The superscription for this Psalm gives us the historical background: To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba” (Psalm 51:title, ESV). These events are recorded in 2 Samuel 11-12 when David lusted after & committed adultery with Bathsheba, covered up his sin by deceit & murder, and presumed he had committed the perfect crime with none the wiser. But God sent the prophet Nathan – “You are the man!” In contrition & repentance, David cried out to God in prayer which is recorded in this Psalm. His spirit & heart is broken so he turns to the only One who can mend heart & soul. This Psalm shows how God is abundantly merciful on the penitent sinner. In the New Testament we read about God being “rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2.4). But how rich is He in mercy? Make no mistake, the riches of His mercy are on display in the Old Testament just as they are in the New. God demonstrates the riches of His mercy in David’s life in Psalm 51.
Note: Observe that David addresses his prayer to Elohim and not Yahweh, Jehovah. It is as if he feels absolutely unworthy of voicing the proper name of God and simply prostrates himself before the Make
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
David immediately appeals to God for mercy, even before he mentions his sin. He begs/pleads for mercy as a brokenhearted sinner. This mercy comes from the “steadfast love” or “loving-kindness” of God. What a fitting word: loving-kindness. Wrapped up in it we see the certainly the love of God (that wonderful, matchless love) and the kindness/tenderness of God. And certainly it is steadfast.
By this mercy, God, “blot out my transgressions.” The first prayer is for mercy; this second is for the removal entirely of his offences from the book of God. Think India ink with a fountain pen – when you commit sin, the India ink bites into the pages of your life, mar it. Only the divine ink can blot it out, completely cover over that sin. This is according to the abundance of God’s mercy. Are you concerned about the abundance of your sins? Be advised that God has an abundance of mercy for the penitent sinner.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
Not like a man washing his body but as a person would wash a fouled, dirty garment. The stains are not removable by human ability and work; only divine detergent, only the blood of the unblemished can wash thoroughly the offender. Wash me, the penitent sinner from my iniquity, that thing which pollutes me.
Hebrew parallelism is used to repeat the request: Cleanse me from my sin. Transgressions, iniquity, sin – in other words, cover every form of moral impurity, every offensive stain that is evil. And truly David’s sins are multiplied: adultery, fornication, lies, murder, self-deception.
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
David, once self-deceived and refusing to acknowledge that he had done any wrong, fully acknowledges his wrongs. But truly he knew them for he committed them. They have been told him and he has been found out. I assume there is embarrassment, shame, guilt…as well there should be. Knowledge of sin will produce
But not only has David acknowledged his sins, but they are ever before him. On every face, over ever scene, in every place David looks he cannot escape his sin. It weighs on him and it is impossible to forget as long it oppresses the soul of man. Only God can remove this weight of guilt.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
While there are other parties David has offended (Bathsheba, Uriah, Israel), there is none that is higher than God. Every sin is against God! And every sin is an open offense before God and all of heaven. Nothing escapes his sight and he recognizes the evil of sin.
Hence, the perfect God is found true and right in his words and judgments. The iniquity was indisputably committed; it is unquestionably foul and wrong; and God’s condemnation of that sin is just and without blame.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Not that any baby is born with sin; sin must be committed and a baby can no more commit sin than it could perform arithmetic. Rather, David, in the throes of contrition over his sin, overstates the case in his confession to God. There is no good thing in his life at this point and David’s whole life is painted the hue of sin.
6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
Mark 1 of mercy: Honesty with self over what you have done; truthfulness (6). The preceding 5 verses have been bringing us to this first mark. A person who receives divine mercy must first be honest about their state before a holy God. Honesty concerning your sin will enable you to recognize your sin and admit it plainly to God (that’s confession). And this recognition of sin will produce the contrition we see in this Psalm, the broken-heartedness over sin, the sorrow for his iniquity, and will lead to repentance.
