Prayer: Psalm 51
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and on the Internet. The talk is long.
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If you’ve been a Christian for any more than about two minutes, then you’ll know that prayer is an important part of faith and life. Maybe you said a prayer when you became a Christian, you said sorry for your sins and asked Jesus to come into your life and invade it. Many years ago, when I was at a Boy’s Brigade camp, I don’t know how old I was, perhaps 10 or 11, 12 or 13, I went to pray with the minister after the evening service. Apparently, the prayer I said moved the minister enough for him to write it down and he gave it to me a few years later when he was leaving our church. The prayer went along the lines of something like, “Dear God, you know I love you, please help me not to sin too much.”
As an addendum, the minister had added on that little scrap of paper, “Something worth praying every day.” Prayer is something that I and so many Christians find hard to do. Maybe we find it a chore, maybe we don’t know what to say, or perhaps where to go to get the best out of our quiet times. Maybe we see it perhaps like I did back at that camp, as a bit of an insurance policy. If I say sorry to God, it’ll keep Him from being angry and I’ll feel that God is nearby. Maybe you feel some element of shame or guilt about not praying, or that you find it tough, but keep that quiet because you don’t want others to discover that you’re a Christian fraud.
I know that feeling too. I’m a pastor and I think they call it imposter syndrome, where I’m seen as something that I know I’m not even if my position suggests otherwise. Oh yes, I know that I’m a bit rubbish when it comes to prayer. Whilst I might find it easy to talk to a friend, why don’t I find it easy to talk to God sometimes? Does God ever talk back? Am I listening? What do I expect when I pray? What does God expect? All these and other questions take away from the time that I could be spending with God and enjoying His company.
Let’s face it, that’s the purpose of humanity according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. I do wonder whether that’s exactly the point of prayer: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Next week, Gill is going to be sharing a little bit about contemplative prayer. That’s going to be a little bit different and I’m looking forward to that. How different contemplative prayer might be to my experience of that camp, of going to God, perhaps getting forgiveness or receiving forgiveness only, because that’s how camp wanted us to respond to God. To know that you’re a sinner, to come to God for forgiveness and a new start.
Today, we look at one of the barest prayers in the Bible, a prayer of King David in Psalm 51. Discovering how to get back to enjoying God was exactly what he was aiming to do as he reflected upon his ungodly behaviour. The background to Psalm 51 is pretty horrendous. It involves lust and adultery, and plots to kill, and murder, and death. Indeed, David himself would surely be stoned to death for his own misdemeanours according to the Levitical law. If you want to read up on the background, then 2 Samuel 11 pulls no punches when explaining exactly how the whole sorry episode unfolds.
In 2 Samuel chapter 12, Nathan comes to him and tells David a parable. It’s a simple tale of a parable of a rich, powerful farmer taking advantage of a small, powerless smallholder. The rich man takes away the only sheep that this man has, the sheep that has been hand-reared and brought up almost like a daughter. The rich man snatches away this lamb, this sheep, and prepares it for a meal for a visitor. Enraged, David responds to this tale, demanding that the man be put to death and pay for his crime because he did such a thing and had no pity.
Then David receives the news from Nathan, who says, “You are that man.” 2 Samuel chapter 12 verses I think it’s 7 to 13, I’m getting old so I need my glasses up for this one. “Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are that man. This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. If all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what’s evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.
“‘This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’ Then David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’” There’s no doubt about the context of Psalm 51. After months of seemingly getting away, literally with murder, the truth will out. Stunned and ashamed, David replies to Nathan, “I’ve sinned against the Lord.” I’ve sinned against the Lord, not Bathsheba, who he’d slept with, not Uriah her husband who’d been killed on the front line, not even his position as king, whose role it is to protect others.
He recognized his sin against God, his friend, the one whose heart he was was fully after. David’s true and deep remorse comes from comes following a story which reflected his own true-life failures. It’s here in this dreaded pit of guilt and shock, and sadness, and sickness, and horror that we pick up Psalm 51. The God of the Old Testament that we so often wrongly have in mind as the God of vengeance, as he smites those countries around Israel, is often typecast as the God who has no compassion.
When God throws out Adam and Eve for their wrongdoing of eating the fruit that he commands not to eat, but yet He refuses to leave them alone and He clothes them and gives them new instructions on how to steward the world. When God floods the world, He saves Noah so that His world and His work can continue. When the Old Testament continually records accounts of when God punishes His people because of their sin, God never ever gives up on them. He never gives up on individuals, or communities, or families, or nations. Why? Because the character of this God is love, or it has been, always will be. 1 John 4:8, “Because God is love.”
This is where David begins in his psalm of sorrow, “Have mercy on the, O God,” is David’s first plea. Mercy, mercy, the word here seems to imply the one who asks for mercy has absolutely no right to receive it. If mercy is granted, it’s undeserved, according to your unfailing love, according to your great compassion. Immediately, David senses that he has somehow lost that intense, passionate closeness that he once had with God, and yet he knows too, that God is merciful, and loving, and compassionate.
