If you would take a copy of God’s Word in your hands, you’ll find them in the pew racks in front of you if you don’t have your own Bible with you, and open it to the book of Psalms, Psalm 51 on page 474 in the church Bibles. Tonight and next week we’ll be considering the message of this psalm together and I want you to notice before we go ahead and pray and read, notice the superscription that provides the historical setting for the message of the psalm. It is, “A psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” In 2 Samuel chapter 11, you can read the narrative of David’s affair with Bathsheba, Uriah the Hittite’s wife. Bathsheba became pregnant by David and for his part David conspired to have Uriah murdered on the battlefield. 2 Samuel chapter 12 relates the moment when Nathan the prophet confronted David over his sin with a prophetic oracle. His sin was exposed; he was cut to the heart with profound conviction of sin. And Psalm 51 is the outpouring of David’s heart before God as he seeks to be cleansed for his wickedness. As Michael Wilcox, one of the commentators on the passage puts it, “No Bible story describes the heart’s convicting quite like 2 Samuel 12. No Bible prayer expresses the lips confessing quite like Psalm 51.” So here in Psalm 51 we witness firsthand, as it were, the grief-ridden prayers of King David as he cries out to God in repentance. We’re taken into David’s heart, made to see and hear what repentance looks like from the inside. We’re being taught here how to repent for ourselves from a master at repentance.
When Jesus came into Galilee preaching the kingdom of God, you recall the content of his message. He said, “The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel.” In Acts chapter 2 on the day of Pentecost when Peter preached his great sermon and well over three thousand people are cut to the heart and they cry out, “What must we do?” you remember what he told them? “Repent and be baptized.” In 2 Corinthians 7 and verse 10, the apostle Paul says there is a godly sorrow that produces repentance and leads to salvation. The point is this - repentance is not for other people; repentance is for you and for me. It is vital and fundamental. There is no Christianity without repentance, which means that the message of Psalm 51 could not be more important.
There are different ways that we could divide the psalm. For our purposes notice that it falls into two simple divisions. Verses 1 to 9, our subject or our passage tonight - a cry for pardon. And then in 10 to 19, God willing next Lord’s Day evening - a cry for purity. In verses 1 to 9 he’s confessing his sin and seeking for forgiveness - a cry for pardon. And in 10 to 19 he’s praying for renewal and change and inner transformation. It is a cry for purity. Before we read the psalm together then with all of that in mind, would you bow your heads with me as we pray?
Our Father, we praise You for Your holy and inerrant Word. We pray that You would work by it as we consider it together tonight, that we would see our own heart’s need for Christ and You would help us to find lip and language for our own longing for mercy and for grace and cleansing. We pray for the conviction of sin in the hearts of rebels. We pray that You would work by Your Word to arrest the backslider in their flight from You and You would move them to repentance. Like prodigals, help all of us as we hear Your Word preached to return to Abba Father and to receive His mercy. Would You do this please in the reading and preaching of Your Word, for Jesus’ sake? Amen.
Psalm 51 from the first verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.”
Amen, and thanks be to God for His holy and inerrant Word.
A Path Back to the Father
One of Rembrandt’s greatest paintings is called “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” It depicts, of course, Jesus’ famous parable in which the son who had spent his inheritance on wild living returns, kneeling before his father. He has, in the painting he has only one shoe, his bleached clothes are tattered and worn. He is filthy. His father and brother, by contrast, standing over him are dressed in finery. It’s clear that the man on his knees is a wretched specimen of human degradation and loss with nothing at least, to appearances, with nothing in common with the resplendent figures around him. And yet Rembrandt, following Jesus’ parable, pictures the Father nevertheless bending over his son, heedless of the filth, unconcerned about the difference in their stations, holding his son close. The son’s eyes are closed as he nestles his head on his father’s breast. It’s an amazing painting, but more than that it is a powerful depiction of repentance. The wayward son has come home. He’s on his knees and is embraced in love.
