Last week we focused on Psalm 42 and how to be discouraged well. And today our focus is on Psalm 51 and how to be crushed with guilt well. I hope that you are detecting a pattern. What makes a person a Christian is not that he doesn’t get discouraged, and it’s not that he doesn’t sin and feel miserable about it. What makes a person a Christian is the connection that he has with Jesus Christ that shapes how he thinks and feels about his discouragement and his sin and guilt.
Crushed with Guilt Well
The Psalms were the main songbook of the early church, and they were designed by God to awaken and express and shape the thoughts and feelings of Jesus’s disciples. We learn from the Psalms how to think about discouragement and guilt, and we learn from the Psalms how to feel in times of discouragement and in times of horrible regret. The Psalms show us how to be discouraged well and how to regret well.
My prayer is that you will form the habit of living in the Psalms so much that the world of your thinking and the world of your feeling will be transformed into full-blooded biblical thinking and biblical feeling.
David’s Downward Spiral of Sin
Psalm 51 is one of the few psalms that are pinpointed as to their historical origin. The heading of the psalm goes like this: “To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” What happened with Bathsheba is well known. Here it is in crisp biblical words from 2 Samuel 11:2–5:
It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. And David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, “Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. . . . Then she returned to her house. And the woman conceived, and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”
He tried to cover his sin by bringing her husband Uriah home from battle so Uriah could lie with her and think it was his baby. Uriah was too noble to go in to his wife while his comrades were in battle. So David arranged to have him killed so that he could quickly marry Bathsheba and cover the sin that way.
“The Psalms were designed by God to awaken and express and shape the thoughts and feelings of Jesus’s disciples.”
In one of the most understated sentences of the Bible, 2 Samuel 11 ends with these words: “The thing that David had done displeased the Lord” (2 Samuel 11:27). So God sent the prophet Nathan to David with a parable that entices David to pronounce his own condemnation. Then Nathan says, “You are the man!” and asks, “Why have you despised the word of the Lord?” David breaks and confesses, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Then Nathan says, astonishingly, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you shall die” (2 Samuel 12:7–15).
‘The Lord Has Put Away Your Sin’
This is outrageous. Uriah is dead. Bathsheba is raped. The baby will die. And Nathan says, “The Lord has put away your sin.” Just like that? David committed adultery. He ordered murder. He lied. He “despised the word of the Lord.” He “scorned God.” And the Lord “put away [his] sin” (2 Samuel 12:13). What kind of a righteous judge is God? You don’t just pass over rape and murder and lying. Righteous judges don’t do that. I was sharing the gospel with four guys on the street last week, and nothing I said could persuade them that a child molester could be forgiven.
I resonate with their skepticism. And I would be outraged at God’s behavior here — except for one thing. The apostle Paul shared my outrage and explained how God could be both righteous and the one who justifies murderers and rapists and liars and, yes, even child molesters.
God’s Outrageous ‘Passing Over’
Here is what Paul said in Romans 3:25–26. This is one of the most important sentences in the Bible for understanding how Christ relates to the Psalms — and to the Old Testament in general:
God put [Christ] forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins [that’s exactly what 2 Samuel 12:13 says God did — he passed over David’s sin]. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
In other words, the outrage that we feel when God seems to simply pass over David’s sin would be good outrage if God were simply sweeping David’s sin under the rug. He is not. God sees from the time of David down the centuries to the death of his Son, Jesus Christ, who would die in David’s place, so that David’s faith in God’s mercy and God’s future redeeming work unites David with Christ. And in God’s all-knowing mind, David’s sins are counted as Christ’s sins and Christ’s righteousness is counted as his righteousness, and God justly passes over David’s sin. The death of the Son of God is outrageous enough, and the glory of God that it upholds is great enough, that God is vindicated in passing over David’s adultery and murder and lying.
Daily Appropriating Forgiveness
Now that is the objective reality of how David is forgiven for his sin and justified in the presence of God. But what Psalm 51 describes is what David felt and thought as he laid hold on God’s mercy. Some might say that Christians after the death of Jesus do not pray and confess this way. They should not think and feel this way. I don’t think that’s right.
