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What Is the Significance of David and Psalm 51?

With Psalm 51, David takes the most important action any believer can take in order to be cleansed of sin: he turns away from sin to God in faith that God will conduct the painful but joyously sanctifying work of breaking and remaking him.

Contributing Writer
Jul 18, 2022
What Is the Significance of David and Psalm 51?

David had slept with Bathsheba, and she became pregnant. David sent her husband Uriah to the front lines of the battle to be killed in order to hide his sin, but Nathan, the prophet, urged David to see his sin for what it was and also to repent.

David was distraught when Nathan revealed the nature of his sin to him because he had denied to himself the evil he was committing.

When he finally faced what he had done, David wrote this Psalm, which is still emotionally powerful today. What is the significance of Psalm 51 for the modern reader?

Psalm 51 Summarized

This is a Psalm of repentance. David admits that he has sinned against God and recognized the cost of his sin. He also exalts the Lord’s name and remembers the Lord’s promises. He remembers who he is in sight of God. David asks God to change him and to be merciful.

David does not try to shift the blame to someone else or get angry with the Lord because of the punishment that awaits him. He does not minimize the enormity of his trespasses or forget that he is an earthly king with a responsibility to lead Israel by example. He knows his place and his duty to the men and women of Jerusalem.

Although King David speaks of personal sin, Psalm 51 is a model of repentant prayer at its most genuine and reverent.

Psalm 51 and Repentance

Catherine Parks noted eight facets of the prayer in this psalm. David defines his sin, appeals to God for mercy, avoids defensiveness, “looks to Jesus,” asks God to “break and heal” him, finds comfort in the Spirit, rejoices and proclaims the truth about God, and “resolves to obey.”

One of the most disappointing aspects of a hasty, thoughtless prayer life is that one skims over confession and repentance too quickly. 

Instead of confessing and asking forgiveness for specific sins, one’s confession is vague and his or her prayer shallow and lopsided, weighted more heavily in the department of asking for things or complaining than confession and repentance.

Knowing that God is good, kind, and forgiving, one’s prayers can sometimes become routine and meaningless. One forgets that sin is costly to and directed at God.

Thoughtless prayer does not lead to sanctification and transformation. “Often we treat repentance as a statement — an ‘I’m sorry, please forgive me’ that checks a box and (hopefully) alleviates our guilt. But if we look closely at Psalm 51, we see that repentance is a turning away from sin and a turning toward God — a process that doesn’t merely alleviate guilt but cultivates deep joy” (Ibid.).

One cannot fool God: “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds” (Jeremiah 17:10).

Insincere repentance is a sinful soliloquy, which ignores the cost of sin. Insincere repentance overlooks the fact that one is not freed by grace from the consequences of sin but from slavery to sin itself. 

2 Corinthians 7:10 says that “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” Worldly repentance is lifeless and pointless.

It is also a missed opportunity. As Parks says, the unrepentant heart misses the joy of meeting Jesus, which is what confession and prayer are always about — having a conversation with God in which one experiences the richness and reality of forgiveness.

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working (James 5:16).

Key Words in Psalm 51

We lose some of the weight of certain words when they are translated from Hebrew into English. For example, the Hebrew word “machah” or “blot” (v.1,9) means “to wipe out” and is the same word used in Genesis 6 and 7 when God promised Noah that he would wipe out every person on the earth with the great flood.

David did not ask for the Lord to cover up his sin or to dust him down: he begged to be broken and remade. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (v.17).

The Hebrew word “dakka'” (contrite), meaning “pulverized” or “crushed” and “despise,” tells us that God will not find David repugnant or worthless because he is truly repentant.

When David prayed that the Lord would “cleanse me from my sin!” (v.2), he wanted to be cleaned morally. “Taher” or “cleanse” is a picture of purging or purifying in a ceremonial, miraculous, or moral sense, all of which meanings are represented in the fullness of this Psalm.

For example, David asked to be cleansed “with hyssop” (v.7), a ceremonial image derived from the way Jewish priests “dipped a bunch of hyssop in the blood of a sacrificial animal and then sprinkled the blood on the person who required cleansing. [...] David recognized that he would be whiter than snow if the Lord washed away his sin.”

Zooming in on the word “heart” in verse 10, David refers to his “inner man” or, in Hebrew, “leb.” David is concerned here with more than feelings but rather with his “moral character” (Ibid.), the center of his being, and his heart’s posture before the Lord.

Love and Justice

King David was guilty of murder, lying, and alleged rape: how can God forgive someone like that? How can anyone love a God who would do something so outrageous? John Piper addressed the Lord’s “outrageous passing over” by explaining that God does not overlook David’s sin.

The Lord is thinking ahead to the death of his Son Jesus Christ, through whom his mercy and forgiveness are vindicated.

“David’s faith in God’s mercy and God’s future redeeming work unites David with Christ. And in God’s all-knowing mind, David’s sins are counted as Christ’s sins and Christ’s righteousness is counted as his righteousness, and God justly passes over David’s sin. The death of the Son of God is outrageous enough, and the glory of God that it upholds is great enough.”

David’s sin and our sins are paid for. The Lord did not “sweep [...] sin under the rug” (Ibid.). He expected a sacrifice, the perfect sacrifice, and he provided one for himself by coming down to provide it.

A Central Point

David’s sins were not automatically forgiven. He had to turn to the Lord, repent, and ask for forgiveness. He needed to show genuine remorse and a deep longing to be changed. Psalm 51 is still significant: God still wants his people to be moved by the cross to genuinely repent and to be changed.

Even what the world would refer to as “the worst sort of criminal” will be transformed if he repents and submits. We are all guilty of the blood of Jesus, but “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Uttering certain words a certain number of times in a church pew or a confessional while wearing clean, pressed church clothes and shiny shoes do not impress God.

With Psalm 51, David takes the most important action any believer can take in order to be cleansed of sin: he turns away from sin to God in faith that God will conduct the painful but joyously sanctifying work of breaking and remaking him.

For further reading:

How Did a Man after God’s Own Heart Fall So Far into Sin?

How Does Psalm 42 Help Us Overcome Discouragement?

What Are God’s Promises to David?

Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/rachelstrong10

Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.

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