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.

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