Psalm 51 brings us to a new category of Psalms in our summer series, penitential Psalms or sometimes called the Psalms of confession. Like the Psalms of lament and the Psalms of confidence, Psalms of confession present the Psalmist in deep distress and in need of immediate help and rescue. But what’s different here in these Psalms is the distress being experienced isn’t caused by enemies or anybody outside of the Psalmist, no. The distress the Psalmist finds themselves in is caused by the Psalmist. They have sinned, they have strayed, they have dug themselves a hole and jumped in it, and because of this they find themselves in need of mercy, forgiveness, and rescue. So they beg God, confess their sin to God, repent of it before God, and plead asking that God would restore them while promising that from being so restored, they’ll praise God, proclaim God, and portray God in their life with a new vigor and strength.
Throughout history Psalm 51 has held a prominent place in the life of Christians in both public and in private. During the early Church and on into the medieval period, Psalm 51 was recited at the end of nearly every worship service and held an even more prominent role in the worship of God’s people during the season of Lent.After this time, both in the public worship of the Church and in the private devotion of believers, Psalm 51 has been understood to be a display one of the truest patterns of repentance in the entire Bible. Often called the ‘Psalm of all Psalms’ and ‘The Sinners Guide’ many believe that no other Psalm has been as central to the Christian life than Psalm 51.And the Psalm shows us why this is so. It dives deep into the shadows and darkness of our depravity, the origin of sin, the nature of sin, and the nauseating burdens sin brings into the soul. But it doesn’t only delve deep into sin, it also leaps up to the heights and brightness of God’s mercy and grace in His forgiveness and restoration. Taking all of this together leads us to conclude with Luther, “True repentance includes a recognition of sin and recognition of grace.”Or with St. Augustine who said, “…our great misery is only remedied by God’s great mercy.
Notice also, Psalm 51 tells us the exact circumstances Psalm 51 is about. “To the Choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” We’ve no need to guess what event prompted such repentance. 2 Samuel 11-12 records it. David lingered behind as the rest of his army went out to war. He went up on the roof of his palace, in full knowledge of what he’d likely see, he beheld the wife of Uriah bathing, called for her, took her as his own, told her to lie about it, and killed her husband when he couldn’t cover it up to try and conclude the matter. In all of this we see David not merely falling into some minor infraction but willingly jumping into a whole mass of filth. If the Bible didn’t tell us this story, I doubt we’d ever believe that such a holy man could sink so low. But it does tell us about it, and David did fall so low. Low enough that it seems if Nathan never came to him and called his sin out, David would’ve likely continued on in the hardness of his heart without repenting. But in God’s grace Nathan came, called sin sin, called David to repent, by God’s grace David repented, and his words to God have become God’s very word to us in Psalm 51.
Let’s look into it shall we?
A Confession of Sin (v1-12)
This first movement begins with v1-2, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your steadfast love; according to Your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!”
As horrid and vile as David’s actions have been how does his repentance begin? With a cry to God for mercy. It’s as if nothing else comes into his mind and heart after being made aware of the greatness of his sin. He knows what he deserves, and he knows he can do nothing to get out of it, therefore mercy, sheer mercy from God is his only plea before God. See how it’s given to us here. v1-2 has a few sets of threes’ in it, one set describing God’s mercy followed by another set describing David’s mess. v1 begins with the first set of threes’ launching out into God’s mercy, steadfast love, and abundant mercy. Than in v1b-2 we see the second set of threes’ describing David’s transgression, iniquity, and sin. The way these two sets are given to us here back to back or standing against one another teaches us that though our sins are many, God’s mercy is always a match for our mess. David has sinned, massively so, but God’s mercy is there and enough at every turn. His cry for mercy is founded upon something though. David knows God is a God of “steadfast love” or more literal from the Hebrew, God is a God of ‘hesed.’ As we’ve seen before this phrase ‘steadfast love’ in English is one word in Hebrew, ‘hesed’, which literally means ‘covenant faithfulness.’ Which is a word loaded full of meaning, bringing to mind ancient promises, “I will be Your God and You will be My people.” So, because David knows God to be the faithful God of “hesed” he can say God is a God of abundant mercy, and believes God will not only forgive his sin, but do another set of three things: blot out totally, wash him thoroughly, and cleanse him entirely from his sin. It’s as if David views himself as a soiled garment begging God to launder him clean.And though our modern sensitivities tend to avoid something like this, it’s right and healthy for David to feel this bad about himself. Because God’s grace is only cherished as beautiful when we taste sin as bitter.
