Psalm 51, I read to you earlier, this is the psalm that I want to look at with you for just a few minutes. There’s something about the life of the church that is joyous. We all understand that. We’ve expressed that joy, we’ve laughed already this morning. We laugh rather easily around here because we have so much joy in our hearts. It just bubbles on the surface and easily comes out. And the reason we have so much joy is that our eternity is settled, that we have no fear of death, we have no fear of the future. We don’t live in terror about Satan doing something to us, overpowering God in some way. We know that can never happen.
We know that our lives are secure in the purposes of God, in the salvation of God granted to us in Christ. He takes care of us, He meets our needs, He provides for us everything that we will need in time and eternity and promises to bring us to glory and His Word is true. So we live in this trust, we live in this hope and this confidence that produces joy.
And so you’re going to find, if you come to an experience of true Christians, there will be a joy, a joy that’s not necessarily connected to contemporary circumstances because, you know, we have people dying all around us in our congregation, from older people to little ones, and the aches in the hearts of people are deep and great, and everybody understands what it is to live in a fallen, suffering world.
Every time the elders meet on a Sunday morning, it seems as though the list of prayer requests of people who are suffering from cancer of one kind or another, to one degree or another, grows and grows and grows. We all understand that. We all understand the great pain and difficulty of life. But there’s still something overwhelmingly joyous about having confidence that God is in charge of absolutely everything and our eternity is settled in the promise of heaven.
But while we do experience joy, even in the midst of the challenges of life, we also are a very sober-minded people. We also move easily to deep contemplation. We even move easily from celebration to confession, don’t we? One minute we’re eager to praise the Lord and sing at the top of our voices about the glories of the cross and the wonders of heaven, and we love hearing that magnificent music, the beautiful words bathed in the sounds of the strings and the woodwinds and the organ and all of that, and those things lift our hearts in celebration. But in the next minute, here we are ready to confess our sins.
We live in the ambivalence of celebration and confession, and that’s really the way it ought to be. In fact, the church is the one and only organization where members meet regularly to acknowledge themselves as wretched sinners, worthy of nothing but damnation. In the true church of Jesus Christ, there is a kind of obsession with sin. Now, that’s not popular today, even in quote/unquote churches. The more Christian a church is and the more mature its people are, the more sensitive it is to sin.
I was exposed to a church - calls itself a church - and watched the service on television recently, and the first thing the pastor did was say, “Welcome to our worship, we’re going to worship the Lord together.” And he said, “Let’s pray.” And the first words out of his mouth as he articulated his prayer, “O Lord, we deny anything that is negative, we deny anything that takes away our joy. We reject all thoughts of loss. We reject anything that would steal our dreams, our ambitions, our goals, our desires,” and he went on and on with this kind of thing for a rather extended period of time.
And I thought to myself, “If that’s Christian at all, it’s certainly as infantile and as immature as a Christian prayer could ever be because the heart and soul of a true believer who comes to worship is, first of all, to come to grips with the reality of his or her own sinfulness. We come to confess things that are negative. We come to confess our weakness, our inabilities, our deceptiveness, our tendency to be dishonest, disloyal, unloving, unkind, the fallenness of our flesh, the constant recycling of our tendencies toward iniquity and sins in the same kind of categories.
Churches that talk about only good things, don’t ever speak of sin, don’t ever lead the people to serious contemplation and confession of sin, may not be Christians at all. They may be churches but not made up of Christians or if some are Christians, they are of the most immature kind.
The more mature believer is, the more likely a believer is to open his mouth in any expression of worship and come out, first of all, with a confession of his own unworthiness. It was Isaiah, you know, who was the best man in his nation, he was the prophet of God, he was the noblest of all who, in Isaiah 6, said, “I am a man of unclean lips and I come from a people of unclean lips.” And he pronounced a curse on himself for his own wretched sinfulness.
It was the apostle Paul in Romans chapter 7 who said, “O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from the body of this death?” He was the best, he was the best of us, maybe the noblest Christian that ever lived, and he was really distraught and overwhelmed by his own wretched sinfulness.
