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When Mercy Scrubs Clean the Soul (2) (Psalm 51)

Countless Christians feel spiritually paralyzed by the lingering stain of sin. Neither therapy nor religious formulas, not good intentions or good deeds, can erase the vivid memory of their transgression(s) or bring cleansing to the defiling sense of guilt. The oppressive weight of their failure(s) is virtually suffocating.


Thank God for Psalm 51! It is a refreshing and heart-warming reminder of the hope of forgiveness. But it’s even more than that. David not only prays for pardon from past sin but also for the power to walk in future purity.


He begins with an impassioned plea for ceremonial cleansing, cast in the form of what Hebrew scholars call synonymous parallelism: “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow” (v. 7). David's choice of words is instructive. "Hyssop", an aromatic herb with a straight stalk and a bushy head (it looked a lot like broccoli), was dipped in the blood of the sacrifice and then sprinkled seven times on the person who was defiled (cf. Lev. 14:1-9; Num. 19). The word translated "purge" might more literally be rendered, "de-sin" me! Only then will David be “clean” and “whiter than snow”. Can this actually happen for sinners like you and me?


But David longs for more. He asks that God would enable him to “hear joy and gladness” (v. 8a; cf. Isa. 35:10; 51:11). David employs a common figure of speech called metonomy of effect for cause, according to which he means: "Make me to experience the joy and gladness that come from hearing the announcement of forgiveness." He may even have in mind a priestly or prophetic oracle in which another loudly declares that his sins are forgiven (cf. 2 Sam. 12:13; Ps. 143:7-8).


Sin can be as spiritually devastating and painful to the soul as broken bones are to the body, thus his cry: “Let the bones that you have broken rejoice” (v. 8b). David’s desire is that his entire being, body, soul, and spirit might once again revel and rejoice in the blessedness of communion with God.


Once more he prays: “Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities” (v. 9). Don’t look any longer on my failures! Let not your eyes gaze on my wickedness! Blot it from view, erase it from memory (cf. Ps. 103:12; Isa. 27:9; Jer. 1:20; 18:23; Micah 7:19; Zech. 3:4,9)!


With verses 10-12 David’s prayer gets even more specific. He petitions the Lord for spiritual power (v. 10), spiritual presence (v. 11), and spiritual pleasure (v. 12).


Simply asking for pardon isn't enough. One must also have the power by which not to commit the same sin again. Dalglish explains:


"The prayer for forgiveness is complete, but pardon, boon though it be, cannot suffice. Its reference is to the past and to excision of iniquity erstwhile accumulated. But what of the future? Unless something different, something new, is done within the personal life of the psalmist, the future will but repeat the past. The forgiveness of iniquity may grant to the suppliant a clean record, but it is the perpetuation of that purity that deeply troubles the psalmist. This problem forms the burden of the prayer for renewal" (147)


No mere “makeover” will do, no matter how “extreme”! David refuses to settle for a glossing over his faults, and pleads for a replacement of the old with the new. A “clean heart” (v. 10a) and a “right spirit” (v. 10b; or steadfast, firm, reliable spirit), his way of describing the inner core and center of his life, are essential for a life of holiness.


David can’t bear the thought of the loss of intimacy of fellowship and its attendant joys, and thus prays that he not be cast from God’s “presence” (see Ps. 16:11; 21:6; 73:27-28) or suffer the loss of God’s Spirit (v. 11).


What does David mean when he prays that God would not take his Spirit from him? Does he envision the possible loss of his salvation? Does he envision the withdrawal of divine grace? No.


