On February 12, 1554 a martyr mounted a London scaffolding having denounced the Catholic doctrines of salvation by works, transubstantiation, and Papal authority even though a simple verbal assent may have proved life-saving. As from so many other martyrs, it was Psalm 51 they were heard quoting, before the axe fell or the tinder was lit.
The martyr’s name was Lady Jane Grey.
She was 17 years old.
Why Psalm 51? Why the confession of an adulterous, murderous King on the sweet lips of this young girl and countless others willing to die for their faith?
(Click here to read Psalm 51 and for even greater effect you can choose Kristin Getty’s voice to read it aloud to you and then imagine the words coming from a 17 year old girl with her pious head on a chopping block).
Like King David, Lady Jane Grey held the throne, albeit for a mere nine days, and like King David she was hunted by another monarch, only her persecutor met with ultimate success. Neither sought the throne themselves and yet that is where their royal similarities seem to end. Except for the thing they held most in common– the God they served. And in her time of deepest testing, it was the failed king’s Psalm of repentance that sprang from Lady Jane Grey’s lips.
If the words of Psalm 51, give us a glimpse into the heart of this teenage martyr, consider some of the other recorded words of Lady Jane Grey. This excerpt is from a letter written shortly before her execution to her younger sister:
“I have sent you, good sister Katherine, a book which, although it is not outwardly framed with gold, yet inwardly it is of more worth than precious stones. It is the book, dear sister, of the law of the Lord. It is His testament and last will which He bequeathed unto us wretches; which shall lead you into the path of eternal joys; and if you with a good mind read it, and with an earnest mind do purpose to follow it it shall bring you to an immortal and everlasting life. It shall teach you to live and learn you to die.”
What kind of life experience produces that kind of spiritual maturity in the face of persecution? Consider these events from her history:
1536 (or 37) Lady Jane Grey is born to conniving parents Henry and Frances who in an attempt to gain access to the British throne commenced an unusual method of education with the hopes of marrying their daughter off to Henry VIII’s son, Edward.
1542 Providence places Jane under the tutelage of protestant John Aylmer who instructs 6 year old Jane in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French and Spanish and more importantly the Tyndale English Bible. She becomes so proficient in languages that she eventually is able to correspond in Latin and Greek with noteworthy Reformers such as Martin Bucer and Heinrich Bullinger.
1545 9-year-old Jane is sent to live permanently at court as maid-of-honor to King Henry VIII’s 6th wife, Catherine Parr, a devout Christian. There she engages in regular Bible study with other believers and comes to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. Prince Edward also is surrounded by strong Christian influences at this time including Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer and develops a deep zeal for the protestant faith.
1547 King Henry VIII dies and 9-year-old Edward becomes King of England but quickly falls victim to scheming Uncle Edward Seymour who assumes custody and thus control of the throne. Edward Seymour’s brother, Thomas, now married to King Henry VIII’s widow, Catherine Parr, is busy with his own schemes and convinces Jane’s father to sell her to him for 2000 pounds in exchange for a promised union with the young King Edward VI. 11-year-old Jane is now a ward of the Seymour’s and happily back under the Christian influence of Catherine. Unfortunately, Catherine soon after dies in childbirth just before Thomas himself is beheaded for attempted kidnapping of the king. Another conniving counselor to young King Edward VI, John Dudley, convinces Jane’s parents to transfer guardianship to himself.
1553 Dudley retains hopes of marrying his ward to King Edward VI until it becomes apparent that the young king is in fact dying of tuberculosis. So 16-year-old Jane is instead forced to marry John Dudley’s own son, Guilford. But Dudley keeps a foot in the royal door by demanding the marriage be considered unconsummated in case the young king pulls through and an annulment can be made, freeing Jane up to marry him. King Edward VI doesn’t pull through. He dies just a month and a half later after amending the original document of succession to name his Protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey as heir to the throne rather than either of his 1/2 sisters. 17-year-old Jane, is proclaimed the new Queen of England by John Dudley himself. Jane responds to her new title with these words: “The crown is not my right, and pleaseth me not. The Lady Mary is the rightful heir.”
