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If forgiveness of sin is one of the glories of the new covenant, and it is (Heb. 8: 8-12; cf. Heb. 10: 17), then this psalm is one of the glories of the entire Bible. In this psalm, we learn the greatness of forgiveness, and in the course of learning this, we learn the true nature of that forgiveness.
“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me . . .” (Ps. 51:1-19).
Summary of the Text
David begins with a cry for mercy, in accordance with the multitude of God’s tender mercies (v. 1), and not according to David’s just deserts. He asks for a thorough washing, a complete cleansing (v. 2). He is not trying to hide or cover up his sin (v. 3)—this psalm is for the chief musician, meaning that his confession is public. God’s law was the law that was broken, and so the sin, while it affected others, was sin against God alone (v. 4). David says that the sin extends down to his very nature (v. 5). Where the sin originated (in the inward parts), that is the place where God desires truth and wisdom (v. 6). He prays again for cleansing (v. 7)—hyssop was a plant used for sprinkling in ritual purifications (Lev. 14:4, 7; Num. 19:18-22). David prays that his crushed bones would be able to rejoice again (v. 8). He prays that God would turn His face away from his sins, and blot out his iniquities (v. 9). He then prays for a new creation, a complete renewal (v. 10). David then asks God not to hurl him away, and not to remove His Spirit from him (v. 11). He does not pray for his salvation back, but he does pray for the joy of it to come back (v. 12). When the cleansing is complete, then David can be used in the restoration of others (v. 13). The king cries out for deliverance from bloodguilt (v. 14), and then he will be able to sing. If God opens David’s mouth, then David will be able to praise Him (v. 15). There was no appointed sacrifice for the things which David had done (v. 16). But God delights in repentance in the inner man, and not just with regard to heinous sins like this one (vv. 16-17). God does not despise a broken spirit (v. 17). David’s sin had not just affected him alone; he was a king. And so David prays for mercy for his people (v. 18). True worship will then be offered to God (v. 19).
An Appalling Sin
We begin by noting that David really was a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:4), and so this should make every last one of us mindful of our step (1 Cor. 10:12). David was around the age of fifty when this happened, and had no business staying home from the war. Uriah’s rejection of David’s temptation highlights David’s initial failure (2 Sam. 11:1, 11). The breech of one duty had begun with the neglect of another. Bathsheba’s father, Eliam, was one of David’s cohort of thirty mighty men (2 Sam. 11:3; 23:34). If her father was one of David’s peers, then she was a lot younger than David, less than half his age. Without removing her possible culpability in this (no protest like Tamar’s is recorded), consider the circumstances. Nathan’s metaphor for this indicates something closer to rape than anything else. He says that the ewe lamb was killed (2 Sam. 12:4). Her grandfather, Ahithophel, was a counselor of David’s who later joined Absalom in his rebellion (2 Sam. 15:12)—and it is not hard to figure out why. The sin was appalling, and had its cascading effects. Amnon’s rape of Tamar happened shortly after this— why may a prince not do what a king may do? But it is when we get to Uriah that the horror really begins. He was a Hittite, meaning that he was a convert, and David had been a spiritual father to him. He also was one of David’s thirty great men (2 Sam. 23:39), and was a faithful convert. What Saul tried unsuccessfully to do to David, David “successfully” did to Uriah. The inscription of the psalm puns on David’s coming in to Bathsheba, and Nathan coming in to confront David about it.
The text is silent on the point, so we don’t know if Bathsheba was being a seductress, or as is more common in covenant circles, just a dope. It was not likely to have been simple voyeurism on David’s part. So in either case, we see from the subsequent history that her restoration was also genuine. We don’t need to dwell on the point—the point here is David’s sin—but as Christian women remember their responsibilities in modesty, they need to consider the basic alternatives. If a woman can’t leave the house without assuming that she is taking “the girls” for an outing, then she is either being really bad, or being really dumb. If others think they are going to the worship of God, but she is going to the heavenly Zion in order to headlight the saints, then the same alternatives are there. You can tell the difference if the subject is ever broached with her. If she is nonchalant, and knew all about it already, then she is the kind of woman that the book of Proverbs, your mom, and numerous blues songs warn you to stay away from. If she is offended and distraught, and can’t believe you would ever bring up such a thing, then she is just a dope. Either way, the sin should be dealt with before the kingdom is ruined, not after.
Take Not Thy Holy Spirit from Me
Once he received the rebuke from Nathan, David knew that he had become another Saul. And just as Saul’s house, Saul’s dynasty, had collapsed because of his lesser sin, David knew that his house, his throne, was forfeit because of his greater sin. Saul’s ability to govern had collapsed when the Spirit removed from Saul (1 Sam. 16:14), and David knew that he deserved exactly the same thing. So he is not praying for his personal salvation here (v. 12), but rather praying for the preservation of the messianic line (vv. 18-19). Ultimately, this prayer of David’s includes us.
This does not mean that David does not pray for himself also. In the context of his plea for cleansing, David asks for three things for himself. The first is the creation of a new heart, a renewed spirit. The second is fellowship with God, and the third is a restored joy. But he is not just checklisting his way through this. He has asked for a thorough washing. The word for wash in v. 7 does not mean anything like rinsing a plate, but rather a washing of a deep stain that had gotten down into the texture of the cloth. He is asking that his crushed bones might be able to rejoice. The multitude of God’s mercies is greater than the multitude of our sins—but the potency of His grace is such that it crushes us in repentance first. It is crushed bones that learn to rejoice.
Then I Will Teach
Drunkards in taverns don’t understand the grace of God, and so it will be easy for them to continue to mock David in their songs. Uriah’s life could not be given back to him, nor Bathsheba’s purity. So now David says he’s sorry, and has the unmitigated gall to set up shop to teach people on the basis of his experience? God has to do it. If God opens a forgiven sinner’s lips (v. 15), then the testimony can be compelling. Otherwise it is just another sob story on Oprah.
This puts everything in perspective. The blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin, but it does not do so in light and trivial ways. And when we see others who need to be converted (v. 13), and they really do need to be converted, we can speak to them with real compassion, and not with any air of superiority or self-righteousness. This psalm teaches us in profound ways, and the message is thoroughly evangelical. This is good news for a sinful race.