This psalm has a special message for several groups of people.
First, Psalm 51 is for those who have never come to grips with the horror of human sin and the magnitude of divine grace. Often grace becomes meaningless, and certainly less than "amazing", because we lose sight of the depths of our depravity. David helps us on both counts by describing in graphic detail the reality of his sin and the breath-taking glory of forgiving grace.
Second, this psalm is for those who think some people are too high or too holy to fall. Let us never forget that this psalm describes the experience of David, King of Israel, the "man after God's own heart" (1 Sam. 13:14)!
Third, this psalm is also for those who think that once you have fallen, you can never get back up again. It is for those who think it’s possible to fall beyond the reach of God's grace and forgiveness or that there is a quantifiable limit to divine mercy. But no one is so holy that he/she can't fall, or so fallen that he/she can't be forgiven.
Fourth, Psalm 51 is for those who think that if you have fallen and have actually gotten back up, perhaps even forgiven, you are still useless from that point on both to God and the church. David’s experience will prove otherwise.
The historical setting for this psalm is stated in the superscription: "To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba" (see 2 Sam. 11:1-18,26-27; 12:1-18). None of us likes to have our struggles and problems broadcast publicly, much less our sins of the flesh. Yet here we are told that this psalm was written “to the choirmaster”! How would you like for your worst sins to be projected on the screen at church and set to music for the corporate worship of God’s people?
This psalm is a remarkable, and in many ways unparalleled, description of the nature of conviction, confession, and forgiveness. But at the same time we celebrate, with David, the joy of having one’s sins washed clean, we dare not forget that his transgressions yielded significant and far-reaching consequences: (1) his denunciation by Nathan and the public shame it brought (2 Sam. 12:1-14); (2) the death of David's son (12:15-23); (3) trouble with Amnon: he raped Tamar, Absalom's sister (13:1-22); (4) the rebellion of Absalom (13:23-18:33); (5) trouble with affairs of state (e.g., the revolt of Sheba in 19:41-20:26). The lesson is that whereas sin is certainly personal, in many cases it is anything but private!
On what basis does David ask for acquittal (vv. 1-2)? Does he appeal to his track record as King over Israel? Does he remind God of how many psalms he has written and how much of a blessing they’ve been to God’s children? Does he cite his faithful service or marshal forth a long list of character witnesses? Not in the least.
He doesn’t expect to be forgiven based on his sincerity or spiritual intensity or deep pain for having sinned or fervor of heart or promise not to sin again or his depth of determination to somehow "make it up" to God. That’s not to say sincerity and zeal and conviction aren’t important. But David’s appeal is based on what he knows of God's mercy and compassion and steadfast love.
Note the three words David uses in vv. 1-2 to describe his sin. If nothing else, it indicates on his part an acknowledgment that it is sin, and not just some trivial mistake. He calls it a "transgression" (a willful, self-assertive defiance of God), an "iniquity" (a deviation from the right path), and a "sin" (a missing of the divine mark).
Equally vivid are the three words he uses in his plea for forgiveness. He asks God to "blot out" his transgressions, to erase it from the record (Ex. 32:32; Numbers 5:23) or wipe it away (2 Kings 21:13; Is. 44:22).
He beseeches the Lord to “wash” him from his sin (vv. 2,7b). This word was often used of a woman first saturating a garment with lye soap and then treading it under foot on a rock, beating and pummeling it as the rushing waters poured over it. One can almost hear David, tearfully praying: “Gracious Lord, do that to my spirit! My sin is like a deep-dyed stain that has soiled the fabric of my soul, and no ordinary soap or detergent, far less any good works I might perform, can remove it. My transgressions are like ground-in dirt. Lord, scrub me clean by your mercy and grace!” Finally, the word “cleanse” was one used for ceremonial purification in the OT.
