Some days begin with surprises that bring joy. Other days so affect us that we can barely move. The latter describes Monday. Who would have thought when retiring on Sunday night that we would wake up to the shocking news that a gunman had killed nearly sixty, including a graduate of Union University from just down the road, and injured over five hundred more spectators at a Las Vegas’ concert? The news dumbfounded us—and still does. One question over and over seems to be on everyone’s mind and tongue: “Why did he do such a horrible thing?”
While theories continue to expand to give the killer’s demented rationale for the horrific actions of Sunday night, one thing is certain. The killer knew no restraint from his impulse to sin. What he did came out of the core of his being. The darkness of sin that affected everything about him burst forth like a broken dam holding back a raging river. With no restraint he did the unthinkable.
The pictures from Las Vegas give us a clearer glimpse of evil—more specifically—the potential fruit from an unregenerate heart. While that certainly doesn’t imply that every unbeliever walks the road toward becoming a mass murderer it does make clear that within the human heart lies the capability of committing any sin known to man.
The Genevan Reformer John Calvin states it well: “We have no adequate idea of the dominion of sin unless we conceive of it as extending to every part of the soul, and acknowledge that both the mind and heart of man have become utterly corrupt” [Calvin’s Commentaries, 5:291]. Calvin simply parrots Paul who quotes from the Psalms and Isaiah. “There is none righteous, not even one; . . . there is none who does good, there is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom 3:10–18).
Yet, the confession in Psalm 51 is not written by an unbeliever but one who knew God intimately, even called a man after God’s heart (1 Sam 13:14). Sin’s power to do all manner of evil lurks even among the regenerate so that we must learn to live with brokenness over sin and repentance from it. “The best of men,” wrote William Plumer, “need to be warned against the worst of sins” [Geneva Series: Psalms, 565]. David, who had walked with God for years, who gave us so many psalms of worship that expand our understanding of God, fell prey to horrific sin. The superscript of this psalm identifies the narrative in 2 Samuel 11–12 as its background, when David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed, and probably some other men to make it appear just as part of war, to cover his tracks. Numb to the weightiness of his sin, David continued in spiritual stupor until the prophet Nathan uttered those stinging words, “You are the man!” This psalm follows that confrontation. Psalm 51 numbers chief among the seven penitential psalms [Derek Kidner, TOTC: Psalms 1–72, 189].
Christians through the centuries have found healing and joy through the message in this psalm. Here we discover with renewed confidence in the power of the gospel, broken, sinful people find mercy in the Lord. How are sinful people brought back to joy in the Lord? Let’s think about it by considering how brokenness leads to repentance and restoration follows repentance.
I. Brokenness leading to repentance
When we succumb to sin we feel paralyzed. Despite knowing the grace of God we struggle to approach Him for grace. That demonstrates a sense of brokenness regarding our sin. For broken people do not presume upon the grace of God but rather long for it.
1. May broken, sinful people approach God?
This psalm shows us the basis for approaching God when under the weight of guilt with sin. “Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness, according to the greatness of Your compassion blog out my transgressions.” “Grant me your grace, O God,” as Alec Motyer translates it, shows that David wasn’t just interested in a kindly disposition on God’s part but for grace—the unmerited favor of God that shields us from His wrath [Psalms By the Day, 134]. It’s the same term used when Genesis describes the continual evil of humanity that led to the divine conflagration of the flood in an outpouring of wrath, “But Noah found favor [grace] in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen 6:8).
“Lovingkindness” or covenant mercy or “love as a decision of the unchangeable will of God” [Motyer, 134], further probes David’s understanding of how he could approach God. He couldn’t do so because God owed him or due to great potential that he had in kingdom endeavors or for previous service rendered. The reality of his sin deserved God’s wrath (cf. 4b). Yet the Lord God pursued David with His electing love that never changes. That’s the love that we see preeminently displayed in the new covenant ratified by the bloody death of Jesus Christ at the cross. We approach God under the guilt of sin because Jesus has first satisfied (propitiated) His wrath at the cross and assured us of eternal love. So we come to Him and find compassion. “Compassion” brings to mind the Father waiting for the return of the prodigal son, with Jesus saying, “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him” (Luke 15:20).
