The Heart of Repentance (Psalm 51)

The following sermon was originally preached in 2015.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin! 

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart. 

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit. 

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of Jerusalem;
then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Psalm 51 ESV

All of life is worship. We cannot escape from God’s glory as revealed in His creation. We cannot feign ignorance of God’s revelation through His Word. The only question is whether we will worship God or something else. There can be no other answer. We were made to worship. Last week, we saw the great psalmist, David, worshiping the LORD by expressing his confidence that the LORD is his shepherd. His faith in God is worshipful to God because it expresses his reliance upon (and the reliability of) God.

We now leave the beautiful and tranquil 23rd Psalm in order to study Psalm 51, which is anything but tranquil. The subscript of the psalm informs us that David wrote this psalm after Nathan spoke to him about Bathsheba. This was, by far, the darkest moment of sin in David’s life. He had committed adultery with a woman named Bathsheba, and when she became pregnant, he had her husband killed as a cover up. David went months thinking that he managed to fully hide his sin until God sent Nathan to rebuke David.

From this rebuke, David pens one of the most insightful chapters in all of the Bible. We have modeled for us within this psalm the heart of repentance. David humbly and brokenly begs God to cleanse him of sin and to restore his joy in the LORD’s salvation. Within this psalm, there are many important keys for us to learn from David of how repentance is a form of worship.


David begins this psalm with a heart-wrenching plea for God’s mercy. 2 Samuel 11-12 tell the narrative out of which this prayer is being made. In short, David has been exposed by God for being an adulterer (possibly a rapist) and a murderer. In light of these very heinous sins, David casts himself upon the mercy of God. Notice his grounds for requesting mercy: God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy. Obviously, David has found himself in a position where he is utterly guilty, but still it is significant that he does not attempt to formulate excuses for his actions. He merely accepts the brutal crimes that he has committed and makes zero attempts to persuade God of his inner goodness. David understands that the entire premise of mercy is built upon a criminal not receiving the deserved punishment. He, therefore, does not hide from his sin any longer but falls upon the abundant mercy of God.

It is important for us to learn from David’s errs and his prayer of repentance. While we may not have committed sins as grievous as his, each of us is just as sinful as he was. Because of our sin, we all deserve the wrath and punishment of God, and it does us no good to try presenting our righteous deeds before Him. God demanded that we be perfect before Him, so even the smallest of sins makes us, by definition, imperfect. There is, then, no amount of good works that we can do in order to earn back God’s love, and in the midst of our sin, we are in no position to bring up our good works, hoping that they will outweigh our sins. God simply does not work like that. David understood that the only hope we have when we sin is the mercy of God. Is this your prayer whenever you sin? Do you fall upon the mercy and steadfast love of God, or do you try to barter God off by reminding Him of all your good works?

One of the primary themes that we are going to see throughout this chapter is that David wants more than simple forgiveness. John Piper states in his sermon on this chapter, “David pleads for more than forgiveness. He pleads for renewal. He is passionately committed to being changed by God.”[1] The first step in David’s plea for renewal is his cry for cleansing in verse 2. There is a filth and a dirtiness that clings to our souls because of sin, and sadly, it is a grime that we know all too well. David cries out thrice for God to clean him from his sin. He understands that there is nothing that he can do to wash away those stains, only God is sufficiently able to makes him clean, to wipe away his sin.

Interestingly, David is making this plea after Nathan has already told him that God has passed over his sin.[2] This is an interesting turn of events. Because in 2 Samuel 12, David only acknowledges his sin before Nathan says that the LORD has forgiven him. The murderous king simply says, “I have sinned against the LORD.” There was no deep apology, no remorseful cry for forgiveness. There was only an acknowledgement of his sin, and Nathan informs him that the LORD has passed over the sin. That is not to say that David does not suffer consequences for his actions. God’s forgiveness of David’s sin did not keep God’s physical punishments upon David from occurring. Because of this sin, the child of David and Bathsheba dies. Nathan also predicts the rebellion of David’s son, Absalom, against him. No, God’s forgiveness ensures David that he will not suffer the eternal punishment of his sin, but God still gives to him the physical consequences of them. David’s cry for forgiveness came after God’s declaration of his forgiveness.

