A Biblical Study of Psalm 51
[Note: This is the sermon I prepared for The Donelson Fellowship for January 8, 2017, but Katrina and I are snowbound in the Tennessee mountains, so I’ve re-shaped it into a blog. The freshly-fallen snow is an appropriate image for these thoughts, for Psalm 51:7 says, “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.]
Introduction: I was born into a sheltered environment. My parents shielded me from a lot and were protective. I grew up thinking most people are good, but a few are messed up. We worried about those people and felt sorry for them. As I grew, I began to realize there were more messed up people than I realized. There were a lot of broken people. I also began to realize a large number of these broken people were in the churches I pastored. Then I came to a point of saying, “Oh my goodness! I am one of those messed up people; I am broken to.” Now I’m old enough to realize we are all broken people–every one of us.
There comes a point when we have reset the direction of life. We have to deal with our broken areas and get serious about living as we should. We don’t need to continue as broken as we are. We have to stage a turnaround. That happened to King David in Psalm 51, which is one of the most powerful passages in the Bible to reset your life.
Background from 2 Samuel 11-12: One evening when King David couldn’t sleep, he went to the roof of his palace and looked down over his city. Archaeologists have located the ruins of this ancient palace; and if you visit Jerusalem, you can how this could have happened. The palace was located on a hillside with a view down across the houses. In the moonlight or torchlight, David saw a woman bathing. He lusted, slept with her, got her pregnant, arranged for her husband to be killed in battle, and then covered the whole thing up. Under the intervention of Nathan the prophet, David finally came to a point of brokenness over his sin.
The Bible says, “Be sure your sin will find you out.” I wonder what’s wrong in your life? Are you hiding anything? Are you in a danger zone? When sin breaks out, you must let God break in with His mercy and grace. Psalm 51 is the biblical model for doing that. In this emotional prayer, David repents and asks God for 19 different things. I’m not going to exactly enumerate them, but I do want to go through this passage verse-by-verse and get the gist of it.
This Psalm divides into two parts.
- A cry for mercy – verses 1-9
- A cry for grace – verses 10-19
Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with boldness so that we can obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
- Mercy is when God forgives our sins; Grace is when He infuses us with His resources.
- Mercy is when God withholds from us what we deserve; Grace is when He gives us blessings we don’t deserve.
Whenever we mess up, whenever we relapse, when we fall into sin, whenever we disappoint ourselves and bring hurt to the lives of others, we need two things: God’s mercy and His grace.
1. When We Mess Up We Need Mercy (Psalm 51:1-9)
- Verse 1: Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your unfailing love…. God will never stop loving you; His love is unfailing. It isn’t determined by what we do, and it isn’t diminished by what we do. So we have a basis to say, Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your unfailing love. According to Your great compassion blot out my transgressions. When we mess up, God’s compassion kicks in. When a friend told me the other day he had fallen into sin after having fought it so hard, my heart went out to him. I loved him more than ever. If I felt compassion for him, how much more does God! On the basis of God’s compassion, we can ask Him to blot out our transgressions.
- Verse 2: Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. David repeated his request out of earnestness, desperation, and need.
- Verse 3: For I know my transgressions and my sin is always before me. The Holy Spirit has brought it home to him. This never happened to David’s predecessor, King Saul. When Saul sinned, he denied it and rationalized it and grew harder in his sin. But David had a spot of tenderness in his heart, and he realized he was wrong. He wasn’t going to live in denial. If you have an issue, don’t live in denial. Don’t be defensive. Just be honest and say, “I have a problem and I’m going to confess it honestly and get help.”
- Verse 4: Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight; So You are right in Your verdict and justified when You judge. We could ask, “But didn’t David sin against Bathsheba? Against her husband? Against the nation of Israel? In a sense, of course he did. But whose law did David break? It wasn’t Bathsheba who said on Mount Sinai, “You shall not commit adultery.” It wasn’t Uriah who said, “You shall not murder.” It wasn’t the nation of Israel who said, “You shall not lie or bear false witness.” David had violated the laws of God. He had betrayed the very character of God—which is the essence of sin.
