From My Soul Waits
Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love;
according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. (v. 1)
The context of Psalm 51 is given in its superscription: “A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” The conversation between Nathan and David is recorded in 2 Samuel 12:1-13, and the story that led to the exchange is a familiar one, (2 Samuel 11). Late one spring afternoon, the eyes – and then the hand – of King David falls lustfully upon Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah who was one of the kingdom’s faithful soldiers. Bathsheba becomes pregnant with David’s child and, in a desperate attempt to cover his own unfaithfulness, David deceitfully arranges for Uriah to be killed in battle. Then he takes Bathsheba to be his own wife.
With a remarkably pithy note of understatement, the record states that “the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” By God’s revelation, David’s secret villainy is brought into the light of day and Nathan the prophet is sent to confront him. Before Heaven’s court David is found inexcusably guilty of transgression. His sin looms before him like an unscalable mountain. He is helpless to overcome it. His soul is bereft at the very sight of it.
Four themes dominate David’s repentance, and they are true of all repentance of sin. First he has a deep sense of responsibility, of personal accountability for his choices and actions – my iniquity, my sin, my transgressions. Second, he knows that his sin against a neighbor was really sin against God – “against you have I sinned,” (v. 4). Third, with no recourse to his own worthiness, David’s own appeal can be to the mercy of God – “according to your great compassion,” (v. 1). Finally, by that mercy, he can hope for and receive complete restoration from his sin – “let the bones you crushed rejoice once more,” (v. 8). Through forgiveness David can have unhindered fellowship with God once again.
Psalm 51 is one of seven psalms traditionally categorized as “penitential” – 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143 – and for generations the church has put them to use in seasons that call for repentance and preparation. In each, the psalmist stands before God with the only “sacrifice” that can be offered, “a broken and contrite heart,” (v. 17). Such an offering, inspired by the convicting power of the Holy Spirit, is always acceptable to God. And it is always answered with mercy and forgiveness.
So it is that, a thousand years after David, Mercy’s coming was announced to the world in the song of an old man who also knew the forgiveness of God. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah spoke of the divine calling of his son, John, to prepare the way of the Lord by offering God’s people the forgiveness of their sins through the tender mercy of their God, (Luke 1:77-78). When the day dawned upon us from on high, David’s prayer for mercy was answered for us all, (Luke 1:78-79).
From The Fathers
But how shall a person find grace with God? How else, except by lowliness of mind? For “God,” James says, “resists the proud but gives grace to the humble,” (James 4:6); and “the sacrifice of God is a broken spirit, and a heart that is brought low God will not despise.” For if humility is so lovely to human beings, it is much more so with God. (John Chrysostom)
David’s prayer says it all, Father.
There is nothing I can add—I can only make it my own.
And if I do, then let David’s testimony be mine too (As well as Zechariah’s):
When he had fallen into sin, you raised him up again.
With this psalm, I reach out my imploring hands to you, and my own fallen heart.