Psalm 51 is a confession and request for forgiveness. It was written by King David as a response to being confronted about his sin. There is a specific sin King David is confessing.
King David was the beloved king of Israel. He was the second king anointed as a boy to reign following King Saul. The Bible tells us that David was a man after God’s own heart through an idealized story of a great king…but he was not perfect. That the Bible tells us he was loved by God and known for his devotion to God should give us comfort that we don’t have to be perfect to be forgiven, because David was not perfect. King David was an adulterer.
King David was a powerful man. He saw something he wanted and he took it. David saw the wife of a man in his army and wanted her for himself. Looking down from his palace, David saw Bathsheba and burned for her. He sent guards to fetch her and bring her to the palace. He was the king and the people did not refuse the king. David made his advances and Bathsheba spent the night with the king.
Bathsheba became pregnant. It may seem odd that the text tells us that Bathsheba was bathing when King David first saw her, but, if we read carefully, we know what she was doing was a ritual purification following her monthly menstrual cycle. So, when she becomes pregnant, we know the baby is King David’s. No need for a paternity test and an episode of the Jerry Springer show. This baby is King David’s because Bathsheba was not pregnant when he first saw her and her husband Uriah has been off fighting King David’s war.
David plotted to have Uriah come home so he would lay with Bathsheba. If Uriah had sex with Bathsheba, he might believe that child was his and not question who she had been with. David had Uriah’s unit come home for a leave. It was customary for men home from war to sleep at the city gates. Uriah was encouraged to go home to see his wife, but he refused to leave his unit.
When David heard that Uriah had not gone to be with Bathsheba, he had to devise a new plan. David had Uriah and his unit sent to the front line so he would be killed in battle and die an honorable death. With Uriah dead, David would be free to take Bathsheba as his wife and no one would question her pregnancy.
King David was in deep. He had forced a woman to commit adultery and Uriah’s blood was on his hands. He may have been known as a man after God’s own heart, but he was no doubt sinning with the best of them. He was however not so willing to reflect on his behavior until the prophet Nathan comes to convict him.
The Lord sent Nathan to tell King David of his transgressions. Now, I imagine it was a pretty scary task to tell the king he had sinned against God. Nathan’s life was in danger. If he marched right up to the king and very bluntly and plainly told the king he was a sinner, David would become defensive and Nathan would probably be killed…more blood on David’s hands. Nathan had to handle this with kid’s gloves. Nathan tells King David a story so that he would come to the conclusion himself that what he had done was wrong.
Nathan told the story of 2 men, one had much and a poor man who had little. The rich man stole from the poor man to feed a guest. David is asked to hand down a verdict on the rich man and David said the rich man must die. Nathan said, “You are the rich man.” Nathan reminds David of all the Lord had given him, a place, a kingdom, numerous wives. God would have given him more had he only asked, but David went and took a woman who belonged to another man.
Convicted by Nathan’s story, King David repented of his sin. 2 Samuel 12 records King David’s confession, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Psalm 51 is his request for mercy. King David confesses that he has sinned against God. He hadn’t just sinned against Uriah for killing him or against Bathsheba for raping her. David confesses that he has sinned against God.
The Bible tells us that all sin is sin against God. We may sin against others; we may sin against ourselves. No matter, it is all against God as well. In the case of King David, he sinned against Uriah and Bathsheba. He sinned against himself for not being the man he could be and was called to be. He also sinned against God, because he had broken the commandments.
King David’s repentance starts off boldly. He confessed his sin to the prophet Nathan. In the psalm, He stands before God, a sinner in need of forgiveness. He speaks in the imperative, “have mercy, blot out, wash away, cleanse.” He is not asking, he is telling God to forgive him. A request for mercy isn’t always necessarily on bended knee with one’s head bowed.
King David knows God well enough to stand in His presence and demand mercy of a God who is loving, compassionate, and merciful. King David acknowledges that he has sinned against God and that God is right to judge him. But, he trusts that he will be forgiven because of God’s unfailing love and great compassion. God does not leave us judged without offering reconciliation.
King David is confessing that he has sinned against God in the matter of Bethsheba and Uriah, but he doesn’t stop with these specific sins. King David acknowledges that he was born sinful. King David knows that he was born into a world so permeated with sin he couldn’t help but sin. I think that is something we can all agree on.
Our world is so perverse by sin we can’t not sin. That’s why we’re here tonight. To acknowledge that we are sinners. No matter how we try not to sin, no matter if we are able to recognize our sin, no matter, we are sinners born in a sinful world. We are sinners in need of forgiveness. We come before God to be marked with the sign that we are repentant of our sin knowing that as dust before God we are ourselves unworthy of mercy.
As we are marked with the sign of ashes on our forehead, you will either be told, “From dust you came, to dust you shall return,” or “repent and believe in the Gospel.” Both are traditional sayings for a pastor or priest to convey when marking someone with the sign of the cross. “From dust you came, to dust you shall return” is a reminder of our mortality. We are here for a short time, born sinners in a sinful world, rightly judged, unworthy of mercy, yet freely forgiven in Jesus Christ. “Repent and believe in the Gospel” reminds us that as surely as we repent of our sins we are forgiven by the grace of Jesus Christ which conveys the promise of eternal life.
Either way, we are marked as a sign of our contrite hearts. That’s what God wants from us. A contrite heart is one that God can transform, cleanse and recreate with new possibility and give a second chance. Only because God is loving and compassionate are we forgiven. May we too be loving and compassionate with ourselves and others.