Horrible, Honest, Hopeful (Psalm 51:1–19)

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The exposition of Psalm 51 is no easy task. When Charles Spurgeon approached this psalm in his preaching ministry, he said,

It is a bush burning with fire yet not consumed, and out of it a voice seemed to cry to me, “Draw not nigh hither, put off thy shoes from off thy feet.” The psalm is very human, its cries and sobs are one born of woman; but it is freighted with an inspiration all divine, as if the Great Father were putting words into his child’s mouth. Such a psalm may be wept over, absorbed into the soul, and exhaled again in devotion; but, commented on—ah! Where is he who having attempted it can do other than blush at his defeat?1

While it may be a difficult exposition, it is a necessary one. In fact, it may be the most necessary of all the psalms to preach (or hear preached)—at least if you are honest.

Writing in the context of marriage, Winston Smith notes, “At the root of many communication problems is a lack of honesty.”2 So it is at the root of our communion problems with God. Far too often, we are not honest about our sin.

Because of the shame accompanying sin, we hide from others. More importantly, we try to hide from God because, deep down, we know that sin has broken our relationship with Him. But, like Adam and Eve, we soon find that hiding from God is futile as we are confronted with the reality of our sin.

Smith writes,

Confession of sin is a proclamation of the gospel: a proclamation that there’s a way back from failure, that there’s rescue and healing from brokenness. We don’t have to hide our sin from each other. The reverse is also true. Refusal to confess and forgive is a proclamation of hopelessness and despair. It proclaims that the only hope of overcoming sins is a covering it in the same way that Adam and Eve tried.3

What we need, frankly, is to have our fig leaves ripped off. We need to stop covering up and denying what we know about ourselves. We need to admit and acknowledge that what we have done is, in the eyes of God, horrible. God determines this and His Word enables us to acknowledge this. With such honesty, hope springs eternal.

This was David’s experience when he sinned with Bathsheba, and the reality of this experience is revealed in Psalm 51. This psalm does not, in reality, begin with v. 1. Rather, it began some time before, when David was confronted with his sin by the prophet Nathan. It began as recorded in 2 Samuel 12. It was then that David repented and this psalm was the fruit of that repentance.

As indicated, the background to this prayer is 2 Samuel 11–12. The story is well-known. David was at home during the time when kings ordinarily went to war. As he wandered on the palace rooftop, he noticed a woman bathing next door. His heart was filled with lust, and so he summoned her and committed adultery with her.

Having satisfied his desires, David sent her away. He was shocked to receive word some time later that she was pregnant. It was clear that the child was his, because Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, was at war with Israel’s army. In order to cover his sin, David summoned Uriah back from battle and encouraged him to sleep with his wife. A man of character, Uriah refused to do so. David proceeded to get him drunk in the hopes that his inhibitions would be lowered in an intoxicated state, but still the man would not do as David hoped.

Running out of options, David decided to do the unthinkable. He ordered that Uriah be placed at the forefront of a virtual suicide mission. Things worked out as David had planned: Uriah was killed in battle—with several other soldiers. The king then quickly married Uriah’s widow in the hopes that everyone would either assume that the child was legitimately David’s and Bathsheba’s, or that the king had shown mercy to a pregnant widow by taking her as one of his own wives. No one need know, he figured, of the sin that had taken place.

But God was not fooled. He sent Nathan the prophet to David with a parable about an abusive  rich man who, rather than slaughter one of his own sheep to feed his guests, stole the only sheep of a single neighbour. David, taking the story literally, was infuriated and instructed that the rich man be killed. Nathan boldly looked at David and declared, “You are the man.”

David was immediately broken, confessing his sin before God. This psalm, and several others, arose from his confession.

The story is “a shockingly sad tale and a complex web of failure.”4 It is “a grim reminder of how one thing can lead to another, how an unthinking lapse, followed by a “quick fix,” can have disastrous and prolonged consequences.”5 Indeed, “his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah turned the upwardly mobile David into the downwardly spiralling David.”6

God sent Nathan to rake off the fig leaves. As Kidner notes, “Between the David of this psalm and the cynical tactician of 2 Samuel 11 there stands simply (on the human scene) Nathan the prophet. The power of God’s Word is nowhere more strikingly evident than in this transformation.”7

In 2 Samuel 12:13 David says quite plainly, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Psalm 51 is a commentary on that confession.

As we consider this psalm together, I trust that we will be honest to God as we listen to the horrible honesty of David. Only then can we, like David, be hopeful as we go forward. This does not necessarily mean that our sin will be devoid of consequences—indeed, sin is rarely devoid of consequences—but we can face those consequences with hope if we know we have been forgiven.

