Psalm 51 Study: How Do I Say I’m Sorry?

What does confession look like in your life?


In mine it can look as superficial and insincere as those my kids would offer each other while I was standing over them.  “Say you’re sorry…”  “SORRY!” yelled the one who was still angry, just to avoid further lectures.  Or “sorry” mumbled the guilty one, just to avoid worse punishment.  But no one was fooled.

Love means never having to say…

In my marriage I have known variations on this theme.  One was the good cop/bad cop scenario I often forced my husband to play.  One of the kids would come to me and ask permission to do something.  I quickly said yes, seeing the fun of their request without stopping to consider the possible wisdom, safety, or goodness of it.  My husband would overhear me, and be forced to downgrade my “yes” to a “maybe,” “probably not,” or even a “no.”  The kids would cry, I would be sad for them, and my husband be upset with me.

“You need to quit doing that!” was the next line in the oft repeated script.  I didn’t really get it, but I knew he was upset with me, so to restore the peace, I would say, “sorry” as quickly as possible.  It wasn’t insincere, but we both knew it was superficial.  I would do it again, soon.

Then one day, after incident #568, he sighed and said to me, “Why do you always force me to be the ‘bad guy’?  I want to say yes, too, but you never give me the chance.  I always end up having to be the responsible one, because you aren’t willing to be.”

Whether it was the weary look in his eyes or the Spirit’s conviction, that day my heart was pierced.  In a flash I saw the truth of my huband’s words, the imbalanced situation, and my part in perpetuating it.  I experienced contrition, true sorrow for my sin.  I looked him in the eye and told him how sorry I was.  I told him I wanted to change.  He hugged me and said he would help.  That was the beginning of real change.

Needing Psalm 51

Psalm 51 is one of those psalms you hope you won’t need.  But when you do, you’re so glad it’s there. It is David’s confession of sin and plea for mercy from the LORD.  It will help us confess, plead, and receive God’s mercy again and again.

I need Psalm 51, just like countless multitudes of God’s people from David’s time until the present.  It’s the fourth of seven “penitential psalms”, including Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143.  God provided them for us, because he knew we would need them.  But did Jesus need it?  Did our sinless Savior quote this psalm?  If not, how does this psalm point to him?  How can we hear his voice in it?

This Week’s Questions

Day 1 — The enemy within.  2 Samuel 11

  1. Read the story of David’s sin in 2 Samuel 11.
  2. How did David sin?  List sins of thought, intent, word, and action.
  3. What is the punishment for these sins?  See Deuteronomy 22:23-24 and Numbers 35:19-21.
  4. Does David’s repentance look likely at this point?  What future awaits him?
  5. Do you ever feel like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?  On a mountain top with the Lord one day, and in the snares of sin the next?  You are like King David, a “man after God’s own heart”, yet who sinned with a passion and hardness of heart that showed his fallen nature.  Ask God to speak to you through David’s life this week.

Day 2 — Turning and Calling on God. 2 Samuel 12:1-15; Psalm 51:1-2

  1. Read the story of David’s repentance in 2 Samuel 12:1-15.
  2. Where did his repentance begin?  Who took the initiative?
  3. List the stages of this conversation and David’s changing reactions.
  4. Compare David’s confession in 2 Samuel 12:13a with the first 2 verses of our psalm.  Who is he addressing in each?  Can you picture him turning from Nathan to the LORD?
  5. What does David ask for in Psalm 51:1-2?  On what basis is he making his requests?  How does this point to Christ?  See Acts 3:19, 22:16, Hebrews 9:14.

Day 3 — Confession.  Psalm 51:3-6

  1. Count the references to “me” and “you” in vv. 3-4.  How do the 2 verses differ from each other?  If God is justified in judging, what does this say about David?
  2. What is the difference between his confession in vv. 3-4 and vv.5-6?  What is the difference between specific sins and a sin nature?
  3. Romans 3:4 is the only place where the New Testament actually quotes this Psalm (51:4).  State in your own words what it means. Why is it important to see how much we deserve judgment before we hear the good news of our salvation?
  4. Romans 5:12 and 19 are not a direct quote from this Psalm, but express a parallel thought.  How does our sin nature inherited from Adam find its match in our new nature offered to us in Christ?
  5. What bothers you more today, specific sins or your inclination to sin?  Whichever one it is, bring it to God through Christ today.

Day 4 — Petitions. Psalm 51:7-12

  1. How do vv. 7-9 address the sin problem of vv. 3-4?  When was hyssop used?  See Exodus 12:22.
  2. How does the death of Christ relate to this prayer?  See Hebrews 9:19
  3. How do vv. 10-12 relate to the sin nature problem of vv. 5-6?
  4. How does the death of Christ do more than just forgive our specific sins?  See Ephesians 4:23-24
  5. How does this give you hope today?

Day 5 — Vow of praise.  Psalm 51:13-19

  1. How does this section change the focus of the psalm?
  2. Compare v. 16 and v. 19.  Do you think they contradict each other?  Why is sacrifice delightful at one time and not another?
  3. Verse 16 is very similar to Psalm 40:6-8.  Look it up and read it.  Then read Hebrews 10:5-7.  How did Christ’s body replace the sacrifices and offerings of David’s day?  How was his “open ear” the answer to David’s (and our) fingers in our ears?
  4. What sacrifice does God accept from us now that we are in Christ?  See Romans 12:1-2.
  5. Praise God today that he could transform our sin into a vow of praise, and our lives into an acceptable living sacrifice!

This was a long one, but well worth the time.  Even if you don’t get to answer every question, I hope you receive much mercy through the words of this psalm.

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