In no way does David indicate that he deserved anything from God. His appeal is strictly grounded in the character and promises of God. We must learn from David.
2. Why must sinful appeal approach God?
For months David didn’t approach God with his sin. He continued to go through the motions of spiritual leader at home and for his nation. He kept the Sabbath, offered sacrifices, and acted as though nothing had changed. He had convinced himself, it seems, that with his position as king he could have what he wanted in whatever way he desired, and no one could stop him. That certainly would have been the case with other kings in that era but not of one whose kingship was under the rule of the Lord God. So David multiplies what he needs from God regarding his sins.
“. . . blot out my transgressions.” Ancient writing often used surfaces of wax or animal skin that could literally be removed by rubbing off the writing with an abrasive. When I was a kid we would sometimes pick up black walnuts that had just dropped from a tree. The decaying green outer hull left an indelible mark on the hands that would not go away for days. Only by rubbing and scouring would the stain go away. So David prays, rub and scour my transgressions. Remove the stains. Similarly, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,” uses a term for a launderer. The launder would take clothing to a stream and beat it and rub it against the rocks until the fibers of the garment released the stains. David asked the Lord to get rid of the stain of his iniquity.
“And cleanse me from my sin,” completes the trio using Levitical language of purification. He asked to be purified from the sin that separated him from God [Motyer, 135]. Sidney Greidanus translates it, “un-sin me” [Preaching Christ from Psalms, 263, citing Tate]. Transgressions blotted out, iniquity washed and scrubbed until no stained fiber remains, and sin purified so that it no longer separated him from God, that’s his request in light of his sin. Yet what would it cost God to blot out, wash, and cleanse from sin? Did that happen by a simple shrug in the divine shoulders or sweeping these things under a celestial rug? Oh no, it would cost the Father His Son. The writer of Hebrews tells us that it was not through God desiring sacrifice and offering for sin that forgiveness would ultimately come to His people, but through Jesus having come to do the will of God that led Him to the cross. And so he writes, “But He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God. . . . For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb 10:1–14).
3. Why does sin need removal?
In short compass, David gives us a realistic analysis of sin. One of our greatest problems is that of we hold too scant of a view of sin. With sin abounding all around us, we get dulled by its activity in our own lives. But David helps us to see it differently.
(1) Sin’s dimensions. The repetitious use of three terms for sin (vv. 1–3, 5, 8, 13) reveals, as Spurgeon notes, that David “is sick of sin as sin; his loudest outcries are against the evil of his transgression, and not against the painful consequences of it” [The Treasury of David, 1:402]. “Transgressions” point to his deliberate breaking of God’s Law. Like a fence with a “No Trespassing” sign, he sees the sign but climbs right over in rebellion against the one daring to stop his pursuit of pleasure. “Iniquity” means moral weakness or “the ‘twist’ or warp’ in human nature from whence sin springs” [Motyer, 135], i.e. the innate disposition to sin. Iniquity expresses sin as natural to fallen humanity. “Sin” means “to miss the mark,” the stark realization that since the fall in the Garden (Gen 3) we’ve never measured up to the image of God established at creation. And further, while humanity may have progressed in many ways, in this regard we’ve not. We keep falling short of the glory of God as image bearers (Rom 3:23).
(2) Sin’s weight. David cries, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” More than an occasional floater that bobs across the cornea, the weight of guilt with sin seems to lead every path and get bigger with every blink of the eye. So weighty is the sin, despite the fact that David sinned against Uriah, Bathsheba, his family, and his nation, he saw sin as ultimately cosmic rebellion against God. “Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight.” With this in mind, Calvin poignantly comments, “We will never seriously apply to God for pardon, until we have obtained such a view of our sins as inspires us with fear” [Commentary, 5:284–285].
