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Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean. Psalm 51:7, NIV
In the aftermath of the 1989 Bay Area earthquake, property owners got a quick lesson in insurance claims. To their horror they discovered that not only were they forced to dig out from under a mountain of rubble, they had to dig out from under a mountain of red tape as well.
Calls were not returned. Adjusters failed to show up, and promises were not kept. As a result, the patience of many claimants wore thin. It was just another example of the squeaky wheel getting the grease. In order to get a quick response from their agents and adjusters, they discovered that they had to persistently, constantly and insistently ask.
In Psalm 51, we see this same sort of supplication in the life of David. He doesn’t give up. Despite the grievousness of his sin, he remains persistent, constant and insistent.
At the heart of his prayer of confession was a whole series of requests. David asks God to purge him — to cleanse him — from all of that sin. He asks God to wash him. He asks God to let him hear and see again. He asks God to set aright his body, soul and spirit.
Ask: a simple little one-syllable word. It is a basic concept — such a simple thing to do. To ask someone for something is no great thing — at least, at first glance it doesn’t appear to be. Isn’t it strange, then, that we attempt to live out our lives only asking others for things when we absolutely have to do so? Some of us are just too proud to ask for anything — even too proud to ask God for anything.
Yet, the Lord Jesus taught us, His children, to ask: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7, NIV).
The apostle James said, “You do not have because you do not ask.” While, he added, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:2–3).
David avoids both extremes. He asks God for His covenant blessings. He asks aright, pleading the cause of righteousness: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me hear joy and gladness, that the bones You have broken may rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit” (Ps. 51:7–12).
Notice the verbs David employs in his great supplication: cleanse me, wash me, make me, create me, renew me and restore me. Together, these active requests form the heart and soul of David’s repentance.
King David felt soiled, dirty and stained. He knew that neither ritual, religion, resolve, nor reform could cleanse his sin-stained soul. It was deeply stained, so he asks God to cleanse him with hyssop. The word he uses literally means “to purge or to expunge.” It is a word used to describe not merely a ritual, cursory dusting off; it does not describe something that is simply rinsed off, such as a dish under running water. Instead, it describes a thorough scrubbing, scouring and purifying. It comes closest to our word sterilizing.
Thus, he prays, “Cleanse me with hyssop.” If we go to Jerusalem today, we can walk into the Old City through the Dung Gates, near where the Western Wall is, and find hyssop. It is an herb that grows naturally there; in fact, you may discover it growing out of the walls of the city. But in the Old Testament, hyssop was not simply a common herb. It was an integral part of Israel’s ritual worship. In the ceremonial section of the Mosaic Law, hyssop was used in the ceremonial cleaning of lepers. It was also used by the Levitical priests during sacrifices in the temple to take blood and sprinkle it on the altar.
David asks God to cleanse him thoroughly — to purge him with hyssop, just as the priest did during the worship services held in the temple. He could stand his uncleanness and filth no more.
The prophet Isaiah records God’s own plea to us all: “‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool’” (Isa. 1:18).
Some of us want to be whitewashed instead of washed white. When we are simply whitewashed, we cover up the marred surface of our lives; we merely hide the blotches and scars. But when we are washed white, all of those stains are actually removed — they cease to exist altogether. David doesn’t want a bit of a cover-up. He is not interested in simply skirting the consequences of his sin. He wants to deal with it — substantively. He wants to eradicate the last vestiges of his sin. He wants to be clean — from the inside out. He wants to be thoroughly washed.
The great Victorian preacher Charles Spurgeon asked, “Is there a verse in all of Scripture more full of faith than this?” Indeed, this is a passage that radiates a full and vivacious faith, a faith rooted in the grace and mercy of God Almighty. “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” If we all really believed that, what a difference it would make.
David is a man whose sin has greatly stained his soul. Now he asks to be purged and washed. Some of us are too proud to do that. That is precisely why so many of us remain encumbered by the sins of our past. It is the very reason why some of us are not free — we have not asked.
Joy and gladness
David’s supplications do not end with his request to be washed clean, but he goes on to ask for a measure of restoration: “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice” (Ps. 51:8, NIV). During the tenure of his great apostasy and rebellion, David had become deaf to the voice of God. But now, in his repentance, he requests ears to hear.