When David turns, in vv. 3-4, to confess the magnitude of his sin, his language is no less graphic. Edward Dalglish writes:
"The sin is not vaguely expressed and in a neutral context but intensely personal – MINE – and is so described five successive times in the first three verses. True penitence is not a dead knowledge of sin committed, but a vivid, ever-present consciousness of it. Thus poignantly affected by this fixation of sin and dominated by a feeling of complete submission, the psalmist opens the hidden world of his soul, exposing his guilt-stricken conscience" (Psalm Fifty-One in the light of ancient near Eastern patternism [Brill, 1962] 104).
David makes no excuses, offers no rationalizations, and refuses to shift blame. He doesn’t say, “Well, now wait a minute God. Yes, I sinned. But it takes two to tango. What about Bathsheba’s complicity in all this? She’s so beautiful and seductive. And my wife wasn’t meeting my needs. Besides, the pressures of being King over your people are enormous. Given what I faced on a daily basis, I’d expect you to cut me a little slack.” No!
There’s no insanity plea or appeal to diminished capacity. Do you recall the infamous “Twinkie Defense” used by Dan White when he killed San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk in 1985? He pleaded innocent based on his alleged “diminished capacity” brought on by certain biochemical reactions to junk food! I’m innocent, Your Honor. I overdosed on Twinkies!” None of that here.
My sin, he says, "is ever before me" (v. 3b). It is no intermittent flash but a perpetual obsession, a sight from which I can never turn away. It is, as it were, seared on the inside of my eye-lids: I see it all the time. Worse still, it is a sin ultimately against God alone (v. 4a).
But how can it be against God “only” if he committed adultery with Bathsheba, conspired to kill her husband Uriah, disgraced his own family, and betrayed the trust of the nation Israel? Perhaps David would argue that whereas one commits crimes against people, one sins only against God. More likely still, "face to face with God, he sees nothing else, no one else, can think of nothing else, but His presence forgotten, His holiness outraged, His love scorned" (Perowne, 416). David is so broken that he has treated God with such disregard that he is blinded to all other aspects or objects of his behavior.
David's confession is not simply to "get things off his chest", as if confession were merely a therapeutic release of sorts. His confession is designed to tell everyone that God was in the right all along, that God's judgment was true, just, and that the Almighty is blameless (v. 4b).
How long has David had this problem with sin? Did it start with puberty? Was he turned to the “dark side” by some childhood or teen-aged trauma? “The problem,” says David, “isn’t so much that I sin. The problem is that I’m sinful, and always have been. These deeds of the flesh are symptomatic of a much deeper problem. The fact is, ‘I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me’ (v. 5). My transgressions are not of recent vintage. This was no freak, one-off event. I’ve been a sinner from my mother’s womb!”
Thus David confesses his hereditary sin (v. 5) as the root cause of his actual sin (v. 4), but makes no effort to exculpate himself on that basis. In explaining his sinfulness by reference to the natural propagation of the species, David moves beyond his birth (v. 5a) to the very genesis of his being in the womb of his mother, indeed, to the very moment of conception (v. 5b). However, “David is not trying to accuse his mother in order to excuse himself!” (Henri Blocher, Original Sin [Eerdmans, 1997], 28). The focus of the entire psalm is the personal accountability of David. No one is to blame but he alone. His point is simply that “his very being is shot through and through with the tendencies that produced the fruits of adultery and murder. As far back as he can go, he sees his life as sinful” (Blocher, 28).
David’s intent isn’t to impugn the sex act itself, but rather to confess the native corruption of that which is its product. Dalglish contends that the words “in sin” “ought not to be conceived as qualifying the coitus which resulted in the conception of the psalmist’s being. It should properly be taken either to describe the status of the generating mother or else be referred generally to the embryological development resulting in transplanting the predicate of sinfulness to the child. It would be utterly opposed to the thought of the Old Testament [cf. Gen. 1:28; 9:1,7; Ps. 127:3,5; Gen. 29:31; 30:22,33; Ruth 4:13; Ps. 139:13; Job 10:8ff.] to imagine that conception or parturition was sinful” (121-22).
In other words, David’s problem (yours and mine too!) isn’t that we commit individual acts of sin. The problem is that we have a constitutional propensity to sin. What we need most isn’t a new lifestyle, but new life! Not new habits, but a new heart! And what hope is there for this? To be continued . . .