David's prayer for forgiveness

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David prays for God's forgiveness after his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah

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One of the amazing statements in this prayer of repentance, of contrition, of pleading for forgiveness is found in Ps 51:4.
Psalm 51:4 NIV
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.
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 New American Commentary: 1, 2 Samuel (1) David Does Evil in the Lord’s Sight (11:1–27)

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
2 Samuel 12:13 NIV
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Nathan replied, “The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.
And this recognition is picked up and extended in this Psalm we are looking at today where David says:
Psalm 51:4 NIV
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.
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).

Genesis 39:9 NIV
No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?”
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
Psalm 51:1 NIV
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
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,
Luke 18:13 NIV
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
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)

Psalm 51:2 NIV
Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
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"
Psalm 51:7 NIV
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
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.
Psalm 51:10 NIV
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
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)

Psalm 51:12 NIV
Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
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:
John 15:9–11 NIV
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
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)

Psalm 51:13 NIV
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you.
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.
We sometimes hear powerful stories of people who were far away from God and how God transformed their lives. And they use those experiences to encourage others to come to God as well.
And David seemed to be willing to do something similar - he wasn't going to let his experience, sad and difficult that it was - to be forgotten but to use it for the blessing of others.

He was going to sing (Ps 51:14)

Psalm 51:14 NIV
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God my Savior, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
Once he had been restored, David was going to "sing of your righteusness".
David was a musician, a singer, one who wrote many of the Psalms.
It was one of the gifts that God had given him and - once things had been put right - David was going to, once again, use that gift to proclaim how great God was and to celebrate his goodness and justice.
When David was restored he was going to sing (Psalm 51:14). How about you?

He was going to praise God (Ps 51:15)

Psalm 51:15 NIV
Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise.
And as well as singing of God's righteousness he was going to praise God, to speak of how great and wonderful God is.

David's journey

This was something of the journey that David was on:
He knew he had sinned and that this was a barrier between him and God
He knew he couldn't fix it himself
He called out to God to treat him with mercy and to forgive him
He looked forward to the things he would once again be able to do after being forgiven

Forgiveness can be found in Jesus - and only in him

Matthew 1:21 NIV
She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
Acts 4:12 NIV
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
Colossians 2:13–15 NIV
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
1 John 1:8–10 NIV
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.
How should we deal with sin according to 1 John 1:8-10?
So when we think about the journey that David went on - and the wonderful truth that Jesus came so that we can be forgiven - the question for us is where are we on this particular journey? If not now, there may have been a time in the past when we were in a similar situation to David or there may be in the future.
Not suggesting that we will commit the same set of sins that he did but that we will be very much aware of something we have done that is wrong, that is damaging our relationship with God, may be having a bad impact on others, and is stopping us enjoying the things that we once enjoyed.
David recognised the reality that forgiveness could only be found in God and was prepared to pray that God would forgive him and put things right.
Are we / will we be prepared to recognise the same thing - to turn to Jesus and confess our sins and to ask for his forgiveness? David seemed to have confidence that God would forgive.
Psalm 51:17 NIV
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.
and we can have the same confidence that we can find forgiveness in Jesus.
But it is important that we are prepared to face up to what we have done and to seek forgiveness so that our relationship with God can be restored.
One of the things David recognised is that his unforgiven sin was stopping him do things that he wanted to do - but he knew he wasn't in the right state before God to do them.
And maybe that can be an indication of unconfessed sin, that the things we used to do for God, the things we used to delight in are no longer things we are able to do. For David it involved telling others, it involved song, it involved praised - but for each of us it may be something very different.
Are we aware of things like that in our lives at the moment? If so, it may be that we need to examine ourselves for unresolved sin and to seek God's forgiveness and restoartion.
This prayer of David was very personal to him. It spoke of where he was at and the journey he was on. As such we shouldn't expect the same journey, to follow the same steps, as our situations are all different.
But we can all trust in a God, in a Saviour, who - in mercy - chooses to forgive sin and to restore people to himself and to fruitful ministry again.
David's sin was awful but was forgiven. Jesus came to die so that all sins committed by all people could be forgiven. Let's rejoice in that and be eager to come to him for forgiveness when we recognise that there is something we have done that is getting in the way of our relationship with Him.
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