Psalms 51 – David’s Penitential Psalm
by Terry Broome
David, King of Israel, “a man of God’s own heart” (I Sam. 13:14) – what a fitting description of this man whom Jehovah had personally chosen not only to be King of Israel, but the very seed line of whom the “righteous Branch” (Jer. 23:5-6), the Messiah Himself, would come. The story of David the shepherd boy who became David the mighty King of Israel, is a character study in the depth and capacity for feeling within the human soul. His life’s story and his works in the Psalms give us a glimpse at man in victory, as well as in defeat, yet one who sustains a childlike faith in God. We learn from David how to trust in God in Psalms 23, how to avoid the pitfalls of life – Psalms 1, and how to approach God in deep penitence when we fall into sin – Psalms 51.
It was in the midst of a very colorful part of Old Testament History that we come to the event that triggered the text of our study. David was in the heyday of prosperity and power. His soldiers under Joab went to battle to finish the job begun a few months earlier of putting down an Ammonite uprising (II Samuel 10-11:1). “But David tarried still at Jerusalem” (v. 1). The reader may rehearse the story more carefully in II Samuel Chapter 11 of the ensuing adulterous union between David and Bathsheba, and the eventual plot to murder Uriah the Hittite in order to cover David’s sin that lead to a child being born.
When Nathan’s rebuke “Thou art the man!” smote him, it was as though the whole fabric of his earthly bliss melted like a dream, leaving him alone with these two – conscious guilt and Divine displeasure. David had in an instant recognized the horribleness of his crimes. With a broken heart he cried out, “I have sinned….” (II Samuel 12:13). He had lost what the world could not give, and all the world cannot make up for. In a Psalm of deep penitence, he would later cry out for God to “restore the joy of thy salvation” (Psalms 51:12).
In Psalms 51, David captures the true significance of our Lord’s words yet to be uttered from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). We have here a man who is so spiritually impoverished and bankrupt, that he empties himself of foolish pride. David cries out from the depth of ruin and despair with a full realization that he cannot of himself bring about a reconciliation with God. He is indeed “poor in spirit,” which is where all true penitence and relief begin.
Note the penetrating depth of David’s prayer for forgiveness. He begins by throwing himself totally on the mercy of the Lord without any efforts at excuse making. David does not plead innocence and ask God to vindicate him. Instead, he appeals to God’s “mercy,” “steadfast love,” and “abundant mercy” (v. 1). These three phrases describe the attitude that he yearns for God to have toward him. A guilty soul can only seek mercy.
Who could ever have felt a deeper, more heart-lifting joy than David who wrote in Psalms 32: verses 1 and 2, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.” Sweet and pleasant was the relief flooding a distraught soul when God’s word of forgiveness came to David. Nathan said: “Jehovah also hath put away thy sin” (II Sam. 12:13). David knew a good and loving God.
Indeed, great is our God. “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, ye righteous: and shout for joy, all ye that are upright in heart” (Psalms 32:11). In the words of a great old invitation song, “If you are tired of the load of your sin, let Jesus come in to your heart.”
The author can be reached for comments at 256-574-2489.