We have all sinned. We are all imperfect. And when we commit sin, we feel a sense of guilt, shame, which can haunt us. Knowing how to deal with that guilt, and knowing what to say to God in our prayers after a sin, is sometimes difficult for people. How do you talk to God after knowingly transgressing His Word? How do you come to the Lord, Himself being perfect, and ask Him to forgive and forget the things that once separated you from the love of God?
Humans sometimes do not possess the capacity to pray. In fact, Paul writes in Romans 8:26 that we do not know how to pray as we should.
But we can thank God that He has shown us how, and that He has given us examples of prayers in the Bible to help guide us in our petitions for mercy and forgiveness. One prayer in particular helps me when I am in guilt, when I am so ashamed that I cannot even think of two or three words to say to my God.
Turn with me to Psalm 51. First, we must consider the scenario surrounding this prayer. Supposedly, King David wrote this psalm after committing adultery with Bathsheba and ordering the death of her husband. The prophet Nathan came into David’s chamber and explained the sin to him in simple terms.
It was at this point that David realized his heinous sins! Lust, adultery, conspiracy, lying, greed and murder. All of them serious, all of them his own.
But death was not required of King David, nor is death required of us today when we sin. But David’s guilt was as deep as his heart and he felt it in his soul. It ate away at him, to the point that he would not eat. The punishment for his sin was the death of the child that was born to Bathsheba by his actions.
Of course, not every historian agrees that this psalm was written specifically during the events of Kind David’s day. In fact, some historians believe the writing of this psalm to be much later, perhaps even in post-captivity Jerusalem. These historians do not believe the subtitles and authorships assigned to the psalms are accurate. Contextually, we see that there is internal evidence that would lead us to believe that the psalm could have been written at either time, whether in the days of David’s reign, or in the days after Babylonian captivity and the reconstruction of Jerusalem.
In any case, neither authorship nor date of completion has much bearing on the value of the psalm itself. The real value, the spiritual edification and encouragement, comes from reading the psalm itself and appreciating it for the beautiful poem that it is. A poem written by a contrite, humble sinner who knows that he needs God.
There are four parts to the psalm which need to be covered, the first part being a confession from the mouth of a sinner to the Lord. The second part deals with the purification and restoration of that sinner’s lost soul. Another section outlines the actions that the sinner will take to improve his life and repair it. And a final section is a plea to God to bless the nation and the city of Jerusalem specifically.
The Sinner’s Confession – Psalm 51:1-4
One of the most important steps in recovering from a sin is admitting to yourself and to others that you have committed it. We are told in James 5:16, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” We read again in 1 John 1:9 that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and righteous to forgive us. The converse to that, obviously, is that if we do not confess sins, that is, if we believe we have no sins to confess at all, than we are lying and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8,10).
We have all sinned, my friends, and admitting it is certainly not a sin! But to hide from the truth and to shirk our personal accountability only ends up mocking God and His sacrifice. There is nothing wrong with confessing!
In fact, God wants us to confess. He is loving, He is kind, He is gracious. These are all words used in the first verse of our psalm. David writes, “According to the greatness of Thy compassion blot out my transgressions.”
We often run in to people of the world who do not like God. They claim that our God is so ruthless and merciless, or if they believe in God at all, they refuse to believe that He would be judgmental and full of wrath. They fail to realize, however, that God is merciful and kind and eager to forgive, if we obey His Word.
All it takes is obedience for the grace of God to counteract the sin and lust of the world. If we try as hard as we can to obey Him and serve Him, than all the sins and mistakes in the world cannot separate us from the love of God. When we have an attitude of repentance and obedience than we will always want to do the right thing.
“I know my transgression, and my sin is ever before me.” That is what makes the writer of this psalm so admirable. What he is saying is that he thinks about his sin often. He is reminded of it constantly, and he feels guilt for it every moment, every day.
So I have a question for you; do you think about your sins constantly? I will admit that I tend to forget about them quicker than I should. I sin and get sidetracked by something and lose interest in confessing that sin. I do not take my own sin seriously enough. I just write it off and assume that grace will cover for me and that a quick, five-sentence prayer will get me through the day.
But it is so different with David! His sin is always in front of his face and he ponders it and learns from it. He knows his transgressions and how costly they are. And we have to do the same thing. By keeping our own sins on the forefront of our minds, it helps us stay ready for the next temptation, whenever it may come! One writer states, “This, too, is characteristic of true penitence. Mock penitents confess their sins and straightway forget them. Real genuine ones find it hard to forget” (The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. VIII).
This is especially valuable when we are tempted by very habitual sins. A craving or temptation may come at any time, in any place, even when we are unprepared. But if we stay in the same humble, contrite, despondent mindset, if we are ashamed of our sins all the time and it motivates us to better ourselves, then we will have an easier time coping with it when it comes.
