Psalm 51, although not one of our assigned readings on Ash Wednesday, nevertheless will figure prominently into our service. Immediately after the imposition of ashes, we will read Psalm 51 together. Psalm 51, as you may or may not be aware, is the fourth of seven penitential psalms in the book. Like the other six penitential psalms, the focus of the psalm is confession and repentance, particularly from personal sin. Those of you familiar with the Old Testament may have heard of King David. Those of you who have taken the time to familiarize yourself with this ancestor of Jesus, may have been surprised by what the Bible records about David. Although David had a heart like God’s own heart and although David was an obedient servant of God, he was not without his faults. One of the enduring descriptions in the Bible about David is his sin with Bathsheba and his attempt to cover it up by conspiring with his generals to have Uriah the Hittite, killed in battle. The man who had been called in from the flocks as a ruddy face youth and raised up as king to lead God’s people, not only slept with the wife of a trusted lieutenant and got her pregnant. After failing to convince Uriah to go home and sleep with his wife, thereby covering up the fact that someone not her husband had slept with Bathsheba and caused her to get pregnant, David ordered that Uriah be abandoned in battle and killed. In that way, David could marry Bathsheba and cover up the shame of his and her sin. Adultery, deceit, and murder -- they sure do not sound like the qualities of a good king.
Why do I remind us of this story today? Those who know the story will remember that Nathan the prophet comes to David. He tells David a story about a poor man whose sheep is taken from him. When David swears that he will exact vengeance on the stronger man who stole from the weaker, Nathan proclaims that David is the villain. God knows David’s sin. God knows what David and Bathsheba did, how David tried to cover it up, and how David ultimately murdered a faithful man to hide his transgressions. This psalm of David grows out of his recognition that he has sinned greatly and that he needs God’s help to overcome the sadness, the guilt, and the shame of his sin. For us, the psalm also serves as a reminder about the nature of repentance. Keep in mind we are talking this Ash Wednesday about repentance and not just remorse. Remorse is that feeling of “Rats! I got caught.” Repentance is something else entirely. Let us look at how David describes it.
David begins his psalm by asking God to forgive him, to blot out his transgressions, and to wash away the filth accumulated with the sin. While the Hebrew words for "wash" and "cleanse" and "blot" may remind us of temple rituals, David seems to be far more concerned with his relationship to God and God’s people, those whom he has been selected to lead and pastor, than anything having to do with temple worship. And, unless we miss it, David is asking for forgiveness of God for a variety of willful disobedience. There is, in David’s plea, an acknowledgement that he has committed a number of sins. And while he fails to follow God’s instructions and law, God never fails because of His enduring covenant love for all of His people.
David moves on to express the sorrow that he feels regarding his sins and to claim that he wants to walk with God free of sin in the future. Notice that this is not a simple acknowledgement of the fact that he has sinned. It is an understanding and sorrow that he has jeopardized his relationship with God. David knows he deserves death. He knows that he deserves to be abandoned by God. Those of us with a misplaced understanding of sin might be annoyed that David proclaims that he has sinned only against God. After all, Uriah seems to have taken the brunt of the consequences of his behavior. Even Bathsheba, to the extent that her husband has been killed and to the extent that she has been betrayed by one of those in authority who should never have placed her in a position of sinning against God or breaking her marriage vows, is a victim in this scene. Right? Yet David’s focus is solely upon his sin against Yahweh. If, as Scripture asserts, you and I are created in His image, then every sin we commit against another human being ultimately is a sin against God. When we act in a way to mar their image or separate them from the love of their Father in heaven, you and I are truly sinning against God. When we put others down, when we ridicule them, cause them to stumble in their faith, or enslave them, you and I are doing that to God every bit as much as we are to the person with whom or against whom we are sinning. And David knows that God will not be mocked.
