The Prayer of True Repentance.

Psalm 51

Background of the Psalm:

After becoming King, David’s reign had been an unqualified success. He had defeated many of Israel’s enemies which had brought security and stability to the nation. Yet by shrugging off this responsibility he’d let himself become idle and open to temptation! This resulted in his adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11). One sin leads to another and when Bathsheba announces she’s pregnant David, after several desperate attempts to cover his tracks, arranges the death of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah, one of David’s crack soldiers (2 Samuel 23:39). After taking Bathsheba as his wife, when it looked like he had got away with everything, the Lord sent the prophet Nathan to reprimand him (2 Samuel 12:1-15). David had sinned greatly; Michael Wilcock notes that David leaves: ‘five of the Ten Commandments broken in one sordid and cynical enterprise’.[1] However, although the Lord had accepted his repentance (2 Samuel 12:12-13) David realized the serious consequences of his sin. This Psalm is written in the form of a prayer of repentance. The Choirmaster of the title may have composed the music so the Psalm could be sung as a form of repentance in worship.

 The structure of the Psalm:

  •  The nature of God – in verse 1 David remembers God’s mercy and compassion (Exodus 34:6-7a). He acknowledges that his sin is an affront to God as God’s law defines sin (v4).
  • The nature of forgiveness – forgiveness has its origin in God’s nature (v6), so forgiveness comes through God acting (v7). It is an act of recreation (v10), God doing the impossible (see Ezekiel 36:25-27). It is he who restores us (vs11-12) therefore there is nothing we can do to earn it (vs16-17).
  • The nature of the forgiven believer – David is now ready to serve the Lord joyfully (vs12-13) and prays for God to show grace towards the nation (v18). Now he can offer worship that pleases the Lord (v19).

Some observations on the text (all scriptural quotations ESV):

The tone of the Psalm is set by the opening verses (vs1-2).  David acknowledges that he is completely dependent on the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness.  This he sees as part of the Lord’s nature and verse 1 reflects the Lord’s words to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7a. ‘The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin”’.

The concept of all sin being against God (v4) is one we might struggle with. Surely Bathsheba and Uriah are the ones affected by David’s sin.  But we tend to associate wrongdoing in how it affects others, what is at issue here is God’s Law!  As that defines sin, any sin  is essentially treason against God’s rule.  David knows this and prays accordingly.

As forgiveness has its origin in God’s nature he delights: ‘in truth in the inward being’ and he will teach David: ‘wisdom in the secret heart’ (v6).  Therefore, David looks to the Lord to cleanse him (v7) as he realizes that there is nothing in his nature that can atone for what he has done.  Mankind’s natural state does not allow for it (v5).  The picture used in verse 7 is of the ceremonial cleansing during ceremonies like the ‘Day of Atonement’, The priest would sprinkle the blood of a sacrifice or water on the worshipers as a symbol of their sins being atonement for.

The theme of helplessness  and the need for God to act becomes even more prevalent in verse 10. The imagery here is similar to Ezekiel 36:25-27.  “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanliness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”  David’s sin is so serious no amount of self-improvement can work here, so he is literally asking the Lord step in and recreate his spiritual being!  This defines what repentance is, complete dependence on the Lord’s forgiveness.  This David now illustrates brilliantly in verses 16-17.  Some people think that in Old Testament times it was just a case of God’s people following religious laws and rituals.  But  if there was any possibility of paying for what he had done in the Law David, as King, could’ve afforded it. No sacrifice would’ve been too expensive or lavish for him.  But they couldn’t cover the cost of his sin (Leviticus20:10).  As  with all Old Testament worship it needed to reflect the believer’s love for the Lord.  So all David depends on is: ‘a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart’ as that that is the nature of genuine repentance.  With that attitude he can pray with confidence knowing that it’s God’s nature to forgive anyone who approaches him in that way.  John Calvin states: ‘The phrase the sacrifices of God implicitly rebukes the hypocrite who he imagines he can by his own efforts propitiate God; the one essential for the sinner is to prostrate himself, humbly pleading for divine mercy.’[2]

Now David can now approach his worship in the proper fashion (v19). It’s difficult to tell how long it was before David’s sin was exposed by Nathan,  but it was probably a long time.  No doubt he continued in his religious observance.  But his heart and attitude was wrong.  But now he can joyfully come in worship to the Lord as well as witnessing to the joy of being forgiven (see vs12-15).

[1] Michael Wilcox, The Message of Psalms 1-72, Songs for the People of God (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 2001), 185.

[2] John Calvin, Abridged by David C. Searle, Commentary on the Psalms (Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 272.

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