Can you imagine? The man after God’s own heart had allowed the embers of his faith to go cold — to the point of extinction. That is what sin does. At one time, David could take his harp and make the palace resonate with sounds of joy and gladness, but sin had so hardened his sensibilities that he had become spiritually tone-deaf. He had become utterly deaf to the sounds of joy. That is what sin will always do to us. It will take away our song. It will take away our joy. It will steal the music of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and goodness from our lives. It will crowd our senses with the cacophonous din of this poor fallen world, while the sweet strains of heaven will be pitched beyond our hearing.
David knew full well what it was to hear the songs of deliverance, but his rebellion had so scarred him that he could no longer detect their strains. It must have been rather like the fellow who left the ministry and was asked sometime later what it was he missed the most. He said, “The thing I miss the most is hearing the trumpets in the morning — calling me to service.” David missed the morning clarions. He missed the trumpets of joy and gladness, and so he asks God to enable him to somehow hear them once again.
Out of sight
Again, David does not stop there. He continues to ask. He continues to make supplication. He continues to make his requests known. He prays: “Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.”
It is a terrible thing to be found out in sin. We see this all the time on the human level. A man is captured, suspected by the police of committing a particular crime. As he is being taken into the police station, he covers his face in an attempt to avoid the leering cameras broadcasting into thousands of homes all across town. He walks into the police station with a newspaper shielding his face. He doesn’t want the cameras to capture his image, so he hides it. He is ashamed.
David was ashamed. He had been exposed. He was naked and vulnerable. The gaze of the immutable, incomprehensible, immortal God was trained directly upon him in his miserable estate. It was almost more than he could possibly bear, and he felt the burning anguish of shame.
One of the greatest tragedies of American Christianity is that we’ve lost our shame. We have become both callous and brazen. We even attach a bit of mystique to bold sinning, but shame was a character trait that was by no means lost on David.
So he cries out for mercy. “Cleanse me,” he cries. “Wash me. Blot out. Hide your face from the blight of my rebellion.” David knew only too well that if God does not graciously blot out our sins, He will necessarily blot out something else — our names from the book of life. He must do one or the other. Justice demands that sin be dealt with. It simply cannot be passed over. God cannot simply avert His gaze. God cannot simply look past our failures and foibles. All must be dealt with; otherwise, His all-holy character is compromised.
A clean heart
Still, David does not stop there. He asks for yet more. He prays: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10).
In the Hebrew language, several different words can be translated “create.” In this case, it is the word used in the very first verse in the Bible: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It literally means “to make or fashion out of nothing.” In the context of Genesis, it simply describes the way God called forth existence out of absolute nothingness. The entire cosmos was fabricated by the very breath of His mouth. He simply spoke and it was so.
The word is thus demonstrative of the fact that the creative activity of God can bring something out of nothing. And that is exactly what David asks Him to do. The word indicates something that a human being could never do for himself. David could never create in himself a clean heart — anymore than any of us can, as much as we might try.
Notice, David is not asking for some kind of restoration. He doesn’t say, “Give me back what I’ve lost. Restore what the erosion of sin has stripped from my heart.” He wants regeneration. He is asking for an entirely new heart. He is saying, “Create what is not there. Create what never was there. Don’t just bring me back up to speed. I need an altogether new heart.”
Man always tries to start his reform efforts on the outside and work inward. God always begins on the inside and works outward. Jesus says, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts — murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matt. 15:19, NIV). David knew that he needed to guard against future moral earthquakes, so he wants more than simply a return to the status quo. He asks for a steadfast spirit.
The most important thing about a man is his spirit. We can have all kinds of degrees, pedigrees and experiences, but if we don’t have a right spirit, God can’t use us. King David knew this.
In His presence
Even now though, David was not through making his petitions and requests. He asks for yet more: “Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit” (Ps. 51:11–12).
Here, the sinner king confronts his greatest fear and expresses his highest aspiration. Thus, the language becomes rather emphatic — notice the dos and the don’ts. He says, “Don’t cast me away from your presence,” and “Don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.” Simultaneously he says, “Do restore to me the joy of your salvation,” and “do uphold me by your generous Spirit.”
This emphatic list of dos and don’ts really exposes David’s heart in a remarkable way. They reveal his real agenda, his highest priorities and his greatest anxieties. They paint a vivid portrait of his heart in transition — from the devastation of a moral earthquake to the restoration of a character of humble discipleship.
