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Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love. Psalm 51:1
In the aftermath of an earthquake — or any other natural disaster, for that matter — people inevitably second-guess themselves. “Why wasn’t I home when it happened? If I had only been there, maybe we wouldn’t have lost everything. Why didn’t we take out that extra insurance when we had the chance last year? Why didn’t we put our valuables in the safety deposit box at the bank? Why did I let the kids stay home on this day, of all days?” Why, oh why?
Hindsight is 20/20. We beat ourselves up equally over minor omissions and major commissions. We torture ourselves with regret, with remorse and with recalcitrance. We agonize over what could have been or what should have been.
If that is the case with a geological earthquake, how much more is it the case with a moral earthquake. Guilt, blame and sorrow necessarily hang over the aftermath of our moral failures, moral ruptures and moral collapses. They are the natural companions of sin-provoked tragedy.
No doubt, David dealt with all that and more in the aftermath of his moral earthquake. But instead of wallowing in his grief, he sought relief in the mercy of God.
The record of his recovery process is a marvel to behold. For every one of us who must journey through this poor fallen world, it is a tremendous encouragement. It enables us to get past the second-guessing, the brow-beating and the soul-searching. It enables us to see past the ruin and rubble we have made of our circumstances and get on with life.
In fact, Psalm 51 — the stunningly transparent passage that offers a glimpse of David’s repentance and recovery — was written not merely for private prayer but as a public song. In his brilliant commentary on the book of Psalms, The Treasury of David, Charles Spurgeon asserts that this psalm is equally suitable for individual penitence and for an entire assembly. It gives voice to our deepest longings for forgiveness and rest — whether we are alone in our closet or arrayed around the throne with the whole congregation of the Lord.
The universal cry
The psalm was written after Nathan the prophet came to David and confronted him with his sin (see 2 Sam. 11–12). Nathan’s message had reawakened David’s hardened heart and made him see the greatness of his guilt. As a result, the once-prolific troubadour of the Lord returned to his long-forgotten harp and poured out this song — accompanied with various sighs and tears.
David speaks specifically about three slights he had committed against the integrity of the Lord: transgressions, iniquities and sins. He clearly differentiates between these three violations. Then he asks God to deal with those breaches in ways appropriate to each: to blot out his transgressions, to wash his iniquities and to cleanse his sins.
In this regard, Psalm 51 is a substantive paradigm for the prayer of forgiveness. Not surprisingly, it has always been recognized as such. Only heaven has recorded how many thousands and thousands of believers through the centuries have come to this psalm and prayed it as their own — for it expresses the universal cry for mercy in the midst of the calamity of a moral earthquake.
It contains a message that is both forthright and obvious: any of us — from the little child, who tells what we call a “fib,” to the vilest of sinners — can appeal to God for forgiveness and the restoration of a joyous life of service if we simply come to Him with a contriteness of mind, with a brokenness of spirit and with a true heart intent on unrestrained repentance.
David begins his remarkable journey of recovery and repentance with a heartfelt confession of sin. Thus, he appeals to the mercy of God.
Isaiah the prophet asked: “The Lord’s hand is not so short that it cannot save; nor is His ear so dull that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God…so that He does not hear” (59:1–2, NASB).
So often we rush into prayer with things in our heart and life that we haven’t asked God to blot out or cleanse away,and then wonder why we can’t get the ear of God, why we can’t live a victorious Christian life.
David begins his prayer with a recognition that his rebellion has separated him from the Lord. He appeals for an audience in the throne room of heaven by entering with confession on his lips: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions” (Ps. 51:1, NIV).
He didn’t appeal to God on the basis of judgment, and he certainly didn’t come on the basis of merit. He didn’t come to God and say, “Hey, look at all the wonderful things I’ve done in the past for the sake of your name and your kingdom. Let’s just put all of my good deeds over here on a scale. Oh sure, I’ve blown it in a few areas, but look how many more good deeds I’ve done.”
