At some point in our lives, most of us have felt the crushing weight of guilt when we were caught in some sin. The worst times of guilt often come when a sin that we thought had been concealed is suddenly revealed. It is in that moment that we are struck again with the weight of what we have done. Different people respond to this guilt in different ways. Some people get angry at the one who has revealed their sin, others start making excuses, while some admit what they have done and own up to the consequences.
This morning we turn our attention to Psalm 51, which records David’s response when a series of sins he thought he had concealed were suddenly revealed. David does not seek to make excuses or pass the buck, but he acknowledges his sin and seeks forgiveness and restoration. David’s example is very instructive for us—as we all find ourselves in the same situation.
For most of the Psalms, we don’t know what prompted their writing. We can sometimes make an educated guess about what situation in biblical history the writer might have had in mind, but often, we have no background information. Psalm 51 is different. The introduction to this Psalm says that it is a Psalm of David, after he was confronted with his sin with Bathsheba by the prophet Nathan.
Most of us are probably familiar with this story (which is found in 2 Samuel 11 and 12) to some degree or another, but it will be helpful to quickly recap the story so we understand exactly what was going on.
David was the king of Israel, and was known as a mighty warrior. David had become so successful that he felt he no longer needed to command his army in battle, so he dispatched them to fight while he remained at home. One evening, while his army was out fighting, David was walking around on the roof of the palace. As he did so, he noticed a woman bathing. He knew he shouldn’t look at her, but he was drawn to her, so he continued looking.
His curiosity was piqued, so he asked a servant who the woman was. The servant told him that the woman’s name was Bathsheba, and that her husband was Uriah the Hittite, one of David’s soldiers who had served him faithfully for decades and was now off at war. David asked the servant to extend an invitation to Bathsheba to the palace. When Bathsheba came to the palace, David began an adulterous relationship with her. A short time later Bathsheba came to David with a revelation—she was pregnant…and her husband had been at war for months. There was no doubt that the child was David’s, and everyone else would have been able to figure it out as well.
David hatched a plan to cover up his sin. He called Uriah home from battle under the guise of getting a report from him. After Uriah returned home and gave his report to David, the king told him to go home to spend some time with his wife. David reasoned that when people saw Uriah at home with his wife, it would explain her pregnancy.
Unfortunately for David, Uriah was a loyal soldier, and declared that if his fellow soldiers couldn’t sleep in their own beds, then neither would he. He camped outside the palace walls. After two nights of trying every trick he knew to get Uriah to go home, David had failed, so he sent Uriah back to battle with a sealed message. The message told the commander to move Uriah to the front lines and then pull all the soldiers around him back so that he would be killed. The commander did as he was told, and Uriah was killed in battle. After the customary period of mourning was over, David married Bathsheba.
Later, the prophet Nathan came to David and asked for his advice on a situation. He told David a story about a rich man who had large flocks of sheep and a poor man who only had one little lamb that he loved very much. He said the rich man stole the poor man’s one and only beloved lamb so he could serve it as dinner to one of his visitors. He asked David what should be done to the rich man. David responded that he deserved to die, because what he had done was unconscionable. Nathan then confronted David, saying, “You are that man.”
David was able to clearly see the horror of his sin in someone else, but had chosen not to see it in himself. Sometimes we need someone else to help us see our own sin. Sometimes you don’t notice how hurtful your anger is until you see the hurt in the eyes of your children. You may not realize you are a bully until you see someone else acting the way you do and see how hurtful it is. You may not think of yourself as prideful until someone helps to point out your attitude. Nathan helped David to see what he had done. Psalm 51 is David’s response. Let’s look at the lessons we can learn from David’s response in these verses.
A Plea for Mercy
The first thing we notice David doing is pleading for mercy from God. Mercy is a word that we use a lot, but it is a word that I think we don’t always understand. When someone asks for mercy, they are asking to not receive what they deserve. When David asks for mercy, he is admitting that what he deserves is punishment, but is asking God to spare him from the punishment that he deserves. He does not demand forgiveness as though God owed it to him, but he asks God to extend him mercy, because he knows what he deserves.
The typical response many people have when their sin is revealed is to either try to pass the blame or try to rationalize it. David could have tried to blame Bathsheba, calling her immodest, he could have blamed his servants for not stopping him, and he could have even tried to blame Uriah for not going home to be with his wife. But David knew that all of those things were excuses—he was the only one to blame. He had made bad choices that had awful consequences, and now he needed to take responsibility for his choices.
