Psalm 51: Have Mercy On Me

June 4, 2019

Ray Galea

I have a confession: I’ve killed a man! That is, I killed him in a nightmare. In the dream, I was a soldier in a war. The faceless enemy came toward me, he first killed the soldier to my right, and then on my left. I knew I was next, so I pulled out a knife and plunged it into his heart. But to make sure, I then turned the knife. He died at my hands. I woke up in a ball of sweat. I felt so guilty. I confessed that deed to God and every person I met for the next three days. And yet I never felt so relieved knowing it was only a dream.

 

King David woke up one day to discover he had an adultery and murder on his hands, but it was not a nightmare he could wake up from. He desperately needed mercy, Psalm 51 heading:

 

For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba. (NIV)

 

Literally, the text says that David wrote this Psalm after David “had entered into Bathsheba”. Can you imagine the sheer weight of guilt and shame at that moment. With that sin on his hands, David has only one comeback, a plea for mercy, Psalm 51:1-2:

 

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. (NIV)

 

Have mercy on me. Treat me Lord not as I deserve. Give me mercy. Blot out my transgressions. A transgression is about crossing a line you know is there. It is knowing something is wrong and then doing it. David manages to break four commandments by committing adultery with Bathsheba: he covets his neighbour’s wife; he steals his neighbour’s wife; he has sex with his neighbour’s wife; then he kills his neighbour. So he pleads in verse 9: “Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity”.

 

With every sin written in God’s ledger, David asks to have the sin of adultery blotted out, and to have the sin of murder erased. He asks, “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin”. Sin has made him filthy, so he asks God to make him clean, Psalm 51:7:

 

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. (NIV)

 

Hyssop is a herb. It was used to sprinkle the blood of a sacrifice on the people to make them clean before God. It wasn’t the hyssop that made them clean, it was the blood of the sacrifices shed for sins. The New Testament is clear that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. Someone has to pay the debt of sin. The New Testament is also clear that the blood of bulls and goats doesn’t bring forgiveness. Someone has to pay, and it can’t really be the animal, and wonderfully, it doesn’t have to be you. For that, we wait for the Son of David to shed his blood.

 

There is a strong promise here: If God says it, it will happen. Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. We humans fuss over the outward and care little for the inward. I mentioned last week that in Thailand, 50% of motor bike riders carry but don’t wear their helmets, even though forty bike riders die every day. Why? It messes with their hairdo. We want clean cars, clean houses, clean skin, but we are not so concerned about being clean before God. We are obsessed about how we look to others on our Instagram.

 

Notice that David doesn’t say, “Have mercy on me because, Lord, I have been faithful”. He doesn’t plead, “Remember Lord that I am a man after your own heart—you said it yourself.” He doesn’t say, “This is the first time in my life that I have really behaved badly. Please take into account my good record.” David here is not like a convicted criminal offering character references to get a judge to offer leniency. That is not David. Friends, David had an impressive record. If anyone could do it, he could. When there was no one to fight against Goliath as a teenager, he trusted God and fought the giant for God’s honour. But David’s only hope is not in his past performance, but in God’s great compassion. He is saying, “God I want you to treat me not just on the basis of your love, but your unfailing love: your stubborn covenant love.

 

Friends, if you are waiting to be good enough for God, you will be waiting for all eternity. Your hope must be in God’s mercy and not your track record. David knows God’s mercy, but he also knows the weight of his sin, Psalm 51:3: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me” (NIV). He knew them all right, when the prophet Nathan told him, “You are that man!” That’s why there are no excuses, Psalm 51:4:

 

Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge. (NIV)

 

David is saying, “God, you are right, I’m in the wrong, so please forgive me.” You would have thought that David had sinned against a lot of people: Bathsheba; her husband Uriah, the man David had killed; David’s own family; David’s other wives whom he betrayed; and the nation he led. All this is true.

 

Imagine an arsonist who starts a fire that burned down fifty houses in the Blue Mountains. He then goes to Springwood Anglican Church, where ten people lost their homes. In a time of open prayer, he confesses, “Lord, it was me who started the fire and my sin was against you and you only.” Wouldn’t the ten people who lost their homes thump him. The Bible says that you can sin against your own body and you can sin against your neighbour. But at a more profound level, David says, “I have sinned against God, first and last.” God is not just one injured person among many. He is not part of a long line of victims. There is only one opinion that ultimately counts because there is only one judge whose mercy is needed. Understand that, and you will put the rejection of others in its place. “Against you, you only have I sinned.”

 

I remember one man prayed at MBM after September 11: “ This is was not just an attack against the United States; it was an attack against God himself.” David has no problem with God’s verdict: “so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” When we confess, we side with God against our sin. Too many side with their sin against God. But David confesses, “You are right, I’m wrong. I have no excuse.” Five times in three verses, David makes it clear that he owns his sin. It is my transgression, my iniquity, my sin. In a world where everything begins with either ‘I’ or ‘my’—iPhone, iPad, My house, My Bank—there are very few who own their sin.