This ought to be the heart of the Christian. In reading the New Testament, we have a perpetual divine decree that all of our sins have been forgiven. Still, we should not decide that there is no point in coming before God for forgiveness and mercy. If anything, God’s declaration that He has forgiven us should give us the freedom to bring all of our deepest sins before Him, knowing that He will be faithful to cleanse us of each one.


The psalmist continues the hymn by stating that he knows his transgressions and that his sin is always before him. Because we are told at the end of 2 Samuel 11 that Bathsheba bore David a son, we know that the events of Nathan rebuking David happened no less than nine months after David’s sin. Though he attempted to hide the sin for nearly a year, David now boldly acknowledges the sin that is ever before him.

In the long run, it may seem like a small step to acknowledge sin; however, it truly is the first step in repentance. Logically, we can only repent of sin if we first understand that we have sinned. In fact, in 2 Samuel 12:13, we read that David’s immediate response to Nathan’s rebuke was to acknowledge is sin against God.

In verse four, David writes, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” David is obviously writing this psalm as a prayer to God. This is quite odd. It seems reasonable for David to say that his sin was against God. We can buy that thought. However, was David’s sin really only against God? Did David not sin against Bathsheba by leading her into adultery (and possibly raping her)? Did he not sin against Uriah by having him killed in order to cover up the adulterous affair? Why then does David not mention Uriah or Bathsheba but claim that his sin was against God alone?

David’s point is not to make light of the damage that he did to others but rather to emphasize how his sin (and indeed all sin) is primarily an offense against God. Because God is the great lawgiver, the author of goodness and righteousness, anything that is antithetical to God’s laws is a direct and open rebellion against Him. In this way, every sin that we commit is primarily against God. Certainly, our sins hurt others. I would argue that even our secret sins hurt others. However, God takes primary offense to our sins.

David acknowledges this, and he understands that God is, therefore, blameless in all of His judgments. Because God is ultimately offended by every sin, He is also the able to enact judgments upon those sins. Or we can say it like this, our sinfulness further reveals the clarity and truthfulness of God’s judgments. Paul uses verse five to argue in Romans 3 that “our righteousness serves to show the righteousness of God.”[3]

Verses five and six provide here an interesting contrast, but since both begin with the word “behold”, there appears to be a connection between the two. First, David claims that he was born into iniquity “and in sin did my mother conceive me.” He is claiming with these statements that the problem of sin goes back the very beginning of his existence. He understands that sin is not something that he just fell into late in life. He was born in sin, like a fish in water. We are so adapted to sin that we cannot even imagine life without it.

Because the problem of sin runs deep, David understands that God does not want a superficial fixing of David’s sin. The references to the “inward being” and “secret heart” both emphasize that God wants His truth to go to the very depths of a person’s being. God delights when truth sinks into the fabric of a person’s soul, and He teaches that kind of wisdom to anyone who will listen.

Or perhaps, we can summarize these two verses with a song lyric: “Where sin runs deep, Your grace is more.”[4]


David begins this section of the psalm by pleading to be purged of his sin. In Exodus, hyssop was the plant used for wiping the blood of the lamb upon the doorposts of the Hebrews.[5] Later in the law, God instructs the priests to use hyssop dipped in blood in some of their cleansing rituals.[6] In the New Testament, the author of Hebrews builds upon this practice to make the claim that “under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”[7]

The sinful king understands hyssop’s ritual uses. He knows that God has ordained priests to slaughter animals and use blood-dipped hyssop to cleanse of sin. But David also understands something far deeper about God. As we will discuss later in the psalm, David realizes that God does not have a magical fixation upon sacrificed animals; rather, God wants a heart that understands the weight of sin. In a sense, David desires to bypass the rituals of the priests, going directly to God instead. The rituals themselves do nothing for David’s sins; only God can truly make him clean and wipe away his sin.

