Posts Tagged 'The Penitential Psalm'

The Penitential Psalm, 8


Psalm 51:13 

After seven studies in Psalm 51, we have finally reached the end with this one, number eight.  Over the past seven studies, our focus has been, for the most part, on King David and on what he prayed.  Of course, we made applications all along the way of his experiences to ours, but generally speaking, it’s been all about King David.  In our final look this wonderful penitential psalm, we turn our attention from David to ourselves.  What is the second biggest lesson we can take away from Psalm 51?  It centers on verse 13, which says:

Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.  (Psalm 51:13  AV)

“Then.”  When? 

An important word in verse 13 is “then.”  What is it there for?  When we read that word, “then,” another word pops into our minds:  “when?”  When would David “teach transgressors” God’s ways?  Let’s see when he thought he would:

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—13  AV)

It’s important that after this work of God in David, the King wasn’t interested in doing anything of a political nature for Israel; he was interested in teaching God’s ways to transgressors, but ultimately he wanted sinners to be converted.  That seems to have been his overriding concern.  David wasn’t a minister, priest, or missionary.  He was a king—the political leader of a great nation!  His “job” was to be the king, but his aspiration was to lead sinners to God.

Someone once made this profound statement:

The Christian ministry is the only profession in the world in which the message and the messenger are inseparable.

Every single born again believer has been touched by God precisely the way King David prayed to be touched.  Paul put it this way:

I have been crucified with Christ: and I myself no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the real life I now have within this body is a result of my trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  (Galatians 2:20  TLB) 

When someone becomes a Christian, he becomes a brand new person inside. He is not the same anymore. A new life has begun!  (2 Corinthians 5:17  TLB)

Yes, we have all been changed from the inside out, as Paul declared and as David prayed for.  We have been gloriously set free from sin—forgiven and given a second chance by grace of God.  We have been filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered to live right.

Now what?  What do we do with all that?  Did God do all that for us just so we could go to heaven?   Of course not!  We are all indebted to God for His life changing grace.  And we owe sinners—those who do not know Jesus—something.  We owe them an explanation of why we are different and how we have been changed.

…preach the Word of God urgently at all times, whenever you get the chance, in season and out, when it is convenient and when it is not.  (2 Timothy 4:2  TLB)

Of course, Paul’s advice to young Timothy concerns pastoral ministry, and few of you reading this are pastors.  But every single believer is called to take the Gospel to the lost.

We are full of the message of God, and we have become His messengers.  Remember, you can’t separate the two!

The motive 

Christians ought to be indebted to God for His grace; we should be willing to work for Him as often as we can, wherever we are.

Quietly trust yourself to Christ your Lord, and if anybody asks why you believe as you do, be ready to tell him, and do it in a gentle and respectful way.  (1 Peter 3:15  TLB)

Yet faith comes from listening to this Good News—the Good News about Christ.  (Romans 10:17  TLB) 

We are Christ’s ambassadors. God is using us to speak to you: we beg you, as though Christ himself were here pleading with you, receive the love he offers you—be reconciled to God.  (2 Corinthians 5:20  TLB) 

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry… (Ephesians 4:11, 12  NKJV) 

That phrase in Ephesians 4 is important because it applies, not to preachers, but to ordinary men and women, boys and girls.  If you know Jesus, then you should be trained to do “the work of the ministry.”  In other words, we attend church to learn more about our salvation; more of the Word of God, so that we can go out into the community to do exactly what David wrote about:  to teach transgressors the ways of God and to convert sinners.  It’s our responsibility.  It’s our calling.  It doesn’t matter what your “job” is.  Your calling is to be one who takes the Word to the lost.  You can do just about anything to make money, but your calling is heavenly.

But as for me, I get as close to him as I can! I have chosen him, and I will tell everyone about the wonderful ways he rescues me.  (Psalm 73:28  TLB)

Why does God want to use people like David, and people like you to do His work?  Have you ever wondered about that?  The Bible tells us:

Notice among yourselves, dear brothers, that few of you who follow Christ have big names or power or wealth.  Instead, God has deliberately chosen to use ideas the world considers foolish and of little worth in order to shame those people considered by the world as wise and great.  (1 Corinthians 1:26, 27  TLB)

God uses ordinary people to do His extraordinary work.  It’s not the great preachers or evangelists that get the job done most effectively; it’s people like you, reading this, during your coffee break or when you should entering data.  It’s regular people without theological degrees or training that God calls and uses to “tell everybody about the wonderful ways he has rescued you.”