The opening nine verses of Psalm 51 help us to see how to do that for ourselves. Here’s the road home. If you’ve wandered away, here’s the path into the Father’s embrace. For prodigal sons and daughters, Psalm 51 marks the path for us clearly. And it does it, I want you to see, in three steps. First in verses 1 and 2 I want you to see the argument David offers. Then in 3 to 6 the heart of this opening section of the psalm - the acknowledgement that David makes. And then finally 7 to 9 - the atonement David trusts. The argument that he offers, the acknowledgement that he makes, and the atonement that he trusts.
I. The Argument David Offers
Verses 1 and 2 first of all - the argument David makes. Notice he is crying to God for mercy. Twice we’re told that’s what he wants. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” Mercy is the object of his request. There’s no attempt to mitigate his offense. He does not offer self defense. He doesn’t say, “I was a victim of forces beyond my control. There are extenuating circumstances that should weigh in my favor.” He doesn’t try to minimize his sin. He’s not acting here like a defense lawyer. No, he’s acting like a condemned man pleading for clemency. It’s not justice that he asks for; it’s mercy. When you approach God, you must not come seeking for quid pro quo. You mustn’t come looking to be treated as you deserve, feeling entitled. Do not look to God to love you or accept you for your goodness or your religious diligence. Don’t think somehow to offset your sin by your philanthropy. No, you must come to God like the prodigal son, like David, and throw yourself entirely on mercy or you can’t come to God at all. Don’t presume upon Him as though He had to show you mercy. He’s entirely free to treat you as your sins deserve. He’s under no compulsion to have mercy. Romans 9:15 - “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” Never assume that God is required to do anything in your case other than deal with you according to the strict and exacting demands of His perfect justice and condemn you to hell forever for your sin and rebellion. You must come to God with no hope at all - not in yourself, not in your environment, not in your relationships, not in your church, not in your own moral effort. No hope at all except in His mercy alone. That is David’s stance here, do you see it? The beginning of Psalm 51 - no hope save in His sovereign mercy. It must be our stance too. “Have mercy, O Lord.”
But did you see that while he throws all his weight behind this plea for mercy, he does still nevertheless make an argument. You see that there in verse 1? He bolsters his plea with reasons. Verse 1, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” How can I, a guilty sinner, press my claim for mercy before the tribunal of heaven when everything in me condemns me completely? There are no mitigating circumstances. There are no excuses. All the evidence convicts me, and yet David says, “There is an argument I can make before God. I can’t argue from the facts of my own case. They roundly condemn me. But I can argue from the character of God.” Here’s the only hope we have. Here’s the only comfort open to us as we come on our knees, returning prodigals, filthy and wretched in our sin before the Father. Here is it. This must be our prayer. “You, O Lord, are a God of steadfast love and abundant mercy. That is Your character. That is how You love to act in relation to everyone who comes to You truly in repentance. This is what You are like. You are ‘The LORD, the LORD, merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.’ Upon Your nature and Your character and Your attributes I rest the entire weight of my hope before You. I have none in myself. No hope in my circumstances. My only hope is this - You are a God of mercy and mercy is what I need.” Do you pray like that? Press God for His mercy and plead His character as a God who delights to give mercy. Go to God for pardon and take arguments with you. The argument that David offers.
II. The Acknowledgment David Makes
Then secondly there’s the acknowledgement that David makes. Look at verses 3 to 6. Here’s the very heart and essence of true repentance. David faces the contours and the dimensions of his sin unflinchingly here. He owns his sin as it really is. “My sin is ever before me,” he says in verse 3. He doesn’t need to have his sin explained to him. His conscience is stinging. He feels sin’s bite and burn. He can run from it. He can attempt to drown it’s confusing, condemning voice, but when the fog clears and the party stops and the socializing ends and all the distractions of entertainment and pleasure are put aside a t last, still the open wound throbs in his conscience, “My sin is ever before me.” He owns his sin.
