To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.
1 Have mercy on me, O God, / according to your steadfast love; / according to your abundant mercy / blot out my transgressions. / 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, / and cleanse me from my sin! / 3 For I know my transgressions, / and my sin is ever before me. / 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned / and done what is evil in your sight, / so that you may be justified in your words / and blameless in your judgment. / 5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, / and in sin did my mother conceive me. / 6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, / and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart. / 7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; / wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. / 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; / let the bones that you have broken rejoice. / 9 Hide your face from my sins, / and blot out all my iniquities. / 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, / and renew a right spirit within me. / 11 Cast me not away from your presence, / and take not your Holy Spirit from me. / 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, / and uphold me with a willing spirit. / 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, / and sinners will return to you. / 14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, / O God of my salvation, / and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. / 15 O Lord, open my lips, / and my mouth will declare your praise. / 16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; / you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. / 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; / a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. / 18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; / build up the walls of Jerusalem; / 19 then will you delight in right sacrifices, / in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; / then bulls will be offered on your altar. 
Several years ago, a Christian author coined a phrase to describe people she accused of teaching a “skewed view of grace.” She called this “‘celebratory failurism’—the idea that …our failure is ultimately cause to celebrate because it makes grace all the more beautiful.” David not only wrote this psalm of confession, he prefaced it with a reference to his particular sins to make the perfectly holy God’s steadfast love all the more beautiful. What’s more, he wrote it for all Israel to sing as part of their temple worship in celebration of God’s grace that looks beyond animal sacrifices to something greater and permanent.
This psalm appears in a section of the psalter particularly concerned with status before God. Psalm 49 warns against presuming that riches equal right standing with God. Psalm 50 warns against mere outward worship while flouting God’s law. Psalms 52-54 continue the warnings that sin requires judgment. This section of the psalter is all about “failurism.”
Psalm 51 is a song for the skeletons in our closet that haunt us, the sins that interrupt our intimacy with God. It a song for those who continue to allow past failure to drive them into slavery to performancism – trying to atone for our own deficiencies by aggressive and successful living. It is a song for those who cannot save themselves from the power of sin – and that is each and every one of us. Finally, it’s a hymn to remind us we cannot even begin to see our sins until they are exposed by the light of God’s Law and the height and breadth and depth of God’s Gospel.
BACKGROUND (2 Samuel 11-12)
David tells us he composed this hymn based on his committing both adultery and murder. In a moment of lust, he took the wife of one of his mighty men while this Gentile soldier who had trusted into David as Israel’s messiah was off fighting a war for the king. In our society, we would consider this a sexual assault since David was the supreme ruler and Bathsheba could not have refused the king without harm to herself.
Bathsheba became pregnant and David tried to cover it up by recalling Uriah from battle in hopes he would sleep with his to hide David’s love child. Uriah was a loyal soldier and refused to seek his own pleasure while his fellow soldiers were still fighting. So, David sent him back to the battle with sealed instructions for the general to arrange Uriah’s death. That meant that the only person unaware of this murder plot was Uriah. The general knew; all the other soldiers knew of the secret order to abandon Uriah at the enemy wall leaving him defenseless against the onslaught of arrows and stones pouring down from above. David’s cold, calculated, pre-meditated murder was an open secret.
BathshebaGate was on. Weeks pass. Months pass. Still, David lives quietly with his sins despite both adultery and murder being capital crimes under Mosaic Law. David is guilty twice over. The Law demands his death (Deut. 22:23–24; Num. 35:19f.). The kingdom whispers, but David remains silent. He continues to attend Sabbath services, singing psalms he’s composed and offering sacrifices – going through the motions of outward devotion to God.
David had not yet considered the greatness of the weight of his sins. Then Nathan the prophet came and confronted the king, exposing his sin for the horrible thing it really was. Only then do we read in 2 Samuel 12:13, “13 David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ And Nathan said to David, ‘The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.’” Only then could messiah David consider the greatness of God’s lovingkindness to one marked for death.
Nobody feels the weight of sin who does not hear God’s Word. Nobody seeks grace who does not feel the weight of sin. And nobody is free of the guilt of sin who cannot understand the work of grace.
First, notice how David begins: “Have mercy on me, O God….” He cannot approach God with his confession before making a plea to God’s mercy. “…mercy is the sole basis of any approach to God by sinners. We cannot come to God on the basis of his justice; justice strikes us with fear and causes us to hide from him. We are not drawn to God by his wisdom; wisdom does not embolden us, though we stand in awe of it. No more does omniscience, omnipotence, or omnipresence. The only reason we dare come to God and dare hope for a solution to our sin problem is his mercy.”
