Read the Passage: Psalm 51
Plea for Forgiveness (51:1–4)
As the superscript to this psalm notes, this passage is “a psalm of David when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” The context of this Psalm, then, is David’s adultery with Bathsheba, his murder of Uriah, and Nathan’s subsequent confrontation of David (cf. 2 Sam. 11–12). David begins this Psalm with a plea, writing, “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; according to the multitude of your tender mercy, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Ps. 51:1–2). Note the basis upon which David asked God for forgiveness—that is, the Lord’s love and mercy. David did not claim forgiveness as a right, recite his good works, mention fear of judgment, compare himself to others, or attempt to deflect blame. Rather, he cast himself completely upon the Lord.
David continues his plea for forgiveness, “For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done this evil in your sight—that you may be found just when you speak and blameless when you judge” (Ps. 51:3–4). In his prayer David was not denying others had been affected by his sin; rather, he was admitting (or agreeing with God) that when he broke the moral law, it was ultimately the Lord whom he wronged. In short, he was recognizing that he was at “enmity with God” (Jas. 4:4) and that he rightly deserved God’s wrath (cf. Eph. 2:3). David knew the truth that Paul would later record at Rom. 8:7–8, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (cf. Gen. 6:5; 8: Luke 18:19; John 15:5; Eph. 2:1–2; Heb. 11:6).
Petition for Cleansing (51:5–11)
In Ps. 51:5–9 David further described his sinful condition, acknowledging that his sin was in no way God’s fault, and petitioning God for the cleansing that accompanies forgiveness. David freely admits that his sin is the result of his own fallen nature. Yet, while David knew the truth of Rom. 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” he also understood the availability of forgiveness, as John would later write, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Note that hyssop is a leafy plant that was used by the priests to sprinkle water or blood on someone who was ceremonially unclean, such as a leper or one who had touched a dead body. This ceremonial cleansing was part of the sacrificial system under the Old Testament law (cf. Lev. 14:6–7; Num. 19:16–19).
David’s petition goes beyond just asking for forgiveness, as in Ps. 51:10–11 he prays for renewal of his spirit. David writes, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps. 51:10–11). David realized one of the practical consequences of sin is the grieving and quenching of the person and the presence of the Holy Spirit (cf. Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19). Mankind was not made to sin, but is created in order to glorify God (cf. Isa. 43:7; 1 Cor. 10:31). The fellowship that mankind has with God is facilitated by the Holy Spirit. Sin ruins this relationship and is inherently frustrating and unfulfilling. These verses bring to mind Paul’s later complaint, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15).
Prayer for Restoration (51:12–19)
In Ps. 51:12–17 David continues his prayer of renewal, as he asked God to restore the joy of salvation that he had experienced prior to his sin (cf. Ps. 51:12–13), to deliver him from guilt (cf. Ps. 51:14), and to assist him in praise with a contrite heart (cf. Ps. 51:15–17). Clearly, David had been laboring under guilt, shame, and sluggishness for some time and desired again to experience the vitality of life in Christ (cf. Ps. 32:1–5). Interestingly, when he was first confronted by Nathan, David repented and was forgiven; yet, he was told that there would be consequences of his sin—namely, the child that he had conceived with Bathsheba would die. This may have been why David prayed for God to “do good in . . . Zion” (Ps. 51:18). In any event, David teaches that sacrifices do not lead to forgiveness (cf. Ps. 51:16); rather, forgiveness ought to lead to sacrifices (cf. Ps. 51:18).
- How can a psalm of confession be glorifying to God, especially in a public context (cf. Jas. 5:16)?
- How sinful is natural man? What are the prospects for man’s ability to do good apart from God?
- Is there any sin that is by nature unforgivable (cf. Matt. 12:31–32; Mark 3:28–29; 1 John 5:16–17)?
- Did the Holy Spirit abide within believers in the Old Testament as He does in the New Testament?
- Does the forgiveness of sin imply alleviation from or cessation of the practical consequences of sin?