In a 1901 Friends Discipline these words precede a set of eight rather simple Queries:” The intention in directing the following queries to be seriously considered is not only to inquire into the state of the meetings, but also to encourage every member to examine himself whether he acts consistently with the principles of the Christian religion.” Taking a serious, personal, inventory of our souls is something most of us would rather not do. It is not an easy thing to do or a light commitment to make. Indeed we meet significant barriers to this process.
When we make comparisons we prefer to compare ourselves to those whose lives we think could do with a bit of improvement instead of comparing ourselves to Jesus Christ and the glory of God. Maybe we are fearful of what we will learn. Do we need some kind of outer voice or event to tell us to take a look at ourselves such as the words of a parent who cares, or a friend who dares? For King David, his nudging voice was Nathan the prophet. David was living in denial of his sin against his top General, Uriah, and Uriah’s attractive wife Bat Sheeva. In his greed and lust, David broke every major commandment: adultery, theft, conspiracy, murder and lying! And he confronted neither the seriousness nor the reality of what he had done until Nathan ingeniously used a parable in which caused him to look at the situation as though someone else had committed the wrong.
There is nothing in Psalm 51 it that directly relates it to the life of David except for the superscription that sets its context. “To the Leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” You might want to open up your Bible to Psalm 51 and follow along.
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. Notice that the confession is first a confession about God. We can only come before God from that kind of circumstance in life as we acknowledge the mercy and grace of God, acknowledge that everything that is to follow depends not on ourselves and our abilities, but on God and God’s grace. The psalmist comes before God with a sense of commitment and a profound sense of contrition. The prayer uses all the typical ritual language common to priestly sacrifice: blot out, wash, cleanse. It is an appeal from a legal context in which law has been violated and the sinner seeks forgiveness. Yet, we also need to understand that this plea for mercy is against an Old Testament backdrop in which, according to Leviticus 4, there was no atonement available for this kind of sin. Sin that was done intentionally and purposefully was not part of the sacrificial system, only sin that was done unintentionally . To break covenant with God as David has done legally places him outside the covenant and beyond the normal atonement rituals. So even with the language of temple worship and ritual, the psalmist would understand that it is not the priest nor the rituals that can forgive, but only God.
There is no false piety in David, no excuses made for the sin. He understands that the only way out of that sin is by a gracious and a forgiving God. “Have mercy on me” is the initial cry that strips away any pretense to self-righteousness or personal merit. This plea acknowledges that this is a matter of grace. This is all in God’s hands, not his, not ours.
In the next three verses, the psalmist moves into even more direct petition. David says: “For I know my transgressions, my sin is ever before me.” Again, the Psalmist is willing to acknowledge his sin. Transformation must always begin with an honest confession of who we are before God. Verse 4 moves to a deeper level of this confession. “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. David’s sin had been a social sin. It had been against Bathsheba and against Uriah. Sometimes we see our sins as social mistakes, violations of social responsibility for which we should apologize to one another. We do things that hurt other people and then we apologize to them. Sometimes we are more concerned with what people think of us, more concerned with saving face than we are concerned with the fact that we have sinned. Yet when the psalmist comes before God, he says that it is against God alone that he has sinned. I imagine that Bathsheba may have seen that differently.
The consequences of his sin have created tremendous disruption. But finally David knows that he has to deal with God first. It is not enough to begin with the human relationships that have been destroyed. That has to come out of how he allows God to re-shape his life. He must begin with this confession: “it is against you, and you only, that I have sinned.”
The psalmist admits that there are consequences that will work out from his sin. Contrary to some of our modern ideas about the judgment of God the Old Testament view is that our sinful actions create their own consequences that will destroy us unless God intervenes. As we read about the rest of David’s life, it is easy to follow those consequences as they tear apart his family and his kingdom. Yet, there is a willingness to come before God, even knowing that consequences will come, yet trying to do something to address this problem of sin.
The fifth verse has traditionally been interpreted as teaching the genetic theory of the transmission of original sin. That interpretation grew out of the dualism of Greek Neo-Platonic philosophy that held that all matter is inherently evil. What we find here is not a doctrine of original sin. What we have here is a way for the Psalmist who stands before God in confession to say, “I really am this bad.” At this moment of honesty the psalmist has come before God and finally admits, “I have never been better than who I am at this moment.” We human beings don’t like that kind of honesty about ourselves.
Too late for David, at this point in his life the evidence of his sin is too obvious to ignore. He took his power as king, the power that was given to him by God to shepherd his people, and used it to abuse others. He took Bathsheba, he killed Uriah and the child born of their union has died. He cannot hide any longer from the truth. He must face who he is.
