“Show favor to me, O God, according to your chesed;
according to your abundant mercy, wipe out my transgressions.”
(Psalm 51:3 [Psalm 51:1 in English Bibles])
For those of you who have been reading my devotional reflections for a while, you know that I think the word that David uses in the first line of this verse is extremely important. In Hebrew, it is the word ds,x, (chesed), and is translated many ways in our English Bible to suit the context. The idea that this word conveys is that of God’s covenant faithfulness to his people in spite of their covenant unfaithfulness. It is because of the ds,x, (chesed) of God that we are not destroyed and that mankind was not destroyed at the time of the fall. It is because of the ds,x, (chesed) of God that he demonstrated his agape love in sending his Son, Jesus, into this world to fulfill the law and offer a propitiatory sacrifice to atone for our sins. It is because of the ds,x, (chesed) of God that we may know him and are not left to our own devices. And it is because of the ds,x, (chesed) of God that he offers us forgiveness in Christ when we deserve nothing but wrath. Indeed, this is a very significant word for us as God’s people!
There is a second thing that we ought to note about the language of this verse. David’s prayer is that God would wipe out his transgressions. The word that is used here is the Hebrew word [v;P, (pesha), which can refer to either individual transgressions or to the rebellion of a group of people. It is valuable to note that we rarely take seriously enough the gravity of our own sins. We usually see them as the stumbling of a fallen individual when it comes to trying to live a righteous life. Yet, sin is more than simple stumbling—it is outward rebellion against a holy and a righteous God. Indeed, as far back as Adam and Eve, sin has been rebellion against the righteous law and nature of God, and when we enter into it in our lives even today, we should recognize it as outward rebellion—rebellion that, by act, aligns us with the enemies of God. Oh, beloved, until you recognize sin for what it is, you will always take forgiveness for granted; until you truly begin to hate your sin, you will not treasure the redemption that is found in Jesus Christ.
David employs what is called a “chiastic” structure in this verse to add emphasis. What that simply means is that the two halves of the verse are flip-flopped in what they convey:
Show favor (A) Chesed (B)
Abundant mercy (B’) wipe out transgressions (A’)
This (ABBA) structure is called a chiasm after the Greek letter c (chi), and is commonly used in Hebrew poetry when the writer wishes to add emphasis what is being said. Essentially, he is saying the same thing twice, just with different language to make his point. In this verse, David begins by requesting God’s favor and ends the verse with the specific way in which he desires to see God’s favor enacted. David is not asking to defeat an army or to perform a mighty task, but is asking that his sins be forgiven—indeed, there can be no greater sign of God’s favor than this. At the center of the verse are two additional parallel ideas. We have spoken of God’s chesed already, but here David adds further definition to the word by defining it in terms of God’s abundant mercy. And indeed, once again, it is because of this abundance of mercy that God offers his chesed to his people.
Oh, loved ones, while sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the technical aspects of poetry, but they are important because they have been deliberately employed by the writer to convey a sense of meaning. At the same time, do not lose sight of the reality of David’s situation—he has entered into horrendous sin, his child lays dying as a result, and he has come in penitence before God, pleading for mercy. And note how he does so—it is not on the basis of who he is or what he has done, but it is on the basis of on who God is and what God has promised. Beloved, as you walk through this life, you will enter into sins, the question that must be asked is how do you come before God in the wake of those sins? Is it as one who is proud of the way they live, or do you beat your breasts like the penitent publican (Luke 18:13), pleading the mercy of our God?
God be merciful to me,
On thy grace I rest my plea;
Plenteous in compassion thou,
Blot out my transgressions now;
Wash me, make me pure within,
Cleanse, O cleanse me from my sin.
-from the 1912 Psalter