READ : Psalm 51:1-19
All of us struggle with our sins and faults. The question is – what to do about them?
Psalm 51 is the greatest of the penitential Psalms, songs which were written to express before God a sense of sin and personal guilt. “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions” (v. 1, kjv). This first verse of Psalm 51 is a reminder that the people of God, while they are saints, never stop being sinners as well. We need and must use songs of repentance, among all the rest of our songs.
“YOU ARE THE MAN”
The throne-room of the king’s palace in Jerusalem was filled with the low hum of background noise: odd snatches of conversation, soldiers milling about awaiting orders, now and then a burst of laughter, the never-ending cries of citizens pleading for justice or a favor. Suddenly the great room grew hushed as a commanding figure appeared in the doorway and strode purposefully towards the throne. King David looked up and recognized his old friend Nathan, the prophet of the Lord. But Nathan hadn’t come to pay a social call. He immediately began to tell a story about a rich man who one evening received a visitor at his home. The eastern code of hospitality required that the host provide a feast for his guest. That wasn’t a problem for the rich man; he had huge flocks and herds, and ample resources. But this rich man was greedy and hard-hearted. Instead of using one of his own animals for the feast, he seized and slaughtered the lamb of his neighbor – that poor man’s only possession.
David got caught up in the story, never dreaming it was a parable about his own life. The events that Nathan’s story really referred to – David’s sinful crimes involving Bathsheba and her husband Uriah, when David stole his neighbor’s beautiful wife and then had him killed – had taken place long ago, a year at least. David, busy with the affairs of his kingdom, secure in his unchallenged power, had probably forgotten about them. Or, at least, he acted as if he had forgotten. And if anyone else remembered, they weren’t about to bring it up to the king. So as Nathan spun out his tale about an arrogant and powerful man who took advantage of his poor neighbor, David became indignant. The king got angrier and angrier, until at the story’s climax he cried out, “This man deserves to die!” For a moment there was silence as Nathan drew himself up to his full height, looked King David in the eye, and replied, “You are the man” (2 Sam. 12:7).
In an instant, it all came home to David: his sin, the enormity of what he had done, the terrible guilt he had incurred. Of all the beautiful words that David spoke or sang or wrote during the course of his long life, I don’t think any were greater than the first three words that came out of his mouth following Nathan’s stunning accusation: “I have sinned,” (2 Sam. 12:13). David’s frank statement there, and its expanded version in the 51st Psalm, offers a perfect model of how we should respond when God’s word convicts us of our own sins.
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU HAVE SINNED
Here are four things to do when you realize that you have sinned:
- Acknowledge your sin. It took great courage for Nathan to say what he said to David. It took even greater grace for David to admit what he did to Nathan – and to God. David instantly acknowledged the truth: “I have sinned.” “I know about my sins,” he wrote later in Psalm 51:3, “and I cannot forget my terrible guilt” (cev). Once, David had covered his sin up and thought it could successfully be hidden. But now it was always on his mind; it was never far from his conscious thought. No more cover-ups, no more hypocrisy, no more posing as the great holy king, the revered Psalm-writer. David freely admitted what he had done, what he was.
Think how he might have reacted to Nathan’s accusation. He could have denied everything, or blustered, or offered shabby excuses for himself, the way modern politicians do. (“It wasn’t adultery and murder; I was just trying to comfort Bathsheba in her loneliness, and she took advantage of me.” “I’m not responsible for what I did. I was born with a weakness for beautiful women.”) Or, David could just have had Nathan executed as a nuisance. After all, he was an absolute ruler, and people didn’t usually talk that way to kings in the ancient world – or if they did, they had a habit of winding up dead. But not with this king. David was great enough to accept the painful truth. He acknowledged his sin. He affirmed the justice of the charge against him.