Confession

Verses 1–6 highlight David’s confession. A proof of David’s repentance is recorded here in his appeal to God. True repentance is confessional. It is honest about the horrible deed, yet hopeful about God’s merciful response. With the thief on the cross, the truly repentant acknowledge their guilt but plead with Christ to remember them (Luke 23:39–43). With Paul, the truly repentant acknowledge their grave sin and yet have hope in the forgiveness extended in Christ (1 Timothy 1:12–16). David’s confession involved at least three elements.

Confession of Conduct

First, David said the same thing about his conduct that God said: “For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight—that You may be found just when You speak, and blameless when You judge” (vv. 3–4).

David admits his “transgressions” before the Lord. The word means to revolt, to revel or to confuse allegiance. It speaks of rebelling against subjection to rightful authority or to crossing a forbidden boundary. It can even speak of apostasy.

David added confession of his “iniquity.” This word speaks of something that is perverse or twisted. It means to turn the wrong way, much in line with Isaiah 53:6. It speaks of depravity, of being twisted from the way we are meant to be.

“Sin” means to completely miss the mark.

In short, David assumed responsibility for his behaviour (vv. 3–4). And though he was not trying to deny that his sin had affected others, it was ultimately directed at God. As Kidner says, “The flouting of God is always the length and breadth of it…. Our bodies are not our own; and our neighbours are made in God’s image.”8

We need such honesty with regard to our sin. We must avoid blameshifting.

Confession of Condition

The second element of confession, in vv. 5–6, is David’s confession of his condition: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me. Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom.”

  1. W. Robertson writes, “He lays on himself the blame of a tainted nature instead of that of a single fault.”9 David acknowledges that he is a sinner by nature and thereby assumes the blame for his sin. And because he is a sinner, capable only of sin, he needs a supernatural work of God to change his heart. That is what lies behind v. 6, which some have suggested seems out of place. To paraphrase: “The only way my sin nature will change is if you do something secretly inwardly.” This paves the way for what follows in the psalm.

And so we see that David confesses that he has done a horrible thing because he has a horrible nature. Like Alexander and his family, David finds himself having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

You might wonder, where is the hope in this? The answer lies in the verses over which we temporarily skipped: vv. 1–2.

Confidence in God’s Character

David’s confession came in the light of his confidence in God’s character: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (vv. 1–2).

Our hope in the light of our honesty about our horrible conduct and condition is the character of God. David’s hope “comes from David’s blackest moment of self-knowledge, yet it explores not only the depths of his guilt but some of the farthest reaches of salvation.”10 This is gospel! Because he knew God’s character, David might have written the words to the Lord’s own song: “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6–7).

God’s mercy alone gives us hope of forgiveness. As Boice observes,

We cannot come to God on the basis of his justice; justice strikes us with fear and causes us to hide from him. We are not drawn to God by his wisdom; wisdom does not embolden us, though we stand in awe of it. No more does omniscience, omnipotence, or omnipresence. The only reason we dare come to God and dare hope for a solution to our sin problem is mercy.11

David begs for “mercy,” a word that speaks of compassion or pity. “Lovingkindess” is a translation of the Hebrew word chesed, which speaks richly of grace, steadfast love or tender mercy. There is available from God a multitude of mercies for a multitude of sins.

David appeals to God to “blot out” his transgressions. In ancient times, there was a type of ink that could be used on vellum but wiped off when it was no longer needed, somewhat like our white board markers. The record could be completely expunged. David is appealing to God to do that for him: to completely erase the record of his sin. The New Testament makes it clear that this is only possible in Christ (Colossians 2:14).

“Wash me,” pleads King David. The term was used of launderers, and speaks of thoroughly scrubbing a garment so as to remove a stain. Kidner notes that “David is comparing himself to a foul garment needing to be washed and washed.”8 And he wasn’t just praying in a hope-so sort of way; he really believed that God could do what he was asking.

David further asks, “Cleanse me from my sin.” To “cleanse” is to purify or to make bright. The word was used of something that shines.

We see, then, three descriptions of David’s evil conduct (“transgressions,” “iniquity” and “sins”), three descriptions of God’s gracious character (“mercy,” “lovingkindness” and “tender mercies”) and three pleas for God’s gracious cleansing (“blot out,” “wash” and “cleanse”). David realised the pollution of his sins and his need for cleansing. We need the same realisation and conviction.

As noted, sin usually has consequences. In David’s case, the primary, direct consequence was the death of the child that was born to Bathsheba. Sometimes God is pleased to withhold obvious, direct consequences. But that is not the main issue. The main issue is that we confess that we have sinned and plead for God’s forgiveness and cleansing.

Importantly, we must remember that we are called to confess our own sins, not those of others. David does not focus on the sins of others in this confession. He might have been tempted to point to Bathsheba’s compliance in the adultery or to Joab’s compliance in the murder of Uriah, but he did not do that. He was accountable to God for his own sin, and that is what he confessed.

