“Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Your presence
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation” Psalm 51:10-12
The 51st Psalm is one of the most famous of David’s writings. It was penned during the darkest period of his life, a period which was explicitly brought about by his actions and sins. David’s sin wreaked havoc on his spiritual life, and in this psalm, we see his heartfelt plea to be restored with God.
The story of David’s sin is a familiar one: he saw Bathsheba, a woman married to one of his most loyal soldiers, Uriah the Hittite, and David took her for himself. She conceived a child, and David began attempting to cover up his sin of adultery. David went to great lengths, even recalling Uriah from the front lines to visit Bathsheba, to cover up his sin, but to no avail. Uriah—out of loyalty—would not go be with his wife while his comrades were camped out in the fields. Uriah’s commitment to David and his fellow soldiers thwarted David’s plans, and at the risk of having his sins exposed, David devised a devious plan to have Uriah placed in the fiercest fighting and abandoned. Uriah died as a result, and David took the grieving Bathsheba to be his new wife. David killed Uriah—one of his most loyal servants—to cover up the sin of his affair with Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife. David destroyed a family to cover up his sins. Afterward, David went about his life as if nothing happened. He ignored the catastrophe he left in his wake.
Sin knows no limits at which it will stop once we are consumed by it.
God, however, knew all and saw all that David had done. His anointed king for Israel, the one whom God Himself said was a man after His own heart, had so callously turned aside from His statutes and commands. David was living like kings in other lands, not as the King of Israel was to live. David was living with blood on his hands and sin in his heart, but acting as if nothing were wrong; he was attempting to live as Israel’s spiritual leader, while not correctly emulating the way in which to live. So God sent Nathan the Prophet to remind David of that which David was supposed to remember: that God is holy and all-knowing and that David is not living appropriately as His servant.
Nathan confronts David; he calls out the sin that David had been hiding from everyone—even attempting to hide from God. Roughly a year had passed between David’s first sin and the confrontation with Nathan. For that entire time, David had been attempting to conceal his actions and act as though he did not have an innocent man’s blood on his hands. But now, when faced by Nathan with the gravity and weight of his actions, David cannot keep the charade up any longer; the scales had fallen from his eyes, and he realized exactly what he had done. He had sinned greatly against the Lord.
It is against this backdrop that David pens Psalm 51; throughout this psalm we see the gravity of David’s sin becoming evident before him, and the sincere and heartfelt desire he had to be cleansed from his heinous sins. David understood that this sin had separated him from the fullness of his relationship with God, and he desired that relationship to be repaired and renewed.
One of the most critical aspects of this psalm—or of any psalm—is found at the very beginning of the psalm. Superscripts attached to the psalms have critical information about the particular psalm, such as the author and the event about which the psalm was composed. For example, in the case of Psalm 51, the superscript reads “A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” From this, we know what was going on in David’s life when he wrote this psalm and can begin to use that in our understanding of what the psalm means. But there’s an even more important piece of information revealed in this superscript.
The designation “For the Choir Director,” is attached to several psalms throughout the psalter, and the ones in which it appears are truly unique. The Hebrew term translated “choir director” are more commonly translated in other places in the Old Testament as “the victorious one,” or “the eternal one.” In fact, it is only translated “choir director” in one instance in Chronicles. From this, there is some debate that this superscription “For the Choir Director” might be more appropriately translated “For the Victorious One,” or “To the Eternal One,” meaning that these psalms are being explicitly dedicated to God. However, this explicit dedication to God is still evident even if translated as “choir director,” for He is the one who is directing the cosmos, and all that exists in it.
What is unique about the Choir Director Psalms is their subject matter. These psalms handle big-picture theology. They wrestle with the ideas of what God is like and how He rules the universe. These psalms praise God for being the Eternal One and the Cosmic Choir Director, and they also attempt to put His greatness and majesty into words. We see David do just this very thing in Psalm 51.
Throughout Psalm 51, David wrestles with his sin and how it weighed on his soul and hindered his relationship with God. David knows that his sins are what keeps him from enjoying the fullness of a relationship with God and that we need cleansing from these sins. David then pleads for God’s forgiveness and God’s cleansing power, for he knows that He is the only one who can grant such things. Only the Eternal One, God Almighty, can blot out our sins. No one but God can renew our blemished spirits and bring regeneration to our souls. Only God can restore the joy of salvation that has been foiled by sin. Though God is holy and just and would be completely warranted in any retribution He took against us because of our sins, He freely offers forgiveness and cleansing to those who seek after Him and confess to Him their sins.
The application of this psalm post-Calvary is clear: Christ’s blood purges us more deeply than the strongest hyssop and makes us whiter than snow. Christ is the Eternal One, the Victorious One who is able to bring about the regeneration we so desperately need to enjoy a restored relationship with God. Christ blots out our transgressions through His atoning sacrifice. He endured being cast out of the Father’s presence so that we would not. He delivers us, restores us, and makes us anew. In return, we are to tell all of His ways and His righteousness. When sin trips us up, as it so frequently does, Christ is there to receive our confession and to offer forgiveness when it is sought with a broken spirit and contrite heart. But we must learn from David’s mistakes: we must recognize the seriousness of sin and the impact it has on us. We cannot conceal our sin from God; we must confess it, then will the Eternal One offer us the restoration we require.
artwork: “David Repents,” artist unknown.