Three Psalms, in Latin, all begin with the same words, “Miserere mei Deus” meaning, “Have mercy on me, O God.” The 51st Psalm was penned by David after the prophet Nathan had exposed him and confronted his sins of adultery and murder. In expressing his innermost desire to be right with God, he submitted his plea for mercy to the Chief Musician (Ps. 51:1), as a song to be used in public worship.

In 1518 it was known simply as “The Miserere”, composed by Constanzo Festa. He arranged nine vocal parts in two choirs, one of five and the other of four. Each choir alternated in Gregorian chant and then came together for the final verse. They sang David’s prayer, his cry for mercy as a song in public worship.

By 1638 it was Allegri who had taken “The Miserere” and added soaring soprano parts and a compelling melodic style. So captivated by it was the pope that he demanded the song never be duplicated and that it only be sung in worship at the Sistine Chapel. If anyone dared copy “The Miserere” they would be excommunicated. In the succeeding decades it was sung as a part of worship, twice during Passion Week, once on Wednesday and once on Good Friday – only in Rome.

In the ears of multitudes of worshipers “The Miserere” took on a sense of mystery. Perhaps it was because of its sacredness, protected by the church. Perhaps it was the tones that resonated deep within dry bones. Perhaps it was the lyric, David’s cry for mercy; centuries old but somehow a siren song, irresistible to the human soul.

In December of 1769 Leopold and Wolfgang Mozart set out, father and son, for a fifteen month tour of Italy. They arrived in Rome in the midst of Passion Week April 11, 1770. Mozart was thirteen. Amidst a throng of tourists amassed on Wednesday to hear mysterious “Miserere” they gathered in the chapel and listened intently as David’s plea filled the air, as an act of public worship.

Arriving back at their lodging that evening Mozart sat down and wrote out the entire piece, every part of “The Miserere” using only his memories as a guide. On good Friday he returned with the manuscript rolled up in his hat. Listening to the tones again he made only a few minor corrections to his manuscript.

Writing to his wife about the experience, Leopold Mozart sent a letter from Rome to Salzburg:

"You have often heard of the famous Miserere in Rome, which is so greatly prized that the performers in the chapel are forbidden on pain of excommunication to take away a single part of it, to copy it or to give it to anyone. But we have it already, Wolfgang has written it down and we would have sent it to Salzburg in this letter if it were not necessary for us to be there to perform it. But the manner of performance contributes more to its effect than the composition itself. So we shall bring it home with us. Moreover, as it is one of the secrets of Rome, we do not wish to let it fall into other hands, so that we shall not incur the censure of the Church now or later.”

The mysterious song born from David’s prayer, his plea for mercy was no longer a “secret of Rome” and the papacy. It was in Mozart’s mind, in his heart, and now expressed on paper.

Following Mozart’s duplication the legend and mystery of “The Miserere” would only grow. Though it has evolved through the centuries and has suffered numerous attempts at reconstruction, the piece remains no less moving as it resonates in modern ears. Whether it be 1518, 1770, or this very afternoon David’s plea for mercy is a siren song for the worshipping soul.

David tried for about a year to hide his sin. He had an affair with a warrior’s wife. While Uriah was at war, David was in bed with his wife. She became pregnant with David’s child. David tried to cover up the affair by inviting Uriah home for some respite with his wife. But Uriah refused; his men were at war without their wives, why should he not also be in the field? David intoxicated him, but even a drunken Uriah had more moral clarity than a sober David. Having failed to pawn the child to Uriah, David had him killed and took Bathsheeba to be his wife. David wrote about the misery of concealing sin in Psalm 32:3-4:

When I kept silent, my bones grew old
Through my groanings all the day long.
For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was turned into the drought of summer.

While the baby incubated in the womb of Bathsheeba, David’s very soul began to rot. Concealing sin is gestational poison.

There comes a moment when we see ourselves differently, when we are compared with The Holy. For David that moment was with Nathan as the prophet looked at David and spoke with the voice of God, “you are that man.” That moment births a prayer, that prayer births a song, that song becomes a part of worship, “The Miserere.”

“The Miserere” is laced with regret, it is a plea for restoration, a cry for mercy, a desire for life to be made right again. It is the song within us all, a memory of moral failure, a season of soul rot, a plea for mercy, an earnest desire for life to be right again. Perhaps that is the mystery of “The Miserere.” Its melody is haunting, each part mysterious, but it is indeed our “secret song.” Like Rome we have taken it captive, but like Mozart it is a song we dare not forget.

“The Miserere” is a song we constantly hear but we do not sing; especially in worship. Where has confession gone?

We stand in the chapel each Sunday in masses feeling ever alone. Each soul rots concealing secrets, trying its best to silence the song. As much electricity as is required to facilitate modern worship, as many wires, screens and images – we remain strangely disconnected.

If I regard iniquity in my heart,
The Lord will not hear.
Psalm 66:18

David submitted his prayer, his song, a cry for mercy, penned by an adulterous murderer; he submitted it for worship. Perhaps he knew it would be a siren song for centuries of rotting souls. Something we could not adequately express, but a song we constantly hear amplified within us.

The whispers within us are deafening, our soul longs to sing “The Miserere” – with David – with one another – together – in worship; a chorus of dry rotting souls who no longer regard sin, but desire once again to connect with God and find His mercy. We are filled with regret, but have an intense desire for life to be right again. Perhaps we would do well to rest the anthems that speak of our greatness, fallacies of who we are, and exchange them occasionally for an examination of our sinful soul. In such worship the cross of Christ is magnified, the attributes of God challenge the mind’s comprehension and we begin a journey toward the restoration of the joy of God’s salvation within us.

Until we sing the mysterious melody of confession we may never truly hear “joy and gladness.” Though the songs of “joy and gladness” have become our liturgy, our rotting souls need to release their secret song – confession together – in the safety of worship.


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