Whenever the church gathers to worship on a Sunday here, it gives the opportunity for one of us to pray a pastoral prayer, and part of that pastoral prayer prayed in the service (usually after the reading of the Scripture) is to acknowledge our unworthiness, our sinfulness. To acknowledge that not only are we sinful and unworthy, but our dreams and ambitions and desires and goals are corrupted. The notion that we’re supposed to come to church to tell God He needs to fulfill everything we want couldn’t be further from the truth.
We come to say, “Lord, the things that I want may be worldly things and earthly things and passing things and temporal things and even sinful things and even corrupting things; rather, I want what you want for me, the highest and the best and the good. But I confess that none of that is in me.”
The church never worships more purely than when it confesses its own sinfulness because that’s the platform in which we enter into worship, recognition of our own sinfulness and our own unworthiness. Everybody understands David was a great worshiper, wasn’t he? Great worshiper. He wrote many, many, many, many Psalms, dozens and dozens of Psalms. And we use those Psalms to worship and they are worshiping Psalms.
But David also understood the wretchedness of his own heart, and he was a true worshiper who knew that while it was one thing to come to God and give Him glory, it was also an equally critical thing to come to God and recognize his own unworthiness. He is not a spiritual novice, this David, he is a man after God’s own heart. He didn’t write this psalm at some immature moment in his life. He wrote it at the pinnacle of his life, at the very pinnacle of divine blessing on his life. He was a man after God’s own heart. He was a man who hated iniquity and unrighteousness in others but hated it even more in himself. And so he’s going to be the one to lead us in our confession this morning.
Look at Psalm 51 for a moment. We’ll just get an overview of this great Psalm. Its characteristic is true confession, that’s what it’s about. He is the broken and the contrite heart that he describes in verse 17. That’s him. And he knows God will not despise a broken and contrite heart. This psalm bears the mark of deep guilt. This psalm bears the mark of penetrating, pervasive, almost debilitating remorse over sin. This is a psalm written out of pain, anxiety, fear, and reveals the essence of a true confession.
Now, David had some problems. He was a man after God’s own heart. He was a great worshiper, a great writer of psalms, a singer of psalms. He had known the blessing of God. He had declared the blessedness of God. But he had problems. He was a man and he was a sinful man, even though he had been forgiven by God. And he particularly seemed to have a problem with women. When he wanted a woman, he took her, no matter who she might have belonged to. And his story is a sad story when you look at it from the vantage point of his many escapades with women and his wives. And he taught his dissolute lessons to his son very well, for Solomon far exceeded his own father’s sins with women.
It was at the height of his power, it was the height of his time of blessing under the goodness of God, that he became infatuated with the beautiful Bathsheba, who was the wife of one of his military officers by the name of Uriah. Bathsheba was not innocent in the situation. She put herself in a position to be seen by the king from the top of his palace. She was sunbathing, as it were, on her own roof. I don’t think she was innocent at all in what she was doing, and David certainly was not innocent. Being attracted to her - you know the rest of the story. He went to her and she became pregnant.
David now has a dilemma. He sought to solve his dilemma by arranging to have her husband, who is out fighting in his own defense, David’s defense, the defense of his nation and his kingdom, he has the plan to push a small group of men forward into conflict with the enemy and make sure Uriah was in the group and then have everybody else retreat, leave Uriah there where he would be killed. And that is exactly what they did and he was killed. It was a murder de facto.
Then, conveniently forgetting his intrigue, David gave the man a military funeral with all honors and proceeded as if it were some noble act to marry his widow. There are many Old Testament historians who would date the beginning of the breakup of the Unified Kingdom of Israel with this particular sin. It finally shattered after the reign of Solomon, but this may have been where the seeds were sown. And the child - the child died. And there were other children born to David and Bathsheba, most notable Solomon. His life was certainly a troubled life. The other children had trouble as well, heartbreaking life experiences.