In this first sentence of the Psalm, David knows to whose character he is appealing. He knows he can’t just go back to how things were, because a heart-turning response is needed. In spite of his sin and his stupidity, yet he knows that he can return and this is the hope for us all. The rest of the first part of Psalm 51 is about his guilt, of his monstrous dealings, knowing there’s nothing he can do to make it right. David is serious here about being forgiven. It’s not a quick prayer for the appeasement of the gods. If you’ve got a Bible with you, maybe at home, or if you take a look a little bit later on at Psalm 51, there’s a whole pile of different words that we have that talk about the rubbish that he’s accumulated as a result of his thoughts and his deeds.
People in church generally call it sin. It’s a word that doesn’t really come up in modern-day conversation, but here, there’s a whole list full of meaning. In a short commentary that I was reading by a chap called Alan Palmer, he says, “The phrase ‘blot out my transgressions,’ means to completely erase them that no trace remains. The phrase ‘wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin,’ is a term applied to washing dirty laundry.” The words that David uses to describe his sin are also significant. The three words that he chooses in this Psalm are transgression, to overstep the mark, iniquity, to be morally corrupt, and sin, which kind of means missing the mark, failing to reach the divine standard, the divine goal.
In the New Testament, Paul preaches in the book of Romans, that’s all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. It’s the same point maybe that David is making, people failing to meet the standard because one of the things that Christians do so well is to take a Bible verse out of its context. Romans 3:23, that we just read, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” but the verses around it give us a clue as to the real understanding of that message. “There’s no difference, it says, between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and verse 24, “all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ.”
We sinners need to be reminded of the hope that Jesus brings at all times, not to be guilted, that we fall short of God’s expectations. I do wonder whether over centuries, the Christian churches perhaps got the emphasis wrong. You see, one of the things that gets my dander up, if you like, with Christianity, is that often we tell ourselves and others that we are primarily sinful and that we must come to God to forgive our sins. Whilst this is utterly true, we forget the preamble that David remembers in the Psalm, “Have mercy on me, according to your unfailing love, according to your great compassion.”
I’m quite convinced that people respond to love before they’re convicted of sin. This is why I’m forever talking about love, and why it’s important that we exist here at Main Street to make our community livable again. Yes, over the last five years here, I have been challenged by folks to why I don’t talk about or preach about sin, and here’s my response: because Jesus preached, and taught, and acted the way of love. The early church were people who are called followers of the way. What kind of topsy-turvy world who become too if we want people who don’t know God, to tell them that they’re primarily sinful, who need the love of God to receive forgiveness and then the sense of God’s love follows.
What kind of church preaches about the sin that easily entangles without reminding people or showing people that, firstly, there’s a God who loves? Maybe I’ve got it wrong. Perhaps you can tell me later. Remember that Jesus tends to talk to those who are at the bottom of the pile as he heals them, as He loves them. Only at the end of His interactions do we sometimes see Him saying things like, “Now leave your life of sin.” It’s as if that’s not the most important thing. The most important thing for that sinner to know is that they are accepted and loved. This happens by Jesus’ miracles and it happens by the teaching that comes through His power and His authority.
However, it occurs in the gospels, the exhilarating moment for the sinner is when they realize that they are loved. By the time spent, the actions made, and the words Jesus says to them. The moment they realize they are included in the Jesus crowd, is their moment. Their sin is found out or it’s washed away, or it doesn’t matter anymore because the shame no longer matters. Being loved and knowing we are loved comes miles before we know that we’re sinners. When we discover this, only then can we come to confession. I don’t think we were meant to be guilted into coming to confess to God. That was never the case. I’ll get off my soapbox now.
None of this, of course, removes the fact that all sin and fall short of the glory of God, we all sin. Even David here, a king in his high and mighty position, knows he is nothing in comparison to the glory and power of God Almighty. David doesn’t come to God quaking in his boots that he’s about to have pain inflicted upon him or unforgiveness given him. David comes to God already knowing that he can find mercy. David, convicted of his sin because of the clever parable that Nathan tells him, now recognizes his condition, primarily that he is the beloved of God, beloved child of God who has stepped out of line. Now, it’s hurting to the gods who has a compassionate heart.
David knows the character of God and even after being convicted of such sin, David is satisfied that God will not reject him. David knows God loves him still, and is confident he can address God, and so he does. The theologian, Walter Brueggemann, makes the point over and over again, that it’s the life before God that creates an awareness of sin, that eventually leads to hope beyond sin. I’ll say that again, it’s life before God that creates an awareness of sin, that eventually leads to hope for life beyond sin, life before God, life beyond sin.