Think about David as a good example.  He really was a perfect choice to talk about God because:

(1)  The horrible nature of his sin.  This man, David, knew real guilt and sorrow.  He had committed murder!  That’s a sin most of us will never commit.  We may think about it, but we never will.  David did.  The greater the sin, the greater the sense of guilt, the greater the relief of forgiveness.

But we’re all sinners; we’ve all done horrible things in God’s sight that we hope and pray nobody else ever learns about.  We have experienced forgiveness of sin and we’ve been set free from sin.  We’ve experienced what everybody wants to experience.  Nobody wants to be chained to their sin.  We know the answer!  The sinner needs to hear it.

(2)  The nature of his repentance.  He knew that repentance was far more than just saying “sorry.”  Real repentance involves feelings of sorrow, yes, but it also involves admitting guilt and it involves making a change.  Repentance means going the other way.  Once your traveling in the direction of sin, but now you’re going in the other direction.  That’s repentance, and that’s what David was doing.

The sinner needs to know this.  People who don’t know Jesus are missing out on the best life has to offer!  How would a person feel if all of a sudden all guilt and shame were taken away?  How would a person in bondage to one sin or another feel if in a moment that bondage vanished as they were set free?  How do you think a sinner feels when he finds out he doesn’t have to be that way?  David had been where every sinner lives.  No wonder he wanted his life taken care of by God so that could turn around and go tell others!

(3)  He was the best encourager.  There isn’t a person alive who can’t relate to David’s experiences to one degree or another.  Most of us can’t relate to a king or a priest or a military genius.  But we can all relate to a person who was caught; found out; facing shame and disgrace.

David’s ultimate goal 

David wanted to be forgiven and cleansed and have his life remade by God.  He didn’t ever want to do what he had done again.  Why?  So that he could tell others about what God had done for him.  But ultimately his goal was this:

sinners shall be converted…

Ultimately David wanted unbelievers to become believers.  Ultimately he wanted a conversion to take place in the sinner’s life.  Converted to what, though?  The last two words of that phrase are the key:

…unto thee. 

David wasn’t interested in making the sinner feel better about himself.  He didn’t want him to join his church or denomination.  David wasn’t concerned with any other aspect of the sinner’s life save for the condition of his heart.

Psalm 51 is an amazing piece of inspired and inspiring literature.  It is so on many different levels, just a few of which we have looked at over these eight studies.  Hopefully we’ve all learned a little more about what repentance and forgiveness is all about.  Sin is serious and nobody is above the justice of God.  David, sinner though he was, was still close to God and still loved Him more than anything or anybody and he wanted others to experience God’s goodness as he had.

The Penitential Psalm, 7


The Controversy 

It’s hard to believe, but theologians and Bible scholars, people who will argue and squabble over just about anything they read between its covers, have found something controversial in Psalm 51.  While it’s controversial to them; it may not be to you.

The controversial “something” in this penitential psalm involves verses 16—19.

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.  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.  (Psalm 51:16—19  NKJV)

Some scholars, and some Bible readers, wonder what these verses have to do with the rest of the psalm.  Without taking sides, they may have a point.  These verses seem a little jarring; almost out of place in the flow of David’s psalm.  He had been confessing his sin and unworthiness and had pleaded with God to forgive him and recreate him from the inside out so that from this moment onward, he might have the strength to live a life of obedience.  All of a sudden, the reader runs smack dab into the brick and mortar of the walls of Jerusalem.  We have to ask ourselves what does the forgiving and forgetting of sin and the sanctification of the soul have to do with the walls of Jerusalem?  Verse 18, especially, just doesn’t seem to belong.

This is what drives the Biblical eggheads crazy!  And they’ve tried to come up ways to explain these troublesome verses.   Here are four of the more popular views of Psalm 51:16—19:

  • They are actually an entire psalm on their own; they are not part of Psalm 51.
  • They were not written by David but were written by a scribe much later and merely tacked on to the end of Psalm 51.
  • They were written by Hezekiah, who added them to tail end of David’s psalm.
  • A stand-alone psalm, written after the Babylonian captivity when the Jews returned home and faced the daunting task of rebuilding the walls around Jerusalem.

Does any of that make sense to you?  Or do you think it’s likely these verses are exactly what they purport to be:  David’s words, written as part of his penitential psalm?  This is the position we take, and what follows is why.

