This past Friday, I had the privilege of teaching from Psalm 51 – David’s famous psalm of repentance after committing adultery and murder.
When I first started studying the passage, David’s repentance felt remote to me. It made sense that he felt such deep contrition since he was repenting for two of the worst sins imaginable. But how did that relate to the ‘small’ and ‘ordinary’ sin I fight in day to day life? Was I supposed to feel the same brokenness over my sin as David did?
As I dug deeper into the passage, however, I was struck by the depth of David’s understanding of sin. I saw that his words were not just for the adulterers and murderers, but also for me. Psalm 51 shows my sin and my need for repentance. Here are two lessons in particular that stood out to me:
#1: Sin is First and Foremost Against God:
In verse 4, David declares “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” I had to think a lot about those words. What did he mean that he only sinned against God? Had he not also sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah and everyone who had counted on his leadership?
We find some helpful clues in the narrative account. Listen to how God describes of David’s sin through the Prophet Nathan :
Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites…
…David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:7-9, 13 ESV)
We see similarities in this passage with verse 4 of Psalm 51. Both passages talk about doing evil in God’s sight and both end with David repenting of his sin to God.We also learn more about the nature of David’s sin. The primary sin in this passage is sin against God – David despised the word of the Lord.
That sin is heightened further by two factors. First, it is magnified by God’s past grace and generosity towards David. In verses 7-8, God reminds David of all that He had done in David’s life: he chose David even though he was not outwardly impressive, he protected and sustained David from Saul’s persecution, and he handed over all of Saul’s kingdom into his hands. And God was glad and willing to bless David more, if he came to him in humility and faith. Yet, despite God’s faithfulness, David scorned God’s word and rebelled against it.
Second, it is magnified by the extent to which David despised God’s Word. How did David despise God’s word? By sinning greatly against Uriah and Bathsheba. God includes David’s horizontal sin in David’s vertical sin against him. David’s transgression of the first commandment was worsened and heightened by his grave transgression of the second commandment.
Out of curiosity, I searched the terms ‘sinned against’ and ‘sins against’ on the ESV Bible website and was surprised to find the Bible nearly unanimously references sin as against God. It seems that while it is legitimate to talk about sinning against one another (Jesus does, for example in Matthew 18) sin is primarily against God – so much so, that it is right for David to say ‘against you, you only, have I sinned.’ God is the one most offended by our sin, the ultimate judge of sin, and the one to whom we must give account
How does this deepen my understanding of sin? While Psalm 51 presents sin as being primarily against God, I often think of it as primarily against others. Because of that I reason that if my sin doesn’t harm others like David’s did, it really isn’t that serious and I don’t need to repent.
It’s true that sin against others is serious, but the Bible takes our understanding of sin a step further. All sin is serious because all sin despises God’s word. Our sin is heightened the more generous God has been to us, or the more our sin overflows and hurts others. But even if David lusted privately after Bathsheba or harbored bitterness in his heart instead of killing Uriah, he would be guilty of great sin because he would be breaking the greatest commandment – to love the Lord with heart, soul, mind, and strength.
#2: We have Sinful Hearts and God Examines the Heart
In verses 5-6, David writes: ‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being. You teach me wisdom in the secret heart.’
David first laments that he was born a sinner. Many today use inborn sin as an excuse why they’re not sinful: ‘I was born this way. I can’t help it. Therefore, I’m not a sinner.’ But David reaches the exact opposite conclusion: ‘I was born this way. I can’t help it. Therefore, I’m a great sinner.’ David knows he is not a good person who happened to made bad choices, but a sinner with a sinful heart. Sin was knit deep into his nature from birth.
After confessing his sinful heart, David then declares that God examines the heart. He delights in truth in the inward being, he says, and teaches wisdom in the secret heart. He desires not just outward actions and religiosity, but genuine righteousness and faith that flows from the inside out.
David grasped this truths perhaps more than anyone else in Scripture. He was the man after God’s own heart in no small part because he realized that God valued his heart. That truth truth had been seared into his mind from the moment he learned why God had chosen him:
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
And yet, despite everything David knew, his heart still strayed. It had grown dull, apathetic, and passionless. It had wandered so far that he committed adultery and murder. If David’s heart went astray, how much more will our hearts?
I tend to think of sin as primarily outward. Easily observable sinful actions like murder or adultery are clearly sin, but I often view heart sins as small or not sin at all. The Bible, however, takes heart sin far more seriously because it is the source from which all outward sin flows. Jesus, in Matthew 15:18-20, tells us:
But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” (Matthew 15:18-20)
In Psalm 51, David asks forgiveness for the symptoms of his sin – the adultery and murder – but he also repents of his heart from which the adultery and murder flowed. Not only that, but David cries for God to strengthen his heart:
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me…Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit (Psalm 51:10-12)
This is humbling for me. I can manage my outward actions to a certain extent, but I cannot manage my own heart – my anxiety, jealousy, anger, pride, and much more. Like David, I must repent for the bad heart which constantly leads me back toward sin. And like David, I must constantly be asking God to renew and uphold my spirit so that I might obey him willingly and joyfully.
David’s sin and repentance are not remote from me. I began my study seeing myself as above David, only for God to point to me and say ‘You are the man!’. My symptoms might manifest themselves differently from David’s but they come from the same bad root – a bad heart that despises and drifts from God’s Word. This is no small thing. If I’m not careful, then someday – soon or years down the road – my sin will overflow in catastrophic ways. I am in need God always: to forgive me for my sin and to uphold and strengthen my heart. Praise him for his grace in the Gospel!
For more on sin, check out the other posts in the Forgiven Much series: