Psalm 51 — Create in Me a Clean Heart, O Lord
How did David deal with this terrible fall from grace? The ascription to Psalm 51 reads,
“For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.”
This psalm provides some tremendous insights into David’s spiritual recovery from a place of arrogance and callousness towards God’s voice. I encourage you to read the psalm right now, then we’ll look at a few verses in particular.
Pleading for God’s Mercy (Psalm 51:1-2)
“1Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
2Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.” (Psalm 51:1-2)
David begins by calling out for mercy. Why? Because he recognizes that God’s revealed character is one of love and compassion. From the time of Moses, God has revealed himself as “the compassionate and gracious God,” who forgives sin (Exodus 34:6). David calls upon the God based on his known merciful character.
- “Have mercy” (ḥānan) means “be gracious, pity … a heartfelt response by someone who has something to give to one who has a need.”
- “Unfailing love” (NIV), “lovingkindness” (KJV), and “steadfast love” (NRSV) translate the common Hebrew noun ḥesed, which includes the ideas love, faithfulness, good-heartedness, kindness.
- “Compassion” (NIV), “tender mercies” (KJV), and “mercy” (NRSV) represent the Hebrew noun raḥămîm, “tender mercy, compassion, deep love.”
David knows he doesn’t deserve forgiveness, so he calls on God’s character of mercy to remove his sins. He asks for renewal, purity, and pardon.
“… Blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.” (Psalm 51:1b-2)
- “Blot out” (māḥā) means “wipe, wipe out,” here “removing a stain.”
- “Wash away” (NIV, kābas) or “wash thoroughly” (KJV, NRSV) here and in verse 7b means “wash, be washed, perform the work of a fuller,” that is “to make stuffs clean and soft by treading, kneading and beating them in cold water.”
- “Cleanse” (ṭāhēr) means “be pure, be clean.” The word is used of wind sweeping the skies clear and the purifying of silver, of moral purity as well ritual purity.
Confessing and Acknowledging Sin (Psalm 51:3-5)
Notice especially verse 4:
“Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight.”
Does this mean that David’s sins against Bathsheba and her husband Uriah were meaningless, inconsequential? No, not at all. But David recognizes that the greatest sin of all is against the Lord that he purports to love. When he sins, he is flaunting his rebellion in God’s face. Yes, we can sin against people and need to make these sins right (Matthew 5:23). But our sin is even more against our heavenly Father. It is that breach that must be healed at all costs.
Hungering for Fellowship Once More (Psalm 51:6-12)
David has painted his iniquity in clear colors. Now he begins to contrast his own sinfulness with what God desires. He looks within. Sinfulness is not primarily in one’s actions, but in one’s heart.
It is this inner person who must be converted and cleansed and discipled. Our actions (when we are not putting on an act for others) flow from this inner person, from our heart of hearts.
He offers a prayer for deep cleansing:
“Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51:7)
If God cleanses him, if God washes him, then he will be “whiter than snow.”
While he has been separated from God he has withered. Now he longs for the joy of the Lord once again:
“Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.” (Psalm 51:8)
“Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” (Psalm 51:12a)
In verse 12a, the word “restore” (shûb), “turn back, return,” carries the idea of “give back, restore.” David has known the joy of God’s salvation and rescue before. Now he longs for this joy in fellowship to be restored to him once more. It is his earnest prayer.
Have you lost the “joy” of your salvation? Have you become somewhat distant from God? Have you taken God for granted? Or perhaps have you never really gotten to know him. God wants to restore the joy to you that is your birthright as a Christian. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in your life (Galatians 5:22-23). Call out to him in repentance and receive the joy God desires for you.
Q1. (Psalm 51:1-9) It seems that in verses 1-9 David emphasizes God’s mercy, his own sinfulness, and the completeness of God’s hoped for cleansing. Is it healthy to dwell on your own sinfulness? Why or why not? Does a person who has sinned greatly appreciate forgiveness more than one who has not? Why or why not?
The Longing for a Pure Heart (Psalm 51:10, 12)
David also prays for a pure heart and a willing spirit.
“Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)
“and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” (Psalm 51:12b)
But isn’t he asking for too much? David has been a slave to lust, drunk with power, stained by murder. How can he now pray for a pure heart? Isn’t it too late? No. Can we be pure again once we’ve been corrupted? Yes. God spoke to Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15). God is in the heart purification business. The author of Hebrews wrote:
“How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:14)
Do you feel unforgiven? Unforgivable? Jesus died for your sins and he desires to forgive you, no matter what you have done. Pray this prayer with David:
“Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)
Do Not Take Your Holy Spirit from Me (Psalm 51:11)
Now David prays against his great fear:
“Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.” (Psalm 51:11)
David received the Holy Spirit at the same time as Saul lost God’s Spirit. So David is terrified that in his sin this would happen to him as well, that God’s Spirit will desert him. But he repents and trusts God nevertheless.
Q2. (Psalm 51:10-11) In what way can God give us a “pure heart” after great sin? How would you define a pure heart? How does God purify our hearts? How does he purify our minds?
Resolving to Declare God’s Grace (Psalm 51:13-15)
Now David looks forward to the answer to his prayer and how he will serve God.
“13Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will turn back to you.
14Save me from bloodguilt, O God,
the God who saves me,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.” (Psalm 51:13-15)
Offering the Sacrifice of a Contrite Heart (Psalm 51:16-17)
David compares true repentance to ritual sacrifice, but he realizes:
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)
David’s pride has been broken (shābar). His heart is broken and contrite. Until our hearts break with sorrow for our sin, we are not quite ready for forgiveness. So often, we are sad at being caught or exposed, but not sad at hurting the God who loves us or injuring his reputation by our sins (2 Samuel 12:14). Many conversions these days seem to lack the deep repentance that rends the heart (Joel 2:13). Oh, that our sins would break our hearts! The psalm concludes with a prayer for Jerusalem.
Q3. (Psalm 51:16-17) How does one achieve a truly “broken and contrite heart”? What are the earmarks of this condition? How does this differ from “being sorry” for a sin? How does humility relate to this condition?
Psalm 32 — Blessed Is the One Whose Sin Is Forgiven
Another psalm that reflects David’s reflection on the agony of sin, the struggle to confess, and the blessedness of forgiveness is Psalm 32.
David begins his sonnet of guilt and forgiveness with a comment on how fortunate the forgiven person really is:
“1Blessed is he
whose transgressions (pesha’) are forgiven,
whose sins (hattā’t) are covered.
2Blessed is the man
whose sin (‘āwōn) the LORD does not count against him
and in whose spirit is no deceit.” (32:1-2)
David uses several synonyms for sin and guilt in Psalms 32 and 51, each with its own flavor:
- “Transgression” (pesha’) means “rebellion, revolt,” designating those who reject God’s authority.
- “Sin” (hattā’t and hēt’) from the root hātā’that means to miss a mark or miss the way.
- “Iniquity” (‘āwōn), is “infraction, crooked behavior, perversion, iniquity, etc.” from a root that means “to bend, twist, distort.”
- “Deceit” (NIV, NRSV) or “guile” (KJV) is remiyyâ, “deceit, fraud.”[
We sometimes try to rationalize and minimize our “weaknesses” and “mistakes.” But David calls them for what they are — rebellion, revolt, iniquity. David also uses a pair of synonyms for forgiveness in verse 1:
- Forgiven (nāśā’), “lift, carry, take.” Here the emphasis is on “taking away, forgiveness, or pardon of sin, iniquity and transgression.” Sin can be forgiven and forgotten because it is taken up and carried away.
- Covered (kāsā), “cover, conceal, hide.” It is probably the meaning “hide” that leads to the sense “forgive.”
Given how sinful we can sometimes be, David is reflecting upon God’s grace, his willingness to forgive. The Apostle Paul cites these verses as speaking “of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works” (Romans 4:6-8). Is there genuine grace in the Old Testament? Oh, yes!
How miserable we are when we try to wriggle away from our sins and avoid dealing with them:
“3When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4For day and night
your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer. Selah.” (32:3-4)
Why do we do this? The clue is found in verse 2:
“Blessed is the man … in whose spirit is no deceit.” (32:2b)
It is this self-deceit in our inner person that is so self-destructive. We might know deep down that we’ve done something wrong, but at the surface level we rationalize our actions, refusing to admit the depth of our guilt. The result David describes from personal experience in verses 3 and 4 — a physical and emotional drain that takes its toll on the life. The key is to apply truth to the self-deceit. That is what the Word does for us, what pastors and counselors do in public exhortation and private counsel. When we apply lies to mask our sin, the result is ultimately unsatisfying. There is no secular substitute for forgiveness. The inner soul of a human being cries out for relief from guilt at some level.
If this was the incident with Bathsheba and Uriah, then Nathan the prophet was the one God used to pierce David’s wall of self-deceit with the truth (2 Samuel 12:3-15), like you might lance an infected boil. Whatever sin and guilt it was that was causing David inner turmoil, he finally found release through confession.
“Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, ‘I will confess
my transgressions to the LORD’–
and you forgave
the guilt of my sin. Selah.” (32:5)
David uses three synonyms for confession:
- “Acknowledge” is yāda’, “notice, observe.” In the Hiphil stem this word has the causative connotation, “let someone know something, inform, announce, make known.”
- “Not cover up,” that is, not to pretend it didn’t happen or wasn’t important.
- “Confess” is yādā, “to acknowledge or confess sin.” We’ve seen this verb often in our studies of praise psalms, since it is translated “praise, give thanks, thank,” in the sense of to acknowledge or confess God’s character and works.
In a reaction to the Catholic practice of confession and absolution, many Protestants have let the pendulum swing far in the other direction, imagining that they have no need of confession or a confessor. Yes, we can and should confess our sins to God. But confessing our sins to a godly Christian leader can also help bring healing to the soul:
“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16)
Q4. (Psalm 32:2-5) How does self-deceit operate with sin to enslave us? How does confession enable us to get free from sin? Why do we sometimes resist the truth about ourselves? What does it take to get us to see truth sometimes?
Now that sin is confessed and dealt with, the tenor of the psalm turns to an acknowledgement of God as Savior and Protector:
“Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you
while you may be found.” (32:6a)
David urges praying to the Lord “while you may be found,” implying that there are definite times when God is near and accessible to us, and times when because of our sin or hardness we just are unable or unwilling to come to him. We must take advantage of the opportunity to draw close to him. A few centuries later, Isaiah wrote:
“Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake his way
and the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” (Isaiah 55:6-7)
When we do make peace with God, then we have his promise of protection:
“6bSurely when the mighty waters rise,
they will not reach him.
7You are my hiding place;
you will protect me from trouble
and surround me with songs of deliverance. Selah. ” (Psalm 32:6b-7)
I’ve heard skeptics disparage the concept of God as a Protector as a crutch for the weak. But this comes from an arrogance that has never faced the “mighty waters” of life, the overwhelming enemies. In chapter 6 we examined psalms of protection, especially Psalm 91:1 that addresses, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High.” Here “shelter, secret place” (sēter) is the same word as “hiding place” in 32:7, from sātar, “hide, conceal,” with the idea of protection.
The shouts or “songs of deliverance” in verse 7 that surround us are what you would expect in the camp of the victorious army, not in a fear-filled hovel. God both protects us and encourages our faith.
We have heard the psalmist’s voice. But now God speaks through David a promise and an admonition:
“8I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you and watch over you.
9Do not be like the horse or the mule,
which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
or they will not come to you.
10Many are the woes of the wicked,
but the LORD’s unfailing love
surrounds the man who trusts in him.” (32:8-10)
Once the Lord has cleansed us from guilt and sin, and brought us into his protective care, he wants to teach us and instruct us. He uses the metaphor of a stubborn horse or mule that will only come to their master when forced to by a bit and bridle. Don’t be like that, the Lord says, let me teach you. Let my “unfailing love” (ḥesed) surround you. Don’t resist me. Sin causes us to run away from God, to “kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). Relax, let your rebellion and sin go, and hear his words of instruction in a safe place.
Copyright Ralph F. Wilson <pastorjoyfulheart.com>. All rights reserved. Used by permission.