He begs mercy “according to your steadfast love,” a covenant word that refers to God’s one-way choice to be a Father to the people of Israel regardless of their faithlessness. This is God’s unconditional, one-way love, his covenant-loyalty love that never fails and never fluctuates because I AM does not change. He cannot change. David did not love God with all his heart, soul, and mind but God never stopped loving David with all the perfection of his eternal existence. And that is true of you if you are trusting into Christ this morning. You cannot alter, increase, or decrease the perfection of God’s love for you.
David used three words to describe God’s compassion for confessing sinners: mercy, steadfast love, and tender mercies (abundant mercy). He also uses three words to describe his sin. The first word is transgressions (peshaʿ). It refers to crossing a forbidden boundary with the thought that this is a seriously stubborn rebellion. The second word is iniquity (awon). It means “perversion” or “inner twistedness” and refers to what we usually call “original sin” or the “depravity” of our natures. Significantly, it is the word used in the first part of verse 5, in the phrase “sinful from birth.” The third word is sin itself (chattath). It means “falling short” or “missing the mark” (Rom. 3:23). We miss God’s high mark of perfection, falling short of it in the same way an arrow might fall short of a target. But it is also true that sin misses its own mark since we never hit what we are aiming at by sinning.
He goes deeper in verse 4, “Against you, you only, have I sinned / and done what is evil in your sight….” The psalmist understands that ALL sin is against God alone. Sin by its very definition is against God since it is only by God’s law that sin is defined as sin. A wrong done to our neighbor is an offense against humanity. In the eyes of the state, which measures wrongs by its own laws, that wrong may be a crime. Only before God is it a sin.
Knowing how lightly we consider our own sins, we can picture David thinking how all his hard work – fighting the Gentiles to build God’s kingdom, all the psalms he’s written, bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Mt. Zion, building a temple/tent and making ready for the permanent temple to come – all these things will balance out whatever “mistakes” he may have made. That seems to be how he lived with himself for months until Nathan the prophet came to confront him. Only then did he realize there are no achievements, great or small, that can ever balance the evil in his heart. I imagine there are many, many people in churches today that would cut out their own tongues before they said of themselves what David sings here to God. O, they might sing it heartily in a good old hymn; but they would never, never admit personally what they sing corporately.
David went to worship every Sabbath and sang about the very sin he refused to personally own. He did this over and over, Sabbath after Sabbath for about nine months. But he never prayed this prayer until God, in his loyalty love, backed his anointed into a corner and revealed David’s sin in all its ugliness. Only then did all the “WE’s” and “US’s” of his corporate worship become “ME” and “MY” and “I have … done what is evil.” We can get away with all sorts of churchy performance until God chooses to grab hold of our hearts and turns our “WE’s” into “ME’s”
Remember how the prodigal son came to the end of himself? “18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’” Before we can understand the depth of God’s one-way love, we must come to see the depth of our sins.
David has come to understand that, no matter how he describes these actions of rebellion, they are simply expressions of a congenital condition. Sin is a condition that expresses itself in thoughts, words, and actions. In Psalm 22, David sang that God gave him faith from infancy, from his mother’s womb. Contrast that statement to this: “5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, / and in sin did my mother conceive me.” 
David is confessing there was never a moment when he was innocent before God. He lays on himself the blame of a tainted nature, rather than merely admitting the guilt of bad acts. That’s the deeper problem, isn’t it? I can modify my outward behavior. But I cannot modify my sin nature, my inward curvature that forces me to define my life as being all about ME. My human nature, my Old Adam, is so curved inward I cannot see my offenses against God. And even when David’s conscience accused him, he continued to live as if God didn’t know what David had done.
In verse 6 the psalmist states the flip side of this basic tainted nature: God delights in only true hearts, not tainted hearts. The sinner has two needs: pardon for sin, and a pure heart. The first half of David’s song covers the need for pardon. The second half covers the need for purity.
So, the psalmist sings in verse 7, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; / wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” The words David uses here are quite powerful. Purge me (teḥaṭṭeʼēnî, literally, “de-sin me”) means “take away the mass of sin.” To wash had the connotation of stomping on garments – think beating wet clothes on a rock or repeatedly running them over a scrubbing board. In verse 9 he sings, “blot out all my iniquities.” He’s not singing of backspacing over a typo in MS Word; he’s thinking in terms of breaking tablets of stone to obliterate the words, or of stripping off a layer of parchment to obliterate a word. These are words of painful effort to achieve results.
