March 19, 2017
A note to readers: Today’s post is part of a Sunday Voice Series by Dr. Timothy C. Tennent, a close friend, mentor and colleague of mine. He serves as the President of Asbury Theological Seminary among other posts he holds across the global church. This Sunday Voice Series will cover the Psalms, beginning to end, by focusing on a Psalm each Sunday. I can’t tell you how excited I am for his interest in contributing here. This will be a huge blessing to us all.
Psalm 51 (NIV)
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.
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.
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.
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.
We are now entering another collection of the Psalms of David (Psalm 51-65, 68-70). The first ten of these psalms (51-60) contain super-scriptions which often indicate the precise situation David was in when he wrote that particular psalm. When we enter these psalms we are entering a very tumultuous, dark period in David’s life. He is caught in sin. He is fleeing from Saul. He is captured by the Philistines. He is in fear for his life. These are psalms written for turbulent times. At first, it may seem odd that these psalms are included in the Bible as acts of worship. But, once again, when reading or singing the psalms, one has to recognize the much wider scope of the psalms than any collection of hymns or choruses we have encountered. These are psalms for the whole of life. Psalms written in times of anguish, repentance and grief are just as important as psalms written for moments of joy and celebration.
Psalm 51 is the fourth of the seven penitential psalms, and it reflects David’s repentance after being confronted by the prophet Nathan in 2 Samuel 12 for his adultery with Bathsheba. The depth of David’s repentance and his anguish before God makes this one of the most poignant psalms in the book. What makes this prayer of repentance so powerful (and so important for us) is that David clearly understands that his sin is much greater than breaking the seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery” (Ex. 20:14) or his violation of the dignity of Bathsheba. It is, of course, never less than these things. But, David understands two foundational truths about sin which remain true for all of us. First, David understands that he has sinned against God himself: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (vs. 4). All sin, at its root, is a disregard for the holiness of God and is a sin against him. The gulf he is in is not between himself and a commandment, but between himself and a holy God, who is the giver of the commandments.
Second, David expresses in this psalm that he is a sinner. He does not see himself as a good man who has sinned, or as it often said today, ‘has made a mistake.’ Rather, David sees himself bound to a sinful nature. We are not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners. This is what Martin Luther called the bondage of the will. We are sinners, and, therefore, no kind of inner resolve, or self-help plan, or resolutions can deliver us. Our only hope is in God’s action in our lives. He must cleanse us and make us white as snow (vs. 7). He must create in us a pure heart (vs. 10). He must draw us into his presence and empower us with his Holy Spirit (vs. 11). (For more on the Holy Spirit in the Psalms, see meditation on Psalm 143).
This Psalm underscores one of the great mysteries of the Christian message. On the one hand, the Bible says that we are dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1, Col. 2:13). It does not say that sin has merely made us spiritually ill, or, like a ball and chain, merely impedes us in some way. The Bible says that we are spiritually dead. On the other hand, the Scriptures are filled with commands which call us to act or respond in some way. We are called to “come” to “repent” to “believe” to “return,” among others. Yet, dead people cannot do any of these things.
The Bible resolves this mystery through the mediation of God’s grace. In the midst of our spiritual death, God grants us sufficient grace which enables us to respond to his call. At that point, we must take steps to come before God, confess our sins and repent. None of this would be possible apart from His grace, but, once enabled, we have real choices to make. David was dead in his sin. Yet, God sent the prophet Nathan as an extension of grace. David responded through an act of repentance, and God restored him. We, too, must repent of our sins knowing that, in the end, only God can make us new and restore us before his holy presence.