Here is where we need to start hearing the power of this psalm because, after all, this psalm is not just about David. It is about you and me. The tragedy here is our tragedy. This psalm is a challenge to that tendency we have of ignoring or refusing to see who we really are. It is at this point that newness can truly begin. As long as we have the attitude that we are OK, there is no room for God to work transformation in our lives. It is only when we come to that kind of honesty before God, as we admit to God and ourselves who we really are that God can begin working newness in our life.
In verses six through nine the psalmist unfolds what needs yet to happen. “You desire truth in the inward being, therefore, teach me wisdom in my 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 crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. This echoes the passage in Isaiah 1: “though your sins be as scarlet they shall be white as snow.” This is an understanding of God’s forgiveness, an understanding that when we come to a recognition of sin there is forgiveness in God’s grace. God does forgive sin. There is the implication here that no sin, even the sin of murder, is beyond the ability and desire of God to forgive.
I’m really glad the Psalm doesn’t end there. If it did, we could be content with asking for forgiveness for the sins that we commit even though we are God’s people. If the psalm ended here, we could concede that perhaps human beings really do sin like this all the time, and need to pray this prayer every morning.
Verse ten takes us in a totally new direction. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and a new and right spirit within me”. We need to understand the radical change between verse nine and ten. To this point the psalmist has been talking about forgiveness. This is priestly language of what should happen for God to forgive. Verse ten moves away from the language of the temple and the rituals, and moves away from the language of forgiveness. The terms are different here. “Create in me a clean heart, O God. And put a new and a steadfast spirit within me.” Now the talk is of newness, of new creation. This is not the language of cleansing the old, but of creating something new. Part of the problem with forgiveness is that it can only deal with the results of sin. We can all too easily become trapped in a cycle of sin and forgiveness, so that we become more preoccupied with responding to sin than we are with being faithful to God. The first nine verses clearly portray the honesty of someone who has come face to face, not only with what they have done, but also with who they are. The cry here from the heart of the Psalmist is a cry for transformation, realizing that there has to be a better way than just forgiveness. The language here is the language of creation: Create in me a clean heart, O God. And put a new and a steadfast spirit within me. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word translated “create” is only used with God as subject. Only God can bring the newness that the word “create” suggests. Here there is no idea of washing the old heart and trying to remove the contamination of sin. The psalmist is no longer simply praying for continued forgiveness, but for a radical change in who he is.
Nothing short of a new creation from God will bring any significant change in who he is. And he has already confessed that he needs to change. The Psalmist cannot make that happen by himself. The rituals of the temple cannot make that change. Something has to happen beyond forgiveness. Something has to happen inside the psalmist on the level of the heart, that deals with who he is. So he cries out: “Create in me a new heart. Transform me and make me new. Put a new steadfast spirit within me.”
Again it is easy to read our modern theological formulations into verse 11. “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.” There is no danger here that God will be unwilling to extend grace, that somehow our sin is so hideous that God will reject our prayer. Here, as in all of the Old Testament, the “spirit” or “breath” of God is simply a metaphorical way to talk about the active and dynamic presence of God in the world to effect change and growth. Such is the only avenue to the restoration and future stability for which the psalmist prays in verse 12: “ Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.”
Then he prays: “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” The one who was once nothing but a sinner, who had to face himself in light of where his sin had led him, can now envision turning to concern for others like himself. The psalmist is willing to share with others in teaching what he has himself learned about God. The new heart for which the psalmist prays is not just to make him better. It is really a gift to the world. It is out of that newly created heart and the steadfast spirit given by God that he can turn from a preoccupation with his own unrighteousness and the need for personal forgiveness to seeing the need of others to experience the same transformation. That newly created heart is a heart that beats for others, because it is a God created heart.
In typical prophetic language the idea that God requires sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins is rejected. What God wants from us is not sacrifice and repentance, but transformation. This can be hard for us because we have allowed the language of sacrifice to dominate talk about Jesus. But in a Christian context, we can say that God does not really want us to claim the sacrifice of Jesus for forgiveness for sins as the goal of the Christian life. There is something more to relationship with God than simply being forgiven of sin.
Verse 17 is a powerful conclusion in this psalm to Israel’s understanding of God and God’s call to his people. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” What God seeks in us is a willingness to abandon who we are for what we can become in God. “God, what I need is for you to do something new in my life that gives me a new heart, that so fills me with your presence that I can live a different way and be a different person.” That prayer can only come as we come face to face with who we are, and not like what we see.
That kind of honesty is scary because it means that we have to risk becoming something other than what we are. We have grown comfortable with ourselves, even though we know in our better moments that we are like David. We would much rather have the joy of our religion. We would rather have all the blessings that go with being a follower of Christ. I suspect that for many of us we would much rather be trapped in the cycle of sin and forgiveness, hoping that who we really are never gets exposed. Yet if we stay there we will never learn to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength, nor will we ever learn to love our neighbor as ourselves. There is no shorter way to holiness.
Psalm 51 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 alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my 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 crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.