Aside from the saving activity of the Holy Spirit in the OT and the empowering ministry by which believers are sanctified and enabled to live holy lives, the Holy Spirit was poured out on select individuals to equip them to perform important tasks in the covenant community of Israel. For example:


(1)        Craftsmen who worked on the tabernacle/temple (Exod. 31:1-6)


(2)        Civil administrators (such as Moses and the 70 elders in Num. 11:16-17,25-26)


(3)        Military commanders (such as Joshua; Num. 27:18)


(4)        Judges (appointed and empowered to rule over Israel as in Judges 3:10; 6:34)


(5)        Samson (Judges 14:5-6,19; 15:14; 16:20)


(6)        Prophets (1 Chron. 12:18; Micah 3:8)


(7)        Kings over Israel (Saul in 1 Sam. 10:1,6,10; 16:14; and David in 1 Sam. 16:12-13)


Thus there was a ministry of the Holy Spirit in the OT, unrelated to personal salvation or character, designed solely to empower, enable and equip someone for a task to which God had appointed him/her. Such, I believe, is what David has in mind in Ps. 51:11. His prayer is that God would not withdraw the enabling anointing of the Spirit that empowers and equips him to lead Israel as King. Indeed, he may well have had in mind that disturbing scene where “the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul” (1 Sam. 16:14) and prays that such would never befall him.


God’s power, God’s presence, and yes, even God’s pleasure is at the heart of David’s prayer: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (v. 12a)! Sin suppressed is delight destroyed. David was saved, but his soul had soured. He longs once again for the enjoyment of God that comes with intimacy.


David concludes with a vow of commitment in vv. 13-19.


It is possible for the fallen to be forgiven and used of God in ministry to others. David anticipates that after his restoration he will again "teach transgressors [like himself] your ways" (v. 13). David anticipates once again singing “aloud” of the “righteousness” of God (v. 14b). With pardon and power comes the opportunity to once more “declare” God’s “praise” aloud (v. 15).


Note also the relationship between testimony and praise in vv. 13-15. "When God answers our prayers, we respond by telling him how great he is; but we do so in public, and this is of the essence of the matter" (Goldingay, 168). Often guilt acts like glue: it seals shut the mouth of praise. It’s as if David says, "My conscience has shamed me into silence. Right now my lips are sealed because of my sin. Forgive me and open my mouth and I will surrender my voice to you!"


People have often misunderstood the concluding verses of Psalm 51 (particularly vv. 16-17), thinking that God has rejected his own appointed sacrifices. But in the OT, “not that, but this,” is merely an emphatic way of saying “not that, without this” (cf. 1 Sam. 15:22; Hosea 6:6). David is simply telling us that what matters most to God is the inner spiritual reality of a truly contrite and broken heart. Without it, sacrifices are worthless. With it, they are a sweet-smelling aroma to God (see vv. 18-19).


Gordon MacDonald tells the story of how as a child he once knocked over a lamp, cracking the ceramic shaft on one side. He quickly placed it back on the table, turning the lamp so the crack was not visible. He lived in fear each day that his misdeed would be discovered. “The longer the confrontation was delayed,” he writes, “the worse the consequences promised to be in my mind.” When the day finally arrived, his mother asked him, “Did you do this?” He confessed. What happened next is instructive for us all:


“But Mother never said a word. She took it to the kitchen, glued the pieces so that they once more fit tightly together, and within a few hours returned the lamp to the table. The crack was always there, but the lamp was rebuilt. And it served its purpose for years. Broken worlds may always have cracks to remind us of the past; that’s reality. But sometimes the grace of God is like the glue my mother used on her lamp. The bonded edges can become stronger than the original surface” (Rebuilding Your Broken World, xviii).


Some of you have cracked lamps in your past and live in constant fear, devoid of joy, paralyzed in life, relationships, and ministry. You wonder whether you will ever again experience the joy of intimacy with God, much less a fruitful ministry to others.


But God is in the business of rebuilding cracked lives and shattered dreams. His “steadfast love” (v. 1a) is a soul-cleansing power, his “abundant mercy” (v. 1b) a force for restoring long lost hope. All he asks of you is a “broken spirit” and a “contrite heart” (v. 17a). These, says David, he will “not despise” (v. 17b).