It is a dangerous thing to move off the ground of grace. God does not grade on the curve. He doesn’t populate His kingdom by percentages and comparisons. The fact is, none of us deserve anything from Him. We are able to approach Him solely and completely because of His tender mercies. Thus, David appeals to the God of “unfailing love” and of “great compassion.” There is no pretense or implication of just desserts.
David initiates his soulful prayer with a full recognition of the fact that he does not deserve forgiveness — not in the least. Thus, he can only appeal for mercy. There is no other ground for negotiation. Mercy is not getting what we deserve. Mercy is not getting what is fair. Mercy is altogether the gracious gift of our long-suffering sovereign God.
So, David prays, “Blot out my transgressions.” The Hebrew word for “transgressions” appears nearly a hundred times in the Old Testament. It literally means “to rebel, to revolt or to cross over the line.” It describes a gross violation of the law, not merely a slight omission or a piddling mistake. It describes a spirit of defiant disobedience to authority. Transgressions are flagrant, deliberate and premeditated breaches of a clear standard. It is not irresponsibility; it is rebellion.
David admits that his sin was indeed a transgression. There were no ifs, ands or buts about it. David deliberately set his face against the clearly revealed will of God. He sinned. He rebelled. He knew precisely what he was doing the whole time he was doing it, and he admits as much. He says, “I’ve stepped over the line. I’ve transgressed. I’ve revolted. I’ve rebelled. I’ve been disobedient.”
On that basis — without even a hint of hedging, justifying or conditioning — David asks God to blot out those awful transgressions. The Hebrew word translated “blot out” literally means “to wipe away or to utterly erase.” It was used by Moses when he appealed to God for the nation of Israel. As he stood on Mount Sinai in the stead of his people, he said: “But now, please forgive their sin — but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (Exod. 32:32, NIV).
Later, it was used to describe a man who wipes a dish on one side and then turns it over and wipes it again (2 Kings 21:13).
All of us know firsthand the agonizing experience of stepping over the line. Each of us has deliberately, self-consciously and purposefully rebelled against God. We have no excuses. We cannot rectify our violation of the integrity of God. We cannot justify our actions in any way. We are left entirely to the mercy of God, and what does He do in the face of such blatant sin? Like an accountant erasing a mistake, God blots out our transgressions. He erases them from the ledger altogether. He wipes them clean so that they look brand-new and spotless. It is almost as if the besmirching of our character had never occurred.
Having dealt with his transgressions, David now focuses on a different aspect of his sin. Not only had he stepped over the line and transgressed, he had also defiled and soiled himself with iniquity. So he prayed: “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” (Ps. 51:2, NIV).
In the original Hebrew text, the word translated “iniquity” literally means “to bend, to twist, to distort.” Elihu utilized the same word when the sinner confessed that he had “perverted what was right” (Job 33:27). It was also expressively employed by Jeremiah the prophet to describe the opposite of the straight and narrow way of a righteous life — it was, instead, the crooked pathway of wickedness (Lam. 3:9).
David confesses that he has not only transgressed the perfect standards of God, he has twisted and distorted his calling and destiny in life. He has gone by the wayside. He has perverted and polluted his providential purpose in life. Though all the damage cannot be undone and all his squandered benefits cannot be fully reinstated, he knows that something must be done. His twisted perversion and the vile pollution of his iniquities must be dealt with.
So, David asks God to wash him thoroughly. The Hebrew verb we translate “wash” is almost always used to describe the “cleaning of clothes” or the “removal of stains.” David asks God to wash him like a dirty shirt. Notice, he desires not only his clothing to be washed, but he pleads: “Wash me.” While the casual sinner is content with a light dusting off, the truly awakened conscience desires a complete and efficient washing. One sin pollutes our entire nature. One breach covers us with filth and entirely distorts our purpose in life. It twists our countenance beyond recognition.
Thus, we must deal seriously with sin, just as David does. Iniquities must be washed.
David moves from transgressions to iniquities to sins. Not only had he stepped over the line and transgressed, not only had he defiled and twisted his calling and purpose with iniquity, but he had also fallen short of the mark and sullied his soul — he had sinned. So he prays: “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” (Ps. 51:2, NIV).
