Saturday, May 11, 2019

The God Who Forgives and Restores

Thank God for such a psalm as Psalm 51, prayed from so dark a situation as David’s. If at any time we feel too shamefaced even to approach God for forgiveness, after betraying Him once again and inexcusably, here are words to take with us into His presence—a prayer surely preserved for just such an extremity as ours.

David leads us to God’s grace, not merely with the naked plea of the desperate—“Have mercy!”—the cry that one might make to a judge or a king, but with the more intimate prayer of one who has been brought into covenant, where there is not only a king’s pity to appeal to, but the constancy of a friend (“your unfailing love”) and the tenderness of a true parent (“your great compassion”). The word for compassion here is warmly emotional, a daringly human term for being stirred to the depths of one’s being. Jesus would use just such language in some of His parables (for instance, about the Prodigal’s father), and it described His own response to human need. Such is God who “waits to be gracious to you” (Isaiah 30:18). We need hesitate no longer.

Thank God too for verses 3–6, which teach us to bring Him no excuses. The sin, David confesses, is “my sin” (v. 3), whatever share other people may have had in it. It is part of my whole flawed history, flawed self (v. 5), and it cries out for condemnation.

Pause for a moment on the cry. “Against you, you only, have I sinned.” These are passionate words, David’s lament at having betrayed his Lord. All else is subsumed in this, and his extreme expression of it makes us see, with him, the forgotten dimension to the whole story. It was God who had set every moral standard that David had flouted; whose word (as Nathan declared) he had despised; whose image he had violated in Bathsheba, Uriah, Joab, and his trusting populace; whose good name he had brought into contempt among the heathen; and whose purpose of peace for Israel must now be marred by the violence he had chosen, the sword that would now “never depart from (his) house.” There is always more to forgive than we imagine.

But there is more, too, to God’s forgiveness than we might think. “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound”; and David is prompted in the remaining verses to pray for that abundance, in nothing less than spiritual renewal. His prayer centers largely on three words: cleanse, spirit, and joy.

Cleanse me had already been his prayer in verse 2, with a vigorous Hebrew word for laundering a garment by treading it and pounding it in the water (no question of “the machine with the gentle action”). Now in verse 7 David goes further, seeing his defilement as nothing less than moral leprosy—for the “hyssop” that he mentions was for sprinkling a healed leper with atoning blood, after which he must wash his clothes and himself with great thoroughness toward the completion of his cleansing (Lev. 14:1–9). But if this was ritual cleansing, the divine reality must far outshine it, to clothe the sinner in dazzling white (“whiter than snow”)—for there are no half-measures when God forgives. More radically still, it is a clean heart that the sinner needs; and this calls for an act of divine creation (10), or in New Testament terms, to be “renewed in the spirit of your mind … the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Eph. 4:23, 24 KJV).

On, then, to David’s next word: Spirit. First, “a steadfast spirit” (10b), appropriately enough, in view of the sudden temptation which had swept him off his feet. Significantly, his prayer looks beyond his own resources, using a word which means basically “steadied,” “strongly supported.” (Psalm 112:7 brings this out rather clearly in its picture of a man steadied by his trust in God, in a context of unsettling pressures.) But David also seeks “a willing spirit” (v. 12b), and so puts his finger on the importance of eager, not reluctant, obedience. It was when his pace had slackened (2 Sam. 11:1–2) that he became an easy prey; and this is still the case. So, with another psalmist, “I will run”—not stroll—“the way of Thy commandments” (Ps. 119:32 KJV). Between these two requests is the vital one for “your Holy Spirit” to remain with him (v. 11), not “quenched” or “grieved” (to borrow New Testament language) as had been the case with Saul, his predecessor (1 Sam. 16:14).

Finally, Joy. One of the saddest symptoms of estrangement is silence, with no heart to sing (“open my lips,” v. 15, closed by sin), no message for another (v. 13), no zest for life (v. 8). Thank God, His healing goes all the way to bliss. Even David’s desire to be an evangelist, teaching transgressors God’s ways, so that sinners would turn back to Him (v. 13), would be fulfilled beyond all expectation. This very psalm would be God’s answer to it, leading tens of thousands of us home.