David continues on in v3-6, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You may be justified in Your words and blameless in Your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, You delight in truth in the inward being, and You teach me wisdom in the secret heart.”
Many people within the Church speak of repentance. It’s a big word, an old word, that’s often left undefined because it’s assumed we already know what it means. See here true repentance defined. It’s not merely admitting sin or acknowledging you’ve done wrong, but feeling the pain and grief of it deeply. That is part of true repentance, and this marks one of the differences between true believers and false converts. False converts don’t see their sin as something which feels exceedingly sinful. They see it as a small thing, something bothersome maybe, something as an obstacle to get passed, but definitely not something offending or grieving to God because they’ve got such a low view of God and such a high view of themselves. Because of this they tend to think greatly of the sins of others and turn v3 on its head as if it really said, ‘I see the sins of others, these fools and their folly are ever before me.’The true believer is dramatically different. His or her sin is ever before them, and they’re aware not only of their sin but of the sinfulness and stench of their sin as well. That they’ve not only broken God’s law but insulted God Himself and because of it they’re sitting underneath God’s just displeasure!
I wonder if v4 distresses you? When you read it say that ‘David sinned against God alone’ do you say, ‘No sir! David’s sins public, grievous, and against society at large, as well as against the peace, honor, comfort, and life of an innocent and brave man and his family.’ And we’d agree with you, in part. While the horizontal hurt was mammoth from his sin, the vertical hurt was infinitely viler. God alone was above David in the kingdom, and to God alone was David responsible for his sin. Just as Adam and Eve long before saw that the tree was good for food, that it was a delight to the eyes (Gen. 3:6), and broke God’s commands, so too David despised God’s authority, broke God’s law, and forsook God’s ways for His own when he saw Bathsheba’s beauty, was delighted by her, and did what he must to have her.God is therefore, fully justified in and blameless to condemn David.
And though God delights in truth in the inward being and teaches wisdom in the secret heart as v6 says, David admits that his problem is far deeper than these actions alone. David knows the truth: he isn’t a sinner because he sins, he sins because he is a sinner by nature. From his very beginning, David doesn’t view himself as a neutral person, shaped and formed by his surroundings for the good or for the bad. No, David believes that since his own conception in the womb, his whole nature has been marred, bent, and given over to sin. He is in other words, totally depraved. There is no part of his being, in other words, that remains unaffected by the fall. He’s not excusing himself by saying this in v5, he’s condemning himself, and throwing himself on the only thing he can, the mercy of God he began with in v1.
Which leads to David burst forth with his final words of confession in v7-12, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that You have broken rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from Your presence, and take not Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”
Knowing how far he has fallen David pleads for all that’s wrong in him to be made right. The language he begins with here is washing. Just as the priests would take the leafy hyssop branch, dip it in the blood of the dead sacrificial animal, and sprinkle it on themselves, a person, or even a house that’s unclean in order to make it clean – so too David desires God would do the same with him and make him clean. He desires God would in this way wash him and make him whiter than snow. The colors of this imagery are interesting aren’t they? It’s the blood red sacrifice sprinkled over him makes him white as snow. Clearly this isn’t to be taken literally, but figuratively, being covered in blood externally points the internal cleansing of the soul before God. Because of this internal washing, David then begs for internal joy once again. His sin has caused a brokenness to spread within him and he longs for the brokenness to be replaced with rejoicing, with joy, and with gladness.
This gladness and rejoicing is why David immediately follows this request with another request about God’s face. I think we all know people who can’t hide the emotions on their face. If they think it, feel it, it’s showing up on their face. I’m sure this kind of gut level honesty is helpful to some degree, these people never usually put on a face to fake anything. But I’m sure these people can also feel at times like they don’t want to be that honest with others about how they’re feeling.Well, God’s face is used throughout the Psalms many times but only ever in two directions. If God’s face is described as turning toward the sinner or the people God’s face shines with favor and blessing. But if God’s face is described as turning away from the sinner or the people God’s face reflects punishment and rebuke.Notice how David speaks of God’s face in v9 though. In order for David to be cleansed and washed from his sin God must turn His face away from him. Because if God were to look on him in this moment all God will see is sin and he’s ashamed to be seen so full of such filth. Three times then in v10-12 David mentions the word ‘spirit’ referring to the Holy Spirit because he desires what only the Spirit of God can do for him. Give him a new heart, a clean heart, a renewed spirit not burdened with the heaviness of sin but joyfully alive in His presence, filled and overflowing with the Spirit of God and the gladness of God’s redemption.