But for David, the whole ugly scene left its impact on him. He became obsessed with this sin. It preyed on his mind. It weighed him down until he got relief through real confession, and that’s what you see in Psalm 51. Here is the confession of a man who feels the full burden of his own guilt.
If I were to sum up what David was feeling, I might say it like this: Sin had made him dirty, and he wanted to be clean. Guilt had made him sick, and he wanted to be well. Disobedience had made him lonely, and he wanted to be reconciled. Rebellion had made him fearful, and he wanted to be pardoned.
That’s what comes out of Psalm 51, a man who feels dirty, sick, isolated, and afraid - all consequence of his sin. And out of that, he pours forth this confession, and it has all the right perspectives of a true confession. And the right perspective of a true confession would be threefold: see your sin for what it is, see God for who He is, and see yourself for who you are. Any true confession is going to have to interact with those components.
First of all, it’s clear from this psalm that David understood his sin for what it was, and there are at least five aspects to his perspective on his sin. Number one, he knew that his sin deserved judgment - he knew that his sin deserved judgment. In fact, at the end of verse 4, notice he says, “So you are justified when you speak and blameless when you judge.” If you speak judgment against me, if you judge me for this sin, which would mean death and hell, if I am to be forever separated from you, if this is a damning sin, if this is permanently end for us, you are blameless - you are blameless. This is a confession of his own guilt and it deserves judgment.
Going into verse 1, however, let’s look at it from the perspective of the opening statement, “Be gracious to me, O God.” Or in the second line, “According to the greatness of your compassion.” He is appealing to grace and compassion. Why? Because he cannot appeal to justice. He cannot appeal to law. He cannot appeal to merit. He cannot appeal to achievement. He understands what he deserves. And he knows God would be blameless if He damned him. He cries for the only thing he can cry for, and that’s grace, which implies that he knew he deserved judgment.
In Psalm 103:10 it says, “He has not dealt with us according to our sins nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.” If we received what we should receive, we would all perish everlastingly. Psalm 130, verse 3, says, “If the Lord should mark our iniquities, who could stand?”
So he knows what every true penitent knows, that he deserves judgment. He feels the weight of judgment. This is humility. He deserves the wages of sin, which is death. There’s a great illustration of this, among many in Scripture, in what I think is probably the most instructive prayer in the Old Testament, it’s in Daniel 9, as Daniel prays for his people. It has this same sense that what they all deserve is judgment.
Daniel 9, verse 4, “I prayed to the Lord my God, confessed and said, ‘Alas, O Lord, the great and awesome God who keeps His covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, we have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and ordinances.’” And then in verse 7, “But righteousness belongs to you, O Lord; to us, open shame.” Verse 8, “Open shame belongs to us because we sinned against you.” Verse 11, “All Israel has transgressed your law.”
So the curse has been poured out on us. We deserve it. That’s where true confession begins, with a recognition that we deserve judgment, even as a believer, a recognition that I need to be chastened for my sin. David was a believer. He wasn’t talking here about everlasting, eternal judgment in the more personal sense. He is saying, “I know that I deserve whatever just judgment should fall upon me for this iniquity.” There’s a sense in which as believers, then, we know that all the time we live in this world, God at any point has a right to bring judgment on our heads, to discipline us.
We can appeal only to mercy, and that’s the second point. True penitence deserves judgment. True penitence recognizes its appeal is only to mercy. “According to your lovingkindness, be gracious to me. According to your compassion.” He’s pleading for compassion. The word lovingkindness is chesed, that’s an Old Testament word for grace or mercy. I can plead for nothing else. I can only ask for mercy or grace. What is that? Undeserved favor. Undeserved consideration. Undeserved, unmerited withholding of judgment.
The sinner understands, then, because he deserves judgment, because he cannot earn righteousness, he can only plead for grace. Folks, this is the essence of all Old Testament genuine salvation. Sinners who knew they could not get from God by their own desserts and deserving anything but judgment, pled for mercy and grace.
