confess02Psalm 51

A Psalm of David when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

Here we have another Psalm by David, the great king and psalmist of Israel. This psalm was written at a most critical moment in David’s life: when, after his terrible sin of adultery with Bathsheba and his equally terrible murder to cover up her subsequent pregnancy, Nathan the prophet went to David to convict him of his sin. In II Samuel 12, we read of this.

1. Then the LORD sent Nathan to David. And he came to him, and said to him: “There were two men in one city, one rich and the other poor. 2. The rich man had exceedingly many flocks and herds. 3. But the poor man had nothing, except one little ewe lamb which he had bought and nourished; and it grew up together with him and with his children. It ate of his own food and drank from his own cup and lay in his bosom; and it was like a daughter to him. .4 And a traveler came to the rich man, who refused to take from his own flock and from his own herd to prepare one for the wayfaring man who had come to him; but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”
5. So David’s anger was greatly aroused against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this shall surely die! 6. And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb, because he did this thing and because he had no pity.”
7. Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!

Here we see that the LORD through Nathan satirized David’s wicked actions in a most clever way. Nathan told David the story of a rich man with many flocks and a poor man with only one lamb which he had made into a pet. The heartless rich man, upon receiving a visitor, steals the poor man’s pet lamb and uses it to feed his guest. David is incensed at the heartless behavior of the rich man, and Nathan reveals to him that he is the man.

Thus says the LORD God of Israel: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. 8. I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your keeping, and gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if that had been too little, I also would have given you much more! 9. Why have you despised the commandment of the LORD, to do evil in His sight? You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the people of Ammon. 10. Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’ 11. Thus says the LORD: ‘Behold, I will raise up adversity against you from your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. 12. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, before the sun.’”
13. So David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.”

The LORD appeals to David’s heart regarding the cruelty of what he has done. Then, He appeals to their relationship by pointing out His Own gracious actions, faithfulness, and love poured out on David. He points out that David’s sin has been a direct affront against Him and against their relationship. Then, He promises to bring such punishment on David as is worthy of the underhanded deed which he has done. Such an appeal would never have touched a self-centered man like Saul who had never had much of a relationship with the LORD to begin with, and so did not really care how his actions might have damaged that relationship. Yet David has walked in close relationship with the LORD, and so the reality of the fact that he has betrayed the One Who was always faithful to him crushes his obstinate heart and results in his heartfelt exclamation, “I have sinned against the LORD.”

And Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die.

The LORD quickly responds to David’s submission by telling him that He has put away David’s sin. Now, David writes this Psalm, a psalm of which J.B. Rotherham says in his book Studies in the Psalms, “Of all the one hundred and fifty Psalms, this is pre-eminently the Penitential Psalm. There are others; but this is the chief.” With this we certainly agree. This psalm, while it speaks specifically to David and his situation, is the model prayer for every true child of God who finds that he has sinned and acted in some terrible way against the God Whom he has in the past loved and served. It provides a glorious example of the mercy and grace of God towards every child of His who has sinned, be it ever so terribly. Let us now examine and learn from this great psalm of submission and penitence in the face of dreadful sin committed.

1. Have mercy upon me, O God,

David calls upon God to have mercy upon him. The word “mercy” is the Hebrew chanan, which has to do with showing grace, favor, mercy, or pity. This is all he could request of God, for certainly he knew that if God treated him fairly, the penalty for both adultery (Leviticus 20:10) and for murder (Numbers 35:16) was death.

10. ‘The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death.

16. ‘But if he strikes him with an iron implement, so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death.

According to Your lovingkindness;

It will be according to God’s love and kindness, it will be according to His grace, and not according to His justice, that He will deal with David when He forgives him of his terrible sin in this case. The word “lovingkindness” in Hebrew is checed, which has to do with kindness, zeal, or love.