But David is desperate for a sense of joy. He suggests in verse 8 that it has some time since he experienced joy: “Let me hear joy and gladness; / let the bones that you have broken rejoice.” He’s not singing for God to change his feelings from sadness to happiness; he’s asking to hear the joy and gladness of worship. He’s attended worship but he has been deaf to its joy, pushing it out of his ears and standing off at a distance from God’s people. His problem was NOT that church wasn’t serving him well enough. When you’re mad at other people when you’re not feeling served or taken care of in church, your problem is NOT church or worship; your problem is with God.
In our consumer society, we don’t ever have to face that fact. We just throw away one brand and go out and buy another one to make us feel happy. We trade one friend for another, one spouse for another, one congregation for another. But you will never, never, never hear joy and gladness until you see and repent of YOUR failures and celebrate God’s sovereign care of you and his one-way love for you despite your sin.
David recognizes his sin. He confesses his condition. And he pleads for salvation. The reason he wrote this psalm is to teach us that no matter how heavy our sense of sin and guilt may be, no matter how great our sense of past failures, no matter how exhausting are our attempts to make up for failure with trying harder and doing more, there is a hope worth celebrating. He sings that in verse 13, doesn’t he? He wants to proclaim joy to sinners. “13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, / and sinners will return to you.” If he can be saved, his life will be so transformed that he will not be able to keep this good news to himself. He will have to celebrate it publically.
Do you see his petition for salvation in verse 7? “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; / wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” Hyssop was a brushy plant, first mentioned in scripture at the first Passover: “Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood in the basin and put some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the doorframe” (Exod. 12:22). St. Author of Hebrews tells us Moses used hyssop to proclaim God’s covenant with Israel:
…not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. 19 For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, 20 saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.” 21 And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. 22 Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. 
David is asking for a sacrifice that can not only be sprinkled over his defiled body but over his sinful and guilty soul to create a clean heart and renew a right spirit and produce truth in his inward being. Yet David knew the temple sacrifices couldn’t do for him what he was asking. “16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; / you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.” He needed the reality behind the symbol. Crackers are just crackers; wine is just wine. But there is a reality behind them just as there was a reality behind sprinkled blood.
David is praying for a reality behind the symbol because there is nothing in his hands to bring. This is why his hymn opens with a plea to God’s one-way love, the love to which God obligates himself to save his people. That is audacious! It’s brash. God, I have not only turned my back on you but I have openly disgraced you; now, please save me! That is the ultimate “celebratory failurism” isn’t it? He is hopelessly condemned to death by God’s Law and there is no sacrifice to make for adultery and murder.
Remember 2 Samuel 12:13? “…Nathan said to David, ‘The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.’” Something or someone innocent had to die. God’s holy nature (revealed in his perfect Law) demanded a death. But David knows no mere slain animal can remove his sin and cleanse his heart. How can the Lord put away David’s sinful actions, much less cleanse David’s heart?
This psalm is written about that fraction of a second between David owning his deathworthy failures before Nathan and Nathan’s pronouncement of God’s forgiveness. In that fraction of a second, something has been anticipated in heaven. Something has been applied in eternity before it has occurred in time and space. One day Messiah will cry out as the perfect sacrifice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in payment for David’s sin and as the means for David’s new nature and clean heart.
The message of the Gospel is that God obligated himself to love failures and cleanse them not only of their sin but all their sense of guiltiness and shame so that they no longer have to exhaust themselves chasing after a feeling they have finally tipped the balance in their favor. Now, because of God’s one-way love made perfect in the sacrificial death of the resurrected and ascended Messiah Jesus, we are freed from failure and free to celebrate the absolute fact of our cleansing – if we are trusting into the perfectly-lived life and sacrificial death of the now-glorified Lamb of God.
What David could only anticipate, St. Author of Hebrews proclaims:
11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
 Jen Wilkin, Failure Is Not a Virtue. Gospel Coalition, Blogs Section (5/1/14). Accessed 5/2/17 at: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/failure-is-not-a-virtue
 W. Robert Godfrey, Learning to Love the Psalms (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2017), 103.
 Boice, 425.
 Boice, 426.
 Boice, 427.
 Waltke, et. al., 474.