One of the amazing statements in this prayer of repentance, of contrition, of pleading for forgiveness is found in Ps 51:4.
Here the plaintiff, David, is acknowledging that he has sinned against God - and only against God.
On the face of it this seems strange when we look at the situation he was in when he prayed this prayer (and we find the story in 2 Samuel 11-12).
Outline of the story
One evening David - the king God had chosen to lead his people, the king who had a close relationship with God - he was walking around on the roof of his palace and saw a beautiful woman having a bath.
David was interested in her and sent someone to find out who she was - and was told she was Bathsheba, the wife of a soldier in David's army called Uriah.
Summarise NAC quote below
the woman was “Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite”; thus, she was the daughter of one of David’s best fighters (cf.
23:34), the granddaughter of his most trusted counselor (cf.
16:23; 23:34), and the wife of one of his inner circle of honored soldiers
Ignoring the fact that she was married, David sent for her, slept with her and she became pregnant.
David was really concerned about the pregnancy and didn't want the news of his adultery to get out so sent for Uriah to come home from the battle to bring a report of what was going on.
While Uriah was back in Jerusalem, David tried to persuade him to go home to sleep with his wife so everyone would have thought that the baby was Uriah's.
However, Uriah refused to do so.
David's next plan was to send Uriah back to the front - along with a message to his commander in chief to put Uriah in a place of great danger so he would be killed.
This happened which opened the way for David to take Bathsheba as his wife.
So what has David done?
He has used his position of authority to force Bathsheba to come to him in the first place
He slept with another man's wife
He tried to cover up what he had done with deception
When that failed he contrived to get Uriah killed
And when all this had fallen into place he took Bathsheba for himself
He used the absolute power he had as a king in that context and exploited his position in terrible ways.
But he isn't going to get away with it.
God sends one of his prophets to David who points out what he has done wrong and that there will be consequences - God was going to punish David because of what he had done.
And in response David acknowledges his sin
And this recognition is picked up and extended in this Psalm we are looking at today where David says:
Why did David see his sin as only against God?
Did he think that the wrongs he had done to the people involved didn't matter?
Did he think that sin - by definition - is something that we can only commit against God?
Or was he recognising that - in spite of the way he had treated Bathsheba and Uriah - the main person he had wronged was God?
Sin is seen in the Old Testament as veering off the road that God wants us to travel and so - for example - disobeying God's commandments are seen as sin, which is very much the case here.
The heart of the confession is found in 4a: “Against you, you only, I have sinned.”
Some commentators (see the summaries in Perowne, 415; Gunkel, 222) have noted the absence of any confession of sin against other human beings and have assumed that such awareness is missing from the confession.
But other OT passages make it clear that from an early time in Israel sins against persons were believed to be sins against God (Kraus, 543); see 2 Sam 12:9, 10, 13; Gen 39:9; Prov 14:31; 17:5.
Violation of the commandments of God is construed as sin against God himself (Kraus, 544; Weiser, 403).
So David is not denying that he has done wrong to others but that is not the focus of his prayer - here he is seeking forgiveness from God as, ultimately, his sin had been against Him.
Reflecting on David's prayer
This prayer is a combination of David seeking forgiveness and him reflecting on the change that forgiveness will bring in his life.
Forgiveness and cleansing need to come first and his hope is that other things will flow from that.
Things David asks of God
Request for mercy (Ps 51:1)
He starts by asking God for mercy
What, in Psalm 51:1, is the first thing David asks God for?
Here David doesn't try to make excuses, he doesn't offer to try and put things right, he doesn't suggest he should pay his way out of trouble.
He knows there are no excuses, he knows he can't put things right and so he throws himself on God's mercy.
He recognises that God is a God of love - and that God's love is unfailing, God's love for him is unfailing.
He knows that God is a God of great compassion - and so David simply calls on God for mercy,
Because, and only because, of who God is and because of God's character David is begging that God won't treat him as he deserves but He will be merciful to him.
Seeking cleansing (Ps 51:1-2)
And, based on that plea for mercy, David prays that God will totally and completely and finally remove this sin from his record - and he uses powerful language to do so.
