Praying God's Forgiveness
As you read the Psalms you find that some have a small note, usually italicized right before the first verse of the psalm. Many of the psalms come from particular times in David’s life. These notes, which are part of what was originally written, often give the background to the psalm.
We find in Psalm 51 that it is a psalm of David “When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.” Well!
The story is found in 2 Samuel 11, 12. King David’s army is out fighting a war, and he is home biding his time. One day as he is walking on the roof of his house, he sees this beautiful woman, Bathsheba, and she is down below bathing on the roof of her house. She also happens to be the wife of one of King David’s soldiers.
Succumbing to lust and abusing his power, David has her brought to him. He lays with Bathsheba and she becomes pregnant. Figuring that he can fix the mess, David has Bathsheba’s husband, whose name is Uriah, brought home from the war. That way it will look like Uriah is the father when news of Bathsheba’s pregnancy becomes public.
But since loyal soldiers don’t enjoy time with their wives when their comrades are back at the front, Uriah refuses to sleep with his wife. Frustrated, David sends Uriah back to the war and has the commander put him on the front lines where the fighting is fiercest because there is a good chance Uriah will be killed. Sure enough, that is what happens, and the King thinks he has solved his issue.
King David has committed adultery, been responsible for the creation of a new life for which he does not want to be responsible, and tries to cover it all up by committing murder. I mean, that’s bad. I don’t know what wrongs you have done this week, but I don’t know if you can top this.
This is real bad. And David thinks that no one will ever know.
But the Lord knows. And the Lord sends the prophet Nathan to David. Nathan was kind of David’s spiritual adviser. Nathan tells David a story about a rich man stealing the lamb of a poor man, a lamb the poor man loved more than anything. The rich man killed the object of that poor man’s affection and served the lamb for a meal. It’s a heart-rending story.
When Nathan asks David what should be done to the rich man, David, enraged, says that rich man deserves to die and should repay the poor man four times over because he had no pity. And Nathan delivers the punch line when he says, “David, you are that man.”
David is stunned and convicted to the heart.
That’s the background to Psalm 51. Psalm 51 is a psalm of confession. It is one of seven psalms that are called the “Penitential Psalms” because they express penitence, a desire to have God forgive. Psalm 51 begins:
“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.”
And while these words originally came from an adulterer, a murderer, and a liar, they are words for all of us. Psalm 51 helps us to pray for God’s forgiveness whenever we are guilty of living against God.
In the first three verses there are three words used for failure before God: transgressions, iniquity, and sin. Transgressions refers to deliberately crossing boundaries. Iniquity means to be crooked. Sin means to miss the mark.
In the prayer of the first three verses there are three actions David asks God to take. First, David prays for God to blot out his transgressions, which means to erase or remove from the record. Second, he prays for God to wash him, which speaks of his need for forgiveness of what is filthy in his life. Third, he prays for God to cleanse him which is related to blot out.
In the prayer of the first three verses David asks God to do these things based on three qualities of God’s character: God’s mercy, God’s unfailing love, and God’s great compassion. And aren’t we glad that our God is one of mercy, unfailing love, and great compassion?
Notice where David places the blame – fully on himself. He doesn’t rationalize, theologize, or spiritualize. No excuses. He was wrong. And he wasn’t just wrong toward Bathsheba and Uriah, as cruel as his actions toward them were. David was wrong toward God.
“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,” he prays. (v.4)
David’s worst sin wasn’t adultery or murder or the dishonesty and coverup. David’s greatest sin was his disregard for the Lord and imagining he could live without regard for the Lord. David’s worst failure was thinking he could pull a fast one on Almighty God.
We might say, “I haven’t stolen anyone’s spouse. I haven’t committed murder. I haven’t even gotten a speeding ticket. I’m not a bad person or a sinner.” Sports fans, anytime we supercede the Lord and think we can live free from him, that is sin. Sin is simply a violation of our relationship with God. And there is no one who is free of that.
We do it in big ways and little ways. And every Christian should mature enough to be able to look into his or her heart and find the sin that can lie there.
David not only prays for forgiveness in Psalm 51, but he prays for God to change him. He prays for a restoration of what his rebellion against God took from him. He wants a restoration of joy and gladness. He asks God not to take his Holy Spirit away from him. He prays “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”
We need more than just a removal of what is bad. We need a filling of what is good. We need renewal, restoration, and righteousness. We need God to change our hearts, to give us a right spirit that resists temptation and seeks to live in God’s ways.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit in me” could be a prayer we say daily.
