Psalm 51: Salvation in Song

Adultery.  Deceit.  Murder.  Who would want to even begin a song about such egregious wickedness?

David, king of Israel, had just committed adultery with the wife of another man, then hatched a complicated plot to bring about the death of her husband.  The prophet Nathan had come to the king with a pronouncement of God’s fierce wrath against this sin (II Samuel 11:1-12:15).  Thus far, as Biblical stories go, we find no surprises.  All throughout the Old Testament we see individuals, groups, and even nations blatantly disobeying God and suffering the just consequences for their misdeeds.

But what David says afterwards is a surprise.  He doesn’t try to justify himself, accuse his new wife, or distance himself further from God.  He says simply, “I have sinned against the Lord.”  It is this bald confession of guilt from II Samuel 12:13 that forms the basis for Psalm 51.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
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.

–Psalm 51:1-4 (ESV)

In four simple verses, David conveys all of the following ideas:

  • I have sinned.
  • I have sinned firstly against God.
  • God is just.
  • God is also merciful.
  • God alone can blot out my sins.

Here we see a marvelous blend of guilt and grace, despair and hope, sin and salvation, which continues throughout the rest of the psalm.  David goes on to declare man’s total depravity, as compared to God’s perfect righteousness:

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.

–Psalm 51:5-6

Despite his realization of utter helplessness, the psalmist is not without hope.  He goes on to express his confidence in God as his only Savior:

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
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.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.

–Psalm 51:7-12

Only by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit could David present this stunning picture of regeneration.  Though living in the time of the Old Testament laws and sacrificial worship, he understood that God demanded a clean heart—not just a clean façade.  He saw that it was the Holy Spirit who preserved his relationship with God, and that true joy could only come from total reliance on his Savior.  This revelation is marvelous enough, but David does not stop here.  Instead, he goes on to express his reaction to the saving grace of God:

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.

–Psalm 51:13-15

Here we see a clear display of gospel evangelism—in the Old Testament!  Expectant of forgiveness, David overflows with praise for God’s righteousness and promises to tell others what his Savior has done for him.  As we study the Old Testament, we might ask why David doesn’t first provide the thank offerings prescribed by the ceremonial law.  As if he anticipated this question, the psalmist writes:

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.

–Psalm 51:16, 17

Echoing the theme of Psalm 50, David perceives that God has never desired only superficial obedience to his commandments.  Instead he requires a pure heart.  Because all of us are corrupted by sin, however, only God can give us this new spirit.  Through Psalm 51 we can obtain a glimpse of the true nature of the triune God as the “founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12).

With this context, the final verses of Psalm 51 almost seem misplaced:

Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of Jerusalem;
then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.

–Psalm 51:18, 19

I’ve often struggled with the meaning of these last few lines.  The reference to Jerusalem appears to be practically irrelevant in light of the pointedly individual theme of Psalm 51.  The statements about “burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings” seem almost contradictory compared to v. 16, which declares that God has no pleasure in such sacrifices.  This passage only makes sense when viewed from the perspective of the complete story of salvation.

You might be familiar with the series “Sin, Salvation, Service” or “Guilt, Grace, Gratitude” as summaries of the content of the Heidelberg Catechism.  Interestingly, I believe this progression is the key to completing the message of Psalm 51. In the first twelve verses, David focuses on guilt and grace.  But in v. 13 and following, we see David’s joyful reaction to God’s salvation, in which he pours forth his gratitude.  So what are the sacrifices in v. 19?  Could it be that David is referring not to specific ceremonies, but to heartfelt deeds of service in gratitude to God?  Certainly this is how we as Christians should react to the salvation of Jesus Christ.  And what is Jerusalem?  In the New Testament, Zion is consistently understood to refer to the church of God.  Thus, Psalm 51 seems to indicate that the proper response to God’s mercy should include a desire to unite with the body of believers.  What a glorious completion!

After studying this text, I have to challenge the common notion that Psalm 51 is merely a song of confession to be utilized only in times of deepest guilt and repentance.  Rather, how rich our Christian walks would be if we lived out every day in the assurance David describes!  Every believer would do well to hold this psalm in constant remembrance, for without a doubt, Psalm 51 is one of the clearest Old Testament pictures of God’s ultimate plan of salvation—from guilt to grace to gratitude, and from the grave to glory.

Sinners then shall learn from me
And return, O God, to Thee;
Savior, all my guilt remove,
And my tongue shall sing Thy love;
Touch my silent lips, O Lord,
And my mouth shall praise accord!

–MRK

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