This is the first and the most basic step if ever we are to repent and deal with our sin and be reconciled to God. This is step one. We will never come seeking pardon if we will not own our sin as sin. Jesus said, you remember from last week, “The healthy have no need of a physician but only the sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.” Your conscience must be awoken. The Spirit of Christ must convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment. The law of God must wake you up to the knowledge of your sin. You must feel your need of a Savior or you’ll never seek to be saved. So let me plead with you if, this evening, you feel sin’s bite and sting in your own conscience. Do not run from it. Do not attempt to silence it with religion or drown it with pleasure. Face it and own it and let it drive you to Christ for mercy. Confess it before Him. Say with David, “My sin is ever before me.” Cry out with the lepers and the lame who saw Jesus coming toward them. You remember what they said? “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Sin is Transgression
But David doesn’t stop there, does he, with a general acknowledgment of his sin. He gets specific. You see that in the passage? Three aspects in particular of his sin that David affirms in verses 3 to 6. First of all in verse 3 he understands sin as transgression. The word means “to stray across the boundary; it is to invade forbidden territory.” He has crossed the line, as we would say. In 1939, Britain signed what is called the Anglo-Polish Military Alliance, promising Poland its aide in an event of an invasion. And so when, on September 1, Hitler invaded Poland, war with Great Britain and the British Empire was guaranteed. God has established His moral law. Any breach of His law, any crossing of His border, any invasion of that forbidden territory will initiate hostilities and that is David’s condition. He is at war, at enmity with God. He has transgressed the law of God. He has crossed the line. Sin, for him, is not a matter of letting himself down or a failing to meet some personal standard. Neither is it a breach of social convention or cultural expectation. Sin is any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God. If your prayers for mercy are motivated only by your embarrassment or your frustration at having failed yourself, if your guilt is a result only of the shame that other people have heaped upon you, you have not yet begun to repent. You must come to God seeing sin as it really is. You have transgressed His law, broken His commandments. By this standard your actions are to be measured and by this standard every single one of us stands in need of mercy.
Sin is Against God
Secondly, flowing and flowing directly from that point, notice that David here acknowledges that sin is sin because it is essentially God-ward in its orientation. Verse 4, “Against you, you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight so you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.” It’s not that David is minimizing for a minute the sin he has committed against Bathsheba or Uriah her husband. He has sinned against them. But it is, rather, that David knows even his adultery and his murder take on the character of sin not simply because of their horizontal dimension - the wound they have incurred in human relationships. They are sinful because they offend against the character of the infinitely holy God. All sin, whether it’s an offense against a neighbor or a failure of spiritual obligations toward God is sin because God is good and we are not. God is holy and we are not. And so David says here, “Against you, you only have I sinned.”
That’s what Greg was teaching the children in the children’s catechism earlier, that sin, by its nature and repentance therefore necessarily must acknowledge that our sins anger God. They are sin because of their God-ward orientation. And so David can say, “Against you, you only have I sinned.” He justifies God in condemning his sin. “You are justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.” He agrees with God in His verdict against him. He fully accepts the justice of his condemnation. Some of us repent, let’s be honest now, some of us repent because we get caught. Remorse overtakes us; we swear we’ll never do it again. There are tears. There are even cries to God perhaps in the hope that we might not be made to face the consequences. But repentance like that isn’t repentance at all. Until you come to see sin as sin, to see it as an offense against God, until sin grieves you - even if there was no hell to shun and heaven to gain but simply because it grieves God - until then you have not repented.
Sin’s Source: Our Nature
And then thirdly, David confesses sin’s source. It springs, do you see, not from faulty behavior nor cultural pressure, but verse 5, from his own depraved nature. “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me.” We are sinners from birth. We are sinners in Adam. Not just inclined to commit sins but guilty with the guilt of our first father’s sin. The covenant being made with Adam not only for himself but for his posterity, all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him and fell with him in his first transgression. When we are born, we are guilty. We are brought forth in iniquity, conceived in sin. David’s point is that we need saving because of who we are, not just because of what we do. His point is that there was no time in our lives when that wasn’t true of us, when we didn’t stand in desperate, urgent need of Jesus. There are no human beings - not infants, not teenagers, not adults - who are free of sin’s presence, pollution, and power. We sin, as the saying goes, because we are sinners. We are not sinners simply because we commit sins.
