Psalm 51 – A Fresh Start and a Clean Heart
If you could go back in time-what would you change? Think about that for just a moment-and I’m sure it doesn’t take long at all to start thinking about lots of things that you would change. Maybe you would have chosen a different career or a different major in college. I always say that if I could go back in time I would have been an English major in college instead of a math major to become a high school English or literature teacher. Whenever someone tells me they teach high school English I’m always intrigued-Tell me more-what’s it like living the dream? And they always look at me strangely! But I’m sure lots of us would go back in time and change our careers. If you could literally go back in time would you be in the same job you have right now? Don’t raise your hand! Or maybe you’d go back in time to study more in school or work harder and apply yourself. Maybe you’d go back in time and take more risks and not play it so safe. Maybe you would have accepted those challenges instead of run from them. Or maybe you wouldn’t have taken as many risks and would have played it more safe. So fascinating to think about what we would do if we could go back in time. Or what about buying things. If you could go back in time would you still buy some of the things you have-never would have bought that car, never would have bought half those clothes in my wardrobe, never would have bought that exercise bike or treadmill that just sits there! I looked it up and of the 50 purchases people most end up regretting the top 3 were timeshares, extended warranties and camping gear we never use! Anybody bought those things or have lots of gear in your basement that hasn’t been used in a while? So if you could go back in time maybe you would take more camping trips with all that extra gear you have! And I’m sure many of us would take more vacation, see more places, try new experiences and do more things if we could go back in time. But I want to know if there’s anybody here who says if I could go back in time I would live my life exactly the same-I wouldn’t change a thing! Anyone that bold! If I had a do-over I would do it just like I did it the first time!
That’s awesome-but I think for most of us-if we’re honest with ourselves given the ability to go back in time-there would be lots of things we would change-particularly many of the decisions we’ve made. Yes, foolish or frivolous purchases may be one thing-but foolish or bad decisions are something totally different. And if we search our hearts this morning we’ve all done things we regret, things we’re ashamed of, things we so wish we could change or undo or repair. To stand up to temptation and not give in. To not let our anger or bitterness destroy a relationship. To stop being so fearful. To never start that bad habit, or never begin that web of lies we can’t get out of now. To never become friends with that person who took us down a bad road. To never fall so deep into debt-or fall so far into sin. The apostle Paul captures this idea well in Rom 7:15. When Paul looks back he realizes he hates the sinful things he does. Why do I do this-he keeps asking himself. And maybe you’ve asked yourself that too. Why did I do that? Please let me go back and fix it, Lord. And yet, we all know we can’t. Time travel is the stuff of science fiction.
So what can we do about the things we wish we could change, about the sinful decisions we’ve made. We can go to the Lord in confession and repentance-just like David did in Psalm 51. If you have your Bibles you can turn there-or we’ll have it on the screen-Ps. 51:1-2.
Right away in this Psalm we’re confronted with what belongs to who. The question is what is David’s and what is God’s? And the first thing to notice is when David is speaking about God what belongs to Him is your steadfast love and your abundant mercy. Both of those qualities are really important-but they’re especially important because of the adjectives in front of each word. God’s love isn’t a normal, average, regular love-but steadfast love-meaning that it continues through thick and thin, through the ups and downs and whatever happens. Likewise, His mercy isn’t just normal, average mercy that might run out after we make too many mistakes-but abundant, overflowing, never running out , plenty of mercy for whatever we need. And that’s really good because what is David saying belongs to him? My transgressions, my iniquity, my sin. David is not trying to cover things up or pretend