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Psalm 51: It's Worse and Better Than We Think!

Blog by Rob Vandeman

The psalmist’s appeal to God for forgiveness of his sins is one of the most memorable in the entire Psalter, due in part, to the historical title that situates its composition by David after Nathan the prophet confronted him about his sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12). While the words of this prayer fit the occasion well, we should note that nowhere is this particular historical event mentioned specifically, indicating that the poem was not written to memorialize that moment, but to serve as a model prayer for others coming later who find themselves in similar, though not identical, circumstances.

The psalm is a lament, defined as a prayer uttered when one’s life is in turmoil. More specifically, the psalmist realizes that his disoriented life is a result of his own sin, and thus asks God to forgive him and restore his relationship, based upon his repentance. As such this psalm and those like it (6, 32, 38,102,130,143) are known as penitential psalms.

Because the psalms are poetry they do not have, as a whole, the kind of outlines we expect from didactic literature. The verses do not build on one another with statements, reasons for those statements, and conclusions. We do not find many connective words like therefore, so, thus, and but. This does not mean that the psalms do not have orderly progression, however. Psalm 51 obviously does. It has six parts and they flow naturally from God, with whom the psalm begins, to the psalmist, who is praying for forgiveness and renewal, to the people whom his experience of forgiveness and renewal will affect.

  1. The approach to God, a cry for forgiveness (vs. 1-2)
  2. Confession of sin (vs. 3-6)
  3. An appeal for cleansing (vs. 7-9)
  4. Desire for inward renewal, creating a pure heart (vs. 10-12)
  5. A promise to teach others the lessons he has learned (vs. 13-17)
  6. A concluding prayer for the prosperity of his people (vs. 18-19)

Two Great Needs

These six sections also fall into two easily definable parts corresponding to the psalmist’s two great needs. The first is of forgiveness (vs. 1-9). He realized the enormity of his failure and knew that only God could forgive him and he throws himself on God’s mercy. The second part (vs. 10-19) reveals that forgiveness is not the only need David has. He is aware of his sin of adultery and murder came from a sinful heart. He sinned because he is a sinner. And because he is a sinner he is certain to sin again and again, unless God helps him. Therefore, he also needs an inward renewal, which he describes as the creation of a pure heart and the renewal of a steadfast spirit.

Pardon and purity! Those are the two great needs of every human being, since we are all sinners by action and by nature, just as David was. We need first, cleansing, then a new heart.

“It’s Not a Big Deal”

You may be wondering what I meant by the title given to this psalm. I wished to underscore the fact that we tend to minimize our sins. We tell ourselves (or others tell us) that “it’s not a big deal” or “it’s not as bad as it seems.” We soften sins impact by referring to it as “blunders, mistakes, errors, lapses, failings, etc.” But the reality is this—it is usually worse than we think! Sin creates damage; damage to us, to other people, and to our relationship with God. However, I must hasten to add that the reality of God’s forgiveness of the past and his “giveness” of a new heart and renewed spirit is also much better than we think. To minimize the promises inherent in God’s work of cleansing and renewal is to lose perspective on how much God loves us.

This psalm remains relevant to us today as we too approach God to ask for his forgiveness and restoration. The prayer serves as a reminder that such restoration depends on God’s grace and that he responds not to the mere motions of religiosity (sacrifice), but to authentic repentance (a broken and contrite heart). When we read and use this psalm, we are mindful that our forgiveness is based on the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Questions of Reflection

I leave you with a few questions as you reflect on this psalm.

  • Why is it that David says that is against God and God only that he has sinned?
  • What about Bathsheba and Uriah, her husband? Did his sin not affect his own family and that of his subjects?
  • What do you make of the verbs that David used in his plea for forgiveness – blot out, wash away, cleanse? And what do you make of the descriptions he uses for his actions – transgressions, iniquity and sin? And do you see any correlation with teachings in the New Testament?
  • His reference to being cleansed with hyssop – do you see this as a reference to being cleansed by the blood of the lamb?
  • What do you think is the most important request of the psalmist?
  • He vows to teach others from his experience. What experience of God’s forgiving and renewing grace do you know that you could share with a person going through a similar situation?

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