When I Have Sinned
Explore the Bible Series
October 11, 2009
Background Passage: Psalm 51:1-19
Lesson Passage: Psalm 51:1-19
The superscription of this Psalm relates its message to the tragic story of David’s sin with Bathsheba, and I observe no internal evidence that convinces me that Bible students should question or disregard this traditional Jewish setting for the hymn. Perhaps a brief rehearsal of these sad events will lend some aid in interpreting Psalm Fifty-One.
After the establishment of the Davidic reign, Israel went to war with the Ammonites, a pagan people who inhabited the land to the east of the Jordan River, near the land assigned to the Tribe of Gad. For centuries the Israelites and Ammonites disputed possession of Gilead, a fertile, mountainous region fed by the Jabbok River. The area became quite famous for its wool and medicinal production. In the spring of the year, David sent his troops to attack the Ammonite capitol of Rabbah, under the leadership of Hebrew General Joab. Sadly, David did not accompany his troops to war; rather, he chose to remain in the safety of his palace.
Late one afternoon, as David walked on his roof-top terrace, he saw a beautiful woman bathing. Her striking beauty attracted David, and he called for Bathsheba to come to his quarters. Giving in to his lust, the king had sexual relations with the woman. The text makes clear that she had just finished her ritual cleaning, after her menstrual cycle (See Leviticus 15:19-30); therefore, when she became pregnant, there was no question that David had fathered the child.
David sought to conceal his transgression by sending for the woman’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, but the king’s plan failed. The Hittite warrior refused to go in to his wife, and, despite David’s effort to get the poor man drunk, Uriah remained faithful to his military duties. Having failed in his attempts to cover his sin, David conspired with Joab to kill Uriah. After Uriah’s death, David married Bathsheba, and she gave birth to a son. The child died shortly after birth, but David did not repent of his disobedience. Many months passed, and finally the Prophet Nathan confronted the king concerning the disgraceful situation. It appears that the Fifty-First Psalm grew out of David’s repentance for this sordid ordeal.
Sometimes, nonbelievers make light of Christian concerns about the serious nature of sin. They think that believers devote too much attention to moral failures, a tendency they believe leads to a negative, morbid outlook. I see this very differently. Frankly, I daily encounter the depths of my own moral failures. Rebellion seems to arise quite naturally within my heart, and the seeds in the heart often bring a sad harvest of disobedience to God. I need, on a regular basis, the mercy and forgiveness of the Lord. No other world religion, as I understand it, deals straightforwardly with the sin issue. Only Christianity provides a way for the free pardon of sin, through repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus. This provision for redemption stands at the very heart of the gospel, and Psalm Fifty-One provides an excellent example of faithful repentance. Often, I must borrow the eloquence of David to express my petitions for cleansing from the damaging effects of disobedience to God.
I. Four Opening Petitions (vv. 1-2)
A. “Have mercy on me, O God” (v. 1a): Mercy describes God’s compassion for people in distress. Grace highlights God’s love for the undeserving, but mercy focuses on the sinner’s wretched condition. The needy sinner must look to the Lord as the source of forgiveness and ample provision for desperate spiritual needs: pardon, cleansing, justification, and restoration. David did not make this plea without warrant. He looked to the gracious character of the Lord as the ground and hope of his forgiveness.
1. “According to your steadfast love”: This phrase reminds the reader of the faithful covenant love of God. The Lord’s compassion centers on the covenant of grace, and he remains faithful to his oath to justify sinners (See Genesis 15:1-6).
2. “According to your abundant mercy”: Sinners need not worry about exhausting the Lord’s supply of mercy; he gives abundantly.
B. “blot out my transgressions” (v. 1b): This imagery comes from the keeping of ledgers. Debtors might amass great liability, but the Lord’s mercy cancels out the debt of sin.
C. “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity” (v. 2a): David’s sin, like ours, brought defilement; that is, sin sullies everything it touches. David felt the corruption of his transgression, and he called on the Lord to cleanse him.
D. “cleanse me from my sin”: Here the king restated his desire to know the cleansing mercies of the Lord.
II. The Nature of David’s Sin (vv. 3-6): In these verses David engaged in some self-diagnosis of his aberrant condition.
A. “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (v. 3): These words move me. They reveal David’s self-awareness, an awareness that confronted the king with his condition before God. Repentance will never take place without the sinner’s ownership of his failures. David had no place for deadly indifference or blaming others for his sins. Instead, he saw his name on the title and deed of all his transgressions. Nor, we observe, did David passively claim that “he wasn’t perfect”, like so many in our day. He felt the weight of his sin, and he took responsibility for his own failings.