In Hebrews 9, the author explains to us how God is able to cleanse us of our sins. It turns out that the ritual sacrifices of the Old Testament did serve a purpose: they pointed toward a greater, perfect sacrifice. The shed blood of lambs and goats were signs of the blood that Christ would spill for the sins of men. All of the Old Testament rituals and rites were pointing toward the death and resurrection of Jesus. Though not as fully as we do, David understood that he did not need a priest to go into the Most Holy Place to offer a sacrifice; rather, he needed a perfect sacrifice to be made before God Himself, in the very throne of heaven. This is exactly what Jesus did. “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.”[8] It is only because of His perfect sacrifice that we are truly to be washed as white as snow.

There is a great boldness to the words of verse eight. In the midst of the guilt of his sin, David prays to hear joy and gladness. We should not expect those sorts of words from his prayer of repentance. By repenting, are we not supposed to be broken for our sins? Surely this is not the time or place to ask for joy and gladness! David, however, does just that. In fact, he hopefully prays that his broken bones would rejoice. By comparing his guilt to having broken bones, we know that David was burdened with the weight of his transgressions. He understood the impact of his actions. God words of judgment upon him felt no better than the physical shattering of a bone. What a startling metaphor! By exposing his sin, David declares that God has broken his bones!

How is David able to take comfort, and even rejoice, in the breaking of his spiritual bones that God is doing? “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but not I keep your word.”[9] “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.”[10] The affliction (or we might also call it, discipline) of the LORD always leads to life. God never breaks us in order to delight in our pain. Rather, like a doctor must sometimes break again a bone so that it can heal properly, God disciplines us for our good. “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”[11]

Within verses nine and ten, we have another call for God to blot out David’s sins. However, he now takes it to the next degree by praying for the LORD to create a clean heart and renew a right spirit within him. Once more, David is longing for something deeper than forgiveness; he wants a change of heart. He desires to have a transformed heart. This must be the cry of the Christian. If we truly believe that Christ died for our sins, we cannot also live at peace with our sins. We are not able to be content with merely having our sins forgiven; rather, we want to become new creations entirely. God must utterly renew us.

Verse 11 is a heart-breaking verse for David to pray. More than anything, David despises the thought of being cast out of God’s presence, of having the Holy Spirit taken from him. Does this then mean that David was unsure of his salvation? I think not. Remember that David is praying this prayer after the LORD already promised to pass over his sins. Rather, I believe that David is not presuming upon the grace of God. He reveals his understanding that the LORD is not required to forgive him.

John Piper explains this thought as follows:

When David or I pray, “Don’t cast me away, and don’t take your Spirit from me,” we mean: Don’t treat me as one who is not chosen. Don’t let me prove to be like one of those in Hebrews 6 who have only tasted the Holy Spirit. Don’t let me fall away and show that I was only drawn by the Spirit and not held by the Spirit. Confirm to me, O God, that I am your child and will never fall away.[12]

David concludes this stanza of the psalm by pray for God to restore the joy of salvation within him and to uphold him with a willing spirit. Like verse eight, this is a bold proclamation from David, since he is asking for joy in the midst of his guilt from sin. However, David thought process is likely similar to what we read in Psalm 23, which David also wrote. In verse three of the 23rd Psalm, David claimed that God restores his soul. Likely that was a reference to how a sheep would occasionally find itself turned over upon its back, unable to return to its feet. The shepherd must then restore the sheep upright, that the sheep might continue to live. Because of his sin, David’s life is certainly uprooted, turned upside down. Just as he confidently proclaimed in Psalm 23, now David is brokenly begging God to restore his soul and the joy of his salvation.


