Prayer for Pardon: A Penitential Psalm

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

Reflections on the Psalms, Part 5

Psalm 51 is one of seven penitential psalms (the 6th, 32nd, 38th, 102nd, 130th, and 143rd) that give expression to feelings of contrition. The psalms are named penitential (or psalms of confession) based upon references to them as a group in Cassiodorus’ (ca. 485-585 AD) massive exposition of the psalms. During times when believers wish to express repentance (or in various liturgical services), it is appropriate to give attention to the seven penitential psalms.

The overall messianic message of the Psalter is the reason why the penitential psalms can be read in view of the songs of the suffering servant (Isa 40—55). In this regard, they have been used traditionally for meditation and prayer. Psalm 51 is a lament of the sinner, yet it is also a song describing anguish; in this sense there is relation to the songs of the suffering servant. The universality of God is a prominent theme in those psalms celebrating the kingship of Yahweh (Ps 47, 93, 95—99). One could understand the general theological emphasis of the Psalms as being similar to Isaiah 40—55, because they develop Old Testament theology to express God’s universality, especially in view of divine intervention. As present circumstances recall God’s deliverance and power in the past, there is the constant reminder that the Lord is presently active for His people.

Psalm 51 is the first of a series of psalms with superscriptions attributed to David (the 66th, 67th, and 71st are exceptions), which conclude Book 2 (the 42nd through 72nd). Many of the superscriptions have enlightening biographical notes. The heading of Psalm 51 indicates it to be “A Contrite Sinner’s Prayer for Pardon.” David composed this psalm when Nathan the prophet confronted him subsequent to his sin with Bathsheba. The psalmist’s innermost thoughts are described as he expressed his sorrow for sin.

Prayer for Gracious Cleansing
David appealed to God (Elohim) to cleanse him because of God’s “lovingkindness” and “compassion” (Ps 51:1). The fact that David addressed the Lord as Elohim rather than Yahweh possibly indicates that he knew God’s forgiveness was neither deserved nor merited. The Lord graciously made a covenant with David, and that promise forms the basis of the first messianic psalm (the 2nd). The Davidic Covenant did threaten punishment for sin, but not the removal of God’s lovingkindness (2 Sam 7:14-16). In Psalm 51, the grace of God that is the basis for the Davidic Covenant is extended to David himself.

David was ever cognizant of his “transgressions” (Ps 51:1). His feelings of guilt were heightened because he attempted to conceal his sin (vv. 3-4). Psalm 32 describes David’s profound unrest in his innermost being. He proposed the need to confess his sin, and verse 5 is a brief statement of that confession. Psalm 51, however, is one of the most graphic depictions of confession, emphasizing the importance of true repentance. David did not utter any words of excuse, but acknowledged the nature of his sin. Second Samuel 11—12 reveals how David’s sin harmed others, yet he recognized that his transgression was not just against Bathsheba or Uriah; rather, the primary offense was fundamentally against God.

He acknowledged that the ultimate reason for his sin was a corrupt heart, saying, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” (v. 5). David entered the world as a sinner in nature long prior to him being a transgressor in action. His internal corruption predated his birth, when he was conceived in his mother’s womb. The transfer of the guilt and sin of Adam was imputed to him at the moment of conception. The reason for David’s sin was the consequence of being a sinner by nature. Sinful acts occur because every human being is born with an entirely depraved nature.

Having confessed his sin, David asked for God to purify him inwardly (vv. 6-9). Being purified with hyssop (v. 7) is an allusion to the cleansing of a leper. In the case of leprosy, hyssop was dipped in blood and sprinkled seven times on the leprous individual (Lev 14:6-7), which symbolized cleansing by sacrificial death (cf. Heb 9:22). David regarded himself as a spiritual leper who was desperately in need of divine cleansing, for only then would he become “whiter than snow” (Ps 51:7).

Having been cleansed from his sin, David could regain the “joy and gladness” of salvation and the Holy Spirit would not depart from him (vv. 8-11). David’s request concerning the Holy Spirit is unnecessary today (though one may perhaps be in anguish and feel that way), because the Holy Spirit permanently indwells every believer (John 14:17; Rom 8:9; 1 Cor 6:19-20). While the Holy Spirit will never depart from a New Testament believer, a Christian may lose the opportunity to serve the Lord, resulting in loss (cf. 1 Cor 3:10-15; 9:27; 2 John 8; Rev 2:5).

Sin in a believer’s life is not inconsequential. Unconfessed sin will result in loss of intimate fellowship with the Lord and thus deny one the joy of salvation (Ps 32:3-4). God is gracious in His discipline toward the one He loves (Prov 3:12; Heb 12:6; Rev 3:19). If a believer is unrepentant, that sin can lead to loss of physical wellbeing or even death (Acts 5; 1 Cor 11:28-30; 1 John 5:16-17). The Holy Spirit is grieved and His power quenched when a believer fails to confess sin. Nothing can be accomplished without the Lord’s abiding life (John 15:1-7).

Old Testaments believers were spiritually alive (regenerated), though none were Spirit baptized. Moreover, the Holy Spirit only indwelt some with an indwelling that was not permanent. Prior to Pentecost (Acts 2), the Holy Spirit would empower some believers, and might even depart from Old Testament believers (cf. 1 Sam 16:13-14). David prayed not to experience God’s rejection (Ps 51:11), perhaps thinking of Saul in his request.

Darby believed Psalm 51:11 to be prophetic of the believing Jewish remnant during the time of the Tribulation. They will confess their guilt for having shed the blood of Jesus Christ. He wrote, “This repentance of Israel, as so constantly taught in scripture (see Acts iii.), is the path to Zion’s blessing there. . . . In these two psalms (the 1st and 51st) we have the separative judgment in Israel connected with wickedness, sin against Jehovah—a judgment which is real deliverance for the remnant; and now (when He has appeared) the full confession, and that even of having shed the blood of the Saviour.”1

Prayer for Restoration to Fellowship
David never lost his salvation, but he did lose the joy of it. God was not delivering him from present distresses as He did previously, so David pleaded with God for the restoration of God’s power to him. David knew that he deserved God’s discipline, and recognized that he would suffer if the Lord did not accept his confession. He feared being rejected from serving God, so he pleaded with the Lord to restore to him the joy of his salvation (Ps 51:12a).

Sin and joy are mutually exclusive; thus, in a spirit of true contrition, David prayed for “a clean heart,” “a steadfast spirit” (v. 10), the “Holy Spirit” (v. 11), and “a willing spirit” (v. 12b). David needed to be renewed internally so he could obey God’s Word and persevere in holiness. He wanted to be an entirely different person from who he was in the past. As opposed to persisting in sin, David wanted to serve God joyfully and willingly. The most fundamental evidence of genuine repentance is transformation by the renewing of the mind (Rom 12:1-2).

The evidence for David’s restoration to fellowship would be a revitalized concern for God (i.e. His will and work). David knew that God is supremely interested in the inner purity of His people (Ps 51:16-17). He was restored to a state of purity before God, and only then could David admonish sinners and be used by the Lord for their conversion. Once forgiven, David said, “Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will be converted to You” (v. 13).

Restoration was not the final objective, for David would help others receive God’s forgiveness as he did. He would then sing aloud the praises of the Lord God (vv. 14-15). Some wrongly conclude that Christ’s atonement for their sins means His divine cleansing of them does not relate to whether they sin or not, because they are forgiven. Certainly, it is true that believers’ sins are forgiven and God’s grace unceasingly cleanses them (cf. 1 John 1:7, 9); yet it is impossible to persist in sin that grace may abound (cf. Rom 6:1-4). Brokenness toward sin and humility before God are expressions of genuine confession. Psalm 51:16-17 declares that God does not “delight in sacrifice” from a person who is not “broken” and “contrite.”

Personal prayer culminated in an appeal for the nation. The psalmist knew a relationship exists between his personal holiness as the king of Israel, and the blessings that God would bestow upon the nation. The sins of leaders affect themselves and others. The significance of verses 18-19 is the identification of the nation with their own sinfulness, and the need for divine grace resulting in God bestowing joy.

The final two verses of Psalm 51 were likely added during the exile, probably when all the psalms were being combined as one book. When the nation suffered defeat and exile because of their sin, Jerusalem’s walls were breached and sacrifices ceased. The psalmist prayed, “By Your favor do good to Zion; build the walls of Jerusalem” (v. 18), for then “righteous sacrifices” would resume (v. 19; cf. Deut 33:19). The heart must be consecrated prior to sacrifice being righteous. God’s “favor” did result in Jerusalem prospering under the postexilic leadership of Zerubbabel and Nehemiah (cf. Neh 12:43). Psalm 51 reveals the necessity of faith, humility, and repentance in the believer’s life, and how the lives of others are affected in that process. May all God’s people experience the ongoing joy of salvation, and pray for a willing spirit to be sustained in the purpose and will of God.

1 John Nelson Darby,  Synopsis of the Books of the Bible, 5 vols. (Addison, IL: Bible Truth Publishers, 1979) 2:155.

Midnight Call - 12/2019

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