Lady Jane Grey reluctantly holds the throne just over a week before her Catholic cousin Mary arrives with troops to depose her. Queen Jane hands over the crown and spends the rest of her short life imprisoned in the Tower of London. Her parents immediately renounce their allegiance to Jane and turn their support to Queen Mary. Her mother and sister even going so far as to carrying the train of Queen Mary’s gown on her coronation day and then moving into the new queen’s court while Jane herself is still imprisoned.
Jane’s young husband, Guilford, is also imprisoned in the tower of London and during the brief times they are allowed to be together seems to come under the godly influence of his wife and evidences a remarkable change in character and maturing in faith. The two, previously strangers and pawns, develop a genuine affection for one another before their executions on the same day.
Given the betrayal this young girl experienced at the hands of the very people whose job it was to protect her, it’s amazing that she didn’t quote the following words from a few Psalms later, 55:12-14
“For it is not an enemy who reproaches me, Then I could bear it; Nor is it one who hates me who has magnified himself against me, Then I could hide myself from him. But it is you, a man my equal, My close companion and my familiar friend; We who had sweet counsel together Walked in the house of God in the throng.”
But in all of Jane’s writings there is no hint of self-pity, or entitlement, bitterness over betrayal, or bemoaning her victim status. Instead her choice of Psalm 51 proves especially poignant given her circumstances.
In this Psalm, King David uses no fewer than 5 different terms for his acts of adultery with Bathsheba and the subsequent murder of her husband: transgressions, iniquity, sin, evil, and bloodguiltiness. For these he is pleading with God for mercy, for washing, cleansing, purging, renewal, restoration, deliverance and salvation. David confesses that the sin he was born in and continued to walk in are not just constantly visible to his own eyes but to God’s as well. In fact, even though others suffered deadly consequences as a result of his adultery and murder it was God Himself that David repents of sinning against.
Today there is a popular message floating around that Bathsheba was most assuredly raped even though there is no scriptural evidence for that claim. Simultaneously, a mildly pornographic movie supposedly retelling the story of Hosea portrays his harlot wife, Gomer, also as a victim. And at the same time, our daughters have truly become the victims of perverted injustice as men are allowed to invade their locker-rooms and steal their trophies. But how many of us turned a blind eye when our sisters were invading the boys locker-rooms and club-houses and insisting on being one of the guys? How many of us are willing to confess and repent of the immodest, immoral, defiant, discontented, selfish, spoiled lifestyles that have contributed to the ugliness we now want to hide from?
The fact is, we live in a day when women in general are losing touch with their own sinfulness and instead adopting a communal identity of victimhood and spiritual superiority to men. Psalms of confession and contrition rarely leave our lips. And it’s killing us. David well understood this. Psalm 32:3 describes the spiritual and physical toll of unconfessed sin, the literal wasting away of a body shrouded in silent iniquity. 2 Timothy 3:6 gives further insight into the effects of festering sin on the spiritual well being of women in particular.
“For among them are those who enter into households and take captive weak women weighed down with sins, being led on by various desires, always learning and never able to come to the full knowledge of the truth.” 4 things to note from this verse:
1) Unconfessed sin weakens women and weighs them down. We are especially prone to this today when we refuse to even identify sin as such. Instead we apply psychological labels and even personality categories to our sin or shift the blame to some other person/event from our past
2) We are still following the example of Eve and being led by our desires. Genesis 3:6 tells us that “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, so she took from its fruit and ate.” Eve’s desires seem harmless enough in and of themselves. But she let them lead her into disobedience against God who benevolently had given only one single prohibition for her to mind.
3) Current women’s ministry models can perpetuate this rebellion by providing endless opportunities for women to avoid facing their own sin and instead pursue activities, books, and even solidly doctrinal studies, all things desired to make one wise, without ever coming to “the full knowledge of the truth.”
4) All these put us in a vulnerable position to be taken captive by false teachers. At the time of Paul’s admonition to Timothy, these teachers were creeping into churches and households in person. Today, we carry those false teachers in an infinite array around with us in our back pocket where they have access to us via social media, podcasts, and other web-based platforms 24/7.
Today is Good Friday. Many of us will be attending services and taking communion where there will be a time of confession as we remember the atoning sacrifice of our Lord. What an example of humble contrition young Lady Jane is for us this day. Our heads may not be on the chopping block but let’s bring back the gentle beauty of women on their knees in quiet repentance before our King of Kings, Jesus Christ who gave Himself for us.