A sermon on Psalm 51 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 24 October 2021
In Psalm 51, David, the psalm writer, asks for two things: mercy and grace. We experience mercy and grace when we are not treated the way that we deserve. When someone shows us mercy they spare us the bad things that we deserve. And when someone shows us grace they give us the good things that we do not deserve.
Both mercy and grace depend on this idea that our actions deserve a certain response. Good actions deserve a reward. A tip. A pay rise. A holiday. A prize. Bad actions, however, deserve a punishment. A reprimand. A fine. Losing a job. Losing freedom. This is how a community encourages acceptable behaviour and discourages unacceptable behaviour. We call it justice.
But God’s justice is not like our justice. Human justice is often unfair and unbalanced and harsh. We want to be shown mercy, but we don’t want to show mercy to others. We are kind to the people we like, but judgmental of people we don’t like. We want to hurt those who have done wrong and don’t care if they never experience anything good. But God’s ways are above our ways. And his justice is fair and balanced and aimed at our good. He treats everyone the same, both the people we like and the people we don’t like. He is consistent and never plays favourites. And he pursues his justice to help us not to hurt us.
Because God is our creator. He made us for life. He made us to experience his blessing. By our wrong actions and self-centred attitudes, we destroy what he has made beautiful and corrupt what he has made good. We embrace evil instead of good and choose death instead of life. But God is our heavenly Father. He does not desire the death of the sinner, but rather that he turn from his sin and live. His purpose for us is still life and blessing. And so his justice is merciful and his mercy is just.
Psalm 51 teaches us how to get mercy and grace when we need it. And David needed it. He had committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband Uriah to cover it up so that he could marry her himself. In this whole sordid story in 2 Samuel chapter 11 David breaks at least 4 of the 10 commandments. He had blood on his hands and guilt on his soul. He needed to be held accountable. He needed to realise that what he had done was wrong. He needed mercy and grace.
And it is for our good that David was able to find it. For when God forgives the worst of sinners like David, he proves to all of us that he can forgive us too. Because even the holiest saint has a past and even the worst of sinners has a future. Even you and even me.
Notice again the direct language in David’s requests.
Have mercy on me.
Blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity.
Cleanse me from my sin.
This is how people in a healthy family talk to each other, even when one of them has done wrong. David is not proud of what he has done. He is ashamed of his sin and aware of his guilt. But his shame and guilt do not cripple him to the point where he can’t turn to God in hope. David is a sinner, but a sinner with faith and not despair. He has offended God, but he knows that he is safe in God’s hands.
We are all sinners, but we must avoid the danger of losing hope. We must trust that however great our wrong, our heavenly Father is greater and can put right what we have done wrong.
And so David asks for what he needs. He asks for mercy. He asks for forgiveness. He asks for cleansing. And he does so on the basis of God’s consistent character.
According to his unfailing love.
According to his great compassion.
David is not asking God to act out of character, like begging a brutal father to act with decency and restraint for at least once in his life. David is asking God to be who he says he is. The compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. The God who does not give up on those who give up on him. The God who causes the sun to shine on the good and the bad and the rain to fall on the just and unjust.
What David does to get clean of the sin that stains him is to come clean before God.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
He knows what he has done and he does not hide it from the holy God. He confesses his sin. He admits it. He acknowledges it as a presence that is always with him. Something that he has done that he cannot undo, that he will have to live with for the rest of his life. He does not hide what he has done in darkness, but he brings it into the light.
Too often we only keep up appearances. We hide what we have done wrong. We cover it up with lies and distractions. Like a wound that heals on the outside while the infection continues deep within, making us sick while we look completely healthy. Confession, however, brings the infection to the surface, into the light where it looks worse, but heals quicker and more completely.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you when you speak and justified when you judge.
This is an example of poetic exaggeration. David doesn’t mean that by his adultery and murder he has done no wrong to Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. David means that whatever he has done, he has also done it to God. That God has a right to take it personally. That everything he has done to either God’s creation or to any one of his creatures, he has done it to the creator as well. If I lie to you, I sin against God. If I ignore you and don’t take you seriously, I sin against God. If I talk about you behind your back to ruin your reputation, I sin against God. And the sin is all the worse because I have offended him.