According to the multitude of Your tender mercies,

It will be according to His tender mercies as well that He will deal with David. The word here for “tender mercies” is racham, which is the word for the womb, and from this extends the idea of holding in a cherishing way, as the womb does the child. This is how God will hold David in spite of what he has done.

Blot out my transgressions.

It is through God’s mercy, lovingkindness, and tender mercies that David calls upon God to blot out his transgressions. Of course he cannot call upon Him to do it in fairness or justice, for by these things David deserves to die. Yet David was the leader of everything in Israel. He was the king. Therefore, if he was to be punished, he would have had to punish himself using his own government. How can he do this? Yet how can he forgive himself? He certainly cannot. Thus he appeals to the only one in Israel’s government Who was his superior: God Himself.

2. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,

He calls upon God to wash him thoroughly from his iniquity. The idea of “wash” is as of washing a garment, and often a dirty garment is used as a symbol guilty actions. For example, in Zechariah 3:3 Joshua the high priest stood before the Angel of the LORD with filthy garments, symbolizing his sinful actions. The Angel said in verse 4, “See, I have removed your iniquity from you, and I will clothe you with rich robes.” So David wants to be washed as a garment for the removal of the guilt of his sin.

And cleanse me from my sin.

This is the Hebrew poetic form, wherein ideas rather than sounds are repeated in subsequent lines. Here David repeats the same idea as was in the first line: he begs God to cleanse him from his sin.

3. For I acknowledge my transgressions,

David can offer no reason for God to wash him from his iniquity and to cleanse him from his sin other than that he acknowledges his transgressions. The idea of pesha’ is of transgression or rebellion. Since part of Israel’s covenant with God, two of the ten terms of the agreement between them that we call the ten commandments, were that they were neither to murder nor to commit adultery, David’s actions in doing both of these things could fairly and rightfully be called nothing less than rebellion against God. Yet the fact that David confesses the truth of this is good. King Saul, as we see in I Samuel 15, would never admit that what he had done was wrong unless he was forced to do so. Yet David is not like this. He acknowledges that he has rebelled.

And my sin is always before me.

David’s sin, he testifies, is always before him. It is a constant reminder that he cannot forget. It is good that his heart was so pricked and his conscience so moved by this. The fact that his sin was continually brought before him was good, as the fact that it was constantly on his mind was much of what led him to acknowledge the fact that he had sinned and to bring it before his God for forgiveness.

4. Against You, You only, have I sinned,

David proclaims that it is against God and God only that he has sinned. We might be surprised by this, for we would not tend to look at it this way. We are likely to think that he sinned against Bathsheba and that he sinned against Uriah. Yet David realizes that all sin truly is done against God, and so the real One Whom he has sinned against is the One Who is the source of justice and righteousness, the One Whose covenant he was supposed to uphold and obey: his God. Both Uriah and Bathsheba were part of Israel and belonged to God, so his sin against them was really a sin against Him.

And done this evil in Your sight—

David acknowledges that what he has done is evil in His sight. The Hebrew word for evil is ra’a, which means primarily “calamity.” For example, cancer may be described as an “evil,” or a car accident would be an “evil.” We think of “evil” as meaning the same as wickedness, but really in Hebrew this is almost a figure of speech, since wickedness causes calamity. What David proclaims here, then, is that he has done a calamitous work in the sight of God.

That You may be found just when You speak,

We might ask ourselves what David means here. What is it that will cause God to be found just when He speaks? Is it David’s confession of sin, as if God might be thought unjust if he accused David and David did not admit to his sin? Yet if we think about it there are many Bible characters whom God accused of sin, and yet who never admitted it. Yet do we not suppose God to be just in charging them regardless? What then is David referring to?

I do not believe that these words have to do with David’s acknowledgement of his sin against God, but rather have to do with what he first asked for in this psalm: that God would have mercy on him and blot out his transgressions. David is arguing here that God must do this in order to be thought just when He speaks. Yet would it not rather be justice for God to punish David? How might His having mercy on him and blotting out his sin prove Him just when He speaks?

