King David wrote the well-known penitential Psalm 51 after the prophet Nathan confronted him with his sins involving Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah (whose death in battle he’d arranged). You can read the sad sequence of self-centered actions in 2 Samuel 11. Nathan’s confrontation and the beginning of consequences are recorded in 2 Samuel 12.
God’s judgment included the death of the son born to David and Bathsheeba. I wrote about the child’s death in my book, Little One Lost: Living with Early Infant Loss, noting that while this particular loss was a consequence for sin most infant losses are not. We know from Job that suffering is not always a result of personal sin. I also wrote about David’s confidence in regaining fellowship with this little child someday in heaven (2 Samuel 12:22, 23).
Dr. R.C. Sproul makes the same points in an excellent lecture I found this morning. You can listen to the lecture on David’s great repentance and many others about David’s life here.
Psalm 51 demonstrates the genuine repentance in David’s heart, broken over his sin, in words that echo down through the centuries. Each winter’s first snowfall brings to mind the words of verse 7:
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Those words are especially striking to me this morning, as I sit in a warm office on a bitterly cold morning after yesterday’s significant snowfall.
David begins the psalm by reminding himself of God’s mercy and steadfast love. He begs God to blot out his sins, confessing:
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment (Psalm 51:3, 4, ESV).
This is not a story of David’s overpowering love, but of his overpowering lust. He realizes the extent of his sin and it weighs so heavily on his heart that he can think of nothing else. He confesses his primary offense was against God, but he definitely sinned against other people. He broke up a marriage by stealing a man’s wife and making sure that man was killed.
Bathsheba had little–if any–choice in the alliance. Yet she loses a husband and a son. Although the Bible focuses far more on David’s responsibility than her feelings, we know she grieved. Second Samuel 12:24 tells us that David comforted her.
All sin is primarily an offense against a holy God, but we must not ignore those who’ve been hurt by our actions. David comforted his grieving wife, and whenever possible we need to foster healing and restoration.
David has heard Nathan proclaim calamities that will come upon him as a result of his sin, and he acknowledges God’s justice. The truly repentant person is willing to face up to the consequences of personal sin.
Genuine repentance is more than a verbal declaration. David realizes that God sees the deepest recesses of his heart:
Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart (verse 6, ESV).
Only God can cleanse him and transform his heart:
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me (verse 10, ESV).
David pleads with God to uphold him with His Spirit and restore to him the joy of salvation. But restoration carries responsibility.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise (13-15, ESV).
The restored sinner cannot be silent. David promises to teach his people about God’s ways so other sinners may return to the Lord. He vows to sing and speak about God’s righteousness, to verbally share the good news of salvation and praise the Giver of it.
Repentance is more than remorse. Saying you’re sorry is not enough.
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (16, 17, ESV).
God doesn’t want external religious practices that fail to reflect internal repentance. He desires a spirit broken over personal sin. He will not despise a contrite heart willing to face consequences and work toward restoration. These are the sacrifices that please God.