Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
– Psalm 51
David was the great King of the Old Testament