Clearly, David’s great fear was that God might abandon him, that God might cast him away from His presence. It was that he might be left entirely to himself. He knew that he was responsible for cutting off fellowship with God in the first place. He knew that God was faithful — it was David who had been faithless. He simply feared that he may have gone too far over the line. He feared that he might have crossed a kind of ultimate and final threshold and that he would not be able to recover. He had given up on God — he was now afraid that perhaps God would give up on him in return. You can almost hear him lament, “Don’t cast me away as you did Cain.” After all, one of the saddest verses in all the Bible says, “Cain went out from the presence of the Lord” (Gen. 4:16).
David did not want the same to be said of him. In addition, he was afraid that he was no longer to have the presence or power of the Holy Spirit, so he prays, “Do not take your Holy Spirit from me.”
What would it be like to have no Comforter? Where would we be with no Teacher? How would we function if we were forced to come to the Bible and read it without the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to behold its wondrous truths? How could we comprehend it without the Holy Spirit to open our hearts?
To know the presence of the Holy Spirit and then to be cast away from that presence would be more than any of us could possibly bear. To know what it is to have a Comforter, a Teacher, and then suddenly to be bereft of that privilege would be calamitous. To have no guide when we come to a crisis in life is a horror too deep and too profound to fully fathom. No wonder David shuddered at the thought.
David’s heartfelt cry echoes across the centuries — these aren’t just words. David expresses the greatest fear of his life. To have the Holy Spirit is to have faith, hope and love. But bar the Spirit and we’re left without faith — thus we can only be skeptical. Bar the Spirit and we’re left without hope — thus we can only be disillusioned. Bar the Spirit and we’re left without love — thus we can only be cynical. Sadly, we have all known people like that: skeptical, disillusioned and cynical with no power in the present because they have no perspective of the past or vision for the future.
Think of it: to have known the sweet Holy Spirit and then to lose Him! Such a fate would be worse than a musician losing his music, a writer losing his pen or a singer losing his song — all never able to do what they do or be what they are ever again. It is worse even than a man losing his country — never able to return home again.
Jewish culture is resplendent with a rich tradition of stories, legends and fables. One story about the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem — that occurred nearly 40 years after Christ’s crucifixion when Titus and his Roman legions sacked the city — is especially poignant. According to tradition, just before the final assault, loud, mysterious voices were heard echoing in the Temple. “Let us depart,” they announced; afterward, a great sound of unearthly wings, sweeping across a darkened sky, was heard.
According to rabbis through the ages, this was Jehovah and His angels abandoning a disobedient city to its own fate — withdrawing from a Temple that failed to give Him honor.
Legend? No doubt. But what about human temples? What about us? Have we ever made the dwelling place of the Most High so cluttered with the rubbish and perversities of this world that it is no longer fit for His presence?
That is the very thing David feared most. David knew what it was to commune with the Holy Spirit in times past. In the economy of the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit sometimes was taken from men when they were disobedient or unfaithful. For example, the Spirit of God departed from Samson and from Saul.
In our dispensation, however, the Holy Spirit comes to indwell the believer at the moment of conversion, to empower us for service, to give us gifts of ministry, to comfort us and to teach us, to guide us, fill us and to live His life out through us; He has promised that He will never leave us.
A Christian may be cast away from service. In 1 Corinthians 9:27, that was Paul’s fear — that he might become a castaway. But the Holy Spirit will not leave us. A child of God in this dispensation never has to fear that happening.
Of course, David does not conclude on a negative note — but a positive one. He doesn’t end his great plea with his fears — but with his hopes. He doesn’t wind up with don’ts — but with dos. So David says, “Do restore to me the joy of your salvation,” and “do uphold me by your generous Spirit.” The fact is, if God would grant His Spirit, then this final request would most assuredly be fulfilled.
Indeed, it was; and indeed, it is.
- Are you bold enough to go before the throne of God and ask — simply ask?
- Are your requests generally about things? Or are they like David’s, about your own character?
- Have the strains of joy and faith become little more than dim memories to you?
- Can you identify with David’s greatest fears — or his greatest aspirations?
- The Holy Spirit has not abandoned you; have you abandoned Him?
- 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