Psalm 51: Standing in Awe of the Mercy of God

Read Psalm 51.

Psalm 51 isn’t for kids. They probably haven’t lived long enough to know the sort of heartache David is bringing to the Lord, nor the kind of regret he feels. They probably haven’t seen the damage sin can do, nor walked in its wake.

Psalm 51 is for all those who have been broken and haunted by their sin, for those who have seen firsthand the pain it can bring. Psalm 51 is for anyone who now knows God wasn’t kidding when He said, “When you eat of it, you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:17).

This psalm is David’s prayer of repentance after the prophet Nathan confronted him with his sin. It’s the darkest moment in the king’s life, and he comes to God with open hands. There is no justifying what he has done; there are no excuses. There is only raw confession and an appeal to God’s compassionate heart.

This was one of the first psalms I ever knew, primarily because the heart of it is captured in the praise song, “Create in Me a Clean Heart,” written by Keith Green. We sang it a lot in church. Listening to the chorus of the song, there is something incredible about the request David is making. He’s asking not just for forgiveness, but for a pure heart (Psalm 51:10).

David isn’t trying to escape punishment. In one sense, he’s already experienced the judgment of God (2 Samuel 12:13–23). He’s asking for something more. He wants restoration and a new beginning, to have his sin wiped away. Who is this God who can clean hearts? Who is this God who can blot out iniquity and restore joy (vv. 9, 12)?

The mercy of God is not a consolation prize for those who’ve lost their battle against sin. It’s not a white dot in a sea of darkness. The healing God brings is deeper than the pain wrought by sin. It’s brightness overpowers the darkest hue of shame and guilt.

In the old Keith Green song, the request is, “Create in me a clean heart,” the word clean likely based on the King James Version’s wording, or perhaps the New American Standard Bible, a favorite of Keith’s. And “clean” is certainly a fair translation. But the NIV renders the underlying Hebrew word “pure,” and for good reason.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the word David uses here in Psalm 51 is most often used of ceremonial cleanness. In the context of the sacrificial system, being clean had to do with purity. The line between the clean and the unclean was also the line between the holy and the common.

Uncleanness spread like wildfire. That’s why just coming into contact with something unclean rendered an otherwise clean object or person unclean (Numbers 19:22). It’s why sacrifices had to be unblemished (Leviticus 9:2–3; 22:19–21). It’s why even fabrics couldn’t be mixed (Deuteronomy 22:11). Purity was the name of the game.

When I hear that something was “made clean,” I tend to think, “previously dirty.” It feels like buying a refurbished piece of electronic equipment at a discount. The thing might look okay and work fine, but I’m always left wondering what exactly was wrong with it that left it in need of fixing and polishing to begin with. Sure, it may be technically clean, but it’s not exactly pure. There’s something better that exists—the brand-new, never-been-used, still-in-the-original-factory-sealed-packaging version of the same product.

But with God, there is no “something better.” When He makes a heart clean, He makes it pure as can be, truly as good as if it had never been sullied. That is how God deals with us when we come to Him in repentance: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). He purifies us.

We may still feel the accusations of the enemy. We may still deal with the consequences of our sins for a long time here on earth. We may spend years dealing with our own sense of guilt and shame for what we’ve done. But in God’s kingdom, there are no refurbished people. There is no one who simply looks as good as new. Instead, we will be made actually new, as pure as pure can be. There is no stain of sin so indelible that God’s mercy cannot remove it. That’s how good the good news of Jesus is.

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love” (Psalm 51:1).

What is this all about?

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