Psalm 51 – A Biography of Sin
Psalm 51 is a familiar picture of dust, disaster, and deceit. It is heartfelt cry to God from one who has committed an unspeakable sin in the eyes of God. The particulars of the sin are not enumerated in the Psalm itself, however the super scription added to the psalm fills in the blanks.
The historical background for Psalm 51 is 2 Samuel 11-12. David was in residence in Jerusalem while his armies are battling the Ammonites. He observes Bathsheba, the wife of one of his military generals, bathing on her rooftop. He sends for her, has intercourse with her, and then conspires and has her husband, Uriah, killed in battle. When Nathan confronts David with the implications of what he has done, David’s only words are, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam 12:13). Psalm 51 could thus be read as the rest of David’s words; David’s confession of sin and his plea for forgiveness.
Awareness of sin can come through many different ways. In David’s case, awareness came as the prophet Nathan proclaimed it to him through his parable and his condemnation, “You are the man.” For many of us, awareness of our sin comes through the teaching of the church and personal reflection on our own shortcomings and sins. Awareness of sin can come through hearing the stories of those whom we have sinned against—either directly or indirectly, through systems of sin and oppression. Such awareness is crucial to the process of repentance and forgiveness and reconciliation.
Psalm 51 is, by any measure, one of the best-known and most often read penitential texts. Of the seven penitential Psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143), Psalms 38 and 51 are the only two that focus explicitly on confessing sin. This Psalm is often and fitly called the ‘sinner’s guide’. It is one of those bold and courageous prayers that contains all the promise we need to begin the process of reconciliation, renewal, and restoration this season offers us.
Psalm 51:1-17 can be dissected into four sections: verses 1-6 which address God’s character and human frailty, verses 7-12 which plead forgiveness and restoration, verses 13-15 which looks expectantly toward reconciliation, and verses 16-17 which offer closing thoughts on sin, sacrifice, and repentance.
There are several themes related to the topic of sin in Psalm 51. One of them is about the consequences of and the remedy for sinfulness, rather than merely sins. It is an exposé on personal guilt and the recognition that no human act can erase the stain caused by personal sin. Only God’s act of forgiveness will wipe the slate clean. Only God can make things right where a lack of right remains.
The psalm may be ensconced in the sin of David but it admits to all personal sin, transgression, iniquity, and evil. But even more, it is an attempt to tell us about the nature and character of God’s forgiving grace. This is another important theme in the Psalm. The character of God is described as one that is steadfast in love and abundant in mercy and that he and only he can take away our sin. We approach God and dare to ask for forgiveness not because we deserve it, not because we will do better next time, not because we are truly sincere, not because of anything about us or what we do. We approach God and dare ask for forgiveness because of who God is.
Just as a eulogy reviews the life of the dead, so too the psalm reviews the biography of sin.
The radical and persistent nature of sin and its deadly effects are all too familiar. It is for this reason that the psalmist approaches God and petitions for God’s mercy, faithfulness, and compassion (51:1). The psalm is an acknowledgment that it takes the divine to put sin to death and to renew life. As described by the Psalmist, the totality of sin’s impact is stunning. That sin causes guilt and remorse in the sinner (verse 3) and leaves the sinner liable to judgment and punishment (verse 4)
In the first ten verses the psalmist offers a prayer of confession and request for absolution. The psalm begins with a petition for God to purge the psalmist’s sin, and this theme dominates half of the psalm: “Blot out my transgressions, wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, cleanse me from my sin, purge me with hyssop, wash me, blot out my iniquities” (51:1, 2, 7, 9). In this way, it pleads for eradication of all sin and not only the most recent infraction; not in part but the whole. One might dare to say that the psalmist presents his sinfulness itself for eradication. When he pleads to have his transgressions blotted out, he pleads for his ‘sinful record’ to be obliterated from the spiritual records for there is a great shame that hovers over him
Through the psalmist’s vulnerability, we are reminded that none of us can escape sin (v.5) Yet, God desires that all of us be faithful, and any turn toward faithfulness — whether inward or outward — suggests that sin never gets the final word in God’s desires (v. 6). Psalm 51 provides us with an opportunity to think deeply and critically about the complex and ever important issue of sin, about where it originates and how it can be put to death and about its nature and its effects.
We are that time of the year when the church invites us to test our inner freedom, and to question the notion: I can take it or leave it alone. Try that with pornography, drink, complaining, talking about yourself, gossiping, gambling. What habits make you hard to live with? Lent is about regaining control of our own lives, especially in those areas that damage other people. We don’t admire those whose appetites or habits lead them by the nose.
Psalm 51 is more about the grace of God than the failure of humanity, and this is good news to all of us who stand in a long line of sinners. The easy way for all of us to journey these forty days would be to travel lightly without knowledge of this Psalm, ignoring and hiding the unpolished places of our lives. Thanks be to God that we aren’t allowed to do that. Not in Lent. This season teaches us that if we hide all of our imperfections, we cheapen the potential for personal and corporate renewal, restoration, and resurrection.
Lent like Psalm 51is really a journey that takes all of us to a beautiful destination — resurrection morning where death and sin are defeated.