David’s sin 

Part of understanding why David wrote what he wrote in verses 16 and 17 lies in understanding the Mosaic Law which made absolutely no provision for a sin so heinous as David’s.  The fact is, David was in real big trouble.  Murder and adultery, the sins he was guilty of, were both punishable by death.  There were no sacrifices appointed for such sins; the guilty party could do nothing to atone for those sins.  Read again those verses with that in mind:

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.  (Psalm 51:16, 17  NKJV) 

David did not offer a sacrifice because he could not.  His only possibility for forgiveness was to appeal to God’s mercy—that’s the “broken and contrite heart.”  David, to his credit, understood that.  He knew that was his only hope and he knew his God well enough to know that’s what God wanted of him:  “You will not despise.”  Yes, David knew God well and he knew what he had to do.  The mighty King David, the man who had accomplished so much in the name of God, had no other choice to offer his “broken and contrite heart.”  Notice he did not beg to be let off the hook.  He just wanted to be forgiven.

But this is much more than just being sorry for what you did, although that’s certainly part of it.  David, as a sinner with his hand caught in the cookie jar so to speak, had no place to hide and no lie to tell.  His guilt was apparent to God.  What could he do?  Legally he was a dead man.  This was by design of God, by the way.  Originally, before the Flood, the taking of life was God’s prerogative alone—

The Lord replied, “They won’t kill you, for I will give seven times your punishment to anyone who does.” Then the Lord put an identifying mark on Cain as a warning not to kill him.  (Genesis 4:15  TLB) 

But after the Flood, God gave that responsibility over to man—

And murder is forbidden. Man-killing animals must die, and any man who murders shall be killed; for to kill a man is to kill one made like God.  (Genesis 9:5, 6  TLB)

There were no exceptions in the case of murder. Not even for David.

The interesting aspect of verse 17 is that David knows—he knows—God will forgive him because he knows God will accept his broken and contrite heart as the appropriate offering.  This should be cause for joy.  Yet “joy” is not seen this verse.  A “contrite heart” is not a “joyful” heart.  Forgiveness does not wipe away sorrow and contrition of sin.  David knew this; he knew he would always live with the awful memory of what he had done.  As Stewart noted:

the deeper the sense of sin, the truer the sorrow for it, the more heartfelt also will be the thankfulness for pardon and reconciliation. 

Just so.  Stewart’s sentence explains brilliantly what’s wrong with the church of Jesus Christ in the 21st century.  We don’t have a deep sense of sin, which is why we easily legalize it, justify it, and explain it away.  Even when we acknowledge our sins we don’t feel the depth of sorrow we ought because we don’t treat our sins nearly seriously enough.  And because of that, our thankfulness to God is thin and anemic. 

The importance of repentance

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise.  

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.  (Psalm 51:17, 19  NKJV)

Repentance is more than doing penance.  The words of Anglican minister Augustus Toplady ring in our ears on this subject—

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling. 

David well knew what real repentance consisted of; he was nothing if not perceptive.  All the repentance and penitence in the world cannot save a single soul until that repentant and penitent soul appropriates the benefits of Christ’s Cross.   Not a single sinner, not even the king, brings anything of value to the Cross, except for his broken and contrite heart.

The king was spot on when he wrote that God isn’t interested in sacrifices and burnt offerings for their own sake.  Those symbolic expressions had meaning only if there was substance behind them.  It’s no different today.  You can feel sorry for sin and shed gallons of tears, but there has to be more than that.  This is the great danger in “emotional” pleas from the pulpit, by the way.  And it’s the great danger in many of our “sacerdotal” churches.  Symbols are fine as long participants know what they are all about, but often the substance behind the symbol gets lost over time.  Lip service can never replace a broken and contrite heart.  Singing songs about repenting of sin and clinging to the old rugged cross are really lies if you haven’t experienced those things personally.

In those two verses, the most important word is the little adverb, “then.”  God accepts your acts of worship, indeed He accepts YOU only after you have given evidence of a broken and contrite heart.

The state of the nation

What do you think the bulwark of any nation is?  It’s military might or superiority?  It’s economic engine?  It’s political structure?  The creativity of its people?  According to the Bible, it’s GODLY men and women.

Godliness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.  (Proverbs 14:34 TLB)

David’s sin had exposed his nation to real, substantive danger.  This was one reason why he was so desperate to be forgiven.  He no doubt remembered the story of Achan and of “sin in the camp.”  This is why in this great psalm of penitence, David also prayed for the protection of Jerusalem.  He understood that his actions placed the whole nation in jeopardy.  As one scholar put it:

His sin had, as it were, broken down the walls of Jerusalem.  Grace alone could rebuild.

