Perhaps only rivaled by Psalm 23, Psalm 51 has endured as one of the most recognizable psalms in the entire Bible. This is surprising, I think, considering the circumstances in which that psalm was written. Most, if not all, Bible include the prefix, “A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba,” or something similar. Such prefatory notes aren’t inspired, so they’re not necessarily authoritative. But, even still, there exists little to no debate about this psalm and its obscene background. What’s recorded for us are the gut-wrenching words of King David after he had been thoroughly humiliated by the prophet Nathan. This encounter, you recall, comes on the heels of David’s deplorable actions against Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah.
Dark days in God’s domain
The events of 2 Samuel 11 and 12 comprise one of the most uncomfortable texts in the biblical canon, bringing us through, in painstaking detail, one of the darkest and most painful events in all of Israel’s history. In short, King David is not where he should be. While his men are on the battlefield, he lingers behind in Jerusalem and succumbs to the temptation to take what is not his (2 Sam. 11:1–4). He demands that Bathsheba be brought to his bed-chamber, where he has his way with her. But, as it turns out, she gets pregnant, which immediately prompts David to begin covering his tracks.
Every scheme David tries falls short, resulting in a panicked albeit meditated decision to have Bathsheba’s husband positioned on the battlefield where his death is all but guaranteed (2 Sam. 11:14–17). This strategy works, much to the king’s relief, leading David to take Bathsheba as one of his wives (2 Sam. 11:26–27). Afterward, life just went on in the kingdom. There are, perhaps, whispers and rumors circulating throughout the palace about how fast the king’s newest wife bore him a son. But those rumors are quickly dismissed or explained away as idle gossip. And while life moved on, David’s soul did not. He is at war with himself as he tries to repress all the guilt incessantly bubbling at the surface. In another psalm that’s connected with this scene, David recalls, “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (Ps. 32:3–4).
This is when the Lord sends the prophet Nathan to meet with David, where he proceeds to relay a most revealing parable:
“And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, ‘There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.’ Then David’s anger was 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 Sam. 12:1–7).
David should have directed his thirst for justice at himself. He is the man who deserved to be tarred and feathered. He took what was not his, even though he had been given everything (2 Sam. 12:7–12). And with that, David is sufficiently defeated, utterly bested by the word of the Lord, which sounded through Nathan.
It’s hard to fathom just how dejected David felt, but we get a glimpse of it in Psalm 51 as he is brought face-to-face with his sin. This psalm, then, amounts to David’s guttural prayer of repentance. With these words, Israel’s humiliated king lays bare his darkest iniquities and deepest insecurities. He holds nothing back, as all his wickedness is brazenly exposed in the light of the Lord’s holiness. After all, what would it profit to hide anything from him who sees everything? (1 Sam. 16:7). And so it is that David desperately prays to make things right to the only One who can make things right. Accordingly, what does his prayer of repentance look and sound like?
The humility of sin’s acknowledgment
“For I know my transgressions,” David bellows, “and my sin is ever before me” (Ps. 51:3). Here, he acknowledges what he had done. To be sure, he didn’t have to be “reminded.” It’s not as though he had forgotten about what cruelty his hands had dished out. But Nathan’s prophetic rebuke effectively cornered. “You are the man!” sounded the verdict. With those words, David’s act of put-together-ness is put to an end. The jig is up. No more pretense, no more masks, no more faking it. He is a sinner. There was no getting around that. From the moment he was conceived in his mother’s belly, he was a sinner. “Behold,” he confesses, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). By this acknowledgment, he wasn’t attempting to “excuse” his actions. Rather, he recognizes the depth of his condition.
Repentance is meaningless unless we are willing to acknowledge who we are: sinners needing mercy.
David’s entire being was woven with sin. He had blatantly broken the law of God, and man, which meant he, by every available measure, was condemned. Part of repentance is coming to the unavoidable conclusion that you have a problem that you can’t remedy. No one who has ever made it through Alcoholics Anonymous has ever made it through without first admitting that they are an alcoholic. In fact, that’s step one of the infamous twelve steps. “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.” Similarly, until we acknowledge that we are sinners and that our sin is entirely unmanageable in and of ourselves, there is nothing to be saved from. Repentance is meaningless unless we are willing to acknowledge who we are: sinners needing mercy.
“If we confess our sins,” St. John says, “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). God’s Word promises — dare-I-say, guarantees — cleansing and forgiveness from sin. But it is predicated on you and I confessing that we have sins that need to be cleansed and forgiven in the first place. The degree to which we downplay our sin is the degree to which we will diminish the power of God’s forgiving grace. “If you get your own sin wrong, you get grace wrong too,” writes Steven Paulson (86). “The penitent knowledge of our sin,” Alexander Maclaren asserts, “is the first step towards the triumphant knowledge of Christ’s righteousness as ours” (6:1.326). Such is the ministry of the Holy Spirit, as he brings our sins and transgressions ever before our eyes, tilling the ground of our soul in preparation for the merciful work of the Father’s restoration.
The horror of sin’s magnitude
David, though, not only acknowledges his sin — but (also) pinpoints who he ultimately offended. “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,” he groans, “so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Ps. 51:4). This confession corresponds with what the king divulges in the aftermath of the prophet’s story (2 Sam. 12:13). And, in some ways, it might strike us odd to hear that this infraction is against “God alone.” What about Bathsheba? What about Uriah? Aren’t they the real victims here? Where’s their justice? When David prays these words, he isn’t looking to avoid any sort of “earthy reconciliation,” as if restitution for those parties is of no consequence. It’s very apparent that David had victimized both Bathsheba and Uriah in his quest to take for his own what did not belong to him. But the point is, in so doing, he had also copied what Adam and Eve did long ago in the Garden.