“Being a Christian means being broken and contrite. They’re the flavor of Christian joy, praise, and witness.”
Jesus, once for all, by his life and death, purchased our forgiveness and provided our righteousness. We can add nothing to the purchase or the provision. We share in the forgiveness and the righteousness by faith alone. But in view of the holiness of God and the evil of sin, it is fitting that we appropriate and apply what he bought for us by prayer and confession every day. “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:11–12). Daily request for bread, because he has promised to meet every need; daily pray appropriation of forgiveness, because it is fully purchased and secured for us by the death of Jesus.
David’s Responses to His Sin
Psalm 51 is the way God’s people think and feel about the horrors of their own sin. This is a psalm about how be crushed for our sin well. I will try to guide you through four of David’s responses to his sin.
1. He turns to God.
First, he turns to his only hope, the mercy and love of God. Verse 1: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” Three times: “Have mercy,” “according to your steadfast love,” and “according to your abundant mercy.” This is what God had promised in Exodus 34:6–7: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty.”
David knew that there were guilty who would not be forgiven. And there were guilty who by some mysterious work of redemption would not be counted as guilty, but would be forgiven. Psalm 51 is his way of laying hold on that mystery of mercy.
We know more of the mystery of this redemption than David did. We know Christ. But we lay hold of the mercy in the same way he did. The first thing he does is turn helpless to the mercy and love of God. Today that means turning helpless to Christ.
2. He prays for cleansing.
Second, he prays for cleansing from his sin. Verse 2: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” Verse 7: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” Hyssop was the branch used by the priests to sprinkle blood on a house that had a disease in it to declare it clean (Leviticus 14:51). David is crying out to God as his ultimate priest that he would forgive him and count him clean from his sin.
It is fitting that Christians ask God to do this (1 John 1:7–9). Christ has purchased our forgiveness. He has paid the full price for it. That does not replace our asking. It is the basis for our asking. It is the reason we are confident that the answer will be yes. So first David looks helplessly to the mercy of God. And second he prays that, in this mercy, God would forgive him and make him clean.
3. He confesses the seriousness of his sin.
Third, David confesses at least five ways that his sin is extremely serious.
First, he says that he can’t get the sin out of his mind. It is blazoned on his conscience. Verse 3: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” Ever before him. The tape keeps playing. And he can’t stop it.
Second, he says that the exceeding sinfulness of his sin is that it is only against God. Nathan had said David despised God and scorned his word. So David says in verse 4: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” This doesn’t mean Bathsheba and Uriah and the baby weren’t hurt. It means that what makes sin to be sin is that it is against God. Hurting man is bad. It is horribly bad. But that’s not the horror of sin. Sin is an attack on God — a belittling of God. David admits this in striking terms: “Against you, you only, have I sinned.”
Third, David vindicates God, not himself. There is no self-justification. No defense. No escape. Verse 4: “so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.” God is justified. God is blameless. If God casts David into hell, God will be innocent. This is radical God-centered repentance. This is the way saved people think and feel. God would be just to damn me. And that I am still breathing is sheer mercy. And that I am forgiven is sheer blood-bought mercy. David vindicates the righteousness of God, not himself.
Fourth, David intensifies his guilt by drawing attention to his inborn corruption. Verse 5: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Some people use their inborn or inbred corruption to diminish their personal guilt. David does the opposite. For him the fact that he committed adultery and murdered and lied are expressions of something worse: He is by nature that way. If God does not rescue him, he will do more and more evil.
Fifth, David admits he sinned not just against external law but against God’s merciful light in his heart. Verse 6: “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.” God had been his teacher. God had made him wise. David had done so many wise things. And then sin got the upper hand. And, for David, this made it all the worse. “I have been blessed with so much knowledge and so much wisdom. Oh, how deep must be my depravity that it could sin against so much light.”