The Hebrew word for “create” is “bara.” (Say that with me.) It means to bring into existence what was not there before. In the Bible it is only used in relation to God because only God can do this.
Every Sunday we have a Prayer of Confession in our worship. Many churches do this every Sunday, or at least regularly.
We have a Prayer of Confession not because we need to be reminded that we screw up. We don’t do it to make us feel bad about ourselves. We do it to humble ourselves before God, acknowledge that we do fall short of the life he calls us to, and allow God to heal us.
Our Prayer of Confession is written for us to say together. But you and I can go to God with our own words and ask for forgiveness anytime. It keeps our hearts open before God, and is spiritually healthy.
The Prayer of Confession in worship is always followed by Assurance of God’s forgiveness because that we sin and have dark parts of our lives is not the final word about us, nor is it all the news about us. In light of Jesus Christ, there is good news and that is we are forgiven.
That is the promise he makes to us in his Son, Jesus Christ who has come to bring the grace of God. Listen to these promises:
Paul writes in Ephesians 2, “…because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” (vv.4-5)
In Romans 8: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (v.1) Did you hear that? We are not condemned. We were unable to keep the law of God so God sent his own Son to be a sin offering, our substitute by dying on the cross. Our debt has been paid.
At the end of Psalm 51 David mentions sacrifices and burnt offerings. “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” (v.17) Animal offerings was how people of God received forgiveness under the old covenant. David doesn’t bring a sheep to sacrifice. He brings his own broken heart.
When we come with true sorrow for our sin and regret what we have done, God sees that and forgives us. Under the new covenant in Jesus Christ our sin is forgiven by the once and for all sacrifice of the Son of God. The only thing God can’t help is a heart that feels no sorrow for its sin.
We have this promise in 1 John: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8,9)
No one can claim to be without sin. Yet, many people are running around justifying themselves even as they live against the ways of God. Sometimes the result is guilt deep in a person’s soul, because their conscience burdens them. But God is faithful and just and will forgive the person who comes honestly. He will forgive the person who is remorseful. And he will purify us from all unrighteousness. Remember David prayed in Psalm 51 for God to cleanse him and make him white as snow. God answers David’s prayer to be cleansed and washed through Jesus Christ.
Other people live in constant self-condemnation. They cannot believe God’s mercy is strong enough to handle their sins.
Maybe you say, “But you don’t know how bad I have been. You don’t know what I have done.” Maybe I don’t. But can you top David with the trifecta of adultery, murder, and cover up? Even if you can match that, God knows where you have failed. Trust in the cross of his Son to cover your sin.
Guilt plays right into Satan’s hands. He uses it to keep a wall between us and God so that we will not come to know God’s powerful love for us. Christ came to do away with the condemnation and free us from such guilt.
“But I keep asking for forgiveness over and over again. Sometimes for the same things. Surely God’s grace has a limit. Surely his allotment of forgiveness will run out.”
Brothers and sisters, God’s grace has no limit. His forgiveness cannot be used up. We keep coming and coming and coming. God keeps showing mercy and grace and love.
There is a verse in Romans that says, “…where sin increased, grace abounded all the more….” (Romans 5:20)
Our Lord Jesus came not because we could be right with God on our own. He came because every person who has ever lived falls short of God’s standards. He came in love. He came to do what we could not do for ourselves.
Jesus told a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector who came to pray. The Pharisee was very sure that he was good with God because he had done all the right things. His prayer was that he was glad that he was not like that tax collector. The tax collector wouldn’t even come near the front of the sanctuary. He probably felt rotten about himself, his business, and the things he was doing. His prayer was simply, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
And Jesus said that he was the one who went back to his house justified and right with God.
“Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” That is Psalm 51 in brief.
We all fail. We all can feel like hypocrites. We all can do things in the dark no one else sees. We can speak the hurting word. We all can do the wrong thing. We can all not do the right thing.
Psalm 51 is a prayer to bring to God when our hearts weight heavy with our sin. Psalm 51 is there when we have blown it. Psalm 51 is there so that God can bring healing where we need it most.
Take hold of it. Read it. Pray it. And know just as sure as he did for David, that God will meet you in his great mercy.