David not only committed adultery with the help of an elaborate deception, but he topped it off with the cold-blooded murder of a trusted associate. It is a sordid story of a very good man going very, very bad. He thought he’d gotten away with it. Sitting smugly on his throne and now married to the widow of the man he had murdered, his arrogance was suddenly shattered by the prophet Nathan.
Nathan outlined a story about a wealthy farmer who owned thousands of sheep, but to feed a visiting guest he took a poor farmer’s pet sheep away for slaughter. Hearing of this horrible and heartless injustice, David cried out, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” With fearless authority Nathan pointed at the king and said, “You are the man!” Nathan then inventoried David’s crimes, leaving the king breathless until he could but whisper, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:1-13). He next learned that his sin had wide-ranging consequences beginning in his own home then radiating throughout the kingdom.
The pompous king was now a broken man as he felt the crushing load of his sin. It was as a result of this experience that David wrote Psalm 51, a psalm that reveals both deep remorse and hope for cleansing.
David’s ﬁrst plea was for mercy. He sought God’s protection from His just wrath. But he appealed to God’s unfailing love: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to Your great compassion blot out my transgressions” (vs. 1). David remembered God’s tender mercy for the sins of his past. Based on that record of compassion, David approached Him once again. When his sin was out in the open, he saw himself for what he had become. David knew that only God’s mercy could save him. Despite the horrible acts that caused so much suffering, he owned that it was God who was more deeply offended. Everyone else had only a partial understanding of the depth of his sin, but God knew not only what David had done but what he had fantasized and longed to do in deﬁance of his Lord.
David’s act of accepting his sin had to come ﬁrst or else forgiveness couldn’t be given. Too many people who have done wrong just want to go on without acknowledging the harm they have done to themselves, to others and their relationship with God. But David knew that a shallow repentance was no repentance at all. This was no “slap another coat of paint on it” but a sanding down to the base material until all the old was removed.
Even as he pleaded for forgiveness, David realized the scope of his situation. Verses 5-9 outline the problem. With a fully operating sinful nature David knew he was not only guilty of this sin but capable of far worse. When he sought to do better, determined he would live right, he could feel the gravity of sin pulling him forcibly back to defeat. David said, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (vs. 5).
What was his hope? It wasn’t to be converted—David sincerely loved the Lord. If not to be saved, what did he need? He pleaded for a cleansing that would go beyond anything that he had ever experienced. “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” (vs. 7). Hyssop was used in religious ceremony to sprinkle a lamb’s blood on cleansed lepers. The cleansing he begged for was deep enough to even remove a leper’s scars.
This purity that David needed led him to pray, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (vs. 10). He did not ask for God to reform him but to bring him into a new life experience. This holy cleansing is not to make his heart as good as it was previously but to make it better than it had ever been, not returning to the start but moving to another level.
Now living in the power of the Holy Spirit, David ﬁnds he is more able to be the witness God intended. He says, “I will teach transgressors Your ways, so that sinners will turn back to You … my mouth will declare Your praise …” (vs. 13,14). Later in the Bible, after the fullness of the Holy Spirit rested on the ﬁrst disciples on the day of Pentecost, the ﬁrst evidence that life had changed was their bold witness on the streets of Jerusalem among the very people who only weeks earlier had murdered Christ (Acts 2-3). While not everyone is an eloquent speaker when puriﬁed and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we can all say something to someone.
The conclusion of the psalm shows how very far David had come. When it opens, he was a rejected and dejected man. But at the end, he speaks of what God accepts. “You do not delight in sacriﬁce, or I would bring it; You do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacriﬁce, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart You, God, will not despise… You will delight in the sacriﬁces of righteousness…” (vs. 17,19).
The heart that is broken before the Lord is not only open to allow all the infection out but to allow the healing and purifying Spirit in. For many like David, it is the failure of trying to live Christianity on their own terms that brings a person to the brokenness that God uses to create a clean heart. Is your life found at the beginning of this psalm crying for mercy, or at the end, rejoicing in victory?
Lt. Colonel Allen Satterlee is Editor–in–Chief & National Literary Secretary.