Perhaps we don’t think of it in those terms, but every time we sin, we are repeating the “lie of the Garden.”
When Adam and Eve ate of the fruit in Eden, their sin was not merely a “bad choice.” Their sin was in the class of heavenly insurrection. The serpent’s deception was, “Eat of this fruit, and you will be like God.” And ever since, humanity has been duped into thinking that they can be their own God. That they can make their own happiness, find their own fulfillment, manufacture their own meaning, and produce their own pleasure, even at the expense of others. The root of all sin is man thinking that he can be God. By taking Bathsheba for himself and by taking Uriah’s life in the process, that’s exactly what David did. And we do the same thing when we sin, too.
Perhaps we don’t think of it in those terms, but every time we sin, we are repeating the “lie of the Garden.” When we take what is not ours, when we put our needs before the needs of others, when we say things without considering others, and when we put ourselves in the center of everything we do, think, and say, we are carrying on the legacy that we can be like God. And, in so doing, we’re not only hurting those around us, we are revolting against God himself. This, to be sure, amplifies the magnitude of our sin. But, by the same token, it magnifies what God has done through his Son Jesus to absolve our sin.
The hope of sin’s absolution
In acknowledging his sin, and its scope, David is brought to the realization of exactly what he needs. “Have mercy on me, O God,” he cries, “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!” (Ps. 51:1–2). He is desperate to be clean again, to be made whole, to have the offense of his sin completely “blotted out” and his tainted record wiped clean. He cannot bear to live one more moment with the stain of his sin still on him. But, as we’ve already seen, he can do nothing about that on his own. This leads him to pray to the only One who can “wash him thoroughly” and make him clean.
“Purge me with hyssop,” he prays, “and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Ps. 51:7).
This cleansing process would not be easy. This wouldn’t be a “walk in the park,” and David knew that. His prayer, here, is not a plea for the “easy way out.” Rather, it’s a prayer of resignation to the process of being “washed by treading,” a process implied in both verses 2 and 7, alluding to the way in which clothing was cleaned in ancient times. A biblical laundromat often consisted of a large vat where a “fuller,” or launderer, would stomp on the clothes repeatedly, mimicking what a modern-day washing machine does. The only difference, though, was instead of detergent, they would often use urine for its natural bleaching qualities. “Do the same to me,” David says, in effect. “Wring out all the sin in me, like a ruddy old garment.” And that’s exactly what the Lord does.
He cleanses him, makes him whole, makes him new, and uses him for his glorious purposes. Such is the wondrous news of God’s absolution, which allowed for David to still be known as “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22). Even after this shocking and scandalous series of events, David is still part of the line through which the Messiah would come. No matter how dirty you are, ours is a God who specializes in cleaning us up.
When the Lord’s through with you, you’re not only clean, you’re whiter than snow. And to do this, he doesn’t use bleach, he uses his own blood
Jehovah, you see, is the ultimate “fuller,” the only One who is able to get your filthy, sin-stained life thoroughly clean (Mal. 3:2). In fact, when the Lord’s through with you, you’re not only clean, you’re whiter than snow (Ps. 51:7; cf. Isa. 1:18). And to do this, he doesn’t use bleach, he uses his own blood. The hope of God’s absolution is the promise that every blight and every blemish will be washed away in a sin-cleansing stream that flows from the Son’s wounds. Christ has taken all of our blights and blemishes on himself, on the cross, drowning every one of them in his death-defeating death.
You may feel as though your past is unforgivable, as though you are too far gone, as though your life is so deeply stained that no amount of detergent could ever make you clean. But to such comes the good news. There is One who can make you clean, who can absolve every single one of your sins. All that’s left for you to do is repent and be baptized in the reservoir of Christ’s forgiveness (Acts 2:38; 3:19). “The revelation of God’s love precedes and causes true penitence,” observes Alexander Maclaren. “Our prayer for forgiveness is the appropriation of God’s promise of forgiveness” (128). The assurance of God’s forgiveness is the grounds upon which we acknowledge our sin. Repentance isn’t the key to unlocking God’s forgiving heart. Rather, it’s the response to the good news of God’s forgiving heart being perfectly demonstrated in his Son’s death.
The love of God in Christ, which has been there from before the foundations of the world, announces that sinners don’t have to (nor can they) bribe their way back into God’s favor through petitions and prayers, and tears. We can’t buy his kindness through sufficient repenting. Indeed, our “very prayers need an atonement,” writes Abraham Booth, and our “tears want washing” (90). Repentance is an invitation to acknowledge what God already knows about you, enveloping us in a loving-kindness that’s been there from the start (Rom. 2:4). What awaits us in the gospel, therefore, is not just cleanliness but righteousness. “The pure driven snow,” Dan Price says, “has nothing on the imputed righteousness of Christ” (54). Those who readily admit to their faults and failures are those whom God welcomes to fall on him and find forgiveness with him. Indeed, when we all get to heaven, we’ll still be singing the praises of the God who has absolved us according to his blood-red righteousness (Rev. 7:13–14). Perhaps our refrain will be something like this:
What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Oh! precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
(Robert Lowry, 1876)