What we already know of David is that he was chosen of God even when he was a shepherd boy. He was chosen of God even when he was not perfect, and he remained chosen of God even when he realized his stupidity and his sin. David lived a life before God, as is the story of the whole Jewish nation portrayed in the Old Testament. They are God’s chosen people. David and God’s people come to recognize their sin and the hope is always that they experienced life beyond sin. David, in Psalm 51, isn’t excusing himself of his sin. He’s openly admitting it but he’s doing everything he can, from his side, at least, to ensure he gets right with God.
In verse 7, it says, “Cleanse me with hyssop and I shall be clean, wash me, and I’ll be whiter than snow.” Hyssop is a plant which according to the Book of Leviticus is used in the cleansing process of people with leprosy. David knows the symbolism of needing to be cleaned and cleansed by the priests so that he can be as it were led back into the community. It’s the creation of a new heart that he desires, a break from that past. Knowing his sin is always before him. You can almost hear the plea as he kneels before God in penitence, the words of verse 8, “Let me hear joy and gladness. Let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out my iniquity.”
He wants to imagine the pain of crushed bones, eek, ouch, rather than hankering of joy and gladness of a relationship restored. A pure heart, and a new and right spirit is the gift that David so wants bestowed upon him, so that he can show other sinners the true way to go. Brueggemann helpfully remarks that God will offer a fully-constituted new life, who can live freely and gladly before God.[e.g. see, Brueggemann and Belinger, Psalms NCBC, CUP, 2014, p237] David’s resolve is to teach and praise. It’s a great response to the divine gift of new life which comes from a right and restored relationship with God. David does all of this in certain trust that God will and has forgiven him.
There’s no response from God’s within the Psalm, that God accepts his request for forgiveness for such grievous sin. We know from the overarching theme of scripture that God wants His people to return to Him. Time and time in the Old Testaments, we’ve got God saying to His people, “Come back, return.” In the New Testament, there’s that amazing famous parable of the prodigal son or the waiting father that Jesus is perhaps best known to tell. Eventually, the son returns. He hangs his head in shame. The father waits for the son to realize his stupidity and the son comes before his father. He returns to live before his father, knowing that there is life beyond sin.
Psalm 51 goes on to speak of sacrifices in later verses. John Goldingay, an Old Testament scholar who knows quite a bit about sacrifices, summarizes it beautifully. He says, “Sacrifices can deal with small problems of uncleanness but not serious sin.” Sacrifices that express praise and commitment are nonsense. When your relationship with God is broken down, all you can do, he says, “All you can do when you commit serious sin is cast yourself on God’s grace, as someone who is crushed and broken by the price you’ve paid for your wrongdoing.” [ John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone, Part 1: Psalms 1–72, Old Testament for Everyone (Louisville, KY;London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2013), 163.]
Well, this Psalm is about King David and his sin, and his restoration. It’s not just about King David and his sin, and his restoration. It’s a Psalm about the people of the Old Testament, and it’s a Psalm that can speak to the church about humanity, how we need to cast ourselves upon God for His mercy and compassion. To put it into that wider context, as I was saying earlier from Romans 3, “But now apart from the law of righteousness of God has been made, to which the law and the prophets testify. The righteousness is given through faith in or through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe.
There’s no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ.” As we draw this time, in the Psalm to a close, let’s remember that David primarily knew that God loved him. The love God had for David, the love that David already knew drew him to repentance. His sorrow for sinning against God somehow drew him to deeply turn from his wrongdoing. It was the wounding of God’s love in the man whose heart was after God’s own heart that drew him to write such powerful words of repentance.
David’s head was lifted to face God once more. Sinning and falling short of the glory of God is only half the sentence. We are blessed to know that God is love, and that all are justified freely by His grace. I close with the words to a song that we’ve listened to once or twice I think here at Main Street. It’s a song called Outrageous Grace.
There’s a lot of pain, but a lot more healing.
There’s a lot of trouble but a lot more peace.
There’s a lot of hate but a lot more loving.
There’s a lot of sin but a lot more grace.
There’s a lot of fear but there’s a lot more freedom.
There’s a lot of darkness but a lot more light.
There’s a lot of cloud but a lot more vision.
There’s a lot of perishing but a lot more life.
Oh, outrageous grace.
Oh, outrageous grace,
Love unfurled by heaven’s hands.
Oh, outrageous grace, outrageous grace
Through my Jesus, I can stand.
Shall we pray?
Lord God, we thank You for David’s poetry. We thank you for his ability to come to You knowing primarily that You are love. Not taking that for simplicity but coming to You knowing how important it was to get right with You. Lord God in these moments, help us to know that we are right with You, and if there is anything that we need to be restored to, I pray that You would help us to come to You. Not because we should quiver, but because You invite us, because You look out for us as the prodigal son’s father did as well. You look out even when we are far off, You come running and we are saved. Father God, we thank You for this time together, that we are reminded that You are love and that You sent Jesus to be that sacrifice for us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
References and sources
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Scripture quotations marked NIVUK or NIV UK on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Scripture quotations marked NIV on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.