John Donne knew this to be true:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main. 

When we sin, we affect the lives of many others whether we know it or they know it.  Our sin is like a plague that reaches out and touches other people.  The strength of any nation rests, for weal or for woe, in the strength of the Church of Jesus Christ.  If the Church is strong, the nation will be.  David knew this to be true, and he prayed as though the future of Israel depended on the answer to his prayer.  It did.

The Penitential Psalm, 5


Isaiah 1:18, Psalm 51:7

“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.” (Isaiah 1:18 NKJV)

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Psalm 51:7 NKJV)

Both verses are in the Bible; therefore they are both equally inspired by the Holy Spirit. So, what’s better? To be as white as snow? Or to be whiter than snow?  That’s actually a trick question, because these verses aren’t saying the same thing so they don’t mean the same thing. Look at them carefully; read every word:

• Isaiah’s verse is a prophetic Word of the Lord to an entire nation; Psalm 51 is a king’s desperate prayer to the Lord.
• Isaiah 1:18 is a promise; Psalm 51:7 a plea.
• Some 300 years separated these two verses.
• In Isaiah, an objective work of God is being described whereby He pardons and justifies the sinner; David is describing a subjective experience; a longing for a deep, inward work of grace that will restore him.
• We are looking at a settled, divine order: first white as snow, then whiter than snow.
• The first verse is righteousness imputed and the second is righteousness imparted.

Let’s consider each of these wonderful verses and discover why each work, though different, is perfect.

White as snow

Reading the Bible, it becomes clear that hidden among all the stories, prophecies, history, songs, and psalms, is a single, all-important necessity: man is sinful and he must be cleansed from his sin. Furthermore, closer investigation reveals that the work of Christ on the Cross is how this cleansing happens. The Lord, speaking through his prophet Isaiah, makes a stunning and convincing plea to the people of Judah.

God is the authority

The prophecy begins with the Lord wanting to settle the issue of Judah’s sin “out of court,” so to speak. Unless their sin problem is solved, Judah’s fate would be decided, their destiny sealed and nobody would be able to help them. God, because He loved His people, wanted to speak to them without wearing His legal robes; it’s as though He wanted to meet his people on neutral ground, to settle the issue, before sentence is passed. God’s charge against His people is certain and their position indefensible. This is God’s final offer.

So, you get the picture. With all the authority of Heaven’s Judge, God put forth a generous, once-in-a-lifetime offer to avoid sure and certain judgment. This offer was not one the people of Judah should have taken lightly. It’s not a command; it was an offer that required a decision.

What God offered a sinful nature, He continues to offer the sinner today. Every human being born will end up in Hell unless he comes to the Lord, reasons with Him, and accepts His offer of redemption. There is no other way. The sinner’s position is indefensible.

An appeal to reason

What’s really interesting about God’s offer is this phrase:

…let us reason together…

Something unusual jumps off the page when we read this. God makes an appeal to the sinner’s reason, not his feelings or emotions. This seems to go against the modern method of preaching—of appealing to a listener’s fear of death and hell, for example, as the basis of making a decision to accept the Gospel. Of course, God can use any means to save a soul, but God wants to save the whole man, not just his emotions. Salvation is a big deal, and some thought and consideration—reason—should go into making the decision. Many centuries after the Lord wanted to reason with Judah, Jesus taught the necessity of “counting the cost” before following Him. While God wants all sinners saved, salvation isn’t for everybody because there are some who just don’t want to pay the price for following Jesus. There’s a cost to count and price to pay, and for too many, they’re too high.

It’s not education God is talking about here, it’s reason; God wants to reason with the sinner—to engage the sinner.

Double-dipped sinners

Now, remember, this call went out to an entire nation, not to an individual. We as Christians routinely take this call and apply it to individuals, but it’s helpful to remember its context. Judah was in bad shape, spiritually, and this spiritual apostasy was working itself out in all the various declines of Judah: moral, political, ethical, military, economic, etc. It’s good to remember this context because we may learn a lot about a nation’s rise and fall by looking at Israel and Judah. Nothing really changes, and what brought Israel and Judah to ruin is precisely what’s causing America’s now-rapid decline today. We can look around and we can complain about rising prices, government debt and corruption, we can bemoan the collapse of our culture and we can stop going to movies and we can picket abortion clinics and we may get involved in the reformation of our broken political and legal processes, but in the end, American’s real problem is the exact same as that of Israel and Judah: apostasy. Spiritually, America is, if not dead, then certainly on life support. We are being “governed,” (after a fashion) by people who do not understand the spiritual heritage of their own nation. It was Dr. J. Gresham Machen, an influential Presbyterian theologian of the early 20th century, famously said:

America is coasting downhill on a godly heritage and God pity America when we hit the bottom of the hill.

