Main Street Community Church

Psalm 51

This talk was given by Prof Andrew Basden on as part of our worship service over the Internet.

There is no audio recording of this talk. The script for the talk is given below.


Read 2 Samuel 11:1 to 12:11 before the talk.

At the start of the talk, Read Psalm 51.


From this Psalm we could discuss all kinds of useful and interesting things, such as

But we won’t discuss these. I want to focus on the core meaning of this Psalm: confession of sin.

There are several kinds of sermons or talks in church. There’s teaching, exhortation, inspiration, encouragement. And there’s one that we don’t often find much today, but which used to be more common: doing business with God over sin. Sometimes we need a spring-clean; sometimes sin is lurking somewhere in us. This Psalm 51 offers us an opportunity to do this.

2. The Love of God

Verses 1,2. “Your unfailing love”

We assume this refers to God’s love for David. But no, David had a wider view: God also loved other sinners too, and even the whole nation. Psalm 145 tells us that God has compassion on the whole Creation.

Because of his love, God wants all Creation to work well together – with joy.

God’s law is an expression of the deep laws by which Creation works well together in all its aspects – not just biological, but psychological, technical, social, economic, aesthetic, ethical, worship, and more. All working in harmony. God loves all, and has put us in relationship.

Sin, then is what disrupts and destroys this.

Take the law “You must not commit adultery.” Why is that law included in the Torah? Various reasons, but the one I find most compelling is that adultery destroys one of the most intimate trust relationships that there can be. Marriage is not just an institution; it is an artform, where the couple work together over the years to produce something beautiful, and that working together requires trust. Adultery destroys that trust. Adultery also says to the other “You are worthless; I and my pleasure are more important than you are.”

That is why David’s adultery “displeased the Lord”. It is according to this love that David appeals.

3. Lurking Sin

Psalm 32:4–5 tells us that before David confessed his sin, he found bodily pain and mental anguish (“While I kept silent my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long”). Not all anguish is because of sin, but some of it is. The sin lurking in David sapped his health and mental health.

What I want us to think about is: am I aware of a sin lurking? This psalm gives us an opportunity to recognise it and deal with it, as someone put it, to do business with God.

4. Responses to Sin

Several, but four I will mention.

  1. Deny it.
    • “There’s nothing wrong with that”
    • Like Saul did, when he kept the Amelekite king alive.
    • Example
  2. Excuse it.
    • “She made me do it; he made me do it; it’s my circumstances; it’s the pressure I am under”, etc.
    • Like Saul did. When he said “The men fell upon the loot”
    • Example
  3. Try to mitigate or cover up its effects.
    • Like David did.
    • He certainly tried to cover it up, by trying to persuade Uriah to have intercourse with his wife.
    • But also maybe he was trying to mitigate the consequences for Bathsheba, who, if her husband had found out she was to have a baby, might even have got her stoned for adultery.
    • Example: What David could have done was to confess to Uriah. “I’m sorry Uriah …”
  4. Confess it.
    • Like David did after he understood his sin.
    • He saw that it was not just a sin against Uriah, or Bathsheba, but a sin against justice, against God’s purposes for Israel to be a light and an example, and against God himself. (To you, to you yourself, have I sinned.)
    • I John 1:9, Psalm 32:4–5.

People of a practical bent might say “It’s not enough to say Sorry; you have to do something to make it right, to make reparations.” They are right, but too often doing something to mitigate the consequences of sin is not enough, because it is avoiding and bypassing the issue. The real issue is attitude of heart.

[Added 22 March 2021: On a national level, what did the European Union do over its botched planning of coronavirus vaccinations? Might it have been if it had confessed, rather than try to excuse and fight? (Fighting others is perhaps a sub-type of cover up, or may be a different type.)]

5. Attitude of Heart

David is called “a man after God’s own heart”, and this is shown by his response when the reality of what he did was made clear to him. “I have sinned.” No excuses. No comparing himself with others.

Someone pointed out that there is no fear evident in this psalm. David was not saying “please forgive me so that I will escape punishment”. Rather, David wanted a relationship with God. David wanted to be clean and holy. And he knew that he could not do this himself; only God could do this. This is why he casts himself onto the mercy of God.

He realised that God has every right to withdraw his Spirit, and to cast him out of his presence. So all he can do is plead.

Some think that verse xx is David arguing with God. I don’t see it like that. In the Hebrew in verses 7–12 the Hebrew has “you” many times where the English lacks it. “You cleanse me … you wash me … salvation of you …” David wants God, not just just cleansing, salvation, joy, etc.

The joy that follows spurs him to teach other sinners, not because he ought to, but because of the joy of restored relationship he has experienced.

[Added 22 March 2021. This all comes from David’s attitude of heart, the “inner parts … inmost place” [verse 6] of his being. It is these that are important to God. God welcomes the “broken and contrite heart” [v.17].]

6. Us

So what about us?

Do we have sin lurking in us? Sin unconfessed can undermine, or take the shine off, almost every aspect of our lives. Not only bodily and mental health, but our clarity of thinking, our ability to achieve. Our speaking and hearing, reading and writing. Our relationships. It can lead to futile waste of time and effort and even money – as David found. It undermines the harmony and enjoyment of living. it generates injustice, makes us self-centred and self-protective, and it puts a shadow on our relationship with God and our view of who we are.

But what is the sin that does this? It is often not obvious, not the one we think about. God had to show David the real nature of his sin: robbing the poor when he himself was wealthy. What is the reality of our lurking sin?

Remember God’s unfailing love. God does not want to punish us, but to bring us reality, the reality about ourselves, so that he can cleanse us and give us joy.

Ask God what it might be, any lurking sin. Don’t introspect; don’t try to find them yourself, but wait for God to show you – in minutes, hours, days, or maybe through some episode in your life.

And when God shows you, then

And then, as God shows you, take action.

Let us now sing ‘O for a closer walk with God’. This was composed by William Cowper, who went through periods of depression. While it is being sung, there is an opportunity, if you wish, as someone put it, to do business with God.

Ask God what sin is in you and, if he shows you, confess it. Jesus invites us, “Come to me all you who are burdened and I will give you rest” [Matthew 11:28] John tells us, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and [what David wanted] cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

After the song I will pray, and then hand back to Moira.