Psalm 51 For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba. (See 2 Samuel 11:2-5)
Note the power of God’s Word, through Nathan, to impact David and change him!
Put yourself in David’s place: everything was going great, until one day you stayed home, your eyes lusted after a woman, and you committed adultery with her; then, when she becomes pregnant, you try to cover up your sin, finally resorting to having her husband murdered on the battlefield… so you could appear as a righteous king. It seems that you have gotten away with it… until one day God sends the prophet Nathan to confront you with your sin. And God uses your own righteous anger to condemn yourself! “You are the man!”
I am David. You are David. We all are David. We all try to hide our sins and cover up the wrong we have done, just as Adam and Eve tried to hide themselves in the garden.
John Piper says that this prayer teaches us how we should think and feel about the horrors of our own sin. It tells us how to be crushed for our sin, in a godly manner.
Question: Should we pray Ps. 51 only after we commit “big sins”?
Answer: Look at v. 5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Let us pray Ps. 139:23-24 “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
Remember also that we can sin by what we do (transgressions) and by what we fail to do (James 4:17 – If anyone knows the good he ought to do and fails to do it, he sins.)
- We must first turn to God for mercy (v. 1)
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your (steadfast) unfailing love;
according to your great compassion (abundant mercy), blot out my transgressions.
Mercy and love and compassion are what God had revealed about Himself to Moses, in Ex. 34:6-7, and David throws himself upon God’s merciful and loving nature. (Note that when we sin, we are acting against God’s revealed character; we are rebelling against who we know God to be.
Imagine how David felt after his sin had been exposed: unworthy to be king? Undeserving of living? He has no leg to stand on before God. All he can do is to plead for mercy…
This is the first thing we must do, as sinners; turning in our great need to Jesus Christ for His mercy and love.
- We must ask for cleansing (in the blood of Christ.) (vv. 2, 7, 9)
2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
9 Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
Hyssop was the branch used by the priests to sprinkle blood on a house that had a disease in it, to declare it clean (Lev. 14:51). David is crying out to God as His priest to forgive him and make him clean again.
In the same way, we ask God to forgive us, to cleanse us, in the blood of Christ: 1 John 1:7, 9 “The blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin…If we confess our sins, He will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness…”
God will forgive us and cleanse us, but we must ask Him to do so.
- We must acknowledge the seriousness of our sin before God (vv. 3-6) [Note the five ways David does this:]
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. (He can’t get it out of his mind; his conscience keeps bothering him; the video of what he did with Bathsheba keeps playing in his mind.)
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; (Yes, David’s sins hurt Bathsheba and her husband and the baby who died… yet ultimately, sin is an attack against God. It is what we do to God that matters far more than what we do to others.)
so you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. (David vindicates God, not himself. He offers no defense, no excuses, and no self-justification for his actions. Instead, he acknowledges that God deserves to damn him, to execute judgement on him, for what he has done. The fact that David was not struck dead for what he did is sheer mercy from God.)
5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (David confesses his sin nature, his inborn corruption. This adultery and murder were not some aberration on David’s part; rather, they reflect his moral depravity. Some people use their birth parents or their upbringing as an excuse for their sins, but David does the opposite: He is by nature a “bent” person.)
6 Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place. (David sinned against God’s merciful light in his heart. God had taught him His ways and truths, and David sinned against the truth he knew from God, which made it worse.)
4. We must plead for renewal, leading to joy (vv. 8, 10-12)
8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
David prays for more than forgiveness of his sins; he prays to be rejuvenated by God! He wants his heart to be changed by God; he wants to experience God’s revival through the Holy Spirit! He wants God to confirm to him his election: “don’t treat me as one who is not chosen.” (v. 11)
Key Point: Truly forgiven people really want to be changed by the Lord. If you really want to be cleansed by God on your sins, then you won’t settle for being forgiven; you want to be transformed! Application: What do you pray for, when you ask for forgiveness?
BTW: Did you notice what David doesn’t mention specifically in his prayer?
He doesn’t pray about his adultery per se. Why isn’t David crying out for help with his sexual impurity struggles?
Is it because he knows that his sexual sin is a symptom, and not the disease? Piper: “People give into sexual sin because they don’t know the fullness of joy and gladness in Christ.” So the real cure is not simply better accountability (though that is good) nor staying away from places of temptation (also good) but having the Lord as the joy and treasure of our hearts!
- Pardon should lead to proclamation: Being forgiven by God should motivate us to be teachers, singers, and proclaimers of God’s glorious gospel! (vv. 13-15)
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you.
14 Save me from bloodguilt, O God, the God who saves me,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
David prays that as the Lord works forgiveness and renewal in his heart, the result will be that David will teach others and sing and declare God’s praise! He will not be content until his broken life and God’s healing of it brings the good news of God’s mercy to others in need.
Think about former slave trader John Newton writing “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…”
What is your response to experiencing God’s forgiveness in Christ? Is it merely a self-centered relief that you are off the hook, or does it lead to making much of God and His amazing grace to you? (think about experiencing this privately, as well as in corporate worship. Is this not one reason why our observance of the Lord’s Supper is a moving time, especially on Holy Thursday?)
- Forgiveness should lead to brokenhearted joy! (vv. 16-19)
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
John Piper writes that under all this, David has discovered that God has crushed him (v. 8) in love, and that a broken and contrite heart is the mark of the true child of God.
18 In your good pleasure make Zion prosper, build up the walls of Jerusalem. 19 Then there will be righteous sacrifices, whole burnt offerings to delight you;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
What are we to make of these final two verses?
First is that the psalmist often moves from his personal experience to an invitation to a corporate experience of God’s people. [“This is what God has done for me: come and join with me and taste and see that the Lord is good!”]
Second is that because it is David, the king of Israel, who has been forgiven, the whole nation of Israel will share in his joy and the blessings he receives. That is, Jerusalem will prosper and the offerings of the people will be a delight to the Lord, because God is looking favorably on the people’s representative, King David.
This helps to explain two other things. One is the apparent contradiction between v. 16 and v. 19 regarding burnt offerings and sacrifices – that is, our worship and our giving can only be pleasing to the Lord if our hearts are right with Him. The other is how Christ comes into this psalm – He is the true King; and as His offering of Himself on the cross, as our representative, was pleasing to the Father, then in Him, our lives and our offerings are also a delight to God (Romans 12:1-2)
We can also say that v. 19 “righteous sacrifices” “whole burnt offerings” and “bulls offered on your altar” all look forward to Christ, as the ultimate sacrifice on the cross, causing the Father to delight in His Son.
John Piper says that the foundation to everything is having a brokenhearted joy in the Lord, a humble hope and a repentant love. Being a believer means being broken and contrite… not just when you become a Christian… not just when you have to own up to your sins… but for your whole life. Jonathan Edwards wrote: “A truly Christian love, whether to God or to others, is a humble brokenhearted love.”