Psalm 51 first came to be very special to me when I was 15 years old. I was a somewhat rebellious teenager who overstepped the mark in some particular ways that made me feel uneasy in myself. But it was more than just a reaction to certain naughtinesses, I knew that I was on the wrong track, heading in the wrong direction - I was deeply uneasy. And I didn’t really have a clue what to do about it.
Fortunately God came to the rescue, but that is a different and longer story! It was at that time that Psalm 51 along with one or two others seemed to speak very directly into my situation.
Psalm 51 is the Psalm of everyman, everywoman, who struggles with and within themselves. They - and we - know that all is not well within, that they have spoken and behaved in ways that have caused hurt or injury to others, that do not reflect the nature and will of God.
First some background
Psalm 51 is attributed to David, and although it is impossible to be certain that he wrote it, it certainly sits appropriately alongside the events described in 2 Samuel 11-12. David slept with wife of one of his loyal soldiers. When she got pregnant, he sent word that her husband (Uriah) should be put on the front line of the battle so that he would be killed. In effect, the King, God’s anointed representative, committed adultery and murder. Nathan the prophet was sent to David to confront him, and he very cleverly trapped David into pronouncing judgement on himself. He told David a parable, in which a rich man steals a poor man's only lamb, to prepare a meal for a traveller. David is very indignant saying ‘As the Lord lives, the man deserves to die’ To which Nathan declared ‘You are the man!’
David instantly recognised the depths of the wrong he had committed and said, ‘I have sinned against the Lord’, words which are echoed in verses 3 & 4 of our psalm:
For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone have I sinned and done what was evil in your sight.
As we come now to look at the psalm itself, the first point I want to make is that the psalm lays bare the reality of the human condition.
The Psalmist recognises that his sin is not just against Uriah, but against God. God is right to judge him, he deserves God’s displeasure, God’s punishment. Yet he is drawn to God, drawn in confession, longing for the distance opened up by his sin, to be closed.
This psalm, this prayer, is not a simply a deep, heartfelt recognition of the sin caused by these particular events. It recognises that sin is more than any specific act of individual wrongdoing.
Indeed I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
This verse has often been misunderstood. It is not about the wickedness of the act of procreation or the idea of original sin. It simply expresses the tragedy of the situation into which all of us are born. We are born into a world full of sin and temptation. By the time we learn to distinguish between good and evil, we already discover within ourselves that we have a will of our own, a strong will, that wants to assert itself, and is often at variance with the will of our creator.
The Psalmist recognises this self-will which is at odds with the divine will – he recognises it in himself. This is the truth he discovers deep inside himself, this is the place into which God’s wisdom has brought him.
In this psalm, the writer does not try to justify himself, to recall his good deeds or his previous integrity – something that is very much in evidence in most other psalms. He readily acknowledges his wrongdoing.
Psalm 51 lays bare the human condition, that constant tendency to walk our own way, to walk without recognising our total dependence on God.
So how does this affect the way we confess our sins Sunday by Sunday?
We usually have a quiet period before the confession in which we seek to identify the words and actions that have been hurtful or wounding or neglectful – that haven’t reflected the generous love of God. Sometimes I find it easy to identify particular things, at other times it seems to be much harder.
Perhaps on those occasions when I find it difficult, I just need to remember how easy it is for my self-will to assert itself, to recognise my vulnerability, and to take time to re-set my inner compass, to re-align my will with God’s, to do this consciously and intentionally at the start of another week.
The second point is that the Psalm declares the generous and steadfast love and faithfulness of God. in verse 1 the Psalmist says
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
According to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
The God to whom the Psalmist brings his sin is characterised by ‘steadfast love’ and ‘abundant mercy’. The word ’steadfast love’ is the word used of God’s covenant love for his people. God bound himself to his people, he was their God, they were his people. Though his people broke the covenant, God held on to them. His ‘steadfast love’ remained theirs, followed them in their wanderings, always reaching out to bring them back.
This is a God whose very nature is to love and to forgive, one from whom we cannot hide anything, one in whose bright light we dare to bring the inner secrets of our hearts, one who, in his all-sufficient love and mercy, will blot out our transgressions, will wash us thoroughly, will make us whiter than snow.
The word used for ‘wash’ in the Psalms is not a gentle word, it is a word which literally means ‘treading’, a vigorous and thorough exercise used to get rid of serious dirt. When I read that, it reminded me of my grandma’s dolly tub and the strong, rhythmic up and down movements of her arms as she pounded the laundry.
Facing up to sin, owning it, and daring to bring it into the light can be a rather painful process – certainly the Psalmist felt the weight of his sin – he writes of having his bones ‘crushed’, of being ‘broken’.
But having faced his sin and recognised the ingrained reality of our tendency to sin, having owned it and asked for mercy, he rediscovers joy and gladness as his sins are blotted out, erased. In the words of psalm 103:12
As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
We do indeed have an amazingly gracious, merciful, loving and forgiving God and we should never fear to come to him as we are.
Thirdly, and finally, the Psalm shows us that we need renewal as well as forgiveness. The Psalmist’s sin has been blotted out, he has been thoroughly washed, joy and gladness have replaced his anguish. BUT – he knows that the self-will that landed him in that hard place, that put him at odds with his creator, is still there, waiting to assert itself again and land him in trouble again.
So he prays in verse 10 that God will:
· create in him a clean heart
· put a new and right spirit within him
· sustain him with a willing spirit
· open his lips so that he may praise God
This is quite revolutionary. The wisdom of the day was that there were righteous people who were faithful and God blessed them, and that there were unrighteous people who were not faithful and who God punished them. This created real difficulties when bad people seemed to prosper and good people suffer, a dilemma addressed in Job.
This Psalm takes us into new territory. We are all equal, we are all born guilty, we all have that self-will that is at odds with the will of our creator, and we are all pretty helpless to walk in God’s way, unless our lives are lived in total dependence on him. It is God alone who can keep us out of sin’s way. He alone who can create within us a new heart, and put a new and right spirit within us.
The word ‘create’ used here is not the word used for God creating the world. It is a word very rarely used, and is used of God, in his sovereign power, doing something that is seemingly impossible. God, by his Spirit can do within us, that which it is impossible for us to do for ourselves.
This thought is also found in Ezekiel 36:26:
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will put my spirit within you and make you follow my statutes.
It prepares the way for the Jesus' words to Nicodemus in John 3:3:
Very truly I tell you, no-one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew (from above) … no-one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Yes, sinners we are. But God is full of grace and mercy. Our sins have been forgiven, we have been restored to a living and loving relationship with our God, and we are daily offered the renewing power of God’s Spirit, so that our lives and wills can be more closely aligned with that of our Creator and Saviour.