When are you least vulnerable to sin? The moment immediately following a sin! When you know what you have done, and you are ashamed, and you are resolved to fight that habitual sin, that is the time when you are the strongest! And if we can just keep that same resolve all the time, then our fight with Satan will be won.
For example, take a look at Luke 18:10-14. This is the difference between realizing and confessing your sins, and believing that you have none to confess! And, indeed, the one with more sin in his life walked away justified!
The Sinner’s Purification – Psalm 51:5-12
“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity. . .” There has always been some confusion surrounding verse 5. Many commentaries and preachers from the denominational world believe that David would have been born deprived. He all but admits, does he not? Understanding what David really means in his phrase can open up a valuable lesson for us. While the wording seems to suggest that he was born in iniquity, and that he was born depraved and sinful, in context with the rest of the Bible, the doctrine seems impossible.
We know from Matthew 18:3 that Christ wants us to strive to be like children in our clean consciences. We also know from Ezekiel 18 that children do not inherit the sins of their parents, under any circumstances. Naturally, then, we can assume that children are not born depraved in soul. There are many commentators and preachers who argue that what David is saying is this, “Behold, I was brought forth into a world of iniquity and depravity, and a sinful mother conceived me.”
What he means is that the world is full of sin, and even his own mother was sinful. Even Mary, the mother of Jesus was sinful! Every man or woman who ever lived has committed sin, according to Romans 5:12, but that does not mean a baby is born in sin. If babies are sinful, then why would Christ command us to be like them?
As we move on, we can learn some other lessons from this part of the text. The primary concern for the writer is asking God to purify him. He has already confessed his sins and changed his life, repenting of those things which create a chasm between himself and God. But now it is up to God to forgive and relent from judgment. We know from other passages that God most certainly changes His mind about judgment. We read this in Jeremiah 18:8. On the individual level, God changed His mind about judging King Ahab in 1 Kings 21:29 simply because Ahab humbled himself before God and repented of his sins.
“Purify me with hyssop. . .” This statement is significant in that it represents just how deep the sin in David’s life felt to him. Hyssop was the only legal means by which one could be cleansed from the most egregious sins, such as touching a corpse (Numbers 19:18) or from defilement by contact with a leper (Leviticus 14:6-7). “David recognizes that his impurity is of the extremest kind, and he needs the remedy which has the greatest purifying power” (Pulpit Commentary, Vol. VIII). This remedy would be hyssop, administered by Levitical priests.
In this context, he is talking to God, and not Levitical priests. And if we asked for the same kind of purification from God, He would grant it to us, as well, through the blood of Christ. We see this idea explained further in Titus 2:14 and in Hebrews 9:13-14, where Christ is defined as the thing that purifies us, and it is by His blood that our sins are washed away!
Because, like David, it takes the most potent method to clean away the sins from our souls. We needed a sacrifice that was more valuable than simply the blood of goats and bulls and rams. We need Christ!
“Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” Notice one thing about this part of the verse; we are cleansed to the extreme. We are not simply given a little bit of cleansing, and we are not simply forgiven some of the time. We also do not receive purification from any source but God. There is nothing, nobody that can save us like God, and there is no more full, extreme, complete method for the removal of sins than baptism and faith in Christ Jesus, the King!
Does David believe that he will be washed? He most certainly does! Look at how confident he is in his assertion. He wholeheartedly believes and has faith that God will wash him. There is not a doubt in his mind that God can take care of his sins.
“Hide Thy face from my sins. . .” From this phrase we can know for sure that God is a forgive and forget kind of god. He will erase our sins once we have repented of them, completely changing our ways and following Him wherever He may lead. God says in Jeremiah 31:34, “For I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more.” We also read in Psalm 86:5, “For Thou, Lord, art good and ready to forgive, and abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon Thee.”
One lesson that must be stressed throughout this entire psalm is the fact that we can be cleansed at all! The very idea of a cleansing, the very thought of it, goes against some of the strongest adversaries of God. Calvinists will argue around in circles that we are born depraved, that only certain individuals can and will be saved, that we are locked in our state of sin, that we do not choose salvation but we have it either thrust upon us or ripped away from us.
What we get from this psalm is something entirely different. David says, “Create in me a clean heart” and “blot out my iniquities” and “purify me”, “wash me”, “make me hear joy and gladness.” We can choose to be saved, we can choose to be obedient to God, and we can choose life over death. God will wash us, and He will purify us, and He will forget all of our iniquities if we would only choose to serve Him. As it says in 1 John 3:3, “Everyone who has his hope fixed on [Christ] purifies himself, just as He is pure.”