Remember David is guilty, and in his culture a displeased king would usually banish you from his presence.But even in his guilt David is gutsy with God because he knows God is a God of ‘hesed’ and great mercy. Church don’t miss this. Only the child of a king could wake the king at 3am for a glass of water without fear. David knows he’s great sinner but he also knows he can ask God the Father for great mercy without fear as well.
After this confession of sin in v1-12 we see David change tune a bit and begin promising a consecration of life in v13-19.
A Consecration of Life (v13-19)
v13-19, “Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of Your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise. For You will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; You will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise. Do good to Zion in Your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; then will You delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on Your altar.”
Here we learn more of what true repentance looks like. Repentance doesn’t end with confession. It begins with confession sure, but it leads to heart change and life change. Repentance then isn’t just remorse and regret for getting caught sinning. See David’s example: from seeing the mercy of God, and truly grieving and hating his sin, he seeks to turn from it to God, endeavoring after a new obedience.That’s what we see in v13-19. What does this new obedience look like for David?
In v13 David’s new obedience looks like evangelism, as he promises to spread the good news of such great mercy. You could be tempted to believe that sinfulness leads to no more kingdom usefulness, but it isn’t true here is it? No it isn’t. Be reminded the only people used by God in His kingdom are sinful broken people because sinful broken people are all that are. But even in this see there is a world of difference between a sinful broken person who ignores their sin and a sinful broken person who endeavors to turn away from their sin. In v14-15 David’s new obedience looks like praise and loud singing flowing from the fountain of gratitude. If God, called here the ‘God of salvation’, saves David from ‘bloodguiltiness’ or ‘blood already shed wrongfully’ David promises that his tongue will sing loudly and his lips will declare God’s praise. Meaning, David will show his gratitude to God for saving Him by praising Him. Or put it like this, David knows “Great mercies call for great songs.”In v16-17 David’s new obedience looks like true religion, not mere external ceremony. He knows God isn’t pleased by simply doing the right things while his heart is far from Him. God is pleased when His people come to an end of themselves and look to Him for strength, sustenance, and their all. This kind of broken and contrite humble heart, God does not despise. Then in v18-19 David’s new obedience no longer looks only personal, it looks very communal. It seems what David desires the whole nation to learn what he is learning here in Psalm 51. The ESV Study Bible is helpful here when it comments, “The ideal Israel is a community of forgiven sinners, faithfully embracing God’s covenant and worshiping Him according to the rites He appointed; this is the community God will build and bring His light to the world through.”
Confession and consecration then, makes up the whole of Psalm 51.
Church, though written long ago Psalm 51 remains powerful today. Paul even quotes Psalm 51 in Romans 3 as part of his argument that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And Paul doesn’t stop with proving the doctrine of original sin though, he moves onto to our hope. What is our hope? That to blot out, to cleanse, and to wash sinners white as snow God crushed His Son by causing His blood to run red on the cross! And from turning His face away from Christ on the cross, God now turns His face toward all who look to Christ in faith. And it’s no surprise Paul wrote these things. His own life bears a striking similarity to David’s. Once a murderer as well, but reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, filled with the Spirit, and endeavoring from then on to proclaim God’s ways to sinners. How ironic, that it is reconciled people who are entrusted with God’s reconciling work.
Let me end with this. Just as Christians ought to be the most sorrowful people in the world by taking our sin seriously, so too Christians ought to be the gladdest people in the world. Our misery was great, but His mercy was greater, therefore our joy ought to be unmatched. Do you lack and do you want serious joy in your life? Than learn to sorrow over your sin, learn to see Christ crucified for sinners, learn to savor His great mercy, learn to sing loudly of Him and to Him, and learn to spread this good news to others out of such overflowing joy. If you do this and grow in these things, you’re joy will be invincible.
Bruce K. Waltke & James M. Houston,The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2010) page 446.
William S. Plumer, Psalms (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, reprint 2016) page 555. See also Waltke & Houston, page 446.
Martin Luther, Luther’s Works – vol. 12 (St. Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1955) page 305.
Augustine, quoted in Waltke & Houston, page 447.
Waltke & Houston, page 469-470.
Martin Luther, Luther’s Works – vol. 14 (St. Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1955) page 167.
Plumer, page 557.
William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002) page 172-175.
Waltke & Houston, page 477.
See Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 87.
Plumer, page 559.
ESV Study Bible, notes on Psalm 51:18-19, page ???, emphasis mine.
Roger E. Van Harn & Brent A. Strawn, Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2009) page 171-172.