Again, as the title implies, we need to read Psalm 51 within the context of the account recorded in 2 Samuel 11-12. David engages in an adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, who becomes pregnant. He then seeks to cover up his sin by bringing her husband, Uriah, home from battle to lie his wife and take responsibility for the child. When this fails, he has Uriah placed in the battle lines where he will certainly be killed. He is then free to take the woman as his wife. Here we see, for the first time, David’s actions described as being “evil” in God’s sight.
Upon being confronted by Nathan, the prophet, David faces his sin with the words, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan then tells him that God has “put away” his sin, and it will not cost him his life. However, it will cost him the life of the baby born out this sinful union. In addition, David will be living with the consequences of his sin for the remainder of his earthly life.
Psalm 51 expresses poetically the deep, consuming agony contained in the simple sentence, “I have sinned against the Lord.” In the first two verses of this song, David pleads for God to “blot out” his transgression, “wash” him thoroughly, and “cleanse” him from his sin. It is inadequate to simply say that David seeks forgiveness from his sin. Clearly, David is drowning in a sea of guilt and shame. To be forgiven means that God is no longer holding our sin against us. Nathan told David immediately that he was forgiven, but yet David makes these pleas. Clearly, Psalm 51 is about more than just forgiveness.
Verse 3 gives us some insight into what is motivating David’s pleas. He says, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” Knowing that God had forgiven him did not remove the anguish over what he had done. The word “ever” is translated elsewhere as continually, perpetually, always, and regularly. David is expressing that he is unable to rid himself of the nagging, unending pain over what he had done. Perhaps the most telling phrase is verse 8:“Make me hear joy and gladness, Let the bones that you have broken rejoice.”
He’s not asking that God mend his broken bones. They are a consequence of his sin, and God is justified in breaking them (Psalm 51:4). He just wants to experience joy again. He just wants his broken bones to rejoice.
It’s important for me to understand that cleansing and purifying are works that God must do. I am completely unable to wash myself of my sin. The only thing I’m able to do, and far too effectively, is hide from my sin. I can act as though all is good in the world, and I’m good in it, but it’s just an act. The agony of my sin continues to gnaw at me even though I know that, in Christ, I am forgiven. I understand that the price of my sin was fully and completely paid on the cross, but the agony of my sin still haunts me. In order to hear joy and gladness again, I need God to “create in me a clean heart,” (Psalm 51:10). I need God to “renew a steadfast spirit within me.”
I also need to understand that the memory of my sin serves God’s purpose for me. It keeps me humble by reminding me of who I am in the flesh, and what I’m capable of. It teaches me the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice, and the extent of His love. It also reminds to look forward, with anticipation, to the day that I will be “free from the body of this death,” (Romans 7:24). One day soon, the continuous cycle of sin will be no more. The battle will be forever behind us, and we will fully know the joy of our salvation.My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought, My sin, not in part, but the whole Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more. Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, Oh my soul! -Horatio Spafford, 1873