So in those five ways at least David joins the prophet Nathan and God in condemning his sin and confessing the depths of his corruption.
4. He pleads for renewal.
Finally, after turning helpless to God’s mercy, and then praying for forgiveness and cleansing, and then confessing the depth and greatness of his sin and corruption, David pleads for more than forgiveness. He pleads for renewal. He is passionately committed to being changed by God.
He pours out his heart for this change in at least six ways. I can only draw your attention to them. The main point is: Forgiven people are committed to being changed by God. The adulterer, the murderer, the liar, the child molester hate what they were and set their faces like flint to be changed by God.
First, he prays that God would confirm to him his election. Verse 11: “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” I know some say that Christians who are elect and secure in the sovereign grace of God should not pray like that because it implies you can lose your salvation. I don’t think so.
“Jesus, once for all, by his life and death, purchased our forgiveness and provided our righteousness.”
When David or I pray, “Don’t cast me away, and don’t take your Spirit from me,” we mean: Don’t treat me as one who is not chosen. Don’t let me prove to be like one of those in Hebrews 6 who have only tasted the Holy Spirit. Don’t let me fall away and show that I was only drawn by the Spirit and not held by the Spirit. Confirm to me, O God, that I am your child and will never fall away.
Second, he prays for a heart and a spirit that are new and right and firm. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalms 51:10). The “right spirit” here is the established, firm, unwavering spirit. He wants to be done with the kind of instability that he has just experienced.
Third, he prays for the joy of God’s salvation and for a spirit that is joyfully willing to follow God’s word and be generous with people rather than exploiting people. Verse 8: “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.” Verse 12: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”
Is it not astonishing that nowhere in this Psalm does he pray directly about sex? It all started with sex, leading to deceit, leading to murder. Or did it? I don’t think so. Sigmund Freud may think that all our hang-ups start with sex. But David (speaking for God) does not see things that way.
Why isn’t he crying out for sexual restraint? Why isn’t he praying for men to hold him accountable? Why isn’t he praying for protected eyes and sex-free thoughts? The reason is that he knows that sexual sin is a symptom, not the disease. People give way to sexual sin because they don’t have the fullness of joy and gladness in Christ. Their spirits are not steadfast and firm and established. They waver. They are enticed, and they give way because God does not have the place in our feelings and thoughts that he should.
David knew this about himself. It’s true about us too. David is showing us, by the way he prays, what the real need is for those who sin sexually. Not a word in this psalm about sex. Instead: “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. . . . Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing, firm, established spirit.” This is profound wisdom for us.
Fourth, he asked God to bring his joy to the overflow of praise. Verse 15: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.” Praise is what joy in God does when obstacles are taken out of the way. That is what he is praying for: O God, overcome everything in my life that keeps my heart dull and my mouth shut when they ought to be praising. Make my joy irrepressible.
Fifth, he asks that the upshot of all this will be a life of effective evangelism. Verse 13: “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” David is not content to be forgiven. He is not content to be clean. He is not content to be elect. He is not content to have a right spirit. He is not content to be joyful in God by himself. He will not be content until his broken life serves the healing of others. “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” Which brings us to the last point.
Sixth, he discovered that God has crushed him in love, and that a broken and contrite heart is the mark of all God’s children. Verse 17: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
This is foundational to everything. Being a Christian means being broken and contrite. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you get beyond this in this life. It marks the life of God’s happy children till they die. We are broken and contrite all the way home — unless sin gets the proud upper hand. Being broken and contrite is not against joy and praise and witness. It’s the flavor of Christian joy and praise and witness. I close with the words of Jonathan Edwards who said it better than I can:
All gracious affections [feelings, emotions] that are a sweet [aroma] to Christ . . . are brokenhearted affections. A truly Christian love, either to God or men, is a humble brokenhearted love. The desires of the saints, however earnest, are humble desires: their hope is a humble hope; and their joy, even when it is unspeakable, and full of glory, is a humble brokenhearted joy. . . . (Edwards, Religious Affections, 339)