Thirdly, in his perspective on sin, a truly penitent person not only understands that he deserves judgment, he desperately needs grace, but he also understands his guilt - he understands real guilt. “Blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity.” Notice these personal pronouns. Cleanse me from my sin. I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. Boy, there are a lot of me’s and my’s, right? Personal guilt.
And David uses all the words for evil. He says, “Blot out my transgressions, wash me from my iniquity, cleanse me from my sin,” then uses the word transgression again, and then the word “sinned” in verse 4. The three words, standard words for evil, transgression, iniquity, sin, he uses them all, implying the comprehensive problem that has fouled his life. He is overwhelmingly guilty of sin by every definition - by every definition. “I am guilty.”
What this is saying is, a fourth element, he accepts all responsibility. He knows he deserves judgment. He needs grace. He is genuinely guilty. And he has to take full responsibility. Please notice, he blames only himself - my iniquity, my sin, my transgression, my sin. Verse 4, “Against you, you only, I have sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” He doesn’t blame God, like Adam did when he said, “The woman you gave me.” He doesn’t blame another person like the woman did who said, “The serpent deceived me.” He doesn’t blame the serpent or Satan. It’s my sin, it’s my iniquity, it’s my transgression, I did it.
Violence against your holy majesty, rebellion against your will, disobedience against your Word, blasphemy against your name, and I have done it - I have done it. I am fully responsible. He places no blame on circumstances, no blame on Satan, no blame on God. This is the essence of a true, true confession. He takes full responsibility. And again that is carried in the last words of verse 4 by the statement again, “You will be justified where you need to judge me. You would be blameless where you would have damned me and condemned me.”
Don’t blame anybody else. Don’t blame Satan. Don’t blame your circumstances. Don’t blame God. Don’t undo your confession by minimizing your responsibility. You are the sinner. You are guilty. You need grace, and you are fully responsible.
And there’s one other component. He understands this is part of who he really is, this is part of his nature. This is powerful. Verse 5, “Behold” - wow, in the vernacular, it’s a superlative - “I was brought forth in iniquity. In sin my mother conceived me.”
What a statement. He doesn’t mean he was an illegitimate child, he wasn’t. He doesn’t mean he was born out of some adulterous affair, he wasn’t. What he means is that from conception, he was a sinner. You can’t come to worship and say, “We reject all negative thoughts about ourselves.” You can’t do that. You’re a wretched, corrupt sinner from conception on. What David is saying is that this is not an anomaly, this is not, “Oops, something went wrong here, I’m basically a good person.” This is David saying, “In all honesty, this is really who I am.” This is a full admission you’re born a sinner, that you have congenital depravity.
And who can make a clean out of an unclean? The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. And the flesh is no good thing and the flesh is still here, isn’t it? You want to make a true confession of your sin? Then acknowledge that you deserve judgment and the Lord would be blameless if He judged you with the severest judgment. Acknowledge that you can appeal only to grace because you can’t merit God’s mercy and forgiveness and restoration. Understand that you are guilty and need deliverance from that guilt by the mercy of God. Accept full responsibility for your sin, laying the blame on no one but yourself. And be honest enough to admit this is you - this is you. That is a broken and a contrite heart, and that, the Lord will not despise.
But confession cannot end there. Its hope is found in the view of God. So you move from the view of sin to the view of God in verse 6. Several very important elements. First of all, you understand that God desires holiness on the inside. So a true confession recognizes that I am appealing to you, O God, to change me on the inside. “Behold” - verse 6 - “you desire truth” - or honesty, or integrity, or righteousness - “in the innermost being, in the hidden part you will make me know wisdom.” You want to clean up my inside. You want righteous wisdom to reign on the inside.
Now, it is the element of a true confession to go to God and to come before God penitent, broken over your own sin, and understand that what God wants is not some kind of a superficial outside cleanup but something that’s going to take the inside and thoroughly, cathartically cleanse it. You understand God doesn’t just want certain behaviors. God looks on the heart. True confession understands that. You’re coming to a holy God who won’t be content with a superficial change.
