Neck Verse

Excerpt from Psalm 51:1-12

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.”

Reflection by Quinn G. Caldwell

History is rife with occasions when knowing Scripture by heart has made a material difference in people’s lives, even saved their necks.

Take Psalm 51.  In 12th-century England, secular courts had no jurisdiction over the clergy.  Misbehaving clerics were tried by ecclesiastical courts, famously more lenient than their secular counterparts, who would hang even first-time offenders.  To claim the “benefit of clergy,” one had to prove that he was literate; clergy were just about the only ones who could read.  Eventually, a pattern emerged: the part of the Bible the courts always asked people to read out loud was—you guessed it—Psalm 51.  Before long, every illiterate dude and his brother was claiming benefit of clergy to escape the secular courts.  All they had to do was memorize the 51st Psalm, waltz into court and “read” it from the Bible, and hope they weren’t asked to read anything else.

Eventually, it came to be known as the “neck verse,” not because it contained pleas to save someone’s neck, but because memorizing it could quite literally do exactly that.

I’m pretty sure that this use of the Psalm wasn’t what God originally had in mind.  On the other hand, neither was being hanged for stealing a loaf of bread.  I suppose it all evens out.

Either way, you probably ought to memorize it, just in case.


God, so fill me up with your word that it’s on the tip of my tongue, ready to save my neck when I need it.  Amen.

About the Author
Quinn G. Caldwell, a United Church of Christ minister, is the co-author, with Curtis J. Preston, of the Unofficial Handbook of the United Church of Christ, published by The Pilgrim Press.