To answer this question, first of all consider the great promise the LORD had made to David in II Samuel 7:12-15.

12. “When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14. I will be his Father, and he shall be My son. If he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men and with the blows of the sons of men. 15. But My mercy shall not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I removed from before you.

In this passage, the LORD promised David that He would be with His seed after him, would establish his kingdom, and would cause him to build the LORD’s house. He also promised that, if he would commit iniquity, He would chasten him, but His mercy should never depart from him, as He took it from Saul before David. Yet if all these things were to be true of David’s seed, how much more should they be true of David? Should not the LORD in the same manner chasten him with the rod of men and with the blows of the sons of men, and yet not take his mercy from him, as He took it from Saul? Most certainly, what He should do for David’s seed, He should now, in this sad circumstance, do for David as well.

Secondly, consider that, after Nathan accused David and David admitted that he had sinned against the LORD, the LORD said through Nathan, “The LORD has put away your sin.” If the LORD said such things and then failed to blot out David’s transgressions, then surely men would have good reason to doubt the justice of His words and the blamelessness of His judgment.

Of course, this does not at all answer the question of how the LORD can make such promises in the first place, nor how the Judge of the all the earth can fail to punish such terrible iniquity. That revelation awaited the book of Romans, where such justification is explained in Romans 3:23-26.

23. for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24. being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25. whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26. to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

And blameless when You judge.

Again the LORD could hardly be thought a blameless Judge if He were to declare one’s sins as being put away and then charged him for them regardless. David calls upon God to do what He had said so that His word might never be questioned.

5. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,

David points out the fact that he was brought forth in iniquity.

And in sin my mother conceived me.

He explains what he means by this: that in sin his mother conceived him. This verse and statement by David has been used and abused by many in trying to justify their ideas by a verse from the Bible. Some have used it who support an idea they call the “total depravity of man.” They claim that man is sinful from birth, in fact from his very conception. Therefore, there is absolutely nothing good about man that was not caused in him by the sovereign grace of God. They therefore teach that, since there is nothing good about man, he would never come to God at all if God did not pick him out by election and more or less force him to come to Him. Yet this is a tall mountain to build on the molehill of this passage, and I do not believe that that is what this passage is talking about.

Others have used this passage to teach that the very act that causes conception is inherently a sinful thing. Some might admit that it must be entered into in order to produce babies, but still it is a sinful thing even then, and should be avoided when at all possible. One group that thought this was called the Shakers, which existed in colonial days, rather like the Quakers. This group however, because they believed that intercourse is sinful, failed ultimately to produce any babies to carry on their group, and so died out. Sometimes, at least, an error can have the convenient effect of eliminating itself.

This is not what David meant either, however. Those who believe this would do well to consider the words of God in Hebrews 13:4, “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.” Moreover, God Himself created male and female in the beginning. He was the Author then of sexual intercourse, and He commanded our first parents to be fruitful and multiply. Surely He did not command them to sin by doing this! Those who teach this grievous doctrine would do well to reconsider, for what they are teaching is simply a “doctrine of demons” (I Timothy 4:1-3).

Others have tried to suggest that David perhaps was an illegitimate child of Jesse, and maybe was only a half-brother to those who are listed as his brothers. Yet this again is failing to understand what David is saying.

The fact is that none of us are born into a vacuum. We are all born into a situation that existed before we arrived in it and became a part of it. The situation we were born into greatly affects us. For example, I was born in the United States of America, and therefore I became an American. Though in some ways this is overridden by the more important fact that I later became a believer in and a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, it is still true that the place of my birth and the situation I was born into had a great effect on me. It affected the language I speak, the clothes I wear, the history I learned, and the culture I absorbed. I cannot deny that the situation into which I was born greatly affected me, and still does.