Verses thirteen through fifteen each bear the same theme: David will proclaim the goodness of God. Too often, we can look upon the Great Commission as being burdensome. We think of evangelism as Sunday morning’s homework, a required duty to gain entrance to heaven. Nothing could be further from the biblical truth. Notice how verse thirteen begins with the word “then.” That word ties the following thought into everything that David has said previously, namely, that God will blot out his sin and restore the joy of His salvation. David claims that the result of God forgiving his sin will be David teaching sinners about God. David will, rightfully, respond in open praise to God for cleansing him of sin.

Does this mean then that David is trying to barter with God? Is David demanding forgiveness in turn for praise? By no means! Instead, the psalmist is simply expressing what he knows to be true. In his gratitude, David will gladly and boldly declare the glorious goodness of the LORD. Evangelism should work similarly in the heart of the Christian. We ought to proclaim the gospel out of gratitude to the One who has blotted out our sins.

Within verses sixteen and seventeen, David makes a very profound thought, especially for his day. The simple answer for his sin would have been to visit the priest, offering a sacrifice to atone for his transgression; however, David states that God does not want sacrifices. By saying that he would give it, the king reveals that he would gladly offer to the LORD few goats or lambs, but he understands now that God does not merely want sacrifices.

Instead, David claims that “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit.” The LORD is not interested in us merely going through the motions to achieve forgiveness; God wants us to understand the depth and the danger of our sins. He wants us to be broken by our sin, so that we might not return to it. Thus, God wants us to be contrite, understanding that we have done wrong. David is not saying that being obedient in giving sacrifices was unimportant; rather, he was journeying into the heart behind God’s commands (which Jesus also did frequently).


It is interesting that in the closing words of the psalm, David turns his eyes upon Zion, being another name of Jerusalem. This likely means that he is speaking of the entirety of God’s people. As king, David especially knew that his sins did not simply impact him but also the people under his rule. This is true for everyone. No one sins in isolation; however, it is more clearly evident in the sins of leaders. Thus, David is not selfish to pray for his renewal alone; he also petitions the LORD on behalf of his kingdom.

The psalm closes by enabling worshipers to see the relationship between their own spiritual health and the well-being of the whole body of God’s people (Zion). That is, each member is linked to all the others in a web of relationships, and together they share in the life of God as it pulses through the whole body. Thus each member contributes to (or else detracts from) the health of the whole. The ideal Israel is a community of forgiven penitents, faithfully embracing God’s covenant and worshiping him according to the rites he appointed; this is the community that can bring light to the whole world.[13]

David concludes the psalm by claiming that he will indeed offer sacrifices to God. We must understand that a believer should give financially to God and do good works. The Bible makes that very clear. Paul writes to Titus saying that Jesus, “purified for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”[14] God expects us to do good works, just as He expected David to offer sacrifices. David, however, is noting that there is a right way to offer things to God and a wrong way. If we simply think we can buy God’s favor by doing good works and giving Him money, our sacrifices become like the ones of Israel that Isaiah prophesied against:

When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New Moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean, remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.[15]

Isaiah even uses a bit of David’s language in the next verse, noting that their sins will be white as snow if they only are willing and obedient to the LORD. This must also be our hearts. The LORD is entirely unlike all of the man-made deities and their works-based systems. God gladly gives grace and love to those who follow Him, and only when we work out of gratitude to Him is He truly pleased with our offerings and our sacrifices.

[1] Piper

[2] 2 Samuel 12:13

[3] Romans 3:5

[4] Maher, Matt. Lord, I Need You.

[5] Exodus 12:22

[6] Leviticus 14:4; Numbers 19:18

[7] Hebrews 9:22

[8] Hebrews 9:24

[9] Psalm 119:67

[10] Psalm 119:71

[11] Hebrews 12:11


[13] ESV Study Bible. Note on Psalm 51:18-19

[14] Titus 2:14

[15] Isaiah 1:12-17


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