To the Director: Psalm 51 (part 1)
“To the director: a psalm of David—when Nathan the prophet came to him just as he had gone to Bathsheba.”
(Psalm 51:1-2 [superscript in English Bibles])
It is always good, when you come to a psalm, to have a superscript as detailed as this one. So often, it is hard to determine with any degree of certainty just when a particular psalm was written, yet, with this one, that is not the case. After the prophet Nathan confronted David about his adultery with Bathsheba, as he grieves over his sin and over his dying child, it would seem that David penned these words (see 2 Samuel 11-12). Oh, what a dark time in Israel’s history this was—King David, the model king of Israel, entered into one of the worst sins that could be entered into. At the same time, here is the mark of the believer—repentance. Oh, how we stumble and fall, particularly when we seek to resist sin on our own strength, but we have a God that is so much greater than our sin—the mark of the believer, though, is repentance.
Beloved, as you read the words of this psalm, never separate them from their context. Though we may apply them to our own lives, never forget that they come from a heart that is deeply grieved by sin—to write this, as his lay dying as a direct result of his sin—his tears must have flowed with each verse he wrote. Never lose touch of that, sometimes it is all too easy to read passages of scripture as abstract words and systematic teachings—cold and distant from our emotions—and beloved, that could not be further from the truth. These words, as were all the words of scripture, were penned through human beings much like you or I, with all of the same kinds of fears and concerns, hopes and dreams, that you or I have. Could David have felt any less agony as he watched his baby son die before him that you or I would feel were our child to die in our arms. Friends, this is the context of this psalm of repentance—it is out of a heart that has been wrenched and torn asunder as a result of grief over his sin. Indeed, I wonder if this agony and pain is not so distant from the pain that God the Father must have felt, as he watched his Son die on the cross—this time not for his sins, for God knows no sin, but for the sins of a rebellious and wicked people who he yet loved with a love deeper than can be described with words. Indeed, I wonder if it was all that different.
Yet, beloved, as we read this psalm, let us see this as a model and a guide for our own repentance. King David has laid bare his soul before us not simply as a means of his own repentance, but to teach us how to repent as well. John Calvin called the book of Psalms an “anatomy of the human soul,” and indeed, every emotion common to mankind is expressed within this book. Within the psalms we cannot only be taught how to worship God, but we can also be taught how to express pain, misery, grief, and even holy anger. Beloved, do not neglect the psalms, and especially do not neglect the difficult ones, for they are meant for you to be a guide and a standard to teach you how to live every aspect of your life to the glory of God. Take them to heart, and apply them to your soul. Listen to these words of David as he repents of his sin, and let them be a guide for you as well as you struggle to repent of that, which has caused you to stumble in your life. And never forget, forgiveness is not earned, it is a free gift given out of God’s abundant grace to those who come to him in faith and repentance.
Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt,
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
There where the blood of the Lamb was spilt.
Grace, Grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, Grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin.