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Psalm 51

“Who can stand before the Lord?”, asks the prophet Malachi. (Mal. 3:1) He compares the coming of the Lord to the intensive work of the launderers soap and to a refiners fire. To stand before the Holy One is to be completely transformed in His presence. Those things that once lived can no longer live, not without being scrubbed so completely that no blemish remains, not without every bit of dross melted to be refined and remade.

Our passage uses similar language to describe King David’s response to his character being found out before the Lord. In the aftermath of his scandalous affair with Bathsheba, he is confronted by Nathaniel. Seeing through David’s corrupt plan to cover up wrong doing, he is exposed by Nathaniel’s profession, “You are the man!”

The truth about David has been uncovered leaving his shattered character in plain view. Before God and God alone, David stands exposed in his sin. The underbelly of David’s private life stands before the Righteous One and is brought to light. Nothing can hide in the view of God’s knowledge and light. Who can stand in the presence of the Lord? Whose character, when all else is settled and the truth has been told in full, is able to stand beside the Lord? Who can withstand His presence?

In the undoing of David, God’s character is revealed forming a word of testimony and a confession of God’s nature. Within David a word is formed appealing to God’s lovingkindness, power and mercy. A word protrudes from David’s desperation about grace and the need for redemption.

Psalm 51 embodies what is for any person to stand before the Lord and have the truth told about their lives. These words of a confessing King, and possibly the confessing community of Israel, are our words. They are the words formed beneath the light of God’s revelation when the truth about is told. Who can stand before the Lord?

The psalm begins with an appeal to God’s character of covenant promise, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; …[1]” God’s goodness and compassion emanate from a character of loyal love (hesed). In the midst of a guilty confession, if there is to be salvation, the Lord is the source. For He is mercy and compassion.

God’s character of compassion and mercy is the authority to “blot out” transgressions. That is, to wipe out – wipe clean – annihilate. This is the same expression used in the Noah story for God to blot out creation and to start anew. What the Psalter captures is a plea for complete renewal through a source capable of such a miraculous request. In light of David’s guilt, he knows he is in need of a complete rebirth. A Noah style re-start. He goes to the only source capable of a complete new beginning – the God of Creation.

David is unfit for service in God’s Kingdom. He is fully aware and feels the gulf that exists between God’s requirements and his own actions. in awareness of the distance that exists between his actions and his position to lead the people of God. The demand is greater than his character. David is in the hands of the launderer – the cleaner, the purifier. He begs that God would wash him thoroughly like a launderer would wash a garment. He is in need of a deep cleansing.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God”, The Psalmist cries. (V.10). Only the One who can provide the deep cleaning may also create a new. Here, the God of Genesis is recalled. The source of creativity and function summoned for the sake of a new beginning, a new start. There is no disillusion of merit but an understanding that the foundation of God is the last hope to have any place to stand. This is the only place for desperation to fall, because God is loyal to covenant and a character of mercy. If salvation can exists in this situation it would have to be a word that breaks into the world from outside. A creative word that disrupts the rhythms of evil at work.

The Psalmist voice rises to desperate crescendo. Nothing short of divine intervention will due. Nothing short of God’s complete and restorative renewal. God will have to wipe the slate completely clean, like a creator that begins from ex nihilo. The hope is that the Creator will cleanse, wipe clean, and renew the sanctified functions of creation so that life and purpose and goodness can be restored.

For salvation to take full effect, a transplant of character must take place. The old has to go and the new has to come. Coming into view is the Psalmist desire for a reunion with the Creator. A new beginning from the intimate beginning. Where one could rest in the sustenance of God’s grace and be brought to life again within the power of life giving spirit and breath. This breath has the chance to make the broken bones rejoice (v.8), to bring back to life that which has fallen prey to evil and destruction. Only the breath of God could resurrect from the rubble.

We see in this Psalm shades of Ash Wednesday where the people of God gather to confess that in the light of God, we are but dust and ashes. In the presence of the Father, whose character emanates with compassion and mercy, whose nature is to create life from chaos, we are in His hands. These are the hands of a very good launderer purifying our souls and setting our tongues for witness and mission.

Only in Divine Presence is there hope for sustenance, grace, and renewal without being wiped from the planet. God’s presence is both judge and mercy. In God is both perfect righteousness and free self-giving love. This Psalm uncovers the longing for the Eden of old. More specifically, what Eden offered: unadulterated presence. In light of revelation, the deep longing of the human spirit arises to be in the shadow of the Creator’s presence, to be hid beneath the wing of his friend, to walk hand in hand in the garden where no evil intention separated the humans heart from God’s.

[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Ps 51:1.