things are better than they really are. He’s not trying to rationalize his bad decisions, or explain them, or point the finger at someone else and say it’s there fault for why he did what he did. Instead he owns up to what he’s done and calls it like it is-look at v. 3. David recognizes that he can’t hide from his sin. He can’t pretend it isn’t there. Instead, when David comes before the Lord’s presence and speaks to Him in prayer he has to acknowledge what is so obvious and clear-and that’s his sin. There’s no hiding that from God. He sees it plain as day. It’s sort of like getting a bad haircut or having something stuck in your teeth after lunch. You can pretend it isn’t there-but everyone you speak to sees it. You’ve got a little something there… New haircut? Looks good… You can’t miss it. And when it comes to sin this is the primary thing that God sees which causes that separation from Him. A great example of this is from Isaiah the prophet when he had a vision of the Lord-Isa 6:1-5. The very first thing that Isaiah says in God’s presence isn’t what an honor this is, how incredible to see God’s glory, what a spectacular sight, can I invite some friends, thanks for letting me be here. Isaiah says I shouldn’t be here. Lord, you are absolutely, completely, totally holy and I am not. I’m a sinner and I’m lost. And so the Lord goes on to take away Isaiah’s sin, to cover it and atone for it. And that’s exactly what David realizes needs to happen in his life. Go back to Ps 51:1-2. David owns up to his sin, he acknowledges and confesses it-and on the basis of God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy-what is he asking for? Blot out, wash me, cleanse me. David wanted God to forgive his sin and remove it. In essence David wanted God to cover over his sin. But that wasn’t what David wanted to do at the start. Initially he wanted to cover it up and hide it
If you have your Bible in front of you-you’ll notice the description for the setting of this Psalm-A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone to Bathsheba. Or the NIV says after David committed adultery with Bathsheba. And that took place back in 2 Sam 11:2. Now I don’t know a lot about biblical shower curtains or the customs of rooftop bathing! But at this juncture David hasn’t necessarily sinned-now we’re not told the thoughts that were going through his mind. But on the palace roof David would have been at a higher elevation to look down upon the courtyards of the houses below to see Bathsheba bathing. So David is enjoying a cool, quiet evening on the roof, maybe he’s starting to compose a new song or play his harp-when out of nowhere temptation strikes. So when we talk about a bad decision, when we talk about that sinful decision we wish we could go back in time and change-for David this is it-this is the moment. What he does here is very crucial! And what he does is not shut the door to sin-which we need to do immediately when temptation strikes-but instead he engages with it. Think back to Adam and Eve-what did Eve do when the serpent showed up? She engaged the serpent in conversation-the very thing she shouldn’t have done which then led to sin. Right away Eve should have said-No-I don’t speak to talking snakes-that’s weird, something’s not right-I’m going to God. Likewise David should have said-No, I don’t look at beautiful women bathing outside-I’m going inside to speak with God and probably take a cold shower myself to cool off! But David doesn’t do that. Just as Eve inquired further with the serpent, so David inquired further about this. Look at how it unfolds-2 Sam 11:3. Now first of all David should have never let it get this far. Anytime you inquire about sin, you’re only increasing the pull and lure of temptation. Immediately stopping it, walking away, ignoring it or resisting it is always your best choice. So the first reflection question asks-Pt1:Do I understand how swiftly and subtly sin strikes? It seems so small in the moment, such a minor thing. It’s not David’s fault she’s bathing so he’s just asking who it is-what’s wrong with that? But God’s Word shows us over and over that anytime you engage with temptation, anytime you linger on it, think about it, explore it, respond to it, or inquire about it-you are on a dangerous road. If David could go back in time I’m sure he would have marched right downstairs, never taking a second glance. But he didn’t do that-he let temptation swiftly and subtly capture his heart leading him to sin. Back to 2 Sam 11:3.
