I anticipate that Psalm 51 will be the location of an extended stay for me. There is much for me to learn from this great prayer of contrition. Volumes have been written, by far greater minds than mine, on the deep insights to be gleaned from these verses. As always, I appreciate that you’ve landed on my little blog site, but if you must choose between reading my thoughts and reading the Psalm itself, read the Psalm. That being said, what follows are simply my initial thoughts and meditations.
Sin. It is the curse of man’s existence from the moment he is conceived to the moment he takes his last mortal breath. It is the cause of grief, pain, sickness, poverty, despair, and war. It is the inescapable cancer that permeates all of humanity and that portion of God’s creation that man occupies. Sin is the cause for our disconnection from our creator; and, sin is the reason Christ had to die.
Psalm 51 is the classic example of one man’s grief over his own sinfulness. It is, of course, David’s prayer of contrition over his sins of lust, adultery, deceit, and murder (2 Sam. 11:1-12:15). This Psalm teaches us how to approach the throne of grace in our sinfulness. It teaches us how to regard our sin, and the depth of the damage is brings. And, it teaches us how to press on in our sin, and continue the battle against our lusts of the flesh.
There are comparatively few Psalms that contain in the title a description of the event that inspired its writing. Clearly, God wanted us to know the extent of David’s transgressions, and what brought about his repentance. With this in mind, it’s tempting to pacify ourselves in our own sin, telling ourselves that we’re not as bad as David. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it betrays in us a desire to “let ourselves off the hook” regarding our sin. It shows that we don’t fear God as we should; and, we don’t take our sinfulness as seriously as we should. We need to remember that God removed Saul’s spiritual anointing for killing a few cows. Let’s not forget Achan, who for taking a few trinkets brought about the slaughter of his whole family—not to mention the 36 men who perished in the Hebrew’s initial attempt to take the city of Ai. God takes our sin seriously, and so should we.
More than anything else, in Psalm 51, David is expressing in words the agony of a heart broken by the ugliness of his own sin. The final product of the prolific pen of John Bunyan was a little book published after his death called, An Acceptable Sacrifice, The Excellencies of a Broken Heart. In it, Bunyan expounds on Psalm 51:17, focusing on the high regard God has for the heart broken over sin. He tells us,
…that a spirit rightly broken, a heart truly contrite, is to God an excellent thing. That is, a thing that goeth beyond all external duties whatever; for that is intended by this saying, The sacrifices, because it answereth to all sacrifices which we can offer to God; yea it serveth in the room of all: all our sacrifices without this are nothing; this alone is all.
While expressions of brokenness are essential, this is not what we see initially expressed in Psalm 51. David first appeals to God’s love and compassion. He begins with what he knows to be true of God. Does He need to remind God that He is loving? Of course not—he needs to remind himself. He needs to remember that God loves him with an eternal love that transcends his sin. He knows that God’s love and compassion are divine attributes as manifest in God as are His holiness, eternality, and wrath. In fact, as Tozer points out in his classic little book, Knowledge of the Holy, because God is eternal, His love is eternal; as God is infinite, His love is infinite; as He is holy, His love is holy.
God’s love transcends our sin, our folly, and our weakness. His love is an everlasting love (Psalm 103:17). 75 times in the Psalms alone, God’s love is described as being eternal. In his letter to the Romans, Paul reminds them that because we have been brought in to a right relationship with God through Christ, we possess a hope that cannot fail, because of the love of God (Romans 5:1-5). He goes on to remind us that it was His love that sent Christ to the cross, even while we were lost in our sin (Rom. 5:8). Drawing on this truth, John in his first letter, tells us that the love of God should result in expressions of love for each other; and in this, God’s love is perfected in us (1 John 4:10-12).
Thankfully, God’s love is not dependent on our behavior. The gospel itself is the story of God’s infinite love; and, Psalm 51 is a reflection of the good news that God loves us even in our sin.