The word David chooses to express the idea of “sin” is used almost 300 times in the Old Testament. The first mention of it was in the story of Cain and Abel. There we read, “If you do not do well, sin lies at the door” (Gen. 4:7). This Hebrew word is much like its New Testament equivalent. It literally means “missing the mark.” It illustrates a failed attempt to shoot at a bull’s-eye — the arrow flies away from the intended target and completely misses the mark. David admits, “That is what I have done.”
Notice that his “transgressions” were plural — all the times that he had stepped over the line. But they are replaced by the singular “sin” here. All his many transgressions had each sprung from a common root — sin. Later in this magnificent prayer, he expresses this profound truth: “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51: 5). All our transgressions spring from a common root — that sin nature in which we were born.
David asks God to cleanse him. The word he uses for “cleanse” literally means “to scour, to purify or to depurate.” It describes the process of “purging” or of “absolution.” It also appears in the story of Naaman, who had leprosy. He was told to dip seven times in the Jordan and he would be clean (see 2 Kings 5). If he did as he was told, he would be purified, and the disease would be purged from his body.
Before David asks God for anything else, before he petitions the throne for any other prerogatives, before he makes supplication for any other matter — before he petitions God to create in him a clean heart or renew within him a steadfast spirit or return to him the joy of his salvation — he appeals for mercy in the face of his defiled estate. He asks to be cleansed of his filthiness.
David takes the full blame for his transgressions, iniquities and sins. Notice the personal pronouns he uses: my transgressions, my iniquities and my sins. There is no one to blame for his foolish acts of rebellion — and he doesn’t even try. There is no psychoanalysis, no probing into his past, no discussion of all the pressure he’d been under or no consideration of how lonely it is at the top. David refuses to play the blame game. He knows it wasn’t the devil, his circumstances or anything else that caused his moral earthquake. He knows the responsibility is all his — and he accepts it.
Apparently, this reality was inescapable for David; it hounded him. Though it had been nearly a year since the calamity of his sin, he admits, “My sin is always before me” (Ps. 51:3). It continued to haunt him. He says: “Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in your sight … that You may be found just when You speak, and blameless when You judge” (Ps. 51:4). David acknowledges that he had crossed the line God had drawn for his life. He acknowledges his transgressions.
It is tragic how so few people really get to this place. Some of us are pretty good at acknowledging sin — as long as it is not our sin that we are acknowledging. It is easy to confess the sins of others, and we’re pretty good at acknowledging the sins of the church. We’re certainly opinionated about acknowledging the sins of the nation, but most of us find it difficult to say, “I’m the one. I did it. I’m guilty.” David wasn’t caught up in the transgressions of anyone else. His own transgressions had been hounding him. He says, “My sin is always before me.” Apparently, everywhere he turned he saw the ghost of his rebellious past. He saw it in the eyes of the people around him. He lived with it for twelve months. He thought about it at night, lying in the darkness before he went to sleep.
That is one of the most debilitating things about unconfessed sin. It hounds us. Until he got to the place of confession and repentance that we find in this psalm, David lived nearly a year with his sin hounding him. Every day was spent looking over his shoulder, wondering if he was going to be found out, telling one lie to cover another, and yet another to cover that one. His sin had begun to dominate his every waking moment.
Not only did he discover that sin hounds the sinner, it also haunts him. “Against You, God, and You only have I sinned,” he confesses. A casual observer might have objected, “I thought his sin was against Uriah. He stole his wife. He stole from Uriah. And, as if that were not bad enough, he took Uriah’s life.” Another might disagree, saying, “I thought his sin was against Bathsheba. He initiated this affair. He brought her up into his palace and wooed her, persuaded her and seduced her.” Still another might say, “I thought his sin was against the innocent baby that never had a chance to live because of his father’s sin.”
But according to David, the most heinous aspect of his sin was that it was an assault on God’s integrity. The thought that haunted him the most was that his sin was an affront to God. Indeed, though he certainly took advantage of those around him, his primary offense was against God — because all sin is first and foremost a violation of His standards.
