Theme: The Psalmist’s Cry for Help
In this week’s lessons we see from the life of David the biblical way to deal with our sin, and learn what God’s response is toward us when we do.
Scripture: Psalm 51:1-9
David’s sin, in which he committed adultery with Bathsheba and later, after discovering that she was pregnant, arranged to have her husband Uriah killed in battle, is the dark background for the psalm (see 2 Sam. 11, 12). But this very blackness led David to the light. As Murdoch Campbell explains:
David had committed two sins for which the Mosaic law provided no forgiveness. For deliberate murder and adultery death was the inevitable penalty. He knew that before God there was no forgiveness through any sacrifices which he might offer or any gifts which he might present. With Micah he could have asked the solemn question: “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” No! By such offerings God cannot be appeased. David might have said: “If I build him an house, a magnificent temple; if I plead my hitherto circumspect life and all my good deeds in his service, will these not compensate for my lapse, and restore me to his favor?” No! We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.
There is but one way back to God. And David knew it. It is through the merits of the Lamb of God.5
This, though cast in Old Testament language, is the psalm’s wonderful message and the secret of its great appeal.
David begins by approaching God, whom he is asking to help him in his sinful state (vv. 1, 2). But this is no simple approach. It is perceptive, moving, genuine and profound.
Two things come together in these verses. The first is a fierce, almost desperate clinging to God’s mercy. This is profound because, as many commentators have pointed out, mercy is the sole basis of any approach to God by sinners.6 We cannot come to God on the basis of his justice; justice strikes us with fear and causes us to hide from him. We are not drawn to God by his wisdom; wisdom does not embolden us, though we stand in awe of it. No more does omniscience, omnipotence or omnipresence. The only reason we dare come to God and dare hope for a solution to our sin problem is his mercy. Where do we learn that God is merciful? The answer is that God has revealed this to us.
After Israel’s national disaster in worshiping the golden calf, Moses asked God to teach him his ways so that Moses might know him. “Show me your glory,” he said. God answered Moses that he could not show him his face, because “no one may see me and live.” However, he would place him in a cleft of the rock, cover him with his hand and then pass by. God said, in words that would certainly have been known by David, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Exod. 33:12-23). According to this revelation, the very essence of God and the most important thing that sinners can ever know about him is that he is merciful.
David begins this way. And lest we miss the force of this important beginning, he elaborates his opening by two other words which also highlight this important aspect of God’s character: “unfailing love” and “compassion.” Mercy denotes God’s loving assistance to the pitiful. Unfailing love points to the continuing operation of this mercy. Compassion teaches that God feels for our infirmities.
What was David’s sin?
According to Mosaic law, what is the punishment for his sin?
On what basis does David know he needs to approach God?
Reflection: What three words does David focus on concerning God’s character? How have you seen the Lord demonstrate them to you?
For Further Study: To learn more about God’s mercy, download and listen for free to James Boice’s message, “‘Mercy’ Is His Name.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)
5Murdoch Campbell, From Grace to Glory: Meditations on the Book of Psalms (Edinburgh and Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1970), pp. 94, 95.
6Alexander Maclaren: “The psalm begins by at once grasping the character of God as the sole ground of hope” (The Psalms, vol. 2, Psalms 39-89 [New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1893], p. 128). H.C. Leupold: “Pardon has its base, not in the merit or worthiness of man, but in the fact that God is so good” (Exposition of the Psalms [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969], p. 401).