So true confession understands that this is really me saying, “I want to be clean all the way down in the inside.” Don’t just stop me at the point of adultery, stop me long before that at the point of lust. That’s honest confession, recognizing that God is a God of holiness who wants purity deep on the inside.
Secondly, David recognizes not only God’s holiness but God’s power. That’s important. Why is it important? Because you don’t want to come for cleansing to a God who doesn’t have the power to do it, right? So he says, so importantly, verse 7, “Purify me with hyssop,” and what will be the result? “I’ll be clean. Wash me, I’ll be whiter than snow.” If you clean me, I’ll be clean. If you purify me, I’ll be pure. I can’t do it. This is the idea that you can’t lift yourself up by your own bootstraps. You can’t do it by well-intentioned resolutions, for example. I have to come to you.
Hyssop, by the way, was a shrub used to apply blood and water in a purification ceremony, and he just borrows that picture. Just purify me, ceremonially. Wash me, you do it, O God, because if you do it, it’ll be done, it’ll be thorough. You have the power - you have the power. You can remove my transgressions, you can wash me. And though my sins are as scarlet, you can make them as wool. Though they’re red like crimson, they can be as white as snow, Isaiah 1. You come to a God who has the power to do a real cleansing.
The next attribute that you would need to know was true of God was His willingness or His goodness. He’s already stated that God is a God of compassion. Is He willing to do this? He’s a God of lovingkindness. According to your lovingkindness, an already established reality there in verse 1. He has experienced that God is a God of grace and forgiveness and mercy and compassion and lovingkindness. That’s critical.
So he knows God desires that this take place. In verse 8, “Make me hear joy and gladness. Let the bones which you have broken rejoice.” He wants restoration. He wants reconciliation. God has broken his bones, metaphorically speaking, crushed him. He’s now broken and a contrite heart. He wants the restoration that he knows God wants.
You know, when you go to the Lord in the time of confession and you pour out your heart in this true confession attitude, you already know that this is what God is waiting for. And when this confession comes, the discipline ends because God is by nature a forgiving God.
Verse 9, “Hide your face from my sin. Blot out all my iniquities.” He knows this is consistent with the nature of God. Micah 7:18 and 19, “Who is a pardoning God like you?” Or as it says in the Psalms, “He removes our sins” - Psalm 103:12 - “as far as the east is from the west. Buries them in the depths of the sea. Remembers them no more.” God is a forgiver by nature. Psalm 86:5; Psalm 99:8; Psalm 130, verse 4 - everywhere, but Psalm 130 verse 4, good to remember, “There is forgiveness with you.”
So God is holy, that sets the standard. That sets the standard for forgiveness. He wants holiness. He is powerful, that establishes the source of this cleansing, He has the power to do it. He is willing because it is that which He desires. He is forgiving. So he understands his sin and he understands his God. And so here comes in verse 10 his prayer. This is the prayer of the penitent who understands his sin and understands his God, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence. Do not take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation. Sustain me with a willing spirit.”
I just want forgiveness. I want a clean heart, not a dirty one. I want a steadfast spirit, not a wavering, duplicitous, unfaithful one. I don’t want this isolation, this cosmic loneliness of being separated from you. I don’t want you to take your Holy Spirit from me. This isn’t saying that a believer can have the Holy Spirit and have the Holy Spirit removed. David is king, he has a special anointing on his life, an anointing that was indicated as the coming of the Spirit.
Remember in the Old Testament it says the Spirit of God came upon so-and-so and he prophesied and the Spirit of God departed? This is a unique Old Testament gift from God, an enabling of the Spirit for some unique role within the purposes of God in the theocratic kingdom. David wants to have the anointing in the future, he wants to be a faithful king. He wants to be useful to God. And then in verse 12, he wants the joy that he once had in salvation. He didn’t lose his salvation, he just lost the joy. And he wants a willing spirit, a spirit that is devoted only to that which pleases God.