Nathan’s parable followed by the pointed remark, “You are the man!” left a stinging, painful blow to David until his sin was relieved. Centuries later, a drunkard by the name of William Perkins walked down a Cambridge street, as he overheard a mother telling to her son, ‘Now, don’t you keep acting that way, son, or you’re going to end up like that drunkard Perkins!’ That proved to be the “You are the man!” moment for Perkins, who under conviction and brokenness came to Christ and became one of the most renowned preachers in 17th century England [Ligon Duncan, “Biblical Priorities for the Life of the Church,” 2/4/07; www.fpcjackson.org]. It didn’t happen until he felt sin’s weight.
(3) Sin’s severity. David realized that he (like us with our sin) deserved the wrath of God. So he admitted, “So that You are justified when You speak and blameless when You judge.” O Lord, what You say about me regarding my sin and how You judge me, even if that means sending me to the lowest depths of hell, I deserve and You are fully justified in doing it.
(4) Sin’s nature. Was David passing blame on his parents concerning his sin? Instead, he gave an explanation that we often call total depravity or original sin, pointing to the event that disrupted relationship with God that continues on to this day. Yet as John Frame explains with this disruption, “But if sin came into the world through a historical event [the fall in Genesis 3], it is possible for other events [Jesus’ redemptive work] to reverse the first” [Systematic Theology, 851–852]. “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” Unfortunately, as John Piper notes, “Some people use their inborn or inbred corruption to diminish their person 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” [“A Broken and Contrite Heart God Will Not Despise,” italics added; 6/8/08; Psalm 51, www.desiringGod.org]. David pointed to Christ.
What does this original sin mean? “Original sin, therefore, seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature,” writes Calvin, “diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls ‘works of the flesh’ [Gal. 5:19]” [Calvin’s Institutes, 2.1.8]. So when we consider the Las Vegas killer, other reasons may be offered but he acted out of his nature. Yet so do we in acts of sin and rebellion against God. Calvin adds, Adam “infected all his posterity with that corruption into which he had fallen” [Inst. 2.1.6].
(5) Sin’s deception. “Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, and in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom.” Yet sin marinating in his unguarded thoughts and neglect of responsibilities deceitfully led to David’s acts. Luther was right, “. . . that sin is a great and innate evil, and an awful depravation and corruption of nature, in all the powers both of soul and body” [cited by Plumer, Psalms, 562]. John describes it as rooted in the world, i.e. not from the image of God in creation but the result of a fallen world. “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world” (1 John 2:16).
The innate practice of sin calls for brokenness and repentance (vv. 16–17). But it is only before God through the work of Christ that we find the relief from guilt that brings us once again to joyful worship and faithful witness.
II. Restoration for the repentant
David did not remain under the weight of guilt not because he decided to do some good things but rather because he looked to the God full of mercy displayed at the cross.
1. Prayer for purity before God
Just as he repeated words for sin, David also repeated words for cleansing from sin. “Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” There was no magic in the leafy, rather hairy hyssop plant. Instead, it became a tool used by the priests for sprinkling a house or a leper or a people to declare them pure and clean. So he takes up the imagery. He’s the leper that can only return to the joy of fellowship if the Lord declares him clean. David knew that he could not do enough works to remove the stain of sin. That work had to come from God alone. And yet this God does not cleanse by merely uttering a word of pardon. No, sin is an offense against God. It’s treason for those created in God’s image to defile that image with transgressions. So for God to pardon, justice had to be satisfied. That satisfaction was not found in sacrifices or burnt offerings, as David mused (v. 16), “otherwise I would give it.” God Himself satisfied His judgment and our sin debt through making “Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:21). Spurgeon says of David’s remarkable prayer: “He is requesting a great thing; he seeks joy for a sinful heart, music for crushed bones. Preposterous prayer anywhere but at the throne of God! Preposterous there most of all but for the cross where Jehovah Jesus bore our sins in his own body on the tree” [Treasury of David, 1:404].
