Psalm 51 is what Old Testament scholar James Mays calls a “liturgy of the broken heart.” Like so many of the psalms, it’s a prayer of someone who’s in deep trouble. Here, however, the psalmist doesn’t complain to God about God or other people causing that trouble. He admits he alone has caused the trouble about which he prays.
People have traditionally linked Psalm 51 to David’s sin of taking Bathsheba and Nathan’s prophetic response to it. Its superscription even explicitly makes that link. Yet even if that superscription is a later addition by biblical editors, even if David didn’t pray Psalm 51, he, as J. Clifton McCann, Jr. notes, could and should have prayed it.
While Psalm 51’s first five verses quickly heap “sin” synonyms on top of each other, the psalm begins with a plea for grace. The psalmist immediately pleads for forgiveness of her sin. However, she begs, in language that anticipates Luke 18:13’s tax collector’s prayer, for God’s mercy. The psalmist recognizes she doesn’t deserve God’s forgiveness. She doesn’t even claim she’ll somehow do better tomorrow or that her sin isn’t completely her fault. Instead we can almost picture the psalmist as scarcely being even able to lift her head to look up to God as she begs God to have mercy on her.
The psalmist recognizes his only hope for forgiveness lies in God’s unfailing love and great compassion. This recalls Exodus 34’s account of the aftermath of Israel’s worship of the golden calf. When Moses trudges back up Mount Sinai to receive a second set of tablets of God’s law, the Lord somehow passes in front of him, saying, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands …”
The grace-filled beginning of Psalm 51’s prayer of confession mirrors in some ways the context of Christians’ confession of sin. God’s sons and daughters don’t confess our sins desperately hoping God will somehow change God’s mind about and forgive us. No, we humbly make our confession, pleading for God’s mercy on the basis of God’s forgiveness already graciously given in Jesus Christ.
Yet those who preach and teach Psalm 51 may want to help hearers reflect on our culture, society and own natural reluctance to accept responsibility for wrongdoing. Such reluctance is, of course, as old as humanity’s sin itself. Eve blamed the serpent for tricking her into sinning and Adam blamed Eve for giving him some fruit. Since then people have constantly blamed other people or things for their sins. Few refrains are more familiar to our culture than, “Don’t blame me. It’s his (or her or their or its) fault.” We naturally have little interest in joining the psalmist in admitting “I have sinned.”
The psalmist offers no excuses for her sins. She doesn’t even use euphemisms such as, “Wrong was done” or “Mistakes were made.” She’s very straightforward in her talk about “my transgressions,” “all my iniquity” and “my sin.” The poet pictures her sin as a kind of figurative stain on her life and conscience that she needs God to graciously scrub away. After all, she begs God to “blot out,” “wash away” and “cleanse me.” It’s the image of ancient people washing dishes or clothing and modern people using various detergents and stain removers on stubborn stains.
His sin is so real and pervasive that the psalmist confesses that it’s always before him, in other words, always on his mind. He’s constantly aware that he’s sinned not just against other people, but also against God. In fact, he admits that he’s only sinned against the Lord. Rather than seeing this as an attempt to evade the hurt he’s caused other people, we can see this as an admission that the primary one the psalmist has hurt by his rebellion is the God who created and cares for him.
The stain that is her sin is, in fact, so pervasive that the psalmist admits it was somehow a part of her even at her conception. Systematic theologians may have reason for seeing this admission as evidence for the doctrine of original sin. However, the psalmist probably isn’t thinking so systematically. She’s simply confessing her sin is not some kind of aberration, out of character for her. She admits her sins spring from her natural sinfulness, her lifelong inclination to rebel against God’s good will and purposes. The psalmist confesses she isn’t just a sinner; she’s also sinful.
In fact, the psalmist is so aware of the pervasiveness of his sinfulness and sin that he longs for a radical transformation. Often psalmists plead for a change in their situations. This psalmist, instead, desires a change in himself. He knows that he has sinned against God and done what is evil in God’s sight. However, he desires “truth in the inner parts,” “wisdom in the inmost place,” “a pure heart” and “a steadfast spirit.”
Yet the psalmist also implies she can’t make this change on her own. She suggests that only the God who created and cares for her can transform her. So she longs for God to cleanse her with “hyssop” so that she can be clean. She desires that God wash her so that she’s whiter than snow. So Psalm 51 features a dramatic contrast between sin as stain and forgiveness as cleanness. It’s as if the psalmist couldn’t make any starker the contrast between the condition of sinfulness and that of forgiveness.
The psalmist’s life has been marked by consistent rebellion against God and missing of obedience’s target. However, he longs for an obedience and faithfulness that is even more “steadfast.” In other words, the psalmist pleads with God to give him what James Limburg calls a brand new beginning and a fresh start. In the light of the New Testament, we’d add that we long for a new spirit that has been washed in Jesus Christ’s blood and remodeled by the Holy Spirit.
Modern confession sometimes falls dreadfully short of the psalmist’s in today’s lesson. In the March 14, 2007 New York Times John Broder lists some examples in his article, “A Favorite for Foul-Ups: ‘Mistakes Were Made’.”
Broder refers to United States Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales who “fell back on a classic Washington linguistic construct … when he acknowledged ‘mistakes were made’ in the  dismissal of eight federal prosecutors’.” Broder adds, “The phrase sounds like a confession of error or even contrition, but in fact it is not quite either one. The speaker is not accepting personal responsibility.”
However, lest we assume such “contrition” is the exclusive domain of one American political party, Broder also notes, “Just 36 hours into his administration Mr. Clinton used that terminology when he withdrew the nomination of Zoe Baird as attorney general. In January 1997, he [also] acknowledged that the White House should not have invited the nation’s senior banking regulator to a meeting where Mr. Clinton and prominent bankers discussed banking policy in the presence of the Democratic Party’s senior fund-raiser. ‘Mistakes were made here by people who either did it deliberately or inadvertently,’ he said.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 2, 2015
Psalm 51:1-12 Commentary