David did not come to God with excuses; he came to God with his sin. He did not come to God with a list of reasons why he deserved forgiveness; he begged God to show mercy to him. David understood his sin. Look at what he says in verses 3-5:
For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night. Against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight. You will be proved right in what you say, and your judgment against me is just. For I was born a sinner—yes, from the moment my mother conceived me. (Psalm 51:3-5, NLT)
David acknowledged his sin and the fact that he deserved to be punished. He even went so far as to recognize that at his very core, he was a sinful creature. The lesson for us in this passage is that if we want to be forgiven, the first step is to stop making excuses and own up to our sin honestly. When we recognize that the only thing we deserve is punishment and condemnation, we will humbly ask the Lord to extend us mercy instead of arrogantly declaring our goodness.
A Cry for Cleansing
David’s second request is similar, but different. After asking for mercy, we see him now ask God to cleanse him of his sin. We see this in several different places throughout the Psalm. Look at the things David asks the Lord to do:
- …blot out the stain of my sins. (v. 1)
- Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin. (v. 2)
- Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. (v. 7)
- Remove the stain of my guilt. (v. 9)
David recognized that what he needed was to have his sin purged and paid for. He understood that God doesn’t merely overlook our sin, but that sin must be punished. As a result, he asked God to remove his guilt—to make it so that he was no longer guilty before the Lord.
It is significant to note some of the terms David prayed for as he prayed for cleansing. He asked God to “blot out the stain,” to “wash me,” and to “remove the stain.” All of these terms are terms that might apply to doing the laundry. David understood that sin soils us as individuals, and that until the stain is removed, we cannot be close to the Lord. He also knew that a stained shirt cannot clean itself—someone else needs to intervene. So David asked God to remove the stain of sin from him.
In the NLT, verse 7 says “Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean;” If you look at the note in your Bible, it says that the original language literally reads, “Purify me with the hyssop branch.” The reason the translators didn’t use those words is because those words would not be clear to most people. Most people don’t know what a hyssop branch is or why it would be used to purify someone. But there is real significance to David asking for God to purify him with the hyssop branch.
When God prepared the Israelites to leave their bondage in Egypt, he told them that the final plague was going to be the plague of the firstborn. He gave them many instructions about how to prepare for this plague, but one of the instructions was to take a hyssop branch and to smear blood on the doorposts of their home. This would cause the angel of death to pass over their homes and spare their firstborn children. Later on, the hyssop branch was used in the tabernacle and temple as a way of smearing blood on things in order to purify them.
So when David asked God to purify him with the hyssop branch, he was actually making a very profound theological statement. He was saying that he knew that sin requires a payment—a blood sacrifice—and so he was asking God to do what was necessary to make him clean.
Though David surely didn’t fully understand what God’s plan was, we have a much better understanding of God’s plan now. We know that God had a plan to provide an ultimate and final blood sacrifice for sin through Jesus Christ. Like David, our only hope of being cleansed is to ask God to purify us with the shed blood of Jesus Christ, because our sin demands a sacrifice.
The key point to see is that this cleansing is not something that we can do for ourselves. Many religions and religious people have the idea that if we do enough good works, it will help us to remove the stain of sin. That’s not the way it works though. When we do good works, we aren’t removing the stain of sin—we’re just not making the stain worse!
Let me give you an example that might help illustrate this idea. Suppose you were driving your car and weren’t paying attention to the road. Maybe you were texting, or you were looking for something you had dropped, or maybe you just weren’t paying attention. As a result, you cause an accident and damage your car. Hopefully you come away from the accident with a new commitment to driving safely and attentively…but that new commitment doesn’t repair the car! Your inattentiveness carries with it a penalty that must be paid—simply doing the right thing doesn’t fix the consequences of doing the wrong thing.
The same is true with our sin. We cannot remove our past sin by doing good deeds in the future. The only way our sin can be removed is for someone to pay the penalty that is owed. Our only option is to ask Jesus to do what we cannot.
A Request for Renewal
David didn’t stop with just asking God to cleanse him from his sin. His third request was that God would change him and make him new. He prayed that God would keep him from sin and cause him to once again praise the name of the Lord.