David then begs God for cleansing. But notice his desires. Cleans me with hyssop, and I will be clean. Let me hear joy and gladness, let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Those of us familiar with the torah will recognize hyssop. When a faithful Jew came into contact with a dead body (death), they were required to be washed with hyssop in order to be made ritually clean and able to attend worship with God’s people. A person who came into contact with a dead body and was not washed with hyssop was unclean and unable to worship with God's people. David knows he has courted death. David knows that he deserves death for these terrible sins against God. And so he begs God to purify him. But he does not stop there. David knows incredible sadness and guilt and shame because of his sin. His words teach us that he no longer has any joy in his heart in light of his sin. The guilt and shame of the sin has taken away his joy; the weight of his atrocities has crushed him. And so he asks God to give him joy, joy which can come only through God’s redeeming grace.
David continues in his song by asking God to restore him. David realizes that in order for him to be properly restored to God and to those people whom God has given him to lead, he will need to be changed. His heart, his mind, and his will will need to be refocused upon those things which God loves and which God desires. It is a transformation which can only be accomplished through God’s grace and not David’s effort.
Notice, too, David’s real fear. There is in David’s urgent plea an understanding of what happens when one is abandoned by God. Those of us living today in the shadow of the cross make take cheap grace for granted. We may, as Paul warns against, take it for granted that sin can abound so that even more grace may abound as well. David understands firsthand the consequences of the withdrawal of God’s grace, the withdrawal of His favor. Remember the history of Israel. David was not Israel’s first king. Saul was. Eventually, however, Saul became consumed with doing things his way, with doing things as he saw fit, rather than in accordance with God’s will. Eventually, Scripture relates, God withdrew His Spirit from Saul and allowed Saul to stew in his own juices. In the end, the kingdom was taken from Saul and given to David. And David does not want to find himself in the same, cut off position as Saul.
Notice, too, David’s continued vow. If God will forgive him and restore him and create in him this clean heart, he will lead the people in God’s ways. David realizes, as should we, that repentance and restoration are not private acts. They are, instead, to be public events. The shame which should separate us from others, David understands, must needs be replaced by a humility which allows us to share with others the saving work that God has done in our lives. We cannot accomplish that humility on our own. God must create a right heart within us. David is correct when he asserts that God takes no delight in burnt offerings or any sacrifice. God simply demands of His people that their inner hearts reflect their outward acts. And David wants that pure heart or willing spirit of which he has asked God to be enduring.
Only after pleading for God to blot out his sin and to restore a right heart in him does David turn to the entirety of God’s people. While commentators may argue that these last verses were added to give hope to an exilic community, place yourself in David’s shoes for just a moment. You are charged with leading God’s people faithfully. You are commanded by God to meditate on His word day and night and to teach the people faithfully about God. The only person in the whole kingdom with any authority over you is the prophet. When the prophet speaks, the king is commanded to listen because the prophet speaks with the authority of God. You, by your actions and desires and sin, have started the people down a dangerous path. If you were a king with God’s own heart, would you not want to see your people restored to the correct path? You have promised the Lord, if He forgives and restores you, that you will proclaim His deliverance in your life. Why? Because if He can deliver you from so terrible a series of sins, what can He not restore and redeem in the lives of your faithful subjects. Imagine the possibilities. If the Lord forgives the king and the king leads the people faithfully how Zion’s fortunes will truly be, and how God will have been glorified!
Brothers and sisters, what sin are you retaining against yourself? What sin in your life causes you the most shame, the most guilt? What guilt is it that you carry in the darkness, scared to death that it might one day see the light of day? This day, brothers and sisters, is a day to give that sin over to God. This day, brothers and sisters, is a day when we remind ourselves and all those who see us with those ashes on our heads that all our sins, all our pain, all our sadness, all our shame have been crucified with Christ. All we, and anyone for that matter must needs do, is repent before God. And while we deserved death and ashes for our sins, God, in His inestimable mercy has offered forgiveness, and restoration, and joy through the sacrifice of His Son, our Lord. Why not this day, give all those that you have retained as unforgiveable to Him, to Him, and let His restorative grace go to work in your life? I cannot promise you that there will be no further consequences. I cannot even promise you that there will not be some pain (even crushed bones that are healed sometimes feel the weather). I can promise you, however, that all those who with heartfelt repentance confess their sins will find in their Father in heaven, a merciful Lord, a willing Savior. Better still, I can promise you the joy of the redeemed. If He can take a man like David and restore him, what can’t He accomplish when your heart loves Him as well? Let us pray . . .