He speaks about:
God "blotting it out" - this has the idea of totally getting rid of something as though it had never existed
God "washing it away" - removing the last stain
God "cleansing" - making totally clean
What does David mean by asking that his transgressions can be "blotted out" (Psalm 51:1)?
One of the problems of being convicted of a crime is that people end up with a criminal record and there is a mark against them, a stain on their character.
And it can affect opportunities in the future and how people see them.
And here David is asking that God totally removes the stain of this sin from God's record of his life - so that, between them, it is as though it never happened.
He knew this sin had caused a problem in his relationship with God, he knew that he couldn't do anything about, but that God could - and so he cried to God to help, to cleanse, to forgive.
Recognising that God's judgment is right (Ps 51:4)
In his prayer David recognises that God's judgement on him was correct - that God's verdict on David's sinful action was correct and that God was totally in the right to judge.
Sometimes people try and make out that God doesn't have the right or authority to judge us but David is on no doubt.
God is the only righteous judge and his verdicts are always correct.
And if we looked back at the story in 2 Samuel 12 we see that there are going to be consequences for David's actions, his place as king is going to be challenged and their son was going to die.
And even though David pleaded with God for his son's life he did die (2 Samuel 12:14-18).
Sometimes there are consequences, terrible consequences, for the sins that we commit and even if we receive forgiveness from God those consequences sometimes still happen.
If someone is imprisonsed for a major crime - such as killing a young boy - and is then forgiven by those who were hurt by his crime - such as the boy's mother then, in a sense, relationships have been restored but he still needs to serve out his sentence.
And so what David found out is that even where there is forgiveness there can still be consequences - but the relationship with God can be restored.
David recognised that cleansing can only come from God (Ps 51:7)
One of the other things David recognised was that just as his sin was against God, so it was only God who could cleanse.
And so in Ps 51:7 he picks up again the plea for cleansing with which he started his prayer (Ps 51:1-2).
And he calls on God to "cleanse him with hyssop"
Hyssop was a small plant that was often used in ritual cleansing - it was dipped in blood and sprinkled on someone who needed cleansing (Lev 14:1-7).
It was also used to paint blood on the doorframes during the Exodus (Ex 12:22)
And so David recognises his need to submit himself to God's cleansing so that he could be restored.
The need for a pure heart (Ps 51:10)
Having recognised what he had done, David wants to be in a position that he will never do it again.
He knows he is flawed, he knows he has failed - and could fail again - and so he needs to be different.
He knows that he can't change himself, and so he calls on God to change him.
He calls on God not just to forgive him, not just to cleanse him but to change him.
To make his thoughts and feelings pure, to help him to be firmly committed to this new path so he won't fall into this path of sinning again.
David wanted his joy back (Ps 51:12)
The joy had gone from his life - the pleasure he was looking for when he wanted Bathsheba had suddenly been disrupted as he went down a spiral of greed, of deception, of murder, of loss.
And he wanted his joy back
But this wasn't just a natural joy but "the joy of your salvation".
David seemed to understand that deep joy, real joy, could only be found in relationship with God, as a consequence of being cleansed and restored.
It wasn't that he would be always happy - and if we trace out the rest of his life there were major challenges and disappointments along the way - but he wanted to have the deep joy of God's salvation underpinning everything that would happen in the future.
Jesus, hundreds of years later, spoke about how his followers could experience joy:
David had come to realise, Jesus was making it clear, that true joy can only be found in God and can only be experienced when we are being obedient to God and putting him first.
David had veered off the path and wanted to get back and to experience the joy of knowing God.
Things David was looking forward to
David's prayer doesn't stop at seeking forgiveness and cleansing for himself - although it is a necessary first step.
He goes on from there to speak about what he will be able to do once he has been cleansed, once he has been forgiven.
He will be able to help others come back to God (Ps 51:13)
Because of the place he has been and because of the forgiveness he has received David will be able to come alongside others who have left God's path and teach them the way back to God so that they too will turn to Him.
David wasn't going to hide his experience, he wasn't going to pretend it never happened.
How were David's experiencing going to help others (Psalm 51:31)?
Rather he was going to recognise that, and use his experience, as a way of helping others experience God's joy again as well.