If you’ve come here for a while you know that in our services we follow a liturgy that is fairly classic and fairly fixed: a call to worship, a time of confession and assurance of pardon, the preaching of the Word, Communion, benediction, etc. Today we’re following that same structure, but we are going to change it up a little, in that we are combining our time of confession and our time in the preaching of the Word. And we’re doing it this way because our text for today is surely the most well-known confession in the whole Bible, Psalm 51.
This Psalm was written by King David, and if you have your Bibles, you can see this title above the main text: To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. Often the title above the Psalms gives us a clue as to the author of the Psalm or the context in which the Psalm was written; this title is even more illuminating than most.
The episode it refers to is beyond tragic; we find it in 2 Samuel 11. The people of Israel at war, and for once David is staying behind in Jerusalem. He’s walking on the roof of his palace, looking down, and he sees a woman bathing below him. He is completely smitten; he finds out that the woman, Bathsheba, is the wife of one of his officers. David sends for her, and sleeps with her, despite the fact that she’s married to one of his officers. Not long after, she comes back to him and tells him that she’s pregnant. So to try and cover his tracks, David calls her husband, Uriah, in from the battlefield, and tells him to go rest at home—he’s hoping Uriah will sleep with his wife, so everyone will think it’s his baby. But Uriah is too honorable a man to do this—he says, “My men are out on the battlefield; I’m not going to go in and have a huge meal and sleep with my wife.” David tries again, and it doesn’t work; Uriah won’t even go inside his house, but sleeps on the front porch.
David’s solution? He sends Uriah back to the front lines of the battle, where he knows he’ll be killed. And sure enough—word gets back that he was killed in battle. So on top of everything else he’s done, he’s guilty of murder too. When Bathsheba’s time of mourning is over, David marries her, so that their child can be “legitimate.”
All that’s just background. The real context of this Psalm comes in 2 Samuel 12, when God sends the prophet Nathan to David. Nathan tells David the story of a rich man who is unwilling to slaughter one of his many sheep to feed his guests, so he takes a poor man’s only lamb for a meal, a lamb this poor man loved very much, and kills it instead. David is furious. He says (v. 5-6), “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” And Nathan says (v. 7), “You are the man!” David realizes what he has done; he is broken over what he has done. He says (v. 13), “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin.”
Why would God forgive this?
This is astonishing. He’s raped another man’s wife; he’s killed her husband; the baby he’s put in her will die as a consequence of his actions (as we see in v. 14). And “The Lord has put away your sin”?! The justice-seeker in us all is furious at this idea, because if, say, Emmanuel Macron did something like this, everyone would seek punishment against him. It would be the scandal of the century. But what the Bible tells us is that while David does get off easy, his sin is not left unpunished.
In Romans 3.25-26, the apostle Paul writes, God put [Jesus Christ] forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. (This is precisely what he did to David—he passed over his sin, for the moment.) 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. That is, God did punish David’s horrible sin, to the fullest extent of the divine law: but he did it by punishing Jesus Christ in his place…which is exactly the same thing he has done for all of us. This is how he can remain just and declare sinful people just when they are not: by punishing his perfect Son in their place. So David does get off easy, but his sin is punished—because Jesus was punished in David’s place.
Why did David write Psalm 51 if he was forgiven?
That is what happened. And even if David doesn’t yet know exactly how it would work, he knows that this is what has happened. God has put away his sin, and he knows it. And that incredible reality—knowing that he should be punished for this, but that his life is spared—breaks his heart.
That’s the context, and it’s important to see it, because many Christians have a misconception of what confession is. They know what the gospel says—that God sent Jesus Christ to take our place on the cross, to take our sins on himself and be punished for our sin, in our place. So now, because of that, if we have faith in Christ then all of our sin is covered—past, present and future. They know that. But at the same time, they’ve grown up with this idea that in order for it to be of any use to them, they have to confess: that is, Christ gave them the possibility of being reconciled to God, but if there is any unconfessed sin in their lives, they aren’t really reconciled to him. (Just one example: when I was a child I was told in Sunday School to be careful, because if I was in a car wreck, and I said a bad word before the accident and didn’t think to confess it and ask God forgiveness, I couldn't be sure that God would let me into heaven.) The idea is that you sin, and then you confess that sin, in order to be forgiven—and if you ever neglect to confess that specific sin, you’re not forgiven.
But we see here that that idea isn’t true. Nathan says to David, “The Lord has put away your sin,” and it is after that assurance that David writes his beautiful confession in Psalm 51. So why does David write Psalm 51 if he knows he’s already been forgiven? The answer is simple: even if he’s forgiven, he’s still broken. He’s still damaged by his sin. Even if he knows he’s been forgiven, emotionally he’s still dealing with an incredible amount of guilt over it. He feels sorrow over what he has done, and writes his psalm to express that sorrow, to acknowledge his sin, and to ask for God not only to forgive him, but to restore him.
So let’s look now at the psalm itself. In this psalm, David talks to God about what has happened and about what’s going on in his mind; and here we see that he realizes a certain number of things, and he proactively does a certain number of things. And the things he realized are things we need to realize.
1) What David Realizes
Firstly, David realizes the weight of his sin. V. 3: For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. He can’t get it out of his mind. He can’t stop thinking about it. When I have sinned against Loanne, I have a hard time dealing with the aftermath. She’d be the first to tell you that I don’t react well to being told I’ve done something wrong. After she calls me on something I’ve done, or I confess something I’ve done, I tend to sulk. Sometimes it is because of pride; I don’t like her telling me I’ve done something wrong. But not always; oftentimes it’s because my sin is ever before me. It is painful to see how bad we truly are. Even if we’ve been forgiven, we often find it difficult to go about our lives as if we actually were forgiven: we keep coming back to our sin, we keep thinking about it. This is what David’s dealing with—his mind keeps drifting back to his sin, reminding him of how wicked he truly is.
He realizes that sin is, so to speak, “in his blood.” V. 5: Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. He doesn’t mean that his mother’s conceiving him was sinful, but rather that from the very moment of conception, he had a sinful nature. After the first man and the first woman rebelled against God, that sin infected all of humanity—it is now part of our nature.
You can see this in very young children. You don’t have to teach a baby to get angry; you don’t have to teach a toddler how to tell a lie. I didn’t teach my five-year-old to be selfish. Even before he realizes why it’s wrong to be selfish, he is selfish. And even now that I’ve known for decades that it’s wrong to be selfish, I’m selfish too! These sinful tendencies have been with us since the very beginning. And knowing this doesn’t excuse our sin: quite the contrary! It means that whatever sin we do is only the beginning. David’s saying, “I know what I did was wrong, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Everything in me naturally drifts toward sin, and it’s always been this way.”
He realizes that he should have known better—not because society told him so, but because God told him so. V. 6: Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart. From his childhood, David had a very close relationship with God: he trusted him and placed his faith in him and was taught by him. All of his life, God had been teaching David how to resist sin, how to please him, so there truly is no excuse. He should have known better. And we all know what that is like—how after we sin, when we look back on what happened, we are amazed at our own stupidity, at how easily we were duped.
He realizes, finally (and most tragically) that he has primarily sinned against God himself. V. 4: Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. This is an astounding affirmation. He has killed a man. He has raped a woman. This is horribly wrong. He doesn’t say what he says to decrease the horror of his sin—quite the opposite. As bad as what I did is, it is even worse given that it has made a mockery of God. The worthier the person sinned against, the greater the horror of the sin. God is the most infinitely worthy being in all the universe, so as bad as it was for David to hurt Uriah and Bathsheba, his sin is truly horrible because he has sinned against God.
You may have a hard time identifying with this psalm because you’ve never killed anyone; you’ve never raped anyone. So it’s easy to see David’s sorrow from a distance, and say, “Yeah, that sucks for him; but that’s not where I am.” I’m sorry, but it is. This is why we affirm that all sin is deserving of eternal punishment, even if we haven’t ever done anything as bad as this: the true horror of our sin lies not in what we do, but in against whom we do it. In all of our sin, from the greatest to the smallest, the all-glorious, all-worthy God is the one we sinned against: thus, he is justified in his words and blameless in his judgment.
So David realizes these things, and he is broken. And that is why he does not simply admit what he’s feeling: he does something about it.
2) What David Does
Firstly, he turns to God. V. 1: Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. He doesn’t do what we so often do—when we have sinned, we tend to run away from God, because it’s painful to pray when you know you’ve sinned against God. David doesn’t do that. He knows his only hope in this situation is in God, so no matter how painful it is to come to God and admit what he’s done, he exposes himself to that pain and turns to God for help.
David didn’t know what Jesus would do. He didn’t know that God was passing over his sins for now, in order to punish them in the person of Christ. But he trusted what God had told his people: that he was a gracious God, who forgives sin, who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. So he’s asking God to do what he said he would do, to be the God he promised to be. Today, when we do this same thing, we have an even surer footing to stand on, because we know how God can forgive sins. We call upon him to forgive us on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice for us.
Secondly, he asks God to cleanse him. V. 2: Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! V. 7: Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean... (Hyssop was the branch the priests used to sprinkle blood on property that had disease on it, to declare it pure.) ...wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. I read this week about something called the "contagion heuristic." Imagine someone gives you a sweater that has just been thoroughly washed and dried; you put it on; and then the person tells you the sweater used to belong to Adolf Hitler. How would you react? Most of you would probably want to get that sweater off as soon as possible—but why? Objectively it makes no sense; not a single molecule on that sweater has any connection with the man himself; the connection is all in our heads.
We all tend to have emotional reactions to impurity even after that impurity has been dealt with. And that is surely part of what David's talking about here—"God, I know you've forgiven me, but please let me feel it." But I don't think that's all he means, for two reasons: 1) That's not what he says—he doesn't say "Let me feel pure," but rather, "Wash me; cleanse me; purge me..." These are very active words; and 2) Anyone who has sinned knows that being forgiven by God doesn't mean there are no after-effects of sin on our own hearts and minds. Think of sexual sin: A man cheats on his wife, then comes clean. God forgives him; she forgives him. And yet there are still lingering reminders in his heart and mind of his sin. There are still those unhelpful habits and inclinations of the heart that got him to the point where he would be tempted to adultery in the first place: the tendency to gaze too long at other women on the bus, or to linger on hateful thoughts about his own wife that she doesn't deserve...
Forgiveness reconciles us to God, but it does not make us like Christ. So David asks for more than forgiveness. He says, "Lord, you've removed the tumor; but the cancer is still in me. Please don't stop at forgiveness. Heal me. Cleanse me. By the power of your Spirit, make me pure again."
Not only does he pray for cleansing, he prays for renewal. V. 10: 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. 11 Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Some Christians who believe what we believe feel uncomfortable with this kind of language—because we believe, as the Bible states again and again, that if we truly have faith in Christ, he won’t cast us away from his presence; he won’t take his Spirit from us. This is true, and we affirm it, and we love this truth: God will cause his elect to persevere in their faith.
So why say this? David says this because when he sinned, he did not act like a child of God. He did not behave as one who has the Holy Spirit. He did not act like someone who lives in the presence of God. So there are two possibilities: either his behavior is proof that his faith is not genuine, that he really isn’t a child of God; or this child of God, at that time, gave into the sin which was still in him, waging war on his new nature. In either case, his prayer is valid and necessary.
When we sin, we see things in ourselves that do not gel with whom we know ourselves to be. We are children of God, reconciled to him by Jesus Christ, regenerated by the Spirit, we are new creations…and yet we do things that aren’t at all in keeping with that reality. And so we pray, “Lord, don’t treat me like someone who isn’t really your child! Don’t let me act as if I weren’t really your child! Don’t let me behave in such a way that shows I don’t have your Spirit! Let me prove by my actions that I truly am elect, that I truly am your child! Change my heart to desire the things you command! Renew my heart, so that I might truly want to obey you! Let my life prove that I really am your child, and that I am being changed to be like Christ.”
Next, he prays for joy in God. V. 8: 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. He says it again in v. 12: Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. I love these verses. When you are sitting under the weight of your guilt, this is really what it feels like: God is breaking my bones, and he’s RIGHT to do so. Why? Because if he never allowed us to feel the crushing weight of our sin, we would never fully appreciate how monumentally huge his grace to us is.
Many of you know that the first few years of my marriage to Loanne were very rough. And in that period I sinned against her in a way that didn’t make her angry; it actually wounded her. There were about two days when we didn’t know how we were going to work through it, whether or not she’d be able to forgive me. It was miserable—the guilt I felt made me feel physically ill. And finally, after what seemed like an eternity, she came to me and said, “Right now, I don’t like you much; but I do love you. I forgive you. It’s hard, but we’ll get through this.” She had said “I love you” before; she had said “I forgive you” before. But those words had never before carried such weight, because my guilt had never before weighed on me that heavily.
When we sin, God “breaks our bones”—or, to use more theological language, he “convicts us by his Holy Spirit.” And he doesn’t do this to punish us; he does it out of love, that we might look upon his grace and feel the weight of that grace more fully than we ever had before. This is what we pray when we sin. We are hurting, we are being crushed under the weight of our guilt, so we pray, Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Let me realize that all this time, you never stopped loving me, and the proof of that was that you sent your Son for me, knowing full well every sin I would ever commit.
This is why he says in v. 17: The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Those verses can initially sound cold. But there are good reasons why one of the marks of a Christian is a broken and contrite heart. Firstly because we deserve to be broken for how we’ve treated God, how we treat him every day; and secondly, because it is only if we are broken and contrite over our sin that we will feel the joy of our salvation. If you never feel sick, you never feel the relief of getting well. So we welcome that brokenness; we welcome that contrition—not as an end in itself, but rather as the necessary and right response that leads us into the joy of our salvation.
Lastly, David commits to worship. After asking God to cleanse him, to renew him, to restore the joy of his salvation, he tells God the ultimate reason why he should do these things—it is not merely for David himself, but for God and for others. V. 13: 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. 14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. 15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
We may have a hard time with this—we might see this as David attempting to manipulate God into restoring him—“It’s not really for me, God; it’s for you.” And we have a hard time believing his motivations are not skewed here, that David isn’t just saying this to tell God what he wants to hear. The fact that we feel this way is evidence that David’s talking about something we experience very little in our day. Among the greatest joys God gives to Christians are worship and evangelism. And sadly, very few of us actually see these things as joys. When we gather for worship, we stand up and sing as if it were a chore; this is the part we have to get through in order to get to the interesting stuff. Even worse is sharing the gospel with others—it is something so unpleasant for most Christians that most of us rarely if ever actually do it.
Brothers and sisters, this is so far from what it should be. Worship is a gift God gives us to feel the joy of his grace and forgiveness more fully—how good was he to allow us to not only know these realities, but to bring artistic expression into the mix and sing of them? To let our knowledge of his grace be accompanied with rhyme, and melody, and harmony?
Evangelism is a gift God gives us to feel the joy of our salvation more fully. Anyone who has ever shared the gospel with anyone else can tell you that there is intense joy in that experience, even if that person rejects it! At worst, you’ve gotten to articulate to someone else what you believe and why (and expressing something allows us to appropriate it more deeply); and at best, we get to watch as someone else discovers the wonder of the gospel like you once did. Have you ever watched as a baby sees snow for the first time?
So David commits himself to these things—not as a way to convince God to forgive him, but rather because he misses the joy of these gifts and wants to come back to them.
What may be the most surprising part of this text is David’s courage. David was an Israelite, and had grown up with stories of God displaying his power in Egypt; and he had seen this power at work in miraculous ways in his own life. So coming before God after having done what he did must have been terrifying. When Nathan came to him, there was the very real possibility that God would kill him then and there. So the grace he had received was not light to him; and no matter how far removed we feel from such a time or from such experiences, the grace we have received is not light either.
This text and others like it help us to take neither confession, nor grace, lightly. Our moments of confession give us the opportunity to feel the weight of our sin, yes—but not to crush us. On the contrary, when we feel the weight of our sin, we appreciate the grace he has given us in Christ more fully.
So I’d like to invite you to a time of confession now—to think with me on the sins that we have committed against God this week, and to ask him for forgiveness. Keep this text before your eyes, and know that the completely unexpected grace David received is also ours.