The Penitential Psalm, 1

sunset Psalm 51:1—5

Psalm 51 contains some of the most powerful and well-known phrases in all of Scripture; phrases that have etched their way into the hearts and minds of believers and non-believers alike as they grapple with regret and repentance.  How many people over the centuries have repeated these verses as they prayed for forgiveness?

Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.  Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.  Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.  (Psalm 51:10—12  KJV)

David’s adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of Uriah, her husband, provide the occasion for this penitential psalm.  2 Samuel 12 provides the historical background:

“I have sinned against the Lord,” David confessed to Nathan.

Then Nathan replied, “Yes, but the Lord has forgiven you, and you won’t die for this sin. But you have given great opportunity to the enemies of the Lord to despise and blaspheme him, so your child shall die.”  (2 Samuel 12:13, 14  TLB)

King David’s sin was awful but his repentance was genuine.  All great men of God have never been afraid to open up and confess their sinfulness before the Lord.  In fact, one of these great men, Augustine, wrote a book called, appropriately enough, “Confessions.”  It’s a classic work, but David’s Psalm 51 is the greatest confessional ever written.  Anglican bishop, John James Stewart Perowne had this to say about Psalm 51:

It is a prayer, first, for forgiveness, with a humble confession of sinful deeds springing from a sinful nature as their bitter root; and then for renewal and sanctification through the Holy Ghost.

Obvious observations

This psalm, as all confessions should be, is addressed not to any man but to God.  All sin is a strike against Him and so He is the one we need to talk to.

David’s thoughts about his sin

Oesterley observed:

For the realization of the sense of sin, set forth with unflinching candor, it has no equal in the Psalter.

David was not a preacher or evangelist, and he was not a theologian; he was a warrior king.  He was also a poet; a rare kind of person who was able to put into words the thoughts and emotions of his heart.  In this psalm, we are reading what this man thought about his sin.  His record really is remarkably candid; he holds nothing back.  Even though these verses are full of theology, they are simply what this one man thought.  For that reason, we must read these verses carefully, respectfully, reverently, and we must tread softly through them.  Even though they are David’s thoughts about this one sin, they have something very profound to say to us.

We have largely lost the sense of sin today

Something that strikes us about Psalm 51 is that modern man couldn’t have written it for he has largely lost his sense of sin.  The world is losing it’s consciousness of God and as a result, they are losing their sense of sin.  By and large, there is no shame in sin anymore; there is no fear of the consequences of sin anymore.  That’s why this psalm is so important; it’s like an ancient compass that’s able to direct our hearts back in the right direction.

Because God isn’t real to modern man, the reality of God’s inevitable punishment for sin is either unknown or scoffed at.  Let’s face it, we obey man’s laws because we fear getting caught and punished, but to modern man, God isn’t real.  However, when God is made real to us, we not only fear to sin, but fear because of sin.

In the first five verses of Psalm 51, we read of David’s three-fold view of sin.

He viewed his sin as a transgression, verses 1 and 3

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness:  according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.  (verse 1  KJV)

For I acknowledge my transgressions:  and my sin is ever before me.  (verse 3  KJV)

When a man sees the sin in his life, he realizes his desperate need for forgiveness, and all he can do is throw himself on God’s mercy.  Sin creates a barrier between man and God; fellowship is not only disrupted, it’s impossible.  Sin causes God’s blessings to dry up.  Fortunately for us, God has promised to forgive the sinner, and also fortunate for us, that forgiveness is based solely on HIS love and compassion.

“I am Jehovah, the merciful and gracious God,” he said, “slow to anger and rich in steadfast love and truth.  I, Jehovah, show this steadfast love to many thousands by forgiving their sins; or else I refuse to clear the guilty, and require that a father’s sins be punished in the sons and grandsons, and even later generations.”  (Exodus 34:6, 7  TLB)

David knew this and that’s why the very first thing he did was appeal to God’s mercy.

The startling thing about sin is that it means a lot more than just “missing the mark,” the definition most of us are familiar about.  Here, David used the word translated transgression, which has the idea of rebellion.  So, far from “missing the mark,” David, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, saw his sin as not a passive thing, or an accidental “going too far,” but as outright rebellion.

