Psalm 51 continues the theme of true worship and sacrifice that was started in Psalm 50. God is not interested in our rituals of worship. What He truly wants is our hearts. Sometimes the greatest barrier to giving God our hearts in worship, though, is our the sinful nature. David lays bare his heart to help lead us into honest and transparent worship.
The number 7, the number of completeness or perfection, seems to have been a structuring force in this psalm. The psalmist may be referring to the fullness of his repentance or God's forgiveness. Notice these uses of the number 7:
- 7 couplets make up part 1
- 7 verses make up part 3
- 7 uses of the Hebrew word for sin. (In English one of them is hidden as the word "purge"/"cleanse"/"purify" in verse 7. In Hebrew it is the word "de-sin".)
- 7 uses of God or Lord
Notice also that the word "sin" is the middle word of part 1 and the first word ("de-sin") of part 2.
The title of this psalm tells us it was written after Nathan the prophet confronted David over his adultery with Bathsheba. In case you are new to the Bible or have forgotten the story, let me quickly summarize the events that led up to this psalm. You can read the complete story in 2 Samuel 11-12.
David is king over all of Israel and he has become powerful and respected. In his pride he commits adultery and the woman becomes pregnant. To hide his sin he orders that the women's husband, a faithful soldier, be killed by deserting him on the battlefield. So now the great king of Israel, the man after God's heart, the one who wrote the majority of the psalms in the Bible, is both an adulterer and murderer.
It is at this point that the prophet Nathan steps in and confronts David. This psalm is David's poetic response to that confrontation.
Have Mercy On Me
Power corrupts. David had allowed the fame and power and his own uncontrolled lusts (he already had multiple wives) to corrupt his behavior. How would this manipulative, dangerous and lustful king respond to the prophet's confrontation?
From the very first words of the psalm we see that David's hardened heart has quickly melted.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions. Psalm 51:1
David makes no attempt to excuse his behavior and he claims no right to special treatment. He simply begs for mercy and looks to God's unfailing love. This is the heart of a true worshiper. No matter who we are and no matter how "good" or "bad" we have been, we all stand before God imperfect and unworthy. It is only because of God's mercy and love as demonstrated in Christ that we can ever come before Him.
I may not have committed murder but, just like David, I am worthy of God's judgment. I have sinned and God is fully within His rights as the pure and holy Judge to punish me for my sins.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment. Psalm 51:4
God is perfect and just and I deserve His judgment. All I can do is cry out "mercy!"
Have I cried out to God for mercy? I cannot be "good" enough to enter His presence. I can only begin a relationship with God through His mercy.
But David does not end with a cry for mercy. He goes one step further. One very important step. He repents and asks for cleansing.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me. Psalm 51:10
It is sometimes difficult to ask for mercy. Our pride may try to keep us from confession. But even harder is this next step: true repentance. It is when we ask God to help us change our behavior. David asks God to change his heart and give him a right spirit.
Am I willing to change? Will I give God my heart and ask him to grant me a willing spirit? True worship begins with a willing heart.
"Then I will..."
Now, with God's forgiveness and a right spirit, David can offer right sacrifices. As we learned in Psalm 50, God is not interested in our ritual sacrifices. He is looking for spiritual sacrifices - spiritual worship that comes from a right heart.
David ends this psalm by listing the sacrifices he will offer now that his heart is right:
- Instruction - "Then I will teach transgressors your ways" Psalm 51:13
- Songs of Praise - "my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness" Psalm 51:14
- Words of Praise - "my mouth will declare your praise" Psalm 51:15
- Humble Spirit - "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit" Psalm 51:17
- Pleasing Sacrifices - "then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings" Psalm 51:19
Notice that the last sacrifice is the ritual sacrifice. God can take delight in our rituals of worship but only when they are in the context of a right heart that is already offering spiritual sacrifices that are pleasing to God.
Is my Sunday worship a pleasing sacrifice or simply a weekly ritual? Is my heart right so that my worship is true?