Some texts of Scripture are so powerfully clear, so penetrating and convicting, that it almost seems a disservice to exposit them. Psalm 51 is just such a passage. It is no wonder that Charles Spurgeon said of this psalm, “Such a psalm may be wept over, absorbed into the soul, and exhaled again in devotion; but, commented on – ah! Where is he who having attempted it can do other than blush at his defeat?” Expecting better than defeat, but still with a blush, let’s take a look at the Psalter’s best known penitential psalm. These words, which capture the spiritual outpouring of a man brought low by his sin, speak to us with a clear example of true repentance.
As the title of the psalm indicates, David penned these words after murdering Uriah, committing adultery with Bathsheba, and being confronted by Nathan the prophet. It was surely a low point in David’s life, and his desperation can be sensed. He opens the psalm with an appeal to God’s “lovingkindness,” which translates a Hebrew term for God’s unique covenant love. Because of the Covenant of Grace, which God swore by His own Name to uphold, David knows that there is hope for forgiveness. He goes to the Lord without excuses or explanations; instead, he owns and confesses his sin. In the first three verses alone he uses the word “my” five times (my transgressions, my iniquity, my sin…) In verse 4 he gets to the heart of the matter – “Against You, You only, have I sinned.” Adultery and murder are hardly victimless crimes, but David realizes that it is God’s law that he has broken, and this offense to God is the most disgraceful aspect of his sin. David’s confession goes further in verse 5 with the admission that this great sin was not out of character; he was, as we all are, sinners by nature. He does not portray himself as a good man who did a bad thing; he confesses both his sin and his sinfulness.
“Purge me with hyssop” is a plea that borrows its imagery from Leviticus 14, where the ritual for the cleansing of a leper called for the sprinkling of sacrificial blood by a bunch of hyssop. Besides comparing his sin to the wasting disease of leprosy, the allusion suggests that blood will be needed to atone for his sin – blood provided by God, and more precious than that of an animal. “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” is a phrase to relish. What is whiter than snow? What is more complete than God’s forgiveness in Christ?
Verses 8 and 12 make an unmistakable link between true forgiveness and true joy. True joy, which is so elusive in this fallen world, can only be experienced through God’s forgiveness in Christ Jesus and the renewal of the heart by His sovereign grace. David pleads for this inward renewal in verse 10. “Create in me a clean heart,” he begs, using the same verb in Genesis 1:1 where God created the heavens and the earth. This Hebrew verb is never found with men as its subject. Only God can truly create, and only He can re-create the heart of man.
David pleads that the Holy Spirit be not taken away from him in verse 11. It would be wrong to read into these words the possibility of God abandoning one of His people. David likely has in view what happened to Saul in I Samuel 16:14, when the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul after David was anointed king in his place. But David is not just afraid of losing his kingship as Saul did; he feels estranged from God because of his sin and he wants that sense of estrangement to end. David’s words do confirm that the ancient saints experienced the gracious work of the third Person of the Trinity.
Up to this point David’s concern has been his own forgiveness, but his faith is not so introspective that he forgets he is part of a redeemed community with covenant responsibilities. He vows to be a witness to others (vs. 13) and to worship God with sincerity and humility (vss. 15-17). Finally, he concludes with a prayer for God’s blessing on the church (vs. 18). God’s forgiveness sets us in a new direction in life. It gives us concern for the souls of the lost, a new desire to worship our Savior, and a love for God’s people. After confessing sin and humbly approaching God for forgiveness, the believer’s faith is invigorated to serve and glorify the Savior. David’s words are a timeless affirmation that God’s life-giving forgiveness in Christ is still accessible to us today.