Theme: A Profound Awareness of Sin
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
The second striking thing in these opening verses, which comes together with the first, is David’s profound awareness of his sin and its true nature. In verse one he used three words to describe God’s compassion. In verse two he uses three corresponding words to describe his sin.
The first word is “transgressions” (Hebrew, peshah). It refers to “crossing a forbidden boundary” with the thought that this is a serious “rebellion.” You will recall from the annals of Julius Caesar that as long as the general remained to the north of the river Rubicon he was on peaceful terms with the Roman Senate. But once he crossed the Rubicon, which the Senate had forbidden him to do, he was at war with that legislative body. Caesar did cross, crying, lacta alea est (“the die is cast”), and civil war resulted.
That is what we have done with God. We have crossed the boundary of his moral law and are at war with him in consequence. “It is not merely, then, that we go against some abstract propriety, or break some impersonal law of nature when we do wrong, but that we rebel against a rightful Sovereign,” says Maclaren.7
The second word is “iniquity” (Hebrew, hawon). It means “perversion” and refers to what we usually call “original sin” or the “depravity” of our natures. Significantly, it is the word used in the first part of verse 5, in the phrase “a sinner from birth.”
The third word is “sin” itself (Hebrew, chattah). It means “falling short” or “missing the mark.” We miss God’s high mark of perfection, falling short of it in the same way an arrow might fall short of a target. But it is also true that sin misses its own mark, since we never hit what we are aiming at by sinning.
These three words occur again later in the psalm (in vv. 3, 4, 5, 9 and 13). All refer to personal failure, which David emphasizes by speaking of “my transgressions”, “my iniquity” and “my sin” (vv. 1-2).
We should note, too, that this opening of the psalm is similar to that of Psalm 32, which also begins with the same three words for sin. In fact, the relationship of the psalms is close. As I suggested in the earlier study, both seem to have grown out of the same moral failure on David’s part, though Psalm 51 is more intense and personal and seems to have been written close to the event, while Psalm 32 is more reflective and was probably written later. It may be that Psalm 32, which is identified as a maskil (possibly meaning “instruction”), is a fulfillment of the promise David makes to “teach transgressors your ways” in Psalm 51:13.
Study Questions:

The first striking thing we saw was David’s strong clinging to God’s mercy. What is the second striking point we learn about David in this psalm?
List and define the three words David uses to describe his sin.

Application: Ask the Lord to make you aware of any sins in your life you need to address. Do you understand the gravity of your sin because of its horrible nature? And have you come to realize the depth of God’s mercy toward you in Christ in response to your rebellion against him?
7Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, vol. 3, The Psalms, Isaiah 1-48 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), part 2, p. 5.

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