Given the victorious glory and grace extended to us in Psalm 50, we immediately move onto a Psalm of David. Psalm 51 is described as the king’s psalm, particularly after Nathan warned David with regard to his immoral act with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba.
The chapter starts as one of remorse and repentance: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy” (v.1). David is appealing to God’s love and mercy; not to his own works. This is consistent with the previous psalm of Asaph. It is by God’s mercy that David’s transgressions are blotted out. It is only God who can cleanse us from our sins; our obedience amounts to nothing; rather, it is from the cross that such obedience flows back to the ascended Son.
David also recognises that though he had sinned against Bathsheba, against his nation, against Uriah, these are but the by-product of him sinning against God (v.4). Just as the 10 Words to Moses could be summarised as “love the LORD your God with all your your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind; and love your neighbour as yourself.“, so also a failure to comply with any of the 10 Words a by-product of a failure to love the LORD and love our neighbour.
It is worth observing David’s comment on v.5 – he describes having been “brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me”. However, there is nothing in Scripture which describes such iniquity; it appears, rather, that he is referring to his sin as stemming from the iniquity of the original sin. As Charles Spurgeon says of v.5 in Treasury of David:
“He goes back to the earliest moment of his being, not to traduce his mother, but to acknowledge the deep tap roots of his sin. It is a wicked wresting of Scripture to deny that original sin and natural depravity are here taught. Surely men who cavil at this doctrine have need to be taught of the Holy Spirit what be the first principles of the faith. David’s mother was the Lord’s handmaid, he was born in chaste wedlock, of a good father, and he was himself, “the man after God’s own heart; “and yet his nature was as fallen as that of any other son of Adam, and there only needed the occasion for the manifesting of that sad fact. In our shaping we were put out of shape, and when we were conceived our nature conceived sin. Alas, for poor humanity! Those who will may cry it up, but he is most blessed who in his own soul has learned to lament his lost estate.”
The king’s plea to God to purge him with hyssop is a reflection of the blood and hyssop used to touch the lintel and the two doorposts to ensure that they are hiding under God’s covering during the final plague in Egypt (v.7); David relies therefore not on burnt offerings alone, but refers to the earliest incident of the salvation of Israel as a nation – by the blood of Christ, represented in the type. One’s desire for joy and gladness comes from the rejoicing of the broken bones (v.8); blotting out of iniquities (v.9); a clean heart (v.10); a renewed and right spirit (v.10); His presence (v.11); and His Holy Spirit (v.11). That is the joy of His salvation, for He upholds David with a willing spirit. That is the king’s plea, and that is the understanding of this God of grace.
In v.14, David describes that he wishes to be delivered from “bloodguiltiness”. This is a reference to the death of Uriah the Hittite. David is acknowledging what (a part of) his sin is for the first time in this chapter. Today, we very easily acknowledge our sins before our Father and forget the awe that the Old Testaments saints had in acknowledging their sins before Him. They trembled in fear, for they knew that they were worthy to be destroyed because of their trespasses. Do we tremble in fear, knowing that is what we deserve, before acknowledging that what we deserve has been replaced – on His discretion – by the blood of Jesus?
Just as Christ taught us to forgive our debtors as He forgave us our debts, so David would teach his transgressors God’s ways — that is how the lost sheep will be returned. David will not merely sacrifice burnt offerings – that is not the appropriate response. The appropriate response is that of a broken spirit, a contrite heart (v.17). That said, David does not disown the typology of the sacrifices; he returns to them in vv.18 and 19. The building of the walls of Jerusalem is a call for God to build the walls and protection of the church, despite His sin; his reference to the offerings are described as the right sacrifices. He understands that the sacrifices themselves are meaningless; underlined with a contrite heart and a broken spirit, they bear out their intended meaning. So also what sacrifices and offerings we make, what ministries we partake, are meaningless without that broken spirit and contrite heart, as a wholesome response to His salvation, His restoration, His gift of the Holy Spirit, His glorious presence.
However, that contrite heart does not start with us. That contrite heart starts with the Christ — for it is He is the one broken first before us (1 Corinthians 11:24). That is why we can then be received by the man who receives sinners, for it is He who first was the one received by the Father as Christ was broken.
“”A broken heart” is an expression implying deep sorrow, embittering the very life; it carries in it the idea of all but killing anguish in that region which is so vital as to be the very source of life. So excellent is a spirit humbled and mourning for sin, that it is not only a sacrifice, but it has a plurality of excellences, and is preeminently God’s sacrifices. A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. A heart crushed is a fragrant heart. Men contemn those who are contemptible in their own eyes, but the Lord seeth not as man seeth. He despises what men esteem, and values that which they despise. Never yet has God spurned a lowly, weeping penitent, and never will he while God is love, and while Jesus is called the man who receiveth sinners. Bullocks and rams he desires not, but contrite hearts he seeks after; yea, but one of them is better to him than all the varied offerings of the old Jewish sanctuary.”