And so the rescue that we need, do you see, the rescue that we need is not superficial. It’s not a cleaning up of our act, mere moral reformation, a turning over of a new leaf. That’s not repentance. We don’t need Jesus’ forgiveness to help us deal with our guilty feelings merely. We need Him to deal with the actual guilt that is ours before the tribunal of heaven that attaches not just to our misdeeds but to our very selves, to our nature. God must save you through and through, inside out. It’s a new nature that we need. No wonder David cries for mercy. So there’s the argument that David offers and the acknowledgment that David makes. You see how clear he is, how unflinching, how relentless he is in facing himself and all the ugly, perverted, twisted dimensions of his heart’s sin. He’s crying for mercy. Where can it be found? What possible hope does he have, do any of us have that there might be mercy for wretched rebels like me, like you, like David?
III. The Atonement David Trusts
Look at verses 7 to 9 lastly. The argument he offers, the acknowledgment he makes, finally the atonement he trusts. “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean. Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have broken rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities.” He wants his joy back. “Let me hear joy and gladness,” he prays. He wants God to hide His face from his sin. And where will it come from? It must come as a result of atoning blood. “Without the shedding of blood,” Hebrews 9:22, “there is no forgiveness.” And so David remembers the sacrifices of atonement in the Law of Moses. That’s what verse 7 is really about. “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” Hyssop was a plant that would be bundled and made into sort of a brush used to sprinkle the blood of the sacrificial animal on the people or the things to be consecrated and ritually cleansed according to the Law of Moses. It was a hyssop brush that the Israelites used to daub the blood on their doorposts and lintels when the angel of death passed through Egypt in Exodus chapter 12. Later on the priests would use it to cleanse those who had been healed of an infectious disease - Leviticus 14. David’s point is this - “Because of the blood of the sacrificial victim, O God, make me clean.”
Dear friends, God does not simply excuse sin. David isn’t praying to be let off the hook. He’s not asking God to make an exception just this one time. He’s asking God to forgive him because a substitute victim has already paid for his sin. This is what we must do. We must found our expectations for mercy on the atoning blood of the Lamb, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We must look to the one that is symbolically represented in the sacrifices of the Mosaic system to which David here points. We must look to Jesus Christ. We must go to the cross. Repentance is incomplete till it bends its knees in the dust at the foot of the cross and cries, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling. Foul I to the fountain fly. Cleanse me, Savior, or I die.” That’s it. That’s our only plea. Jesus died that I might live. Purge me and cleanse me with my Savior’s blood and I will be clean. Wash me in the only fountain opened for sin and uncleanness at Calvary and I will be whiter than snow.
Have you repented? Do you repent? Do you press God to do what His character loves to do - to show you mercy? Do you face yourself, your sin, truly and agree with God about its depravity and its worthiness of condemnation? And seeing your need, do you come broken hearted to the cross, the only place where the stain can be washed away? No other solvent can do the job but the blood of Jesus. Have you gone to the cross so that you can say with Wesley at last, “His blood can make the foulest clean, His blood availed for me, for me!” Turning from it, broken over it, fleeing to Christ - there my God showed me mercy and made me clean. May the Lord be gracious to you that that may indeed be your confession to the praise of His glorious grace. Let us pray together.
Our Father, the truth is there is not one of us, not me, not any of us, who does not now stand in need of mercy and of the cleansing blood of Christ. Our finest works, were they alone to be the basis of our hope and confidence before heaven’s tribunal, would condemn us forever. And so indeed now nothing in our hands we bring; simply to Your cross, Lord Jesus, do we cling. Foul we to the fountain fly crying, “Wash us, Savior, or we die!” Have mercy and blot out our iniquities. In our Savior’s name we pray, amen.
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