Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Imperatives

Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean; wash me and I will be whiter than snow (Psalm 51: 7).

If you’re a parent or if you work with children in any way, you are familiar with a form of speech known as the imperative verb. Used in a variety of contexts, imperatives crop up with notable regularity when children are around.

You may have never actually heard the phrase “imperative verb” and you certainly don’t use the phrase itself when speaking. As for me, I use imperatives all the time but I never say to my kids “Ok . . . I’m about to start using imperatives” or “don’t make pull out the imperative verbs.” That kind of advertising has a way of dulling the impact of your words.

Imperatives are usually rapid-fire words: go to bed, eat your broccoli, stop whining, clean your room, get out of the pool, keep your hands to yourself. The possibilities are endless. I’m not aware of any linguistic research on the topic, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find that imperatives constitute an overwhelming majority of the words spoken by people over the age of 30 to people under the age of 12.

As you can tell, imperatives have the force of a command. The gist of any imperative verb is “do this, do that, don’t do this, don’t do that.” For that reason, it is remarkable that in the Psalms the imperative is used when people speak to God.

Time and time again in the Psalms words that have the feel of a command are offered as prayer. But in the Psalms the imperative takes on a different meaning, a slightly different feel. The Psalmists aren’t issuing orders to God, they are making a request. The imperative, when spoken as prayer, becomes an urgent desperate plea for help.


The heart of Psalm 51 is made up of a series of imperative verbs addressed to God.[1] This isn’t what we might expect. We can understand it if those who are weighed down with a sense of their guilt hide from God or speak to God tentatively. But here the guilty one speaks to God boldly and directly. No hiding. No holding back.

What we need in our guilt is stated bluntly, over and over: blot out, wash, cleanse, hide, create, renew, restore, save me. All imperatives – but not spoken as orders to the almighty. The words are spoken as cries for help.

When we make confession we are not simply talking about ourselves. While we tell the truth about who we are, we are not focused on our own failures and shortcomings. In confession we also make requests of God. That’s a part of what it means to recognize our need of forgiveness. The imperative acknowledges that we need God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and often our need is expressed with urgency: forgive me, help me, make me right, restore me, cleanse me.

How do we deal with our guilt and our guilt feelings? How do we move beyond it, keep it from suffocating our spirit and numbing the conscience? The short answer is we don’t. We can’t. What we need must be done for us, given to us from some source outside of ourselves and our good intentions. The good news is that God listens to imperatives; God is always ready to hear our requests and give us what we need.

What are the imperatives that you’re speaking to God today?

We give you thanks, O God, for the way you hear our most urgent pleas for help. We’re thankful that we can come before you boldly and speak to you honestly. Above all we are thankful that you willingly do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. You alone are our hope and help when guilt distances us from you. Draw us near in these moments of prayer, through Christ our Lord. Amen.


[1] For this helpful insight I am indebted to Walter Brueggemann’s exposition in The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Augsburg Publishing House, 1984).

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