2. Longing for restored fellowship
“Make me to hear joy and gladness, let the bones which You have broken rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities.” David knew firsthand, “Sin debilitates the sinner” [Motyer, 137]. The voice of joy, the heart glad and filled with song, the uplifted hands and eyes to gaze upon the glory of God in corporate worship, seemed a million miles away. He felt his life crushed by his sin and knew that he could not heal the broken bones. Only a gracious God who took on our sin and sorrows at the cross could bring back the joy to a sin-crushed heart.
We discussed Thomas Bilney on Wednesday night, a lesser-known but remarkable figure in Cambridge, England during the early days of the 16th C. Reformation. Bilney had come to faith in Christ while reading Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, and then began one-by-one to share the gospel with others at Cambridge. Students and fellows came to faith in Christ. The upset Catholic Church authorities arrested him and threatened him with death. Listening to advice from some friends, he decided to recant his faith in Christ alone. But that led him to two years of intense grief, feeling his bones crushed under the weight of guilt for having denied Jesus who had died for him. After that long agony, the Lord made Bilney hear joy and gladness again. So filled with joy and consciousness of the presence of Christ that he again returned to bold witness and when faced with arrest again, did not recant but died a happy and satisfied follower of Christ in the flames at Norwich. Only God can do that kind of work to restore us from the pits of guilt.
3. Repentance for renewed life
“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. Restore me to the joy of Your salvation and sustain me with a willing spirit.” Just a look at the verbs that make up his prayer-desire in repentance, shows his confidence in the grace of God: create—because I need a new heart; renew—because I must know consistency; do not cast away—because I do not want to be a repeat of Saul that didn’t persevere; do not take—because I need the Holy Spirit’s presence and power to live; restore—because I cannot drum up true joy of one delivered from sins; sustain—because I need you to affect my will to turn from sin and follow hard after you.
Here he takes a forward look, for “The call to repentance is not a call to become mired in guilt. Guilt is oriented to the past and paralyzes persons in regret of things that cannot be changed. Repentance is oriented to the future as an alternative to the past, and it empowers a new response” [Greidanus, 268–269, citing Birch, “Homiletical Resources,” Quarterly Review 1, no. 5 (1981): 88].
4. Declarations of changed focus
“Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will be converted to You. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation; then my tongue will joyfully sing of Your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your praise.” As Motyer puts it, “It is the returned sinner who can lead sinners back,” and so, “We are living illustrations of the fact that God bothers with sinners; only as such can we speak to others” [137–138]. David declares that renewed joy leads to renewed witness. Luther adds, “If we have, through faith in Christ, received the righteousness and grace of God, we can do no greater work than speak and declare the truth of Christ” [in Plumer, 564]. Forgiven people find great joy in telling others where to find forgiveness through the crucified and resurrected God-Man, Jesus Christ.
David’s changed focus returns to worship. Spurgeon quips, “A great sinner pardoned makes a great singer. Sin has a loud voice, and so should our thankfulness have” [Treasury, 406]. One may be certain that David’s fall with Bathsheba did not follow a passionate heart of worshiping the Lord. The chronicler of 2 Samuel 11 indicates that laziness had crept into David’s life. When kings should have been in battle, David neglected his spiritual disciplines and regular responsibilities in Jerusalem. But a clean heart and renewed spirit leads to worship personally and corporately (vv. 18–19).
So important is this psalm, that the church father Athanasius recommended to his people that they recite Psalm 51 each night. And why is that? Here we find hope for broken sinners to once again know joy and restored fellowship and renewed worship and witness. Like an arrow that hits the bull’s eye, this psalm aims for the cross. Grace, lovingkindness, and compassion flow from the cross. There’s mercy in the Lord; the cross and empty tomb shout it.