The gospel both calls us to and produces honestly. We need to be honest in our confession of sin, for that type of honesty glorifies God. David would not pretend innocence when God pronounced justice. He knew that God was right to do so.

The Concern

Having confessed his sin (vv. 1–6), David now expresses some concern to God (vv. 7–19). In these verses we see a heightened concern from the heart of the repentant. It is a concern for renewal and for restoration. The concern is twofold.

A Concern for Renewal

In vv. 7–10, we see that David was concerned about renewal:

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me hear joy and gladness, that the bones You have broken may rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

(Psalm 51:7–10)

David desired a complete removal of guilt. He knew that he was deeply guilty and deeply in need of renewal. As Leupold notes, “The fact that the psalmist prays for so many things indicates how many things he knew he had lost when he plunged into sin.”13 The concern for renewal involves a threefold plea.

First, David pled for cleansing (v. 7). The word “purge” has been defined by some as to “de-sin.” The picture of purging with hyssop is taken from the cleansing ritual surrounding leprosy.14 A person, garment or house could contract leprosy, but could also be pronounced clean if it was healed (Leviticus 14:49; Numbers 19:19). Once pronounced clean, a person was welcomed back into community as if he had never been unclean. A garment could be worn again or a house lived in again as if they had never been unclean. David is pleading for God to “de-sin” him in this way.

Hyssop is prominently featured in the original Passover account in Exodus 12. The blood of the lamb was splashed on the doorpost of the house with hyssop. It seems as if the principle of substitution was not lost on David. He knew that he could be cleansed only by blood.

David’s plea to be washed whiter than snow is an indication of his recognition that only God could and would renew him. As Isaiah famously wrote, “‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ says the LORD, ‘though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool’” (1:18).

Second, David pled for communion: “Make me hear joy and gladness, that the bones You have broken may rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities” (vv. 8–9). From other psalms, we know that David’s joy had been stripped by the guilt of his sin. Only restored fellowship with God could restore that joy.

The reference to the “bones” being made to “rejoice” can literally be rendered, “Make my bones dance.”15

David further pleaded, “Hide Your face from my sins.” He was asking God to never bring up his sins again. Forgiveness, biblically speaking, is the commitment to not enact the punishment. After all, if the deed has been wiped away, there is no sin to punish. When God forgives us, He does not bring up our sin again. Likewise, when we forgive others, we have no right to bring up the sin again—to them, to others, to ourselves, or to God.

Third, David pled for the creation of a new heart: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit in me” (v. 10). Here, he uses the title Elohim, which is the title God revealed for Himself in the creation account (Genesis 1:1). “With the word ‘create,’” notes Kidner, “he asks for nothing less than a miracle.” Boice adds, “He desires what only God can provide.”16

Using the word “clean,” David was asking God to remove anything that might mar his relationship with God.17 As Maclaren writes, “The psalmist is recoiling from what he knows only too well to be the consequence of an unclean heart.”13 David desired both pardon and purity.

He further asked God to “renew a steadfast spirit” in him. That is, “Let me stand morally upright again.” He did not take some perverse delight in what he had done. He realised that his sin had marred his character and so he pleaded with God to restore his integrity. I have personally known people who have committed sins in some ways similar to David who have nonetheless been restored. David asked for a miracle (“create”) and he got it.

Concern for Restoration

In vv. 11–19 we see David’s concern for restoration. He desired both inward renewal (vv. 7­–10) and outward restoration of what had been broken by his sin (vv. 11–19). “What God requires in regenerate people is a yielded spirit, which will express itself in willing obedience.”19

True repentance is accompanied by a desire to live by a new power to overcome sin and a new commitment to proclaim God’s goodness after all. David’s concern for restoration involved three things.

Resolve

David was resolved to live with spiritual power (vv. 11–12) and to live a life of proclamation (vv. 13–15).

First, he was resolved to live with spiritual power: “Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit” (vv. 11–12).

Some schools of theology suggest that Old Testament saints were not indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit only came to indwell His people at Pentecost (Acts 2). Some have therefore suggested that David was actually asking God to not remove his salvation. I disagree.

I think David had in mind what had happened to his predecessor, Saul. Saul had once been empowered by the Spirit of God to rule his people, but when he rebelled against God’s commands the Spirit’s empowerment was removed from him. David did not want to suffer the same fate. He did not think he might lose his salvation, but he feared that he might lose the special anointing of the Spirit to wisely and powerfully rule God’s people. The king had once walked in close step with the Spirit, but he had lost that through his sin. He was asking to be restored to that former condition.

Through his sin, David had lost his joy. We know from other psalms (e.g. 32:3–4) that the guilt of his sin had had a physical effect on him. But when he was honest about his sin, he was hopeful that he would once again be joyful. The honest, and only the honest, can be truly joyful.

Second, David was resolved to live a life of proclamation: “Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners shall be converted to You. Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, the God of my salvation, and my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Your praise.” (vv. 13–15).