- Verse 5: Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. From the time we are born, we are sick with sin. We have inherited a sinful nature from the bloodstream of Adam and Eve.
- Verse 6: Yet your desired faithfulness even in the womb and taught me wisdom in the secret place. God desires faithfulness and righteousness from the womb, and He becomes our ally in our struggle against sin. Even while we are in the womb, He is somehow working to counteract this sinful nature.
- Verse 7: Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean. Hyssop is a brightly colored shrub in the Middle East. The Old Testament priests would dip its branches into the blood of the sacrifices and sprinkle the blood over sinners as a symbol of God’s cleansing. It spoke of the blood of Jesus Christ, which is the cleansing agent for our souls.
- Verses 7-8: Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; Let the bones You have crushed rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Looking out my window as I write this, I have an illustration of the brilliance of snow. The Lord created newly-fallen snow to give us a visual lesson of His great power to forgive us.
2. As We Recover We Need Grace (Psalm 51:10-19).
- Verse 10: Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. By verse 9, David had spent his emotions as it related to mercy. He didn’t know anything more to say. He had confessed and repented, begging for his sins to be blotted out. Now in verse 10, he begins pleading for grace. This is my favorite verse in the Psalm. It’s not enough to have the blackboard of our heart erased. We want God to write some good things on it. We want the handwriting of God to inscribe the truths of Scripture there. We want Him to help us grow through the experience, to become stronger, to become more steadfast. God not only wants to forgive our sins, He wants to perfect that which concerns us. He who has begun a good work in us wants to carry it on to completion.
- Verse 11: Do not cast me from Your presence or take Your Holy Spirit from me. This was written under the old dispensation when the Holy Spirit came upon certain people at certain times for certain tasks. David was thinking of his predecessor, King Saul. When Saul was anointed king, the Holy Spirit came upon him to empower him in his work. But Saul had become so sinful and corrupt that the Holy Spirit had left him. David feared the same fate, and He was asking for the Holy Spirit to remain on him.
- Verse 12: Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me. David didn’t want to remain sad forever. He wanted to rediscover the joy of worship, the joy of knowing God and walking with Him, the joy of prayer, the joy of going to the Temple, the joy of life. He wanted to get back to the place where he was utterly willing to do whatever God called him to do.
- Verse 13-15: Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, so that sinners will turn back to You. Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, You who are God my Savior and my tongue will sing of Your righteousness. Open my lips Lord, and my mouth will declare Your praise. Here is one of the most remarkable things I know. Somehow in His infinite mercy and grace, God turns our greatest mistakes into our greatest ministries. He turns our sins into sermons. He turns our experiences into testimonies. After we have experienced repentance and restoration, God uses us in powerful ways to help others who are going through the same struggles we faced.
- Verses 16-17: You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it. You do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice O God is a broken spirit; A broken and contrite heart You, God, will not despise. It all depends on our hearts. Is there is a besetting sin in your life you’ve never faced up to? Or you’ve never faced up to it successfully? God can win out in victory when our hearts remain tender to Him. Look at how David ends Psalm 51:
- Verses 18-19: May it please You to prosper Zion, to build up the walls of Jerusalem. Then You will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous, in burnt offerings offered whole; then bulls will be offered in Your altar. Things in your life can become as they should be because of God’s grace and mercy, working in tender and contrite hearts.
Conclusion: We are all broken people. Perhaps you have certain sins weighing you down like sinkers. You’re in denial. You’re putting off dealing with it. But every day that goes by, you are missing the blessings of God. You may need someone else to walk through this with you. You may need counseling. You may need Psalm 51. Most of all, you need the mercy of the first half of this Psalm and the grace of the last half. So do I. We daily need the mercy and the grace of God found in our Lord Jesus Christ. Adopt Psalm 51 as your own prayer today.
Oh, precious is the flow, that makes us white as snow,
No other fount I know, nothing but the blood of Jesus.