David is saying he is an adulterer, he stole another man’s wife, he had that man killed, he lied about it, covered it up, he deceived people about it. What do we need to be honest about in our life? What’s your secret sin that your hiding from everyone else. You may fool the whole world, but the eyes of God are on you.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Mark 2 of mercy: Request for forgiveness (7-8). Hyssop is from the mint family of plants and was used for cleansing a person from defilement from touching a corpse or from leprosy. And surely David is defiled. So he asks to be purged (purified, removed) from his sin. Only with the complete removal of sin can David be clean/pure. Again the request to be washed (see v.2).
But if we are going to ask for forgiveness, be sure we also receive that forgiveness. God wants to hear the pleading of our hearts as we confess wrong. But don’t continue carrying around what God has forgiven. Have faith God has forgiven (and he has, 1 John 1.9) and move on to service (Heb 9.14). God can, will, and does forgive the penitent sinner.
Satan will whisper doubts in our ear; he’s been since the beginning. “Has God really forgiven you?” We need to confident and stand on the word of God – “Yes He has!” Don’t put a question mark where God has put a period.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Request forgiveness and receive it. God wants to hear the pleading of our hearts as we confess wrong. But don’t continue carrying around what God has forgiven. Have faith God has forgiven (and he has, 1 John 1.9) and move on to service (Heb 9.14). God can, will, and does forgive the penitent sinner. Rejoice in His forgiveness!
9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Mark 3 of mercy: Believe that God has forgotten as well as forgiven. And here is the difficulty for humans: that an omniscient God can forget sin. Nevertheless, Jeremiah 31.34b, Hebrews 8.12b. God can turn his face from our sins, blotting them out so as to never remember them. He no longer sees them. This harkens to the mercy seat (Exodus 25.17-22). The mercy seat was above the Ark of the Covenant and was the resting place of God. Every year on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would enter the Most Holy Place and sprinkle blood on the mercy seat 7 times to make atonement for the people. The people drew near the mercy seat to receive mercy from the Lord.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
Mark 4 of mercy: Allow God to work in you (v.10). See 2 Corinthians 5.17, God creates new motivation (heart) and desire (spirit). David is asking for restoration to the place he was before: a faithful and fruitful person. “Give me the fortitude to get on track and stay on track.”
11 Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Mark 5 of mercy: Believe in God’s presence (v.11). Does David have Saul in mind? Perhaps. But he has seen what it looks like to live without the presence of God and he does not want that. According to Ephesians 3.16-17, Christians have both the Spirit and Christ within them. Take heart that if you are forgiven, you are fit for His abiding presence.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.
Mark 6 of mercy: Restoration of joy (v.12). He’s back with a song in his heart and smile on his lips. Does not mean he has forgotten, but he has joy. Like Paul: he never forgot where he came from (chief of sinners) but he had joy (Philippians 4.4).
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
Mark 7 of mercy: Proclamation of salvation (v.13). Go tell someone about the God who saved you, what he has done. Was sin bad? Yes, but once on track, headed in the right direction, now we can benefit others.
In order to fully experience the mercy of God, it may be helpful to ask several pointed question to see if you are fully back.
Is the anger, hurt, & resentment still in force? Is the guilt, shame, & disappointment still overwhelming?
Are we in prayer as much as before or even more? It is not embarrassment but sweet conversation.
Can I thank God for the lessons learned & the character gained from this experience?
Can I talk about the hurt without recalling all the stuff that devastates? Can I do that without being hurt? Can I help others?
Do I accept full responsibility for my sins? Or am I still trying to blame someone or something else?
Do I still love myself or am I punishing myself?
Am I imposing some kind of consequence or penance for what I have done? By the way, that is legalism.
So long as anger, lack of prayer, blaming, self-imposed punishment remains, we hinder the full experience of God’s mercy.
We need to trust that Jesus has forgiven fully. God shows this kind of mercy to those who are merciful (see Matthew 5.8). That is the final question: it is not a question of what sort of life you are living; it is not a question of if you have interest in the kingdom of God. It is simply “are you showing mercy?” That is the test from the beatitude from Jesus. For if you do not show mercy, how can you expect God to show mercy to you? Since God has been so merciful to you, how could not show mercy to others? “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful” (Luke 6.36). Receive His mercy.