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.
This is what makes sin so serious. It’s like an infection, but it isn’t an infection like a virus I can catch and get rid of when I get better. Nor is it like a cancer that affects only part of me so that I can cut it out. Instead, it penetrates to every part of me and to the core of my being. It affects my thoughts, my values, my desires, my choices. It isn’t something that I picked up when I was twelve or when I travelled overseas. It has been part of me since the day I was born.
This is why it can’t be solved by token gestures. A hot bath. A special prayer. A couple of sessions of therapy. A pilgrimage to a holy place. A generous donation to charity. These are only bandaid solutions that might make us feel better without making us actually better. As David says later in his psalm,
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
These ceremonies are no help if they are only superficial. Something that we can go through the motions to keep up appearances and to reassure ourselves that we are okay. For if their true meaning does not penetrate into our hearts, into the core of our being, then they can do more harm than good. Like painting over a wall that is about to collapse.
As David goes on,
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
If our sin, our wrong, is not just external to us but has made its home in the centre of our lives, then its solution, its cleansing, its healing, must start at the centre of our lives. With real and genuine remorse and repentance for what we have done, that wishes that it had never happened, that freely expresses regret over all the terrible consequences, and yet turns to God in hope for his forgiveness and strength. A broken and contrite heart, meaning truly sorry and regretful heart, that puts itself in God’s hands to mend.
In particular, David asks for three things. Firstly, he prays for mercy.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
With these words he asks for forgiveness that the wrong he has done will not be held against him, that it will not stain his record for the rest of his life, and that the Lord’s discipline would not harm him permanently. Even if he must live with what he has done for the rest of his life, he still longs to live and to be spared the worst consequences of his actions.
Secondly, he asks for grace.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Restore to me the joy of your salvation.
Because life without the presence of God’s blessing, and without the blessing of God’s presence, is not life at all. It is just surviving. Instead, David asks for what we really need. For joy and gladness. The happiness that comes from God’s salvation. David doesn’t just want to feel good. He wants to be reminded that God is good and that God’s goodness is for him. That he has a future and that his destiny is still safe in God and that the fullness of God’s life is still his to enjoy.
This is what it means to be saved. It is more than mercy and forgiveness, but also includes grace and life and joy. It may not be what our actions deserve, but it is God’s purpose for us.
Thirdly, David asks for God’s strength in his continuing and growing obedience. For forgiveness is wasted if it returns us to just going back to doing the same old stuff instead of restoring us to a faithful and steadfast walk with God.
Create in me a pure heart, O God and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Grant me a willing spirit to sustain me.
David asks for purity, that his heart may not be tempted by sin but may be content with obedience. He asks for a steadfast spirit, one that is consistent and reliable, one that perseveres through trouble. He asks for a willing spirit, one that doesn’t not serve reluctantly or resentfully, but one that serves enthusiastically and joyfully. He asks for God to so influence his thoughts and values that he will willingly choose to walk in righteousness and to demonstrate God’s love and justice in all his actions.
Finally, David vows that his experience of God’s salvation will be an encouragement to others.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
He won’t keep it to himself. He won’t hoard God loves away for his own private use. But he will make it known in the market place and in the assembly of God’s people. Others will look at David in amazement and think, “if God can save him, God can save me.” David will become an inspiration to others, but not in such a way that he is the one who gets the credit, but that God does.
In Psalm 51, David asks for mercy and grace. And this is what we find in Jesus. That God’s justice, his righteousness, doesn’t destroy us, but in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God’s justice brings us life and hope and joy. In Jesus we do not receive the bad things that our actions deserve. Rather they fall upon him.
He was wounded for our transgressions.
And in Jesus we receive instead the good things that our actions don’t deserve.
By his wounds we are healed.
And by his risen life, we receive his Spirit of life that puts to death what is wrong in us and gives to us a willing and steadfast spirit to walk with Jesus all our life.
And David shows us in Psalm 51 how we can get mercy and grace. To ask for them from God in faith according to God’s own consistent character. To be honest about what we’ve done in order to bring our sin into God’s light. To not be content with an outward show of religion but to ask for real change in our inmost being. And to promise to share that love of God with others.