B. “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done this evil in your sight” (v. 4): David’s sin, of course, had greatly harmed others, but, ultimately, he knew he had broken God’s commandments. He did not rebel against the precepts of Bathsheba or Uriah; rather, he defied the Lord God. Sin, at its heart, always focuses on the sinner’s relationship with and attitude toward the Almighty. Furthermore, David knew that God was just in any condemnation of the king’s rebellion.
C. “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (v. 5): Reformed theologians often cite this verse to affirm the doctrines of original sin and total depravity. David seems to trace the roots of his sin to his status as part of the human race. In some sense, we inherit the sinful impulses of our ancestors. The apostle Paul draws the line of sin back to Adam (See Romans 5:12-14). Total depravity refers to the pervasive nature of sin—it permeates every aspect of human nature: the intellect, the affections, the will, and the body. This verse seems to confirm both of these doctrines.
D. “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.” (v. 6): David knew that his sin did not originate in his lingering observance of Bathsheba bathing; rather, it began in his heart. He failed to heed the Lord’s wisdom and teaching, and he gave in to his lustful impulse, an impulse that arose from his heart. James 1:13-15 outlines the anatomy of sin, and it always begins in the heart.
III. David’s Petitions for Forgiveness (vv. 7-19)
A. “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” (v. 7a): This phrase reflects the religious practices of the ancient Jewish people (See Exodus 12:22 and Leviticus 14:4-7). Hyssop is a small bush that grows in the Middle East, and God prescribed its use as a brush to spread or splatter blood during religious observances. David borrowed this imagery to describe his need for atonement.
B. “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (vv. 7b): This verse reminds me of a familiar hymn that rehearses this wonderful analogy (See “Whiter Than Snow”).
C. “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.” (v. 8): It’s my understanding that shepherds, in the ancient world, often broke the legs of wayward sheep to prevent a fatal wandering from the flock. The shepherd carried the injured sheep until its leg healed; then, after the sheep was whole, it would not wander from the safety of the shepherd’s s watch care. Perhaps David reflected that imagery in this verse.
D. “Hide your face from my sins, and blot out my iniquities” (v. 9): David could not bear the awareness of God’s consciousness of sin. He pleaded with the Lord to turn away from his disobedience.
E. “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (v. 10a): Returning to the theme of the heart, David longed for God’s creative work to reshape the sinner’s heart. This word “create” is the same term used in Genesis One.
F. “renew a right spirit within me” (v. 10b): The psalmist prayed for inner renewal as a remedy for his sin.
G. “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me” (v. 11): Perhaps David feared the same fate that befell Saul (I Samuel 15:1-35). The repentant sinner fears one thing, the displeasure of the Lord, not just the consequences of disobedience.
H. “Restore to me the joy of my salvation” (vv. 12a): Sin cannot steal away the believer’s salvation, but it can deprive him of the joy of redemption. David prayed for the restoration of his joy.
I. “Uphold me with a willing spirit” (v. 12b-13): David knew of his liability to stumble again; so, he asked the Lord to hold him to keep him from falling. Furthermore, David promised the Lord that he would proclaim God’s mercies to sinners and call men to repentance.
J. “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness” (vv. 14-17): David’s sin, like ours, invites condemnation and death, but the Lord will also deliver the penitent from the deadly consequences of sin, through Christ. Songs of praise and worship should characterize the hearts of those who know the saving mercies of God. David asked God to open the king’s lips to praise the Lord. Furthermore, he recalled that Nathan’s confrontation had closed the king’s mouth to any excuses or explanations concerning the seriousness of David’s sin. Mere performance of external ceremonies would not meet the demands of true repentance; rather, David understood that God looks upon the heart, a broken and contrite heart, suitable for repentance.
K. “Do good to Zion in your good pleasure” (vv. 18-19): David realized that his disobedience had harmed the Lord’s people, and he longed for God to cancel the detrimental effects of his sin. When one believer sins, the consequences affect all of the congregation. David’s repentance would restore and renew the true worship of God.