This is the heart cry of a truly penitent man. We could say a lot more about that but just to wrap it up, there’s a perspective on himself that’s at stake here. Looking now at his own purpose, his own life. If I, as a believer, deal with the sin in the right way, understand God in the right way, I still have to consider myself, and David did that. And I still have to ask the question, “What would forgiveness do for me? How would it change me? How would it impact me and make me impact others?” And he begins with sinners.
If he gets his life right, if he is washed and clean, how is that going to affect sinners? Verse 13, “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will be converted to you.” Wow. You want to have a life that matters? You want to have a testimony? You want to have a witness? You want to have an effective pattern of living that draws people to salvation? You want to be able to teach transgressors the ways of God so that they will be converted? Then you have to have your life washed and purged.
That reminds us of Isaiah, right? The angel takes the coal, puts it to his tongue, he’s cleansed. The Lord says, “Whom will I send and who will go?” Isaiah says, “Here am I, Lord, send me,” and He sends him. He’s looking for the cleansed.
Verse 14, he even expands it, “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation. Do this, then my tongue will joyfully sing of your righteousness.” This is more of his witness. He can joyfully sing of the righteousness of God. Verse 15 even expands it more, “O Lord, open my lips that my mouth may declare your praise.” Free me up from the burden of this guilt, and I’ll teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will be converted, and I’ll joyfully sing of your righteousness, and my mouth will declare your praise. Touch the coal to my mouth, like you did Isaiah’s so I can be a witness to sinners.
There’s a second consideration that he makes as he looks at himself. Verses 16 and 17, this has to do not with sinners but with God. “You do not delight in sacrifice; otherwise, I would give it. You’re not pleased with burnt offering.” That alone doesn’t do it. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” The key word here is “you do not delight in” or “you are not pleased with.”
What’s David saying? I want a life that pleases you. I want my life to have an effect on sinners, lead them to conversion. I want my life to have a positive effect on you. I want you to delight in my life. Wow. I want my life to please you. I want you to find pleasure in my life.
And then finally, it’s the saints. He understands that if his own life isn’t right, he’s not going to be useful to the saints. But once he’s cleansed, then he’s useful to the saints. How? Psalm 66:18 says, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me,” right? If my life is impure, my prayers don’t get answered. That means I can’t pray for you and expect an answer. So in verses 18 and 19, he prays for his people. “By your favor do good to Zion, build the walls of Jerusalem.”
Restore Jerusalem in righteousness. “Then you will delight in righteous sacrifices” because they won’t just be offerings that are external, they’ll be righteous sacrifices “in burnt offering and whole burnt offering, and then young bulls will be offered on your altar,” meaning with a right attitude.
The point being that he now feels that he can pray for His people. The point is this: If my life is not pure, then I can’t be an effective evangel to the sinners, I can’t bring delight to God, and I can’t be useful to intercede on behalf of the saints. The prayers of a righteous man produce much. What’s at stake here? Your usefulness to the lost, your usefulness to the church and even your usefulness to God.
Father, as are recognizing in our own lives our own sinfulness, may we see sin the way the psalmist saw it, as worthy of judgment, in need of grace, producing guilt. May we accept full responsibility for our sin. May we understand that it is an expression of who we really are in our remaining flesh and fallenness.
May we come to you as a holy God, who desires genuine internal purity, as a God who is powerful enough to effect that transformation, who is willing to forgive. And may you do this work in us. Cleanse us, Lord, that we might be useful to sinners and saints and that we might even bring delight to you.
Lord, we realize what David didn’t yet know, that the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross paid the penalty to make this forgiveness available. We’re not asking for salvation; we want the joy of our salvation back. We already belong to you. We want purity of life because we want usefulness, and we want delight to come to you, and we want to be able to administer effectively to the saints.
Lord, would you move in every heart by your Holy Spirit to prompt that conviction that leads to confession and may it be a genuine confession. Produce in us a true, broken, and contrite spirit. Cleanse us, create in us a clean heart, renew a right spirit that would please you. We thank you for the cross of Christ, which makes this forgiveness possible.
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