The Sinner’s Action – Psalm 51:13-17
We know from Luke 3:8, from the preaching of John the Baptist, that we need to “bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance. . .” Once we have confessed a sin and been cleansed by God, we must show the Lord that we will not take lightly the sacrifice that was made on our behalf. If we go on sinning as if nothing happened, if we confess a sin and resolve to make it right but never follow through, then the prayer was worthless. Hebrews 10:26 states, “For if we gone sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.” And Paul makes the same point in Romans 6:1-2. How can we possibly keep sinning after supposedly purifying ourselves from that same sin? How can a smoker still smoke in good conscience? How can a thief still steal (Ephesians 4:28)? How can we remain in an adulterous relationship with a woman? A habitual sin must be stopped in order for any semblance of forgiveness to occur. What, then, would be the point in forgiving an individual if that person has not changed the sin in his life? It would be likened to a man walking into a confessional with a bottle of alcohol and telling the priest that he has been drinking. Or praying while viewing pornography in the very act! It is ridiculous!
So David seeks to act the way a purified person ought to act! He chooses to teach others about the Truth and convert sinners to the path of righteousness. He chooses to sing with his tongue instead of spread lies with it. He chooses to make a spiritual sacrifice from his heart rather than slaughter a few animals and walk away feeling proud of himself. He makes his path straight and follows God with all his heart!
But there is a word of warning in all of this – it is so easy to follow God after a prayer like this. It is so easy to make big plans and say that you will pursue righteousness. You can say, “OH, tomorrow I’m going to go out and talk to all my co-workers about the Gospel and I’ll read my Bible every day and learn how to lead singing at church and. . .”
Mere words are fun. But that is all they are. Without the actions to back them up, then words are only icing and vanity. James discusses this same idea in James 1:22-25. What is of more value? Doing without pomp, or a lot of talk without results? Also turn to Matthew 21:28-30.
After all, we find in the text that God does not need sacrifices of lambs and other animals unless there is sincere motivation behind it. In fact, in a number of verses, we find that God specifically desires the motivation behind the sacrifice, and not simply the sacrifice itself. In 1 Samuel 15:22, we read, “Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifice, as in obeying the voice of the Lord?” In Proverbs 21:3, the writer states, “To do justice and judgment is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.” And there are a number of other verses that say the same thing. Of course, none of this is meant to diminish the importance of sacrifices – it was a command from God that the Israelites fulfill this obligation, and complete obedience to the Law was required of these people – but what they mean is that lip service and going through motions of worship are completely worthless without the heart behind it. Tim Allen once said on a TV show, “Going to church is like a game. You get points for just showing up; you get extra credit for staying awake during the sermon.”
But just as David writes in the psalm, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.” There is certainly more to “church” than just showing up for attendance. Today, some Christians feel that by having their names on the directory of a “faithful” church of Christ, that automatically means they get into Heaven free. They think that perfect attendance is something that God will give them a golden star for! We sometimes think that preachers, elders, deacons, etc. will get a special pass to get into Heaven. But without motivation and without spiritual, heartfelt, genuine sacrifice to God, without a sincere desire for the Lord and His service, we are worthless and not fit for the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Sinner’s Joy – Psalm 51:18-19
These last two verses are somewhat of a conclusion for David. He wants to finish his prayer to the Lord with a plea for success in the construction of the walls of Jerusalem. A number of commentators, who ascribe the psalm to a later date during post-captivity Jerusalem, use this verse as evidence of their assertion. While it would seem that the information could be related to the reconstruction of the walls of Jerusalem under Nehemiah, there is no reason to think that it is exclusively that.
Historically, we know that both David and Solomon constructed large section of new walls during both their reigns. Therefore, this final pleas to God is ensuring that David’s sin will not have an adverse effect on the construction of this project. He prays that his evil deeds will not bring about judgment on the rest of the city.
In any case, the final message is a good one to end on – There is great joy in the salvation of the Lord! Before David had repented of the sin he committed surrounding the story of Bathsheba, he walked about his home despondently, without even eating a thing. He would not talk to people and spent all day in sackcloth. But by the end of this psalm, he sees hope. He knows that the anger of the Lord will not burn against him forever and he is sure that prosperity will follow him.
Maintaining a strong relationship with God is that important, my friends! When there was a rift between David and God, he could do nothing but mourn. But when God cleansed him and freed him from the guilt and pain of his sins, there was great joy and relief.
The same is true today. Before Christ ever came along, we were dead in our trespasses, like wild beasts with no hope and no direction. We were in sin, dying, hungry, lost, cold, and under the heavy load and burden of the shame of a lifetime of sin and evil.
But we were cleansed, but we were sanctified, but we were washed in the healing waters of baptism and in the faith in God’s only begotten Son, the King of Kings Jesus Christ! Read Colossians 1:19-22.
You too can be cleansed. We find in Mark 16:16, that “he who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” Why will you not obey the call of Christ right now?