- Confess your sin. After admitting that he had sinned, David immediately went on to confess his sin verbally, in prayer to God. “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge” (v. 4, niv). No euphemisms here, no verbal dancing around the ugly truth. David didn’t talk about “making a mistake in judgment,” or slipping just this one time. He didn’t go on about how unhappy his other marriages had been, or how he had really found love for the first time. He didn’t bring up all the hardships he had experienced in his life. He didn’t claim that his appetite for women was a result of having been denied love in his childhood. No. David just confessed his sin. He named specifically what he had done. He called his sin what it was. He acknowledged whom he had offended. “You are really the one I have sinned against,” David said to God. “I have disobeyed you and have done wrong” (v. 4, cev).
Not that David’s sin didn’t also affect others – it did, obviously. But all sin is primarily, fundamentally, an offense against God. When we confess our sins, we accept responsibility for them, calling them what they are, refusing to manufacture excuses for ourselves. Above all, we recognize how our sins offend God and disrupt our relationship with him.
- Ask forgiveness for your sin. “Have mercy on me, O God,” David cried (v. 1, niv). “Please wipe away my sins. Wash me clean from all of my sin and guilt” (vv. 1,2, cev). To ask for forgiveness is to ask for that which we can never deserve. Therefore our appeal can only be to God’s mercy. There is no reason why God should forgive us, other than that he is gracious and compassionate. He takes pity on us when we are helpless to help ourselves. John Newton, the former slave ship captain and later pastor, wrote the famous hymn “Amazing Grace.” When he was 82 years old, Newton said this: “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.” It’s good for us never to forget either one of those two truths.
- Turn from your sin to a new life. Verbal repentance is just a start, but true repentance involves more than just words. Words and tears are fine, as far as they go. But by themselves they are not enough. We must also turn decisively away from our sinful behavior. “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” prayed David, “and put a new and right spirit within me” (v. 10). The process of repentance isn’t complete unless we leave our sins, forsaking them for renewed fellowship with God. Because we could never do that in our own strength, we too must cry out to God for his Spirit to help us, to give us a new, fresh, clean start in a new life.
The good news is that when David repented, God forgave him. David was able to testify to the gracious mercy of the forgiving Lord. He speaks from experience in asserting that God does not despise a broken spirit and a contrite heart (v. 17). David keeps his vow to teach transgressors the Lord’s ways so that other sinners will also turn back to him (v. 13) and he does this in no small measure by writing this very Psalm. But God did not forgive David because David repented. Forgiveness still isn’t something we earn from God, even by taking the proper steps of repentance: acknowledging, confessing, asking pardon and turning away from our sin. Forgiveness is always the gift of a gracious God. Repentance is the way we receive that gift. You can no more receive the gift of forgiveness without repenting than you can receive a gift of money without opening your hand to take it.
David knew God was gracious and forgiving, but he didn’t understand how he could be. “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow,” he cried (v. 7, niv). That image which David uses for forgiveness is taken from the Old Testament Law’s prescription for cleansing from leprosy (see Lev. 14:1-7). The hideous and incurable (at least in ancient times) disease of leprosy is a symbol for the pollution of sin. But just as the Lord Jesus could heal lepers, so he can cleanse and forgive our sins as well.
I recall reading somewhere, some time about a 19th Century expedition searching for the Northwest Passage above Canada from the Atlantic into the Pacific. The explorers’ ship became ice-bound in the Arctic Ocean, and they were stuck fast near a barren island for months. When one of the crew fell ill and died, a grave was somehow carved out of the ice and snow, and the man was buried in the middle of that frozen arctic desolation. For miles around, as far as the eye could see in any direction, there was nothing but white emptiness. His comrades took a piece of wood from the ship to mark the grave, and on it they wrote this text from Psalm 51: “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”
Jesus Christ can do that for you by his great and precious grace. What David could not have known was that it is the blood of Christ which makes this wonderful cleansing from sin possible. When we confess our sins to God, we can also ask him to forgive us because Jesus died on our behalf. If you know and understand that, it should make you all the more ready to repent, and then all the more eager to tell others of God’s amazing grace. Have you confessed your sins and asked God to forgive them for Jesus’ sake? Why would you want to hang on to them or keep hiding them, when you can be made clean, whiter than snow?