Psalm 51 -
A Prayer for Forgiveness
For the director of music. A psalm of David.
When the prophet Nathan came to him
after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.
As noted in the inscription of this psalm, the occasion of this psalm was Davidís repentance after being confronted by Nathan with his sin of adultery and murder. As you may recall, David, after seducing and committing adultery with Bathsheba, effectively murdered her husband (Uriah) by putting him in the front line of battle and then ordering the rest of the soldiers to retreat (see II Sam. 11 and 12 for the complete history of this event). David had thought that he had hidden his sins, until the prophet Nathan confronted him with his sins. Indeed, David had hidden his sins from men, but he had not hidden them from God. Nathan brought this fact to Davidís attention. Nathan caused David to realize that, ultimately, it doesnít matter if sins are hidden from men. Your sin will find you out in the end, because God sees all.
This psalm is Davidís pleading for Godís mercy. "When the divine message had aroused his dormant conscience and made him see the greatness of his guilt, he wrote this Psalm" [Spurg, 401]. David begins: "Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your unfailing love; according to Your great compassion blot out my transgressions" (vs. 1). David realizes the enormity of his sin, for He appeals to Godís "unfailing love" and "great compassion" as he seeks "mercy". Admittedly, Davidís sins were large, but even those who have not stumbled as far as David are in great need of Godís mercy. We are all sinners who have broken, repeatedly, Godís laws. "Without Godís mercy, we should all be undone" [Plumer, 555].
Not only did David need Godís mercy, he also needed God to purify him: "Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me" (vs. 2-3). Mercy provides pardon, but purification is also needed. "The pollution of sin goes through the whole powers of the soul and body, which have been serviceable to it; through mind, will, affections, senses, bodily and all; and nothing can quiet the soul here, except it find pardoning mercy, and sanctifying mercy following all the foul footsteps of sin, and doing away the filthiness thereof" [Dickson, 304].
In order to console his conscience, David needed to realize that God had washed him clean: "For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me." The conscience has enormous sway over our lives. It is a weapon of the Holy Spirit to break our spirits, and to bring us to repentance. The pangs of conscience can be more devastating than even physical maladies. "Sorrow for sin exceeds sorrow for suffering, in the continuance and durableness thereof: the other, like a landflood, quickly come, quickly gone; this is a continual dropping or running river, keeping a constant stream" [Spurgeon, 411]. Davidís conscience gave him no rest: "My sin is always before me."
Davidís conscience brought him to acknowledgment of his sin before God: "Against You, You only have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You are proved right when You speak and justified when You judge" (vs. 4). A necessary first step to receive the mercy of God is an acknowledgment of oneís sin to God. God welcomes such an acknowledgment of sin, and has promised through the pen of John: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:9). This is a wonderful promise for the child of God.
Though Davidís sin harmed Bathsheba and Uriah, David saw God as the primary party wronged by his sin: "Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight." It is the law of God that defines sin, and so, though we hurt men, it is against God that we sin. "We never see sin aright until we see it as against God" [Plumer, 557]. If we realize this, we also realize that there is nothing on earth that we can do to atone for our sin, except what God demands for atonement. And we are blessed in this respect, for Godís Son has paid the price of atonement for our sins. God demands only that we accept from Jesus this gift of sacrifice.
Next David notes that Godís pardon and purification was needed in his life long before his sin with Bathsheba: "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me" (vs. 5). "It is as if he said, not only have I sinned this once, but I am in my very nature a sinner. The fountain of my life is polluted as well as its streams. My birth-tendencies are out of the square of equity; I naturally lean to forbidden" [Spurgeon, 403]. But God requires holiness of His people: "Surely You desire truth in the inner parts; You teach me wisdom in the inmost place" (vs. 6). And so, David asks for an especially vigorous cleansing: "Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow" (vss. 7). Hyssop was, notably, used in the ceremony that allowed a healed leper back into the congregation of worshipers. So also, David wants to be allowed back into the congregation of worshipers, after Godís healing of his putrid sin: "Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones You have crushed rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity" (vss. 8-9). This is the love of God: that He can bring us from the miserable mire of sin, to the joy and gladness of being numbered as one of His children.
