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Psalm 51: 1-4 (NIV)
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.
The introductory remarks to this Psalm, which are a later addition to the original piece, explain that this is a psalm of David (Israel’s King around 1000 BC) when the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.
Not only had David committed adultery, in his efforts to conceal his adultery he had Bathsheba’s husband Uriah killed. There was probably no other incident in the life of this man where he had separated himself further from his God*. The relationship that had been so close was all-but-destroyed because David allowed himself to be led by his own will rather than allowing himself to be led by God.
Fortunately for David, he knew the nature of God. Because of his relationship up until this tragic episode, he knew that God is “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Exodus 34: 6-7). He repeated this himself in Psalm 86, “But you O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (verse15; see also Psalm 103: 8 and Psalm 145: 8). It was to this aspect of God’s nature that David was willing to appeal, in the poignant words of Psalm 51, in what is evidently honest and total repentance.
We have even stronger grounds than David had for trusting in the gracious and compassionate nature of God for, in chronological time, we stand on the other side of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What David may have seen in visions indistinctly and understood only in part, we know with certainty. We have the accounts of eyewitnesses passed to us across the centuries through words inspired by the Holy Spirit and recorded in the Gospels and other books of the New Testament.
We know that Jesus came to earth as God in human form, lived, taught and died and then was raised from death to demonstrate that he has the authority to forgive our sinfulness – and not ours only “but also … the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2: 2)
The Apostle Paul has written that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8: 38-39). Though we step outside of his will, though we fail to live to the standards God has set for us through Jesus Christ, we can in sincere repentance return to him – our loving Father.
We do well to carry these first four verses from Psalm 51 with us as an ever-present model to guide our prayers of repentance, whether for major crimes or minor lapses, for “a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (Psalm 51: 17b).
* For David had done what was right in the eyes of the LORD and had not failed to keep any of the LORD’s commands all the days of his life – except in the case of Uriah the Hittite (1 Kings 15: 8).