covers the dead, and, on a copper tablet at the head, the words are engraved,

‘Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.’

Verse 18. The first presbytery of the Irish Presbyterian Church was constituted by immigrants from Scotland, in Carrickfergus,June 10, 1642. There were five ministers and as many elders. The sermon was from Psalm 51:18, 

‘Do good in thy good
pleasure unto Zion;
build thou the walls of Jerusalem.’

Two hundred years afterwards, in 1842, every minister of the Church preached from this same text. There were then above five hundred.


Written by John Ker, D. D.
Taken from, “The Psalms in History and Biography”
Edited for thought and sense.