But there is another fact that greatly impacts every one of us who are born into this world. That is, we are born into a situation that is characterized by sin. The very way this world works is stamped by it. We live constantly surrounded by sin, and sinful ways of acting, of thinking, and of living are almost breathed into us from the time we are born. We were conceived in a world characterized by sin, and we were born into a world characterized by sin. Do we suppose for an instant that this did not have an effect on David, that it did not affect the way he looked at women, or marriage, or adultery? It most certainly did! If David had been conceived into and born in the great, sinless kingdom world to come, he would have been brought up in a far different atmosphere, and perhaps would have acted far differently in many situations in life, including that of Bathsheba and Uriah.

The same might be said of each one of us: we are greatly affected by the fact that we are conceived and born into a situation that is characterized by sin. That is the truth of what David is telling us here. He is not teaching total depravity, nor that the act of sex is sinful, nor that he was an illegitimate child. Instead, he is pointing out that we are all born into a situation characterized by sin, and that this affects us and we act in sinful ways when otherwise we might not because of it.

6. Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts,

God, on the other hand, desires truth in us. We may have been born into and shaped by sin, and yet God is willing to overlook such things if He finds that we cling to truth in our inward parts. Surely truth is of great importance to God! “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.” III John 4.

And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom.

God not only desires truth in the inward parts, but He is willing to put it there. God did not wait for David to pull himself up by his own bootstraps in order to make himself acceptable to Him. Instead He acted in the hidden part of David to make him to know wisdom. David might have been brought up in a situation characterized by sin, but God had given him something as well: wisdom and truth inside him.

7. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

David calls upon God to purge him with hyssop. Hyssop was a plant, apparently from which they would take a branch or a bunch of little branches to use in religious cleansings. The first time hyssop is mentioned is when it was used to apply the blood of the Passover lamb to the door of the house, as we see in Exodus 12:22.

22. And you shall take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. And none of you shall go out of the door of his house until morning.

Hyssop was also used in the cleansing of leprosy in Leviticus 14, first in the cleansing of the man with leprosy in verses 6-7.

6. As for the living bird, he shall take it, the cedar wood and the scarlet and the hyssop, and dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the running water. 7. And he shall sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed from the leprosy, and shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the living bird loose in the open field.

It was also used in cleansing the house with leprosy, as is set forth in verse 51 of Leviticus 14.

51. and he shall take the cedar wood, the hyssop, the scarlet, and the living bird, and dip them in the blood of the slain bird and in the running water, and sprinkle the house seven times.

Finally, hyssop was used in the ceremony of purification from uncleanness, as set forth in Numbers 19. First, it was burned along with the red heifer used for purification in Numbers 19:6. Then, it was used to sprinkle the water of purification on whatever was being purified from uncleanness, as in Numbers 19:18.

18. A clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water, sprinkle it on the tent, on all the vessels, on the persons who were there, or on the one who touched a bone, the slain, the dead, or a grave.

Therefore, hyssop was used in purification rituals, and especially for cleansing uncleanness. This is why it suggests itself to David, as he asks to be cleansed from his sin and transgression. He wants to be purged, as with hyssop, and be clean.

Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

This is an example of Hebrew poetry, wherein what is put one way in one line is repeated another way in the following line. As we pointed out earlier, Hebrew poetry had to do with repetition of ideas, rather than repetition of sounds, as our poetry does. Thus this phrase means the same as the last phrase: David wants God to wash him from his sin. If God does it, he knows it will be efficacious, and he shall be whiter than snow. This would have been amazingly white at the time, for chemical bleaches were unknown, and so few things would ever be as white as snow, not to mention whiter.

8. Make me hear joy and gladness,

He calls upon God to make him hear joy and gladness. He has been suffering for months now from the weight and guilt of his sin. Yet he anticipates, in the assurance of God’s forgiveness, that he will again be able to participate in joy and gladness.

That the bones You have broken may rejoice.

He seems to look at it as if God has broken his very bones in his guilt. Yet now the forgiveness of God will mend them, and the result is that the man who was crushed under his guilt and sin will rejoice before Him.