2 Things you must know about Psalm 51

  • It applies to me. It applies to all of us.

I am so thankful with God for giving me a husband that is a pastor, a preacher of the Word of God. Why? First of all, because I can learn so many things from him, from the sermons that He is preaching on Sunday.

Ultimately, I can learn the truth from God’s Word. And second, in order for him to write a sermon, he is praying, reading and intensively studying the Word of God. And everything that He experience with God, he is sharing with me.

In the same way (if it didn’t happen for you to be present when he preached the sermon that I am going to talk about next, hehe), I would like to share it with you. Or at least, what God has taught me by listening and reading one of his sermons.

Ok, so let’s go back to what I was saying by the fact that Psalm 51 is relevant for us today, even if it was written centuries ago. I will start to show you this by looking at 2 aspects:

by the location of this Psalm in the whole collection of the book of Psalms.

by the situation of the Psalm.

 

The location

The book of Psalms is divided in 5 books:

Book 1 – Psalms 1-41;

Book 2 – Psalms 42-72;

Book 3 – Psalms 73-89;

Book 4 – Psalms 90-106;

Book 5 – Psalms 107-150.

Psalm 51 is found in Book 2 of the 5 Book-division in the book of Psalms. In this section, the number of psalms of lament is predominant. Psalms 51 to 66 are all psalms of David. Van Geremen traced the common theme of the experience of evil in the Davidic psalms 51 to 64.

In psalms 52 to 64 David laments the evil that came from his situation, mainly from his enemies. You can read the superscription at the top of each of these psalms (i.e. 56, 54, 52). David was a man that had many enemies. Some of his enemies were from other nations, others were from within his own nation like king Saul; others were from his own family like his son Absalom. When we come to Psalm 51, the enemy is even closer.

The enemy of Psalm 51 is David’s own sin and the guilt that comes with it. It is his own sin that David is lamenting in this psalm. This is the first way in which we can see that the Psalm applies to us. You may have enemies or you may be going through a bad situation right now; but we all find ourselves constantly trying to get rid of the weight of sin and guilt in our lives. I am pretty sure that you don’t need a big amount of time to think of how often you sinned this past week, for example.

The situation

The situation is found in the superscription “When Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” This event is found in 2 Samuel 11-12. In chapter 11 we have the account of David’s sin. He failed to be a good leader for God’s people because he remained in Jerusalem while everyone else went to the battle against the Ammonites.

Then, he saw from the roof of his house a woman bathing. He desired her, and he sent messengers to take her, knowing that she was the wife of Uriah, one of his most faithful warriors. He got her pregnant, and then he planned the death of her husband in order to get away with his sin.

The sin of David, like any other sin, displeased the Lord. After the baby was born, the Lord sent Nathan to confront David for his sin. Nathan began telling David a story of a rich man who had very many flocks and herds; but when a traveler came to him, instead of taking one of his lambs, the rich man took the only lamb of a poor man that lived in the same city and prepared it for the man who had come to him. “Then David’s anger greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’ Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man!’” (2 Samuel 12:5-7).

What a dangerous thing it is to sit under the preaching of the Word or the study of the Scriptures and not being convicted of our sin. It is a dangerous thing to be in church and feel comfortable when we have unconfessed sin in our hearts. It is dangerous when we first start thinking about other sinners when we listen to a sermon or study the Bible. While David heard the prophet Nathan speaking these words, he was first feeling comfortable with his sin by condemning the sin of others.

Maybe as you read this story, you feel comfortable while you think “how could David do something like that?” Today God speaks to us the same message, “You are the man! You are the woman!” Nathan told David that he had despised the Word of the Lord (2 Samuel 12:9), and by despising the Word he had despised God himself (2 Samuel 12:10).

Maybe you did not commit adultery or murder but just like David, we despise the Word of the Lord and the Lord Himself when we are not satisfied in Him, and seek pleasures somewhere else or have unthankful hearts after receiving all His blessings. We must confess our sin to God. We desperately need God’s forgiveness!

We saw that this Psalm applies to all of us because we are all sinners. Now, the second important thing that we need to know about Psalm 51 is that it is answering a crucial question:

  • How can we obtain God’s forgiveness?

