Psalm 51: A Picture of Repentance

King David's words provide a path for all who need forgiveness.

Psalm_51_Repentance
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As part of the wisdom literature in the Bible, the psalms offer a level of emotional appeal and craftsmanship that sets them apart from the rest of Scripture. Psalm 51 is no exception. Written by King David at the height of his power, Psalm 51 is both a poignant expression of repentance and a heartfelt request for God's forgiveness.

Before we dig more deeply into the psalm itself, let's look at some of the background information connected with David's incredible poem.

Background

Author: As mentioned above, David is the author of Psalm 51. The text lists David as the author, and this claim has been relatively unchallenged throughout history. David was the author of several more psalms, including a number of famous passages such as Psalm 23 ("The Lord is my shepherd") and Psalm 145 ("Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise").

Date: The psalm was written while David was at the pinnacle of his reign as King of Israel -- somewhere around 1000 B.C.

Circumstances: As with all of the psalms, David was creating a work of art when he wrote Psalm 51 -- in this case, a poem. Psalm 51 is an especially interesting piece of wisdom literature because the circumstances that inspired David to write it are so famous. Specifically, David wrote Psalm 51 after the fallout from his despicable treatment of Bathsheba.

In a nutshell, David (a married man) saw Bathsheba bathing while he was walking around the roof of his palaces.

Though Bathsheba was married herself, David wanted her. And because he was the king, he took her. When Bathsheba became pregnant, David went so far as to arrange the murder of her husband so that he could take her as his wife. (You can read the whole story in 2 Samuel 11.)

After these events, David was confronted by the prophet Nathan in a memorable way -- see 2 Samuel 12 for the details.

Fortunately, this confrontation ended with David coming to his senses and recognizing the error of his ways.

David wrote Psalm 51 to repent of his sin and beg for God's forgiveness. 

Meaning

As we jump into the text, it's a bit surprising to see that David doesn't begin with the darkness of his sin, but with the reality of God's mercy and compassion:

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.
Psalm 51:1-2

These first verses introduce one of the major themes of the psalm: David's desire for purity. He wanted to be cleansed from the corruption of his sin.

Despite his immediate appeal for mercy, David made no bones about the sinfulness of his actions with Bathsheba. He did not attempt to make excuses or blur the severity of his crimes. Rather, he openly confessed his wrongdoing:

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
    sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
    you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
Verses 3-6

Notice that David didn't mention the specific sins he had committed -- rape, adultery, murder, and so on. This was a common practice in the songs and poems of his day. If David had been specific about his sins, then his psalm would have been applicable to almost nobody else. By speaking of his sin in general terms, however, David allowed a much broader audience to connect with his words and share in his desire to repent. 

Notice also that David did not apologize to Bathsheba or her husband in the text. Instead, he told God, "Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight." In doing so, David wasn't ignoring or slighting the people he had harmed. Instead, he rightly recognized that all human sinfulness is first and foremost a rebellion against God. In other words, David wanted to address the primary causes and consequences of his sinful behavior -- his sinful heart and his need to be cleansed by God.

Incidentally, we know from additional Scripture passages that Bathsheba later became an official wife of the king. She was also the mother of David's eventual heir: King Solomon (see 2 Samuel 12:24-25). None of that excuses David's behavior in any way, nor does it mean he and Bathsheba had a loving relationship. But it does imply some measure of regret and repentance on David's part toward the woman he had wronged.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.
Verses 7-9

This mention of "hyssop" is important. Hyssop is a small, bushy plant that grows in the Middle East -- it's part of the mint family of plants. Throughout the Old Testament, hyssop is a symbol of cleansing and purity. This connection goes back to the Israelites' miraculous escape from Egypt in the Book of Exodus. On the day of the Passover, God commanded the Israelites to paint the door frames of their houses with lamb's blood using a stalk of hyssop. (See Exodus 12 to get the full story.) Hyssop was also an important part of the sacrificial cleansing rituals in the Jewish tabernacle and temple -- see Leviticus 14:1-7, for example.

By asking to be cleansed with hyssop, David was again confessing his sin. He was also acknowledging God's power to wash away his sinfulness, leaving him "whiter than snow." Allowing God to remove his sin ("blot out all my iniquity") would allow David to once again experience joy and gladness.

Interestingly, this Old Testament practice of using sacrificial blood to remove the stain of sin points very strongly to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Through the shedding of His blood on the cross, Jesus opened the door for all people to be cleansed from their sin, leaving us "whiter than snow."

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.
Verses 10-12

Once again, we see that a major theme of David's psalm is his desire for purity -- for "a pure heart." This was a man who (finally) understood the darkness and corruption of his sin.

Just as importantly, David wasn't seeking only forgiveness for his recent transgressions. He wanted to change the entire direction of his life. He begged God to "renew a steadfast spirit within me" and to "grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me." David recognized that he had wandered away from his relationship with God. In addition to forgiveness, he wanted the joy of having that relationship restored.

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    so that sinners will turn back to you.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
    you who are God my Savior,
    and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 Open my lips, Lord,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.
Verses 13-17

This is an important section of the psalm because it shows David's high level of insight into God's character. Despite his sin, David still understood what God values in those who follow Him.

Specifically, God values genuine repentance and heartfelt contrition much more than ritual sacrifices and legalistic practices. God is pleased when we feel the weight of our sin -- when we confess our rebellion against Him and our desire to turn back to Him. These heart-level convictions are much more important than months and years of "doing a quite time" and saying ritual prayers in an effort to earn our way back into God's good graces.

18 May it please you to prosper Zion,
    to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
    in burnt offerings offered whole;
    then bulls will be offered on your altar.
Verses 18-19

David concluded his psalm by interceding on behalf of Jerusalem and God's people, the Israelites. As the King of Israel, this was David's primary role -- to care for God's people and serve as their spiritual leader. In other words, David ended his psalm of confession and repentance by getting back to the work God had called him to do.

Application

What can we learn from David's powerful words in Psalm 51? Let me highlight three important principles.

  1. Confession and repentance are necessary elements of following God. It's important for us to see how seriously David pleaded for God's forgiveness once he became aware of his sin. That's because sin itself is serious. It separates us from God and leads us into dark waters.

    As those who follow God, we must regularly confess our sins to God and seek His forgiveness.
     
  2. We should feel the weight of our sin. Part of the process of confession and repentance is taking a step back to examine ourselves in light of our sinfulness. We need to feel the truth of our rebellion against God on an emotional level, as David did. We may not respond to those emotions by writing poetry, but we should respond.
     
  3. We should rejoice with our forgiveness. As we've seen, David's desire for purity is a major theme in this psalm -- but so is joy. David was confident in God's faithfulness to forgive his sin, and he consistently felt joyful at the prospect of being cleansed from his transgressions.

    In modern times, we rightfully view confession and repentance as serious matters. Again, sin itself is serious. But those of us who have experienced the salvation offered by Jesus Christ can feel just as confident as David that God has already forgiven our transgressions. Therefore, we can rejoice.