Psalm 51 (NASB)
For the choir director. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.
51 Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness;
According to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
And cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
And my sin is ever before me.
4 Against You, You only, I have sinned
And done what is evil in Your sight,
So that You are justified when You speak
And blameless when You judge.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.
6 Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being,
And in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom.
7 Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Make me to hear joy and gladness,
Let the bones which You have broken rejoice.
9 Hide Your face from my sins
And blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from Your presence
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of Your salvation
And sustain me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
And sinners will be converted to You.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation;
Then my tongue will joyfully sing of Your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
That my mouth may declare Your praise.
16 For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it;
You are not pleased with burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.
18 By Your favor do good to Zion;
Build the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then You will delight in righteous sacrifices,
In burnt offering and whole burnt offering;
Then young bulls will be offered on Your altar.
I remember feeling like I had cracked the Da Vinci Code when as a teenager reading Psalm 51, I realized it was referencing the same event as the song “Hallelujah”. The song originally written by Leonard Cohen, then made more famous by Jeff Buckley, and finally butchered mercilessly by Shrek.
Of course, the Cohen song isn’t strictly speaking ‘about’ David, it’s about a dark and broken encounter with love, but it uses the biblical king as an analogy:
“Well I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
Well it goes like this:
The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah”
David is a titanic figure whose name looms over the whole bible. Whether you’ve grown up in Sunday School, or only rarely and recently set foot in Church, David has influenced your life and language. This is because David was not only a king, but was also a musician. Around half of the psalms within the bible, songs and prayers to God arranged in various themes were composed by David. He was in other words, the best guitarist on the Jerusalem worship team; hence Cohen’s mention of a “secret chord”. His Psalms have crept into our music and culture, as much of the bible does, from inscriptions on public monuments and all the way to the Shrek soundtrack, David has left his mark indelibly.
David was the kind of man that it would be unrealistic to aspire to. A brave soldier, who at a young age killed the Philistine warrior Goliath with nothing but a few stones and a sling. A talented musician who could play harp, sing beautifully, and write music. A wise and popular king who united an unruly country and expanded its territory against all hope. And were these things not enough, David was a man of great faith. A man who knew God, who knew himself, and whom God loved so dearly that he promised that the throne of Israel would never be taken away from his descendant, and that one of his own offspring would be chosen to build God’s temple on earth.
His life is a roller-coaster, and genuinely interesting. You’ll find a full account in 1 and 2 Samuel, a real must particularly if you haven’t read them already.
And yet for all this greatness, David was a man of hideous and insurmountable sin. Cohen reminds us of the destruction that fell upon David as he saw Bathsheba bathing from the roof of his palace, committed adultery with her, and murdered her husband to cover up his guilt. It is not until after the murder is done that David realizes that he cannot hide his sin from God, and that his actions will be made public and that because of them he will face great shame.
It is in this time of sober realization that the “baffled king” David “composes hallelujah” writing Psalm 51. The confession of a wretched and broken man, who knows that he deserves nothing from God, and yet trusts in his unfailing love.
“Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness;
According to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions.”
Not according to my deservedness, not according to my own past deeds or what I might do in the future if you give me another chance. David knows that in himself, God will find no reason to forgive him. David knows that his only hope of forgiveness is the character of God himself who is as inclined to forgiveness and patience, as we humans are to sin and disobedience.
I hope that you won’t ever commit sins quite as strident as those of King David; but I do think that on some level all of us who are honest with ourselves and who know God can relate to this Psalm. There is something so universal about the feeling of shame that comes with sin, that all of us can understand it on some level. Even without really knowing God or being a Christian, Psalms like this have the power to move you to a place of reflectivity and introspection.
As Christians we know that we are all capable of sin, and have proved this hypothesis to ourselves time and again; and yet when we notice sin in the lives of others we are often very quick to conclude that they must not be true Christians. After all, if God’s spirit is within them producing the love of God, and teaching them to repent, then how could they… (I’m sure you have someone in your life that you could think about now and supply an ending for that sentence).
And yet I noticed something in verses 11-12 of this Psalm yesterday, which I had never given much thought.
“Do not cast me away from Your presence
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation
And sustain me with a willing spirit.”
If David says “do not cast me away from your presence”, then it could only be reasonable to assume that David is presently, and has been, “in” God’s presence.
If David says “do not take your Holy Spirit from me”, then it could only be reasonable to assume that David presently has God’s Holy Spirit within him, and that the Holy Spirit has not been taken from him already
We’ve spoken in bible study recently about God’s spirit leaving the temple in Ezekiel 10. How terrifying it must have been to finally see God’s patience appear to run out. For him to leave, and give Jerusalem over to judgment. We surmised that throughout the Old Testament, though God had been patient, the sin had gone too far to remain unaddressed.
And yet here in the life of David, God has not left. In fact all throughout David’s sin, God was present, and God’s spirit was within him. And we know that the work of God’s spirit in us is to make us want what God wants. To make us hate sin, and feel unclean and unnatural in those times when we stray there.
What must it be like I wonder to commit such a horrifying sin as David’s, all the while with God’s spirit within you, filling you with dread, breaking you to remorse, and revolting you with contrition? You could probably think of far smaller sins in your life that could give you a window into understanding this or something like it, a little shimmering shadow of the experience of guilt that David felt…
And yet rather than leave him, God remained beside him, calling to him even as he blocked his ears, hardened his heart, and closed his eyes. God’s spirit did not leave him. God’s spirit stayed. And in staying, the Holy Spirit filled David with great guilt and shame. This guilt and shame was not itself a judgement, but was God’s love. God’s loving discipline, like that of a Father who wants better, and to those ends tells his misbehaving children that they have disappointed him.
