God’s people have long looked to David’s words in Psalm 51 as a model for how to pray when overwhelmed by our heinous offences against the holy God. Admittedly, with its language of “hyssop,” “bloodguiltiness,” and “burnt offerings” (not to mention David’s apparent claim that God is the only offended party), the psalm can pose illustrations unfamiliar to God’s new covenant people. Nonetheless, Psalm 51 is a wonderful guide for prayers of repentance. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate how Psalm 51 guides our own repentance.1
1. Pray for forgiveness (Ps. 51:1–9): “Have mercy”; “Wash me”; “Purge me”; “Blot out.”
Our greatest need is God, our greatest problem is our sin, and our only solution is God’s forgiveness. When we sin, our greatest need isn’t to cover it up, rationalize it, or even to feel better—to “get it off of our chest.” We need forgiveness. And God is quick to forgive those who come to Him humbly to confess their sin and ask for forgiveness. But we must have our consciences wounded if we are to seek mercy, as John Calvin states: “We will never seriously apply to God for pardon, until we have obtained such a view of our sins as inspires us with fear.”2 We must be well acquainted with our sins and quick to repent when the Spirit pricks our conscience. Then, we pray for forgiveness, not because God is reluctant to offer it, but because we are aware that we are utterly dependent on God’s mercy. We don’t do penance. We don’t self-flagellate to atone for our own sin. We also don’t cover up our sin. Like David, we lay our sin out bare and depend on God’s promise to forgive His people. When we’re in the throes of regret, we might wish we had a time machine. If only we could go back in time and undo what we had done. Dear Christian, we have something better. We have a sure promise, as David did from Nathan, that the Lord has “put away [our] sin” (2 Sam. 12:13). So name your sin specifically, confess it, and pray for mercy.
2. Pray for restoration (Ps. 51:10–12): “Renew me”; “Cast me not away”; “Restore me.”
Having prayed for pardon, David now prays for restoration. True repentance seeks after forgiveness and restoration, transformation, and renewal. Disingenuous hypocrites seek forgiveness for sins that they have every intention of walking back into. Penitent sinners seek forgiveness and restoration to God’s favor and the many graces that accompany His salvation. David sought renewal of that which he had forfeited by his sin: a clean heart, a steadfast and willing spirit, God’s presence and the Spirit of grace, and joy. Sin is most ghastly and sorrowful because it grieves God. When we sin and plead for forgiveness, we then do well to consider David’s prayers for restoration and renewal of these graces. Pray for God to make you willing and ready to obey, to give you a clean heart with integrity, to renew the joy of being in God’s salvation, and to make you mindful of His everlasting presence.
3. Pray for obedience and offer spiritual sacrifices (Ps. 51:13–17): “I will . . .”; “Broken spirit”; “Contrite heart.”
The restoration of these graces compels a new resolve and endeavoring after new obedience (see Westminster Shorter Catechism 87). We’re forgiven and restored unto new obedience. Should David find the forgiveness and restoration he seeks, he will express his gratitude in the form of proclamation—heralding to others the good news of God’s grace that he himself has so richly experienced. Calvin remarks, “Those who have been mercifully recovered from their falls will feel inflamed by the common law of charity to extend a helping hand to their brethren; and in general, such as are partakers of the grace of God are constrained by religious principle, and regard for the divine glory, to desire that others should be brought into the participation of it.”3 The king also resolves to praise the Lord (Ps. 51:14–15). Finally, he offers spiritual sacrifices instead of animal sacrifices. This might seem odd, since the Lord had instituted the sacrificial system as a provision for sin. However, David understood what many Jews did not. Many under the law sought to procure God’s forgiveness and salvation by offering a payment in the form of an animal sacrifice on the altar. David understood that he brought nothing to the Lord that could procure forgiveness, but he remained entirely dependent on the Lord’s mercy and promised atonement.4
To possess a broken heart, according to John Bunyan, is to “have it lamed, disabled, and taken off by sense of God’s wrath due to sin.” A contrite spirit is one that is penitent, “sorely grieved, and deeply sorrowful, for the sins it has committed against God, and to the damage of the soul.”5 A broken and contrite spirit, then, reflects a humble, sorrowful, and expectant posture. Dear brothers and sisters, God does not despise a broken spirit and a contrite heart (Ps. 51:17). He delights in it. When we assume this posture, we acknowledge our dependence on the Lord’s ultimate provision for our sin (no matter how grievous)—the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Renew your obedience to the Lord and offer up your heart to Him.
4. Pray for God’s people (Ps. 51:18–19): “Do good”; “Build.”
Until now, David has offered prayers for himself—for forgiveness, restoration, and resolve to walk in grateful obedience with a contrite heart. At verse 18, David pivots to offer supplication on behalf of God’s people—perhaps an odd conclusion at first glance to a prayer of repentance. To be sure, David’s petition for Zion is unique, for he was the Lord’s royal vice-regent in Israel. As the shepherd-king, he was responsible for the care and protection of God’s people. His sin brought judgment and trouble on the people of Israel in ways that the sins of others did not.6 Yet, it’s still true, albeit to a lesser extent, that our sin likewise disturbs the church. Insofar as our sins have injured others, we pray for them (and, at times, confess to them). And, knowing the pain and sorrow we feel, we pray for and encourage them so that they might not fall into the same trap. Further, we entrust the care of the church to her Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot ultimately destroy the church by our sin; nor can we build and grow the church in our own efforts. Trusting in Christ to build and preserve His church, our prayers of repentance ought to keep the corporal church in mind. Though some sins are private, we never truly sin in isolation. We’re members of one body (Gal. 3:26). Thus, we pray for the Lord to undo our evil, preserve His people, establish His church, and prosper their ways.[^7]
David’s sorrow for his sin was matched only by his confidence that the Lord delights in showing mercy to His broken and contrite people. When you’re stuck in the throes of overwhelming sorrow for your sin, pray for forgiveness and restoration, resolve to walk in new obedience, and offer supplication for others, that they might not fall into sin. Most importantly, as David looked forward to the full and final atonement that the Lord would provide, we fix our eyes on the King who has come to make us whiter than snow. And so, we arise from our penitent knees and go forth as those who are assured that the Lord has “put away [our] sin” (2 Sam. 12:13) “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps. 103:12).
- To be sure, there are numerous other psalms that can serve as models for penitential prayers. For a case on the importance of praying the psalms and for a thorough guide for praying the psalms within their canonical structure, see Gordon Wenham, The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2013).↩
- John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Bellingham, Wash.: Logos, 2010), 2:284–85.↩
- Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 2:302.↩
- R.C. Sproul, Following Christ (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1996). “Here David’s profound thoughts reveal his understanding of what many Old Testament persons failed to grasp—that the offering of sacrifices in the temple did not gain merit for the sinner. Sacrifices pointed beyond themselves to the perfect Sacrifice. The perfect atonement was offered by the perfect Lamb without blemish. The blood of bulls and goats does not take away sin. The blood of Jesus does. To avail ourselves of the atonement of Christ, to gain that covering, requires that we come before God in brokenness and contrition. The true sacrifices of God are a broken spirit and a contrite heart.”↩
- John Bunyan, The Acceptable Sacrifice (Bellingham, Wash.: Logos, 2006), 1:69.↩
- Calvin notes this uniqueness of David’s felt duty: “Raised to the throne, and originally anointed to be king for the very purpose of fostering the Church of God, he had by his disgraceful conduct nearly accomplished its destruction. Although chargeable with this guilt, he now prays that God would restore it in the exercise of his free mercy.” Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 2:307.↩