Davidís analogy comparing the pangs of conscience to "bones that [God] has crushed" describes the great pain that the conscience can inflict. "A broken bone gives great and constant pain. For a moment the mind may be diverted from it, or sleep may supervene and a man may forget his pain; but as soon as one is fully awake, or his mind released from that which had called it away, it reverts to the old pain. Where many bones are broken the condition is truly deplorable" [Plumer, 558]. If we would but remember the pain experienced after sin, we might possibly be deterred from sinning in the first place. "The grief and torment which follow sin, and are felt by a wounded spirit, are greater, even in the children of God, in the time of their repentance, than ever the pleasure of sin was to them" [Dickson, 308].
"It is the error of some that they seek knowledge but not holiness, hope of pardon and acceptance, but not the image and spirit of Christ" [Plumer, 562]. David has asked for pardon and purification to deal with his past sins, now he asks for a remedy to keep him from future sin: "Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from Your presence or take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me" (vss. 10-12). Note that David prays that God would "create" in him a new heart, not correct his old heart. His old heart, as is all of our hearts, is beyond correction. "What! Has sin so destroyed us, that the Creator must be called in again? What ruin then doth evil work among mankind!" [Spurgeon, 405]. David also asks for a "steadfast spirit", so that he would not fall so easily into sin, in order that the new, "pure heart" may remain pure. Then also, David asks that God would restore his soul to the state of a new believer: "Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me" (vs. 12). Do you remember the "joy of salvation" that you had as a new believer? Do you remember the "willing spirit" you had, willing to obey the commands of God? We would all do well to pray these things.
In the next few verses, David speaks of how he plans to express his thankfulness for Godís mercy. First, he plans to use his experience to turn others to repentance: "Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will turn back to You" (vs. 13). "We see our duty craves that when we have received mercy from God for ourselves, we should make vantage of it for the edification of others" [Cowper, in Spurgeon, 420]. "A degree of S.S., or Sinner Saved, is more needful for a soul-winning evangelist than either M.A. or D.D." [Spurgeon, 406]. Often God uses those who had fallen the farthest into sin, and then received mercy, to be an example to sinners that they can also receive mercy. Paul was used in this way. He wrote Timothy: "Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinnersóof whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on Him and receive eternal life" (I Tim. 1:15-16).
David also plans to express his thankfulness for Godís mercy by singing praises to the Lord: "Save me from bloodguilt, O God, the God who saves me, and my tongue will sing of Your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise" (vss. 14-15). Singing praise should be a natural response by anyone who receives a great gift from the Lord.
Now, David offers praise to the Lord, but does not offer sacrifices: "You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; You do not take pleasure in burnt offerings" (vs. 16). Sacrifices of atonement were a part Godís laws, part of His eternal plan of salvation. The Old Testament sacrifices foreshadowed the sacrifice of atonement that Jesus would make on our behalf. So, though sacrifices were required under the Old Testament law, they werenít something that God delighted in. Moreover, on top of the required sacrifices, God did not desire any more. It wasnít like David could offer more sacrifices to get more mercy. What God desires is that we truly repent, as demonstrated by an attitude of repentance: "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise" (vs. 17).
To conclude, David prays for the people over whom he rules: "In Your good pleasure make Zion prosper; build up the walls of Jerusalem. Then there will be righteous sacrifices, whole burnt offerings to delight You; then bulls will be offered on Your altar" (vss. 18-19). David did not want his people to be adversely affected by his sin. We must all realize that our sin affects other people, directly and indirectly. Others are affected, of course, by sins we commit that harm them. But even those who are not affected directly by our sins, may be affected by the results of our sins. Our sins may cause others to sin, and thus, a pyramid effect may occur, so that one sin affects many. Our sins may bring discipline from God, and this discipline may affect others. We do not sin in a vacuum. David was concerned that Jerusalem would be adversely affected by his sin. Likewise, we should be concerned that our families, and our friends may be affected by our sins.