When David was confronted by the prophet Nathan he confessed “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13) and he was immediately forgiven. Therefore, Psalm 51 was probably written after he was forgiven as a reflection of the need of God’s forgiveness. Then, this psalm is not only a confession of sin but a reflection on the need of God’s forgiveness. We desperately need God’s forgiveness!

In verses 1-2 we can see the answer to this question. We find that we can only obtain God’s forgiveness if we appeal to His merciful nature.

David acknowledged that he could not find a reason to be forgiven other than God’s own merciful nature. David could not justify himself before God because he was sinner from birth (5) and God did not delight in external sacrifices that David could offer Him (16).

When we confess our sin, asking for God’s forgiveness, we cannot say things like: “God, I sinned but you know that I’m trying to live better” or “I sinned but remember also all the good things that I have done” or “I sinned but I am not as bad as other people” or “I sinned but who doesn’t sin?” A last one, “God, I sinned but I will repay all this wrong by being committed in church and serving those around me.”

There is no way that we can pay for the sins committed against a Holy, Perfect and Righteous God. We need to shut our mouths, and humbly appeal to God’s mercy like a beggar asks for help. William Plumer writes that without God’s mercy “His power would destroy us, His wisdom confound us, His justice condemn us, His majesty affright us, but by His mercy all these turn to our good.”

David knew God to be a compassionate God who is faithful to His covenant. In verses 1 and 2 David appeals to God’s graciousness or mercy (this is: showing favor, usually in the bestowal of redemption from enemies); he appeals to His lovingkindness or steadfast love (this is: a loving disposition to do acts of kindness); and he appeals to His compassion or abundant mercy (this is: the affectionate sympathy, especially of a parent to a child).

The three descriptions are pronounced “in a way matching Yhwh’s self-description at [Mount] Sinai” (Exodus 34:6). In this way, David is “asking God to act in accordance with that self-revelation, that is, in accordance to what God said about Himself.

If we appeal to God’s mercy as the only basis of our forgiveness, we can desperately ask like David to be forgiven from our transgressions (rebellious acts – I just wanted to do it my own way), iniquity (departing from the standard – I don’t live as God desires for me to live, maybe I don’t even know what God expects from me), and sin (missing the mark – even if I tried, I could not obey perfectly and permanently).

David uses three illustrations for God’s act of forgiving sin. First, David asks God to blot out his transgressions. Briggs states that “transgressions stain people, blackening their reputation and character, therefore blot out, wipe out, obliterate them, so that they no longer can be seen.”

Second, David asks God to wash him thoroughly. This verb is more for washing clothes with water as God cleans all the sinner’s filth away.

Third, David asks God to purify/cleanse him. This is a reference to the ritual of purification, probably a figure of substitution. Though David did not perform an actual ritual in this occasion, he was comparing forgiveness with the ritual. The New Testament clarifies that the only perfect sacrifice of purification and the perfect substitute for sinners is Jesus Christ. Only through faith in Him and His substitutionary death we can obtain God’s merciful forgiveness and complete cleansing.

We must not try to hide our transgressions, iniquity, and sin but examine ourselves deeply with the Word of God. Do not just do a superficial examination.

My husband likes to tell this story about when we recently got married and we  moved in our first apartment from Jacksonville, Texas.

<< I remember when I recently got married and my wife and I moved to one of the  apartments. I was ready to bring in the furniture but she said “No! We need to do a serious cleaning first.” And when she says serious, it means serious. We cleaned every corner and I complained a couple times because it seemed an exaggeration to me. She even wanted to clean behind the kitchen cabinets. But when I removed all the cabinets, I found a dead rat laying there. I had to admit that she was right in doing a deep cleaning.>>

Now, here we are dealing with something much more important than a house. We are dealing with our heart. Therefore, we cannot be superficial when we examine ourselves. You may find a death rat that has been laying for years behind the cabinets of your heart.

Resources:

Books:

Briggs, Charles Augustus, and Emilie Grace Briggs. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on
the Book of Psalms. London: T & T Clark International, 2004.

Gospel Transformation Bible: Christ in All of Scripture, Grace for All of Life. 2013.

Plumer, William S. Psalms: A Critical and Expository Commentary with Doctrinal and Practical
Remarks. Carlisle, Pa: Banner of Truth Trust, 1990.

VanGemeren, Willem A. (1990). “Psalms”. In Frank e. Gaebelein. Expositor’s Bible Comentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

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