“Let the bones you have crushed rejoice”, pleads David. The broken king feels as though God has broken him so utterly that his strength is gone and his body is found unwilling to move.
When we experience guilt or shame, do we ever consider that in some situations, this is the shape that God’s love might take, for a time, as God’s spirit reveals to us the things we need to leave behind?
Of course, David does not remain in this shame forever, and neither do we. Our hope is in a God who is always inclined to forgive those who genuinely repent, and turn to him in faith; trusting that the death of Jesus is enough. That our sins are paid for. That our guilt and shame is washed away as God dies in our place. But genuine repentance is often borne of a time of shame. Real faith and hope require an acknowledgement that present things must change.
Nobody can have faith in forgiveness, unless they see that they have done something wrong. Hence David in his Psalm, prays for something that he is confident that God will provide; a light at the end of the tunnel. Deliverance and change.
“Restore to me the joy of Your salvation
And sustain me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
And sinners will be converted to You.”
Notice his salvation is not lost, even in his hour of sin. But the joy of his salvation is all but dried up. And yet, while God’s spirit has given him shame (for a time) to lead him to repentance; his hope is that God will return him to the joy that comes with living in step with God.
Some people have this idea that the evidence of the Holy Spirit in your life can be known by the feeling of guiltlessness. The full removal of shame and an absolute sense of freedom.
This sounds very nice, but the trouble is that this isn’t what the bible actually teaches. I absolutely want to agree that because of Jesus death, we can say with Paul in Romans 8, “no condemnation now remains for those who are in Christ Jesus!” Our sin is forgiven, once and for all, and nothing can change or tarnish the spotless righteousness which we have inherited through the death of Christ. If you are a Christian, your faith is in Christ, God’s Spirit is within you, and God will never again punish you for anything. Neither in the present nor at the end of your life as you stand before him.
And yet… “the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” (Proverbs 3:12).
The message of the gospel of grace is that not only has God dealt with the punishment for our sins, but that because of this we are adopted as his children. This is why we call God “Father”. And this is why he has sealed us with his Holy Spirit; that we should have the family likeness, and grow to look more and more like God our Father as we mature in faith.
As such, we must “hate what is evil, and love what is good” (Romans 12:9). We must endeavor to notice those parts of ourselves which need to change even when it hurts, because when we find ourselves battling with sin in our lives, we confirm that we are God’s children. This is one of the broader arguments of Romans 7-8. God is at war with sin, and if we are also, then we are his. If we accept sin in our mortal bodies and do not grieve it, then we cannot say that the Holy Spirit is shaping our thoughts.
The real evidence of God’s spirit is not a feeling of guiltlessness and shamelessness in all walks of life, but a renewed heart that wants what God wants and sees things the way he sees them. Of course this same Spirit will always point us to the true hope of the gospel, that if we have faith in Jesus we hope in salvation and eternal life; not according to our own works but according to the perfect righteousness of Jesus. Nonetheless in our present, we live in the struggle between future perfection and present sin.
If the Holy Spirit is truly within you, then you will truly learn to grieve your sin as you begin to see it for what it is; but this grief will not remain forever. You will, with David, call out for God to renew the joy of your salvation, to help you repent, to create a willing and obedient heart in you, and He will. Because in giving you his Spirit, and dying in your place, he has promised nothing less.
I used to work in aged care, and one of the women I spoke regularly with had grown up in London during WWII. She was only young then, a little girl, but can remember the bombings vividly. This fascinated me, and I was always asking her for stories. I think this one is relevant.
She told me that even when the Nazi’s were doing bombing runs, she wasn’t really that scared, because her father said that: “The reason they are dropping bombs on us is because we are still strong. They think we can win this war, and that’s why they’re bombing us. If they stop dropping bombs it will be for two reasons, either the war is over, or they don’t think of us as a threat. Since the war isn’t over, then this means we’re still in the fight.”
And so whenever the Nazi’s came over London, she would sit with her father and her mother and her brothers, in the dark with the blackout curtains drawn, shaking their fists at the ceiling and calling out rude remarks about Hitler. Their suffering confirmed their hope, England was still strong.
I think our contention with sin is not so different. For as long as we are doing war with sin in our lives, we know that God’s Spirit is within us. But if we aren’t fighting the battle against sin, day by day, and the war isn’t over yet… then we should worry. Perhaps we should ask ourselves if we actually near to God, because near to his own Spirit is where the battle rages fiercest.
So when you see sin in your brother or sisters life, don’t be too quick to assume that they aren’t real Christians. Don’t be quick to assume that the Holy Spirit isn’t working in them, slowly and over time, as He is in you. But do talk to them about it. If we love each other, and we understand love in the way that God does, then we will see it as our loving duty to rebuke, correct, exhort, and encourage each other in areas of Godliness. When you see sin in your brother and sister, then from a position of compassion and in a spirit of gentleness, bring it up with them.
If they really are a Christian, and they really do have God’s spirit showing them what’s what in their lives, then as you do this, they might not be comfortable, but they will change… with God’s help and a bit of a struggle. “Rebuke the wise and they will love you” (Proverbs 9:8).
And if you see sin in your own life, don’t lose heart and assume that God’s Spirit must have left you. If you can see the sin in your life, and it is causing you worry, then that is good! If you hate the sin in your life then you are seeing things the way God does, and you can hope for change.
But if you are comfortable with the sin in your life, if you tolerate patterns of behavior which are against the word of God and you feel neither guilt nor shame… then you have to do some soul searching. Maybe you have to come back to the gospel of grace and remind yourself of who God actually is and what he is like. It was not for nothing that David prayed “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise”. If your heart is not yet broken by sin, then what is it you hope to bring before God? He is not so impressed with any of us that we could earn salvation. Our only hope is on the cross, and if we don’t see ours sin rightly, then we will not see grace either.