This really is the horrible thing about crossing the line — transgressing. This is the great tragedy of twisting the truth, of going the crooked way and of missing the mark. This is the horrible, haunting thing about it: at the root of it all, our sin is an offense against God.
Do we realize that when we talk back to our parents, it is a sin against God? Do we realize when we cut corners on our IRS return, that we’ve not only cheated the government of the United States, but we have sinned against God?
Like the prodigal son, David confesses, “I have sinned against heaven and before You, and I am no longer worthy to be called Your son” (Luke 15:18–19). Nevertheless, he repented; and like the prodigal son, he was able to return home — not as a hired servant or a second-class citizen. He was able to return home as an honored son.
That is the way God takes us back. We don’t have to live being hounded and haunted by our transgressions. We can go home — and there find forgiveness and rest.
David was genuinely sorrowful. He was grieved over his transgressions, iniquities and sins. Not once does he attempt to justify his sin or give excuses. David was not just sorry he got caught; he was sorry for what he had done against God.
“Surely I was sinful at birth,” he prayed, “sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5, NIV).
David acknowledged that he was born with a sinful nature. We must ask ourselves this question: Are we a sinner because we have sinned or do we sin because we are sinners? A lot of people think we are all born good. Then, because of our environment or other factors, our pure primordial goodness is somehow contaminated. They suppose that it is some external pressure that manages to drag us down. They believe that the pressure of the world provokes us to act badly from time to time, but that such behavior is actually out of the norm for us.
David doesn’t pull any of these punches. He places the blame squarely where it belongs — with himself. He says, “I sin because I’m a sinner. I was born that way.” With the apostle Paul, he says: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12, NIV). And with the prophet Isaiah he asserts: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6, NIV).
The Bible says we are born with this inherent sinful nature. But doesn’t man have a free will? Yes, we have a free will and we are free to do what we want to do. And you know what we want to do? We want to sin. We’re born with that sinful nature. This is what the great reformer Martin Luther called the “bondage of the will.” A little baby that doesn’t get satisfied with a bottle at the right time doubles up her fist and throws a tantrum.
David faces this fact clearly. He sees the cataclysm of his life in light of this great truth. He confesses. Thus, he finds light and life.
- Do you see the difference between transgressions, iniquities and sins?
- Have you appropriated God’s provision for blotting, washing and cleansing?
- Have you accepted full responsibility for your past actions?
- Have you come to terms with your sinful nature and your need for God’s mercy?
- Have you ever prayed through this prayer of David's in the aftermath of a moral earthquake?
- Moral Earthquakes & Secret Faults: Reaching a new generation for Christ - Part 18
- Moral Earthquakes & Secret Faults: Quake-proofing - Part 17
- Moral Earthquakes & Secret Faults: Little is Much - Part 16
- Moral Earthquakes & Secret Faults: The God of the second chance - Part 15
- Moral Earthquakes & Secret Faults: The call to restoration - Part 14
- Moral Earthquakes & Secret Faults: Rescue efforts - Part 13
- Moral Earthquakes & Secret Faults: Restoring Joy - Part 12
- Moral Earthquakes & Secret Faults: Washed Clean - Part 11
- Moral Earthquakes & Secret Faults: Transgressions, iniquities and sins - Part 10
- Moral Earthquakes & Secret Faults: And then came conviction - Part 9
- Moral Earthquakes & Secret Faults: Going down - Part 8
- Moral Earthquakes & Secret Faults: The high cost of low life - Part 7
- Moral Earthquakes & Secret Faults: Moral intersections - Part 6
- Moral Earthquakes & Secret Faults: Fight and flight - Part 5
- Moral Earthquakes & Secret Faults: Root, shoot and fruit - Part 4
- Moral Earthquakes & Secret Faults: Internal Source and External Force - Part 3
- Moral Earthquakes & Secret Faults: Aftershocks - Part 2
- Moral Earthquakes & Secret Faults: Living on the fault line- Part 1