David knew that his experience of grace would enable him to boast of God’s mercy to others. And Kidner correctly notes that “the psalm itself is the richest answer to the prayer, since it has shown generations of sinners the way home, long after they had thought themselves beyond recall.”20

Those who are honest to God about the horrible things they have done and said are then freed by God’s generous Spirit to praise, to proclaim. Over the years, I have noticed a tangible improvement on the congregational singing of our church. I don’t think that it can all be put down to talented musical leaders. I suspect that, as members have come to understand more deeply their sin and God’s mercy, they have found themselves wanting to proclaim that mercy. They have become hopeful, and the hopeful cannot remain silent; they must sing.

Do you suppose Abraham and Sarah were able to keep quiet when they experienced the fulfilment of God’s promise in the birth of Isaac? I doubt it. I think they were like most parents: showing off their newborn to friends and family. When we experience God’s grace, we cannot keep silent.

Realisation

In vv. 16–17, David confesses an honest realisation: “For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise.”

Notice that these verses begin with a conjunction: “for.” It was this realisation, no doubt, that fuelled David’s desire to proclaim God’s mercy to others.

It is important to not misunderstand what David is saying. He is not decrying the old covenant sacrificial system, which had in fact been instituted by God. Instead, he is admitting the realisation that one might go through the motions without really having one’s heart in it. And God is far more interested in the heart than He is in ritual.

David, therefore, had no intention of ceasing to bring sacrifices to God. But he now realised that there was no sacrifice he could offer to God that would please Him apart from a broken spirit and a contrite heart. I suspect that, even while he harboured this sin in his heart, David continued bringing his sacrifices to the tabernacle. No doubt, the Israelites were impressed to see that their king was leading them in devotion to God. But it was all a veneer. He was, in effect, trying to buy off his sin debt. He learned the hard way that it could not be done. We need to learn the same lesson.

“What God requires in regenerate people is a yielded spirit, which will express itself in willing obedience.”19 Be honest about your terrible, horribly bad day. And as you humbly are, look to the one sacrifice accepted by the Father. The cross is the means to producing such a broken and contrite heart.

Rebuild

Finally, David was resolved to rebuild what had been broken: “Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion; build the walls of Jerusalem. Then You shall be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering; then they shall offer bulls on Your altar” (vv. 18–19).

Several commentators are of the opinion that these verses were added to the psalm much later. They argue that, in David’s time, Jerusalem had not been destroyed, and so there was no need to “build the walls.” They think that these verses were probably added after the return from exile under Zerubbabel.

I disagree with this train of thought. There may be a hint of physically rebuilding the walls here, which may well not have been entirely complete under David. But I think that David is hinting at something else. I think he is acknowledging that his sin was no mere private matter. His terrible deeds had had horrific consequences in the lives of others—especially since he was their leader. His sin affected those he was leading: the people of God.

It simply is not true that our sins are a private matter. Our horrible deeds can have horrific consequences in the lives of others—especially when we sin as a leader of others. Because leaders are “in the public eye, their private faults are public scandals; and because the people of God are one body their failings are doubly and trebly hazardous to the whole.”22

As if to underscore that he was not seeking to abolish the sacrificial system, David acknowledges that God’s favour toward His people would result in Him being “pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering … on [His] altar.” Yes, he knew that “a broken spirit” and “a contrite heart” were of utmost importance, but he wanted formal worship and heart worship to flourish side by side.

Our conduct and our confession are community issues. We must all take seriously the call to honestly confront our horrible conduct. When we do then we can all be hopeful as well—together.

Show 22 footnotes

  1. James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 2:424.
  2. Winston T. Smith, Marriage Matters: Extraordinary Change through Ordinary Moments (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2010), Kindle edition.
  3. Smith, Marriage Matters, Kindle edition.
  4. Alec Motyer, Treasures of the King: Psalms from the Life of David (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2007), 116.
  5. Motyer, Treasures of the King, 117.
  6. Motyer, Treasures of the King, 118.
  7. Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press), 1973, 2:189.
  8. Kidner, Psalms, 2:190.
  9. Boice, Psalms, 2:428.
  10. Kidner, Psalms, 2:189.
  11. Boice, Psalms, 2:425.
  12. Kidner, Psalms, 2:190.
  13. Boice, Psalms, 2:434.
  14. The word translated “leprosy” in these instances does not necessarily refer to the disease we know today, but to any of a number of outreaks.
  15. Kidner, Psalms, 2:192.
  16. Boice, Psalms, 2:432.
  17. Motyer, Treasures of the King, 125.
  18. Boice, Psalms, 2:434.
  19. Boice, Psalms, 2:436.
  20. Kidner, Psalms, 2:193.
  21. Boice, Psalms, 2:436.
  22. Motyer, Treasures of the King, 119.