Psalm 51 Application: Where “Sorry” Meets Gospel

Sin. Confess. Be forgiven. Repeat.


Are you like me in processing this psalm?

David’s sin is big.  It’s scandalous, the stuff of headlines and lawsuits, impeachment and suicides.  But no matter how scandalous it is, at least it was a one time affair (literally).  Once repented of, it wasn’t repeated, at least not according to the biography we have of David’s life.

My sins, however, at least the ones I really struggle with, may not be so spectacular, but they are recurring.  They fall into the category of “besetting” sins rather than “scandalous” ones.  With every confession and plea for cleansing, there’s a niggling sense of “how long til the next tearful confession?”  That’s what discourages me about my ongoing battle with sin that remains.  Can you relate?

Psalm 51 is not just full of confession, it is dripping with gospel.  There are multiple layers of good news here, so let’s dip our bucket into the well.

Mercy For Sins

In the opening verse David pleads for mercy from the God who has “abundant mercy.”  He knows God so well that he dares to ask for mercy in the face of his passionate, premeditated, violent, self-indulgent, self-protecting sin.  And that’s exactly the way to pray the character of God.

My commentary told me even more about his opening prayer.  There is a difference between the two terms for “mercy.”  The first, “Have mercy on me, O God,” is similar to asking for a favor, a big favor.  It means undeserved help.  David is asking for the opposite of what he deserves.  He deserves swift punishment, but he asks for forgiveness.  By crying for mercy from God, he anticipates the grace purchased for us at the cross of Christ.

The second word for mercy, “according to your abundant mercy,” is different.  It means “pity” or “compassion.”  David appeals to God’s tenderness for him.  He knows that God is not just full of favor to those who don’t deserve it, he is full of compassion for every creature he has made.  Characterizing God as full of pity anticipates the life of Jesus, too.  Remember when he forgave the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-12)?  Though she was guilty, he not only forgave her, but treated her gently, kindly.

The Savior not only paid for her sin, he covered her shame.

This gives me hope when I confess sin…again.  God is not keeping count.  He knows my besetting weaknesses, the sin that follows, the shame that returns.  I come to a God of grace who has pity on me.  I see both types of mercy most clearly in the life and death of my Savior.

Hope For Sinners

I get really tired of my sin struggles.  I don’t just want God to forgive individual occasions of sin, I want him to change my very desires.  I hate the bent of my sin nature, that warps good desires into cravings and elevates good gifts into idols.  I want nothing more than systemic change from the inside out.  I want the DNA of every cell to be transformed.

This, too, is David’s prayer in verses 10-12.  He asks for God to “create in him a clean heart.”  The word “create” is the same one used in Genesis 1 for the first creation (another insight from Dr. Waltke).  David is asking for nothing short of a new creation.  This anticipates the resurrection of Christ, whose rising signaled the beginning of the new creation.  This gives me hope that the systemic change I long for has indeed begun, not just out there, but in my life.  It is still future hope, because the full change has not yet happened, but it is real hope.

Building The Kingdom

What if Psalm 51 had ended with verse 12?  It would have addressed both David’s sin and his bent toward sin.  It would have gone past forgiveness to the restoration of God’s presence and fullness of joy.  Isn’t that a complete answer to David’s predicament?  Apparently not.

Psalm 51 goes past forgiveness, even past restoration to show the community wide impact of repentance in one believer’s life.  So much good can come even from our worst moments.

I have experienced this, too.  Have you?  My own struggles with repeated temptation and sin gives me compassion for others who struggle.  I turn from despising them or judging them to praying for them.  I grow in understanding God’s ways, both in more wisely avoiding temptation and in marveling at how vast and deep his mercy is.  I can offer both wise counsel and gracious comfort to fellow sinners.  And I grow in bold praise.  Nothing opens my mouth to praise him more than being forgiven, again.  Worship becomes the basis of my witness.

If you’ve ever felt like you have to get your spiritual act together before you can be a good witness, then let Psalm 51 turn your world upside down.  It is through my sin that the Savior is best seen.  Angels can’t preach the gospel, only forgiven sinners can.  As Dr. Waltke writes:

Viewing the psalm holistically, however, one can say that its message to the people of God is that the walls of Zion, (a synecdoche and symbol of the kingdom of God) can only be built by penitent sinners.

That’s the gospel trump card over the worst sin can deal to us.

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