And shouldn’t that right there have been all the answer David needed? She’s another man’s wife-not for you-hands off. But David had inquired too long so that when the time came he made a bad decision he would deeply regret-2 Sam 11:4-5. Right away the consequences kick in. Right away David realizes how dire this is-and yet what does he do? Long before he confesses in Psalm 51, he tries to cover it up. David sends Bathsheba’s husband who was at war with the troops to come back and spend a night at home. David’s hoping he’ll sleep with his wife and assume the child is his. But Uriah doesn’t do that-he sleeps outside in honor of his fellow soldiers on the battlefront. Then the next day David invites Uriah over for dinner and gets him drunk-but again he doesn’t sleep with his wife but stays outside. Uriah is such a noble man-so in desperation-2 Sam 11:16-17. David spirals further and further into sin by trying to cover up his first sin. The longer he refuses to confess to God the worse things get. One commentator said this-sin appears so subtly, sin harms so deeply, sin controls so quickly and sin devastates so painfully. David has gone from adultery to murder in the blink of an eye by trying so hard to cover up his sin and hide it. And isn’t that what we often try to do? Hide our sin so no one sees it? Pt2:How do I try to cover up my sin? Maybe you try to pretend it isn’t there-or hope no one sees. Maybe you lie to others and put on a good front. Maybe you try hard to be extra good and think that will outweigh the wrong you’ve done. But no matter how often, how much or how earnestly you try to cover up your sin-the Lord sees it-and the answer isn’t further hiding but humble, honest confession. I think half the time we spend all of our energy on trying to figure out a way to cover it up, to sweep it under the rug, when God wants us to simply go straight to Him. God put the prophet Nathan in David’s life to tell him to stop hiding and start confessing-2 Sam 12:9. Nathan calls a spade a spade and says it like it is-This isn’t good, David-do you see what you’ve done? And God uses that to pierce David’s heart-2 Sam 12:13. David should have been put to death for what he did. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. He put Uriah to death so David should be put to death. But this is where the Lord’s steadfast love and abundant mercy take over. David can’t go back in time and take away what he did-no matter how much he might wish he could-but the Lord can take away David’s sin because of His grace.
Back to Psalm 51 where we get David’s full and complete heartfelt confession-Ps 51:1-2. Back to those words blot out, wash me, cleanse me. And that’s exactly what the Lord does when we come to Him. When we mess up-and mess up big time like David-the answer isn’t what can I do to make it up to you, Lord? How can I work hard to be a better Christian? How can I prove to you that I really mean it and I’ll do better next time? Listen to what David says-Ps 51:16-17. God doesn’t want you to do something to make it up to Him or prove your worth. He doesn’t want some big sacrifice on your behalf to make up for the sin you just committed-He wants your heart. He doesn’t want what you can do-He wants who you are. Because the answer isn’t in what you can do. Again, you can’t go back in time and undo your sin. You can’t fix the damage your sin has done. You can’t mend what’s been broken. Only God can forgive you, heal you and restore you-and it begins with a broken and contrite heart. So Pt3:What keeps me from humble, honest confession to the Lord? This is where David shows us what it means to follow God. Sure, he sinned-and he sinned big time! But we all have. We’ve all done things we’re ashamed of, embarrassed about, things that disgust us when we look and wonder Why in the world did I do that-what was I thinking? And the answer isn’t I’m going to make it up to you, Lord, and do better next time. Just watch what a good Christian I can be. The answer is humble, honest confession. It’s coming before the Lord and owning up to our sin, no longer hiding from it-but bringing it to Him. So these words of David in Psalm 51 can become your words to God. This psalm is a beautiful model of how to honestly confess before the Lord. That in the quietness of your life you can take your Bible and read these words to God confessing the things in your life.
Listen to what it says-Ps 51:3-4. Yes, David wronged Bathsheba, he wronged her husband Uriah-but ultimately sin is an offense against God. It’s cosmic treason against the One who’s made us and created us-and David recognizes that. The heart of the issue is being forgiven by our holy God-because what do we discover in the NT-Rom 3:23. That’s what David is communicating. He’s raising his hand and including himself in the all-and we all have to as well. Yes-your sin has hurt others, harmed others, it’s caused pain and broken relationships, but your sin is affront to the Lord, your sin separates you from Him. Listen to how David goes on-Ps 51:5-6. What he means is that even from the moment he was born David was a sinner-just as all of us are. If you think about a child they don’t enter the world as loving, benevolent beings-instead they cry, they want to be fed and changed, they don’t share their toys, and as mom and dad the word no is very important. Is there any parent who never had to say no-that your child always obeyed and did the right thing? Obedience isn’t the default mode of children-we all know it’s disobedience-but that’s our sin nature coming through the very moment we begin life. Romans tells us that through Adam’s sin, sin spread throughout the entire human race. We’re like a tree-Adam and Eve are at the base, the roots of the tree-and that disease of sin has spread throughout every branch and leaf of the human race-so that the tree will die. And it goes on to say in Romans-the wages of sin is death. The human race is a diseased tree that can’t be fixed-the only option is to call the tree company and have them come to chop it down. We’ve all watched a tree get worse and worse, each year more branches die, more leaves turn brown and dead-and you know one day you’ll have to cut it down and remove it. That’s you and me and the entire human race! The disease of sin means the tree needs to be cut down because it’s dying-unless the Lord intervenes.
And that’s what David goes on to describe-Ps 51:7, 9. And how can God do that? How can a holy and just God hide his face from our sins, how can he blot out our mistakes? And when I think about blotting out I’m reminded of either scribbling something out with a pen so you can’t see it-or way back in the day anybody remember using white out? That little jar of white paint you’d spread over whatever you wrote or typed-but then it was always hard to rewrite over it because it was a rough surface. The Lord does far better than white out-what does He say in v.7. Hyssop is a plant that you can snap off and use as brush-sort of like nature’s paintbrush. You can dip it in something and then spread or paint it. So what was the hyssop plant dipped in? You have to go all the way back to the description of the Passover in-Ex 12:21-22. The hyssop was dipped in blood and was then used to cover the entry of the house with blood-why? Ex 12:23. The blood that was spread by the hyssop plant caused the Lord’s judgement to pass over His people. They were protected by spreading the blood, they didn’t have to face death-not because they were any better than the Egyptians-but because they were covered by the blood. And it’s no different for you and me-except that we’re not covered by the blood of a Passover lamb spread by a hyssop branch-we’re covered by the blood of Jesus-the Passover Lamb-when He died at the cross. Back to Ps 51:7, 9. David is telling us that while the pain and consequences of our sin are costly, our cleansing is even more costly because it requires the blood of the lamb-and we know who that Lamb is-1 Pet 1:18-19. Peter is making that connection-it’s Jesus blood that covers us-Eph 1:7.
So Pt4:Do I believe in the One who has covered my sins by His blood? That’s what this all funnels down to-God can hide His face from your sin, He can blot out all your mistakes-not because He just chooses to look the other way or randomly scrubs them out or brushes them under the rug-but because He looks to His Son who’s blood was spilled for you. Exposition, 8.
That’s what this Psalm is all about-that heart of humble, honest confession that acknowledges your sin-and then looks to another, that is to Jesus, in order to be cleansed. Have you done that? Or maybe it’s been a long time since you’ve done that. Or maybe there’s been some sin issues that have cropped up in your life this week-and you need to spend some time in confession today. That’s what brings us to the heart of this psalm. You can’t go back in time and undo or change what you’ve done-but God can cleanse you and change your heart through His transforming grace. Listen to these words-and let them be your words-Ps 51:10-12. And God promises to do exactly that when you cry out to Him. This isn’t a hopefully, maybe, if God’s in a good mood and sees that I’m doing better He’ll give me a clean heart. This is promise that is true, a promise you can count on, a reality that you can experience because of Jesus. In Him, through His spilled blood and saving grace, your heart is made new. And the fulfillment of this promise-the cry of David’s prayer, the cry of our prayers-create in a me a clean heart, O God-is found in 2 Cor 5:17. When you confess your sins to Christ and trust in Him that is who you are. Your old self is gone, you are someone new. And when you continue to confess your sins-as we all need to do in life-this reminds us over and over of who we are. No longer a miserable, woe is me, I’ve made too many mistakes sinner-but a beloved son or daughter of God, a new creation in Christ. Back to Pt4. That’s what you need to ask yourself this morning-that’s where it begins because there is no cleansing, there is no forgiveness, your heart isn’t changed, your sins aren’t washed away without the blood of Jesus. But if you’ve trusted in Him then your heart is made new, your sins are blotted out and removed as far as the east is from the west. You see, David doesn’t just want a clean slate, He wants a clean heart-and that’s exactly what the Lord does for each of us. He re-creates our hearts and He reestablishes our joy. Ps 51:10-12. We can’t go back in time and change the things we’ve done-not possible-but we don’t have to-because we have a God who changes our hearts and makes us His! And that’s what brings us to communion this morning.