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Psalm 51

Lesson Focus

We confess so that God will cleanse us. We are made clean so that we might help others to be clean.

Lesson Outcome

Through this lesson, students should:

  1. Be encouraged to confess their sins because of God’s great love and mercy.

  2. Seek a clean and renewed heart through the sustaining presence of the Holy Spirit.

  3. Be encouraged to teach others to confess their sins and seek a clean and renewed heart.

Catch up on the Story

The 51st Psalm is a psalm of David after the debacle with Bathsheba. It was the time when kings go off to war, the springtime, but King David stayed home. One afternoon he was out on the palatial rooftop looking at his city, and what did he spy but a beautiful woman taking a bath on the roof of her house. So David thought she was good-looking and decided that he wanted to meet her. He sent one of his servants over to her house to call her over. She came because when the king calls, you can’t refuse. It turns out that Bathsheba was married to Uriah the Hittite, an officer in David’s army who was off fighting in the war. One thing leads to another, and Bathsheba is pregnant with David’s baby. Bathsheba sends word to David of her condition. David decides to have Uriah killed during the battle so that he can take Bathsheba for his wife. After he had done this, Nathan, the prophet at the time, confronted David about his sin. He pronounces judgment, and David repents. This psalm was written as a prayer of confession and a petition for cleansing.

Recognition of Sinfulness: Psalm 51:1-5 David begins this psalm calling upon God’s steadfast love (hesed) and abundant mercy. Remember from our study of the Sermon on the Mount that God’s steadfast love and faithfulness are intimately related to God’s mercy. This is the very character of God. The writers of the Old Testament paint this picture of God often. David knows it to be true deep down in his heart. He knows this because of Israel’s collective testimony about God and his own experience with God’s faithfulness and mercy. Remember, this story takes place long after David had gone through countless struggles to become king.

After calling upon God’s gracious nature, David acknowledges that the sin he seeks forgiveness for is more than an accidental slip-up. Rather, it is a preexisting condition that can only be done away with through God’s power. David confesses that his sin has always been before him. Indeed he was guilty before he was born.

God’s steadfast love and faithfulness are not mere character traits but are a part of the very nature of God. Just as sinfulness is a part of human nature, David realizes the difference between who God is and who he is in his heart. The author is aware of who he really is. Our greatest inclination is to self-deception, thinking “I’m ok” when our sin is further engrained in us than we would really like to admit. In the journey toward Christ-likeness, we must, as David has done, begin by making this confession. God is great in steadfast love and mercy. We are sinners since before we were born. This recognition will help us confess and move away from our sins.

Petition for Cleansing: Psalm 51:6-12

As David realizes and comes to grips with his condition, he is also aware of what it is exactly that God wants from us. God wants us to have a clean and pure heart. For a Hebrew, heart means all of one’s being: one’s intentions, actions, and attitudes. The heart is all-encompassing. Because David is aware of the difference between his character and the character of God, he can pray that all that he is must be made new. “Create in me a clean heart”!

At the heart of this Psalm is a petition for a restored relationship with the One who is supremely faithful. But the restored relationship doesn’t just end with a renewed and clean heart; it requires the Spirit’s help in sustaining the relationship. In our journey toward holiness, we must be willing to act and do our part, but we will never get anywhere without the sustaining power of God’s Spirit. David longs for God’s Spirit to dwell in him, not just today, but for each new day.

As we move toward Christlikeness, we must invite God’s Spirit to be with us in a fresh way each new day. John Wesley talks about it in terms of spiritual respiration. We place ourselves in a conducive state to receiving the Spirit’s help. We breathe in the Spirit, exhaling all that is unholy. Each new breath is an opportunity to invite the Spirit into our lives (Wesley, 661).

The Response to Forgiveness: Psalm 51:13-17 David is not content merely with receiving forgiveness and cleansing. His first move in response to God’s faithful forgiveness and Spirit filling is to help others to do as he has done. David takes his newfound life and begins to shout and sing about it. The response is really twofold: the instruction of sinners and the engagement in worship. The two go hand in hand.

David models this connection for us. He has found deliverance through his confession, and now he moves to teach others to do the same. If David’s body of work in the Psalms is any indication, teaching others how to live rightly in relation to God is done through properly ordered worship.

Verses 16-17 show us what this properly ordered worship looks like. It is not merely the offering of sacrifices but the offering of a broken and repentant heart. The heart, our approach to God amid worship, is what ultimately matters. For us, if we translated verse 16 into language more conducive to our modern time, it might sound like this:

For you have no delight in tithe; if I were to give all my time to the church, you would not be pleased.

David was not about to stop offering sacrifices and burnt offerings. He understood, however, that doing those things without a truly repentant heart is meaningless.

Prayer for Lent

Lent is the season that prepares us for the horror and miracle of Easter. For centuries Christians have participated in the season of Lent by “giving” something up. The Lenten sacrifice helps us identify with God's sacrifice in Christ but also creates time and space for us to contemplate our sinful mortality. So for the forty or so days of Lent, we prepare our hearts and lives for the power of Christ’s death and victory over the power of sin and death in our lives. What will you give up?

Throughout Lent, let us pray Psalm 51 as a way to help make us aware of our sinfulness. May we say, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” And may we also be able to pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God…Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.”

So What?

This psalm is a prayer of confession and a petition to restore the right relationship with God. Verses 1-5 includes David’s recognition of his sinfulness and how he has ultimately fallen short. Verse 6-12 represents David’s petition to restore a proper relationship. The final verses depict what David will do once he is restored.

David knows that his actions have led to a break in the relationship between himself and God. He acknowledges that he has been sinful from the very beginning of his life and deserves the punishment he will receive. But yet, he doesn’t desire to be separated from God. No, he hopes God will forgive him and restore his relationship. He knows God’s power is great enough to love and forgive him despite his darkest and deepest stains. Despite David’s unfaithfulness, God is still faithful.

Lent is a time of reflection on the sacrifice that Christ made for us and who we are in the light of Christ’s life. We are reminded of our sinfulness and shortcomings during this time so that on Easter Sunday, we can confidently proclaim that our God is more powerful than our sins and shortcomings. We can proclaim that death and sin no longer have any power over us because Christ has been raised from the dead. It would be great for us to pray this psalm during Lent. May it help us recognize who we are and our sinfulness, but may it also help us realize that there is one greater than sin and death and that greatness can be ours. May we pray, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” and “Create in me a clean heart…Restore to me the joy of your salvation”!

Discussion Questions

Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. Why would David begin the psalm with a confession regarding God’s nature?

  2. David's punishment as a result of his foray with Bathsheba is that the child they conceived will die (2 Sam. 12:13). In this psalm, David does not cry out for the punishment to be rescinded. Why do you think he does not do that?

  3. Why does David confess that he has been sinful since before he was born? How does that make you feel?

  4. Have you ever done anything for which you thought forgiveness was impossible? Share with the group if you are comfortable. Did you eventually find forgiveness for that thing? If so, how?

  5. David’s response to his cleansing is to go out and teach sinners the way of God. How might we do similar things?

  6. David also responds with worship but quickly points out what kind of worship he thinks God finds appropriate. What do you think verses 16-17 mean? How would you state those verses in your own language?

  7. What is God saying to you through this psalm? What are you going to do about it?

Works Cited

John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, Fourth American Edition (New York: J. Soule and T. Mason, 1818).


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