One of the penitential psalms, Psalm 51 was written by David after he was confronted by the prophet Nathan. Nathan declared that David had grievously sinned against God in the taking of Bathsheba to be his wife and in the murder of her husband, Uriah.
It’s important to see the anguish and heartfelt remorse expressed by David, but we must also understand that repentance of the heart is the work of God the Holy Spirit. David is repentant because of the influence of the Holy Spirit upon him. Not only that, but as he writes this prayer, he is writing it under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit demonstrates in Psalm 51 how He produces repentance in our hearts. Keep this in mind as we look at the psalm.
Psalm 51 begins, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (Ps. 51:1). Here we see an element that is fundamental to repentance. Usually, when a person becomes aware of his sin and turns from it, he casts himself on the mercy of God. The first fruit of authentic repentance is the recognition of our profound need for mercy. David does not ask God for justice. He knows that if God were to deal with him according to justice, he would be immediately destroyed. As a result, David begins his confession with a plea for mercy.
When David pleads with God to blot out his transgressions, he’s asking God to remove the stain from his soul, to cover his unrighteousness, and to cleanse him from the sin that is now a permanent part of his life. So he says, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” (Ps. 51:2).
The ideas of forgiveness and cleansing are related, but they are not the same thing. In the New Testament, the Apostle John writes, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). In a spirit of repentance, we go before God and confess our sins, asking not only for the pardon, but also for the strength to refrain from doing that sin anymore. As David does in this psalm, we ask that our inclination to wickedness be eliminated.
David continues, ”For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Ps. 51:3). This isn’t simply a casual acknowledgement of guilt. He is a haunted man; he says, “I know I am guilty.” There’s no attempt to minimize his guilt. There’s no attempt at self-justification. We, however, are often masters of rationalization and are quick to excuse ourselves by giving all kinds of reasons for our sinful behavior. But in this text, by the power of the Holy Spirit, David is brought to the point where he is honest before God. He admits his guilt, realizing that his sin is ever present. He can’t get rid of it, and this haunts him.
Then he cries out, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps. 51:4). In one sense, David is using hyperbole here. He has sinned horribly against Uriah, Uriah’s family and friends, Bathsheba, and the whole nation of God’s people. But David understands that sin ultimately is an offense against God, because God is the only perfect being in the universe. As God is the judge of heaven and earth, all sin is defined in terms of the transgression of God’s law and is an offense against His holiness. David knows this and acknowledges it. He’s not minimizing the reality of his sin against human beings, but he recognizes the ultimacy of his sin against God.
He then makes a statement that is often overlooked. It’s found in the second part of verse 4 and is one of the most powerful expressions of true repentance that we find in the Scriptures: “so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Ps. 51:4). David is essentially saying, “O God, You have every right to judge me, and it is clear that I deserve nothing more than Your judgment and Your wrath.” David acknowledges that God is blameless and has every right to judge him. There is no bargaining or negotiating with God.
“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart” (Ps. 51:5–6). Not only does God want the truth from us, He wants it from deep within us. David acknowledges that he has failed to do what God has commanded, and that his obedience is often mere external ceremony rather than acts that flow out of the center of his being.
Then David cries out again for cleansing: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Ps. 51:7). We can hear the utter helplessness in David’s voice. David doesn’t say, “God, wait a minute. Before I continue this dialogue in prayer, I have to clean my hands. I have to get washed.” David knows that he’s incapable of removing the stain of his guilt from himself. He cannot make up for it. We must join David in acknowledging that we cannot atone for our own sins.
Through the prophet Isaiah, God later gave this promise,
Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. (Isa. 1:18)
God is pleased to clean us up when He finds us in the dirt.
David then says, “Let me hear joy and gladness” (Ps. 51:8a). Repentance is a painful thing. Who enjoys going through the confession of sin and the acknowledgement of guilt? Guilt is the most powerful destroyer of joy there is. While David is not very happy at this moment, he asks God to restore his soul and make him feel joy and gladness again. He makes this point when he says, “Let the bones that you have broken rejoice” (Ps. 51:8b). Isn’t that an interesting phrase? He says,
God, You’ve crushed me. My bones are broken; it wasn’t Satan or Nathan that broke my bones, but you broke my bones when you convicted me of my guilt. So, I stand before you as a broken man, and the only way I can go on is if You heal me and return joy and gladness to me.
Next he says, “Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:9–10). The only way to have a clean heart is by a work of divine re-creation. I am incapable of creating that in myself. Only God can create a clean heart, and He does create clean hearts by blotting out our sin.
David then cries, “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11). David realizes that this is the worst thing that could happen to any sinner. He knows that God will, in fact, cast us out of His presence if we persist in impenitence. Jesus warns that those who reject Him will be cut off from God forever. But the prayer of repentance is a refuge for the believer. It is the godly response of one who knows that he is in sin. This type of response should mark the lives of all those who are converted.
David continues, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you” (Ps. 51:12–13). We often hear that people don’t like to be in the presence of Christians because Christians manifest a smug, self-righteous attitude or a goody-two-shoes, holier-than-thou attitude. But this should not be the case. Christians have nothing to be smug about; we are not righteous people trying to correct the unrighteous. As one preacher said, “Evangelism is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” The chief difference between the believer and the unbeliever is forgiveness. The only thing that qualifies a person to be a minister in the name of Christ is that that person has experienced forgiveness and wants to tell of it to others.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Ps. 51:15–17).
Here’s where we find the heart and soul of prophetic repentance as seen in the last chapter. The true nature of godly repentance is found in the phrase “a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” David is saying that if he could atone for his own sins, he would; but as it is, his only hope is that God would accept him according to His mercy.
The Bible tells us explicitly and shows us implicitly that God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. David knows this to be true. As broken as he is, he knows God and how God relates to penitent people. He understands that God never hates or despises a broken and contrite heart. This is what God desires from us. This is what Jesus had in mind in the Beatitudes when He said, Blessed are those who mourn, for “they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). This text is not simply about grieving the loss of a loved one, but also the grief that we experience when convicted by our sin. Jesus assures us that when we grieve over our sin, God by His Holy Spirit will comfort us.
I would recommend that all Christians memorize Psalm 51. It is a perfect model of godly repentance. Many times in my life, I have come to the Lord and said, “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” or, “Blot out my transgressions. Purge me with hyssop. Wash me and make me clean.” Many times I’ve prayed, “O Lord, restore to me the joy of your salvation,” and cried out, “Against you, you only have I sinned.” When we feel overwhelmed by the reality of our guilt, words fail us as we seek to express ourselves in penitence before God. It truly is a blessing to have the words of Scripture themselves upon our lips on those occasions.
This excerpt is from R.C. Sproul's Crucial Questions booklet What Is Repentance?.