Well, some Christians think we have hit the bottom of the hill. Sin is rampant and nobody seems to even notice. Judah’s sin was so bad, the Lord called its sins “scarlet.” The Hebrew word means “twice-dipped.” In other words, the stain of their sins had soaked in so deeply, it couldn’t be removed by normal means. A double-dyed garment is permanently dyed. Nothing can change the color back. Spiritually, Judah had hit rock bottom and there was almost no hope for it.

All sinners, by the way, are “double-dipped,” because they are both sinners by birth and by choice. That’s why all sinners need to heed this call of God! He is the only one capable of removing the double-dipped stain of sin. There is no human agent or agency that can do that. There is a permanence to the stain of sin that only God can get out.

Whiter Than Snow

This has become a common saying; so common we don’t realize how profound it is. It’s virtually impossible to dye a crimson red garment pure white. So how is it possible to dye our crimson red sin-stained souls whiter than snow? Only the God who turned back time can do that!

Snow looks white, but it really isn’t. It’s polluted. Just as sin taints everything it touches, as a snowflake is formed and falls to earth, it picks up pollution and particulates before it comes to rest in you driveway. There is no such thing as “pure driven snow.” Snow is not pure. David realized this, and that’s why he wanted to be “whiter than snow.”

In 1846, Sir John Franklin embarked on a doomed quest for the Northwest Passage. By 1848, he was dead and the ships that made up his expedition, the Terror and Erebus, were ice-locked near King Edward Island. The survivors attempted to walk due south to the nearest fur trading outpost. Unfortunately, every one of them died on the trip. Hunger and cold did them in. Some of these men, we are told, went blind before they died due to the glare of the Arctic snow. They didn’t have sunglasses. Really, it was the snow that killed them. There are many such arctic graves; many explorers buried under all that snow.

It has been calculated that a light snowfall over a small area carries some 343 tons of solids made up of: 100 tons of dissolved solids, 224 tons of suspended particulate, 25 tons of salt and 1 ton of ammonia. All of that “stuff” in our snow. So, it’s anything but pure, even though it may look painfully, blindingly white. Unfortunately, there are a lot of Christians just like that snow. They look pure and white, but like the snowflake that forms around a dust particle and gets more contaminated the longer it exists, these snowflake believers are badly contaminated by their sins.

The cry of David’s heart was to be cleaner than all that snow; he wanted a deep, thorough cleansing. This is the kind of purity God desires all believers long for. But no man can produce that kind of purity in his own life. Like Franklin’s men who were blinded by the snow glare before they died, so we are blinded by the glare of the sin our lives. We’re deceived by how good we appear! We look good, especially when we compare ourselves to others. We think we’re “pure as the driven snow” because we work hard at being holy. But that hard work doesn’t; the stain of sin runs way, way too deep. God demands purity, but it’s a purity only He can produce in our lives.

Pursuit of purity

In Matthew 5:8, Jesus said this:

Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.

Some view this verse as a promise yet to be fulfilled, when we enter Heaven we will finally be pure and we shall see God. There may be an element of truth to this interpretation, but Jesus is also making a matter-of-fact statement to His followers. If you plan on seeing God some day, you must be pure in heart; you must have confessed your sins. Those who would possess a pure heart are those who pursue purity daily, in everything they do. They are constantly purifying their minds with the Word of God, always confessing their sins, and asking God for strength to remain strong in the face of world full of temptations. C.S. Lewis once quipped,

It is safe for Jesus to say that the pure in heart shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to.

Just so. But the pursuit of purity is vitally important not only to our afterlife, but also to the quality of our Christian lives in the here and now. Did you know that if aren’t involved in the pursuit of purity, your prayers will go unanswered?

If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me. (Psalm 66:18 NKJV)

Of course, God will still love you and He will still meet your needs, but your prayer life will be frustrating; a hit-and-miss thing. God’s ways will seem peculiar to you and His will elusive—all because you are holding sin in your heart. Consider how The Living Bible renders Psalm 66:18,

He would not have listened if I had not confessed my sins. (TLB)

Passionate King David understood the value of confession as it related to a pure heart. May the Lord give to each one of us the longing and desire to have the kind of pure heart David described as being “whiter than snow.”


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