Sin, then, means setting yourself up against a lawful authority.  It means snubbing your nose as what you know to be right and true.

When you view sin like that, you get a sense of awful it is.  Regardless of what the sin may be, it’s an act of rebellion against God personally.  That’s why we sinners need to appeal to God’s mercy.

“Transgression,” then, was David’s initial view of his sin.  And it’s the outward aspect of sin.

He viewed his sin as iniquity, verses 2 and 5

Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. (verse 2  KJV)

Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.  (verse 5  KJV)

In verse 2, David’s “washing” and “cleansing” are two ways of looking at one thing:  forgiveness.  Forgiveness is an act of divine grace that blots out sin; the sinner is “washed” and “cleansed.”  He can’t do this by himself or for himself.  God is the only One who can accomplish this.

So deeply was the urge to sin ingrained in David, he wrote that he was the way he was by his very nature.  Sinful tendencies in man go all the way back to the dawn of mankind:  you and I are sinners because we are members of a fallen race.

In these two verses, David sees his sin as iniquity.  This refers to the inward aspect of sin; the fact that sin dwells within us; it actually part of us.  The Hebrew word behind iniquity refers to that which is “twisted,” “bent,” or “warped.”  So then, sin consists not only of wrong doing, but in wrong being; not only does man commit sins, he is sinful by very nature; rotten to the core of his being.

David’s guilt ran as deep as his sin nature.  The weight of all the conniving, the lying, the adultery, and the murder was crushing.  After he had been forgiven, he realized his actions were rooted in his very being, and that’s why David cried out the way he did.  He not only wanted his sins forgiven and guilt assuaged, he wanted his inner man—his nature—“cleansed” and “washed.”  Only God could do that, too.  And that’s the essence of salvation—a radical change to the inner man.  That’s what David wanted; that was his heart’s cry.

He viewed his sin as missing the mark, verses 3—5

For I acknowledge my transgressions:  and my sin is ever before me.  Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil gin thy sight:  That thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.  Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.  (verses 3—5  KJV)

In these verses, the Hebrew word is translated simply as “sin,” and it simply means, “missing the mark.”  As mentioned earlier, this is the most common definition of sin.  Sin is coming up short; it’s coming short of where God wants you to be.  It means that your actions aren’t good enough; they just don’t cut it with God; you don’t make the cut.

What’s interesting about the word “sin” here is that every sin is “a blunder” and “a crime” at the same time!  It’s missing the mark, yes, but it’s not an innocent missing of the mark; it’s a crime against God.  That’s David’s point in verse 4, and it’s why some have been critical about David.  In view of what he did, how can David claim he sinned only against God?  What about Uriah, the man he had killed?  Surely both the adultery and the murder were against Bathsheba!  David also sinned against his own family.  You could also argue that David sinned against society.

Here’s the thing:  The first two views of sin deal with it’s relationship to God.  Sin is man’s rebellion against God and man’s sinfulness is a perversion of the way he is supposed to be.  Man was not created to be a sinner or to sin.  All that happened after man was created.  That’s why sin is a personal assault against God Himself.  That’s not to dismiss the effects sin has on people, but the overriding sense of sin must be this:  It is against God.  That’s why sin, all sin, is so serious.

David, the penitent man

In Acts 13:22, we read this of the conniving, lying, adulterous, murderous Kind David:

But God removed him [King Saul] and replaced him with David as king, a man about whom God said, ‘David (son of Jesse) is a man after my own heart, for he will obey me.’  (TLB)

The question we have to ask is this:  How can a man like David be described as a “man after God’s own heart?”  The answer is Psalm 51.  It reveals David’s heart; it shows us how a truly penitent man talks to God in response to his sin.  Somebody who isn’t truly penitent may feel sorry for his sin; he may feel the guilt of his sin and regret it; he may even feel the shame of his sin, but until he sees his sin in relation to God, he’s only half way there.  David saw his sin for what it was:  a heinous crime against God Himself.  When a sinner understands that, he will find the forgiveness he seeks.  David, like the prodigal son, had the perspective we all need if we want to be “people after God’s own heart.”

“So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long distance away, his father saw him coming, and was filled with loving pity and ran and embraced him and kissed him.  His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and you, and am not worthy of being called your son—’”  (Luke 15:20, 21  TLB)

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