David’s prayer for God to create a clean heart within him is a striking prayer, because it starts with the recognition that his heart is not clean. He asked for God to remake his heart and his spirit so that they would seek God rather than sin. This is an important part of repentance—it is not merely seeking to be pardoned for what we have done, but it is genuine sorrow over what we have done, and a desire to avoid sin in the future. This difference is illustrated in a person who goes to prison. When they get out, it becomes clear whether they have really been rehabilitated or whether they have just served their time—if they return to their life of crime, they have not been changed.
We do the same thing when we get caught sinning. Everyone is sorry when they get caught, but there is a difference between being sorry for what you’ve done and being sorry that you got caught. The person who is genuinely sorry for what they have done desires to turn away from that action in the future—they recognize that what they did was wrong, and want to do what is right instead. The person who is sorry they got caught has a different mentality, however. They have no intention of changing their behavior, but they intend to do a better job of concealing it in the future. That person wants to be spared the consequences of their sin, but hasn’t repented.
David was sorry for what he had done, and he asked God to change his heart. He recognized that God was not pleased with merely outward devotion, but that God desires our hearts (vv. 16-17).
True repentance involves acknowledging our sin and seeking God’s forgiveness, but it also involves asking for God’s help and turning away from our sin. We must not continue in the sinful pattern which has gotten us into trouble to begin with. But we cannot turn from sin on our own—we must be made new. And that is a job that only God can do.
David’s sin was awful, but we are cautious to speak too badly about him because when we are honest with ourselves, we know that David’s actions could have just have easily been ours. When we sin in a way that we are ashamed of (and frankly, all sin is shameful), we will go to great lengths to cover it up. We might like to think that we would never go as far as David…but I bet David didn’t think he would ever go that far either.
David received forgiveness and was cleansed and made new because he recognized his sin and repented of it. As long as we seek to explain away our sin, we can never be forgiven. As long as we feel self-righteous, we can never be forgiven. It is only when we, like David, recognize our own sinfulness and our inability to make things right that we can start the process of forgiveness. But the good news is that when we finally accept that we can’t fix things in our own strength, we find that God will fix us and help us to move forward. We find that God’s love is greater than our sin!
No matter how badly you have messed up, you can be forgiven, cleansed, and have a new heart through Jesus Christ. Some of you are haunted by the things in your past. You feel like if anyone knew about the things you have done, they would never look at you the same way. God knows—and He is willing to forgive you.
You may have a specific instance in your mind of something you have “gotten away with”, but that gnaws at you because you are horrified by that incident.
- Maybe you have shared gossip that damaged others.
- Maybe you cheated others for your own gain.
- Maybe you have had past relationships that weren’t honoring to God and wish you could take them back.
- Maybe you have an addiction that you are ashamed of.
- Maybe you served in battle and are haunted by the things you had to do and see.
- Maybe you had an abortion and still feel guilty over that decision.
What we learn from this passage is that no sin is too great to be forgiven, if we will turn to the Lord, honestly confess what we have done, and repent of our sin. If we will do that, then the weight of sin which we have carried for so long will begin to be lifted from us.
Sin is awful. It separates us from God, and it has far-reaching consequences in the world around us. Our sin hurts us, and it can hurt the people closest to us as well. The only remedy for sin is for God to intervene in our lives. The good news is that He will intervene and He will change us if we ask Him to do so.
After hearing about all of David’s sordid acts, do you find it surprising that David was described as a man after God’s own heart? Being a man after God’s heart didn’t mean that David lived a perfect life. What made David a man after God’s heart is that he hated sin (including the sin he saw in himself) and dealt with it by turning to the Lord. David didn’t want to be separated from God—so he repented of his sin when he became aware of it.
You and I will sin in our lives—we are unfortunately still sinful creatures. Our true colors are revealed in what happens after we sin. Do we cover our sin up? Do we pass the buck? Do we try to rationalize why what we did wasn’t that bad? Or do we accept responsibility for our sin and humbly seek forgiveness from the Lord? The person who is seeking after God’s own heart doesn’t want to stay in a state of sin and separation from God, but rather wants God to create a new and clean heart within them, so that they may walk with Him in the future. The question we must ask ourselves is what does our response tell us about our hearts? Let us be people who demonstrate true repentance in our lives, so that we too may be men and women after God’s own heart.