 

And for David like us, this is not merely one mistake in a sinless life. David tracks that sin back all the way to conception, Psalm 51:5:

 

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (NIV)

 

As a side point, in Psalm 22, David says that God was his God from his mother womb. Now he is saying that he was a sinner from his mother’s womb. It is not often that being called a ‘sinner’ is a compliment. David is declaring that every foetus is made in God’s image and also carries the sin of Adam. Since only humans can be sinful, that is why abortion is wrong. David is saying, “I have failed now, and it is not the first time. My life from the womb has been wrapped up in rebellion. I was born with original sin.

 

As a pastor, I never get more encouragement and I never feel more privileged than to witness a man, woman, or teenager admit sin, confessing sin, and repenting of sin. In so doing, they prove that God is right. Importantly, David is not just asking for pardon but for purity, Psalm 51:6:

 

Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place. (NIV)

 

David wants more than forgiveness. He wants the wisdom that was missing when he called Bathsheba to his palace for sex. He wants the truth that was missing when he sent Uriah off to war with a note that would kill him. David doesn’t just want to be a forgiven man but a faithful man. But with a nature that is sinful at birth, nothing less than a new creation is required, Psalm 51:10:

 

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. (NIV)

 

It is not just about just trying a little harder. The word ‘create’ is the word that is used in Genesis 1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. God brings something out of nothing. David does not want God to make him a little better. David wants a new heart. He does not just want a spiritual heart by-pass, he wants a heart transplant. With it, he also wants a new Spirit that will say no to adultery, no to murder, no to coveting, no to lust, and no to anger. This is ‘born again’ language. David wants what you have, to be new creation.

 

But did David go too far? Did he cross the line and commit the unforgivable sin? There was no sacrifice available under the law of Moses for murder and adultery. There was only the knowledge and expectation that you deserve execution and the death penalty. What happens if David is not forgiven. Psalm 51:11 tells us:

 

Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. (NIV)

 

Is David afraid of losing his salvation? Or is he afraid of losing his kingship like Saul did? Maybe he wonders whether he has gone too far. This is a snapshot taken during David’s life, a moment captured by this Psalm where David lives somewhere between confession and comfort. He is stuck between guilt and grace. If I committed murder and adultery, I too might say the same thing.

 

We now move to the results of God’s mercy. In his prayer, David looks to a time of future grace when he is enjoying the results of God’s mercy. And the first one here is that David looks forward to again knowing the joy of salvation, Psalm 51:12:

 

Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. (NIV)

 

David again longs for the joy of having no shame and being clean before God. He wants to know that God will not count his sins against him.

 

The second result of God’s mercy is that he wants to bless others. He who is forgiven much loves much, Psalm 51:13:

 

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you. (NIV)

 

This sounds a little like, “Oh no! David is going to be like a reformed smoker! Is David going to go around now, telling everyone they should give up killing and adultery?” It will actually involve teaching transgressors to turn back to God, so that God, who made David whiter than snow, might also make transgressors whiter than snow. Teaching transgressors God’s way involves David sharing that he too had sinned, and that he too has received forgiveness. David teaching other transgressors God’s ways is a bit like John Newtown teaching us about ‘Amazing Grace’ after being a slave trader and rapist. “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found was blind but now I see.” Only those who know grace can offer that grace. Only Christ came to redeem sinners. We all have to say the ‘Sinners’ prayer’, because Jesus had to die the ‘sinners’ death’ for us.

 

The third result of forgiveness is that David will praise God, Psalm 51:15:

 

O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. (NIV)

 

The joy of salvation refuses to be silent. Like a person in love tells the world about their lover, so the one with the joy of salvation declares God’s praise. For now, David is in the grip of guilt and not the grip of grace. This is not just a psychological problem that needs therapy. He does not need to forgive himself. This is not just a criminal problem, a crime against the state, where he needs to be locked up for 15 years. This is not a religious problem, that can be fixed with just another animal sacrifice and another fast. David says in Psalm 51:16:

 

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. (NIV)

 

Religion—even Old Testament religion—is not going to fix up this problem. David is facing the death penalty. The only option David has is to humble himself before the living God, Psalm 51:17:

 

My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise. (NIV)

 

This is David’s only hope—and ours! God has a weakness, an Achilles heel—he will always show mercy to broken heart. It Is time to stop running!

 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer of Sherlock Homes, decided to play a practical joke on twelve friends. He sent each of them a telegraph that read, “Flee at once … all is discovered!” Within 24 hours, all 12 left the country. Running is one way to deal with shame. David ran for 12 months. He is not running any more.

 

Confessing to a merciful God is another way. David has been where you and I have been. David has been where where you and I will be again: wracked with guilt and shame, more aware of our guilt than grace, lost between confession and comfort. So whether it is adultery or murder or lust or anger, when you cry out for mercy, listen to the rejoicing in heaven when a sinner repents. That sinner is you. Know this, for God will not despise a broken and contrite heart.

 

I remember reading this Psalm to a man at this church. He admitted to a long list of sexual encounters with other men while married to his wife. I can still see his tears as he read this Psalm. The tears of shame were replaced with the tears of joy and relief, for God will not despise a broken and contrite heart.

 

I think you know it is time to stop running. It is time to ask for mercy. It is time to come clean and confess.

 

Dear Father,
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion displayed at the cross. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. For I know my transgressions, and my many sins are before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight. You are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. My only hope is that a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. I give my life to you, Lord Jesus.
Amen.