Psalm 51: To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the Prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.
1. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! 3. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”
“I know my transgressions” says David, “and my sin is ever before me.” This sin is recorded for us in 2nd Samuel chapters 11 and 12. For one spring, when King David’s armies go to war, David himself stays in Jerusalem. And he sees, from the roof of his house, a woman bathing. She is beautiful. So David sends messengers to find out who she is and to bring her to him. David sleeps with her and sends her home.
A while later the woman informs David, “I am pregnant.” So David calls her husband home from the battlefield and says, “Go home to your wife.” But her husband does not. He says to David, “How can I go home to my wife while the Ark of the covenant and the servants of the living God are in the field of battle?” So David causes the man to become drunk, but still he would not go. So finally David gives him a note to deliver to his commander, “Set this man in the forefront of the hardest fighting. Then draw everyone back so that he will die.” Uriah, the man whose wife David had slept with, does as David tell him, as does his commander, and Uriah dies. One week later, David takes Uriah’s wife as his own.
And the Lord sends Nathan the prophet who tells David a story about a rich man with many sheep. A traveler comes to the rich man but the rich man, not wanting to prepare one of his own sheep for the traveler, instead takes the sheep, the only sheep, of a poor man and serves it to his guest. When David hears the story he declares, in great wrath, “The man who did this deserves to die!” At this point, Nathan the prophet looks David in the eye and says, “You are that man. You took Uriah’s wife and killed him with the enemies sword.”
David responds, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan responds, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you shall die.”
When David writes “Have mercy on me” he is not speaking flippantly concerning light and trifling sins but as a man who knows the full extent and seriousness of his sin. Throughout the Psalm he says, “Wash me from my iniquity, “cleanse me from my sin, “purge me,” “blot out my iniquity,” “create in me a clean heart,”and “renew a right spirit within me.” David speaks as a man who understands the sinful condition of his own heart. He has seen his sin acted out. He has experienced it. He has observed the havoc it has wreaked and he knows that it can only be taken care of by the Lord. His cry for mercy, repeated in various words, is one that cries out for the cleansing and creative work of God in his life.
This Psalm of David is not the prayer of a sinless and mighty saint but the prayer of a sinful man to his God. It could rightly be called “the sinner’s prayer.” For in this prayer he does not “give God his heart,” “accept God,” or make promises to God, but instead confesses his sin and his need for God’s redemptive work. And this prayer of David which is recorded for us, for our use as well is answered by God’s rich mercy poured out for us in Jesus Christ. This mercy is given to us in Holy Baptism where we receive “the washing of regeneration,” “sanctification,” “justification,” “salvation” and “Jesus Christ.” (For more on this see Titus 3:5, 1st Corinthians 6:11, 1 Peter 3:21 and Galatians 3:27) This mercy is given again in Holy Communion where we receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sin and it is given in the preaching of the Gospel and in the words of Holy Scripture whenever we hear and come across words such as the words found in John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that He gave his only son so that whoever believes in Him should have eternal life.”
For God, in his mercy, has not left us to take care of our own sin, or to “hurl our sin out the door,” but instead gives us Jesus Christ and his saving work through Holy Baptism, Holy Communion and the preaching of the Gospel. God has given you Christ and because of Christ and His work, you are made holy. Amen.