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Psalm 51:1-17

I can’t help but think of Area 51 every time I encounter a reference to Psalm 51.  That’s probably out of the ordinary, but consider this: Do you know anything about Area 51?  No one really knows anything about Area 51, but the whole experimental testing, secrecy, security clearance, conspiracy theory mindset—that’s sort of how I feel about Psalm 51.  It’s the heartbreaking lament after everything that David tried to hide is exposed—after David is exposed by Nathan the prophet who is nothing less than all up in David’s face.  He may have once held to a “what happens in Area 51 stays in Area 51” mysterious mantra, but as it turns out, Psalm 51 is both revealing and convicting.

Sin is awful.  Confession is necessary.

Now, here’s the thing.  Very few of us (I daresay none of us) have ever been so turned on by our neighbor’s spouse’s bathing habits that we called him or her to come over for some recreation and procreation, only to realize that we are caught, requiring the murder of our neighbor.  This narrative is (hopefully) unique to David and Bathsheba, and it takes the cake.

Or does it?

All sin is awful.  Confession is necessary.  And healing takes time.

To put this Psalm in its historical context, David writes it after the prophet Nathan confronts him regarding his sin and presumably after the death of the son David and Bathsheba conceived during this mess.  David begins this Psalm by pleading with God for mercy, springing from steadfast love and abundance.  David has already mourned and grieved and asked God to change the outcome of the situation, but I think he writes this after he gets back up again, because his plea is different.  He now asks God to change him… to cleanse his heart and transform his spirit.  Frankly, I think these requests might be more courageous and outlandish than the fasting and prayer that took place during those seven days when he begged God to spare his child.  Those earlier requests were guttural, natural, and justifiable.  They were the kinds of requests we make when we legitimately hope for extrinsic change in the midst of horrible circumstances, for the sake of others but also for the sake of ourselves. To ask for change within us, though, is prayer of a different quality.  This intrinsic perspective is, perhaps, what it is to sincerely repent.

Absolution of sin generally requires several steps.  It begins with the grace that goes before (prevenient grace) as God calls and persuades us to acknowledge and turn from the sin that has taken root in the depth of our beings.  Our response matters.  True repentance is more than a trite apology.  It is comprised of crushed bones, a broken spirit, and a contrite heart.  David is more than sorry.  He is more than so, so sorry.  He is rent by the weight of the knowledge of his sin and the discipline that he has accepted as just, and he is ready for transformation.

If you’ve ever been rent, you know that it feels as if there will never be an end to the pain.

All sin is awful.  Confession is necessary.  Healing takes time.  And in the midst of it, it feels as if the suffering will last forever.

But it doesn’t.

It should not be lost on us that David makes several different types of requests.

He asks God to redeem him: “wash me, cleanse me, purge me…”

He asks God to be present to him: “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me” (v.11).

He asks God to redeem his broken spirit: “put and sustain a new, right spirit within me.”

I think we might miss the nuance in this.  If we neglect the lament, this becomes a list of beautiful clichés, but David’s requests are analogous to his condition.  He asks for a new spirit, because his is broken.  He asks for bones that rejoice, because his are crushed.  He asks for the ability to declare deliverance and praise from the same lips that have previously lied.

Without the history, this Psalm looks like a common prayer that ebbs and flows through the pen of the Psalmist, highlighting some unknown highs and lows, but we have the advantage of knowing that this particular lament springs forth from the most damaged condition that David has ever experienced.  It’s David!  If you know his story, you also know this is saying something!

David is begging for another chance, and I think a lot hinges on verse 6:

“You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.”

He has finally isolated the center of his trouble, and it is the core of his being—his very own secretive heart.  But he thinks it might yet be atoned for, if only it was full of God’s wisdom and truth as opposed to his own scandal, and the staggering turn is that David is now willing to share the contents of his very spirit, for the sake of the Lord, if only he can be made new.