J. R. Miller, 1912
"Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin." Verses 1-2.
The fifty-first Psalm tells the story of David's great sin. It tells of his penitence after his sin had been shown to him by Nathan. We see in it the path by which he returned to God. Since David wrote the words of this Psalm, thousands have used them, and they have become the liturgy of penitence for all who seek divine mercy.
Notice David's thoughts of God, as we find them in his confession. He saw Him as a God of unfailing love. In all the poignant sense of guilt that pressed upon his soul, there was not a shadow of despair. The moment he saw his sin—there poured upon him also a glorious disclosure of God's love. He confessed, "I have sinned," and at once Nathan said, "The Lord also has put away your sin." From this revealing of the divine mercy—hope came at once.
Had David not seen God in this light when the sense of his sin overwhelmed him, utter, hopeless darkness would have come upon him, and he would have been lost in the gloom. Thus it was with Judas, after he had betrayed his Lord, when the terrible tide of conviction swept over his soul. He saw no ray of hope, and in his dark despair—he went out and hanged himself. On the other hand, when Peter had denied his Master, and when, beneath the grieved look of that holy Eye, a sense of sin overwhelmed him—he went out and wept bitterly. But through his tears—he saw God as a God of mercy and love, and instead of despair—hope sprang up in his soul, and he was restored, living to be a glorious apostle. It is most important that the convicted sinner shall see God—as a God of mercy and love—as David saw Him, as Peter saw Him.
Notice also David's thoughts of his sin. First, he thought about his sin as his own. "My transgressions," "my iniquity," "my sin," "I have sinned," are the words he uses. He does not try to lay the blame of his wrongdoing, on some other one, as our first parents did. He does not plead the peculiar strength of his temptation and try to excuse himself for sinning so grievously. He does not talk of his peculiar environment or circumstances. He does not try in any way to explain his fall, or to mitigate in any measure the degree of his guilt. He frankly takes the whole responsibility on himself. This shows the sincerity of his repentance.
An old writer said, that nothing else in the world is so much our own—as our sins. We cannot push the responsibility off on any tempter or on any circumstances. Others may tempt us—but no one can compel us to sin. There is no sin in being tempted—sin begins when we yield to the temptation. Jesus was tempted in all points like as we are—but He was without sin. We are commanded to resist the Devil, and we are told that he will flee from us. Others may tempt us—and the guilt of the tempter is great. But no one can compel us to sin. Until we lift the latch—sin cannot enter our heart's door. We are responsible, therefore, for our sins, and must bear the burden of them ourselves.
We must also personally seek and find forgiveness for our own sins. No intercessor can obtain pardon for us; we must be penitent ourselves. Christ's expiation is for sinners—but even Christ's intercession will not bring forgiveness, if we do not personally repent and seek mercy. No one can obtain forgiveness for us—for any unconfessed sin of ours.
Another of David's thoughts about his sin, was that it was against God alone. "Against you, you only, have I sinned." The smallest wrong thing we do—is done primarily against God. If we speak a rude or impatient word to a beggar—it strikes God's heart, and the sin is against Him. If we are unkind to a dumb beast—we sin against God. Our unholy thoughts, which we think harm no one—grieve God. Every sin is a personal offence to Him. We may injure others and do wrong and injustice to them—but the sin is really and always against God. It is the law of God that we break, no matter what evil thing we do; and in breaking His law—we have struck God in the face. We stand in such relations to God all the while—that every act, word, or thought of ours affects Him personally: either pleasing Him and meeting His approval, or grieving Him and receiving His condemnation.
Another thought of his sin which David had, was that it was inborn. "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me." He was not born holy. Sin is not altogether a habit which one acquires through years of living. It is not a result of bad education. It is not a little soiling of one's nature from the outside, by contact with an evil world. Sin is in the heart—and was born with us.
Notice also David's thought of the mercy he needed. First, there is a simple cry for mercy. "Have mercy upon me, O God." This was his greatest need. He did not begin his prayer by asking for favors, for prosperous circumstances, for many friends. Before any blessings could count in his life—he must get clear of his sin, and must have God's mercy. The words represent his transgressions as all written down against him in the book of accounts—and he pleads to have them blotted out, erased, rubbed from the page. There is something very startling in this thought that our sins are charged against us, and that unless we get the record expunged, we shall have to meet the penalty. But the blessed truth here, is that sins may be blotted out—no matter how many or how great they are.
"Wash away all my iniquity." Sin is represented as leaving a stain, and the prayer is that it may be washed off. That is, sin not only writes its record against us on God's book—but it also denies and pollutes our lives. We need not only to have the guilt removed—to be justified; but we need also to have our lives cleansed—to be sanctified. We need a cleansing which reaches the very center of the being. The stains are deep, and the purifying process must go on until they are all removed. The ancient method of washing clothes was by beating or treading, and David asks God even to tread him down if necessary to remove the foul spots. We should pray God to wash us until every stain is taken away, however painful the process must be.
"Cleanse me from my sin." It is the language used of cleansing lepers. The word "wash" refers to garments and surface stains, and the word "cleanse" refers to sin as a disease, a leprosy in the soul. This prayer, therefore, is for the cleansing of the very nature.
There is still another expression in the prayer: "Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow." In certain ancient ceremonies, the blood was sprinkled with a hyssop branch. We may not be able to read into this prayer all the New Testament teaching about Christ's sacrifice, and yet the idea is certainly present, and for us means cleansing of Christ's blood.
Notice, then, David's thought about the renewal which comes with God's forgiveness. It is inward renewal. When the love of God streamed into his soul—he saw how much he needed to have done in him to make him what God would have him to be.
First, he had a new conception of the divine requirement. "You desire truth in the inward parts." Truth is genuineness, sincerity, righteousness. God despises hypocrisy. No mere external reformation will avail—while the heart remains wrong. With this lofty conception of the divine ideal of character, there is a beautiful evangelical teaching in David's prayer for renewal. He pleads for the application of the blood of atonement, to his life, then for the assurance of forgiveness, that the lost joy might be brought back.
Next he prays for renewal of heart: "Create in me a pure heart, O God." He has discovered the black fountain of sin in his life, pouring up its defiling waters and polluting all his soul. He cannot himself purify this black well, and he brings it to God that He may purify it.
The word "create" shows that David understood the necessity of a divine work in him, a work nothing less than a new creation. In this prayer for renewal, he pleads also that the Holy Spirit may abide with him, be with him. He remembered Saul's terrible fate, when God took His Holy Spirit from him, and pleaded that the same calamity might not fall upon him. "Do not cast me from your presence, or take your Holy Spirit from me." While he prayed for the continuance of God's Spirit upon him, he prayed also that his own spirit might be constant, steadfast, and free—that is, willing. In other words, he desires the spirit of entire consecration to God's will and service. Then he asks for the restoration of the joy of salvation.
Notice once more in this Psalm, David's thought about serving God. When he had been forgiven and the joy of salvation had been restored to his heart, he would begin to be a blessing to his neighbors and friends. We cannot bring others to Christ—when we have no joy of forgiveness in our own hearts. But the moment we are forgiven and the joy begins in us—we begin to desire to help others, to teach transgressors God's ways, and to lead sinners back home.
Other suggestions are found in the words which follow. The tongue of a forgiven man will sing aloud of God's righteousness. His opened lips will speak forth God's praise. The character of the service which God desires from us, is sketched in the closing words—not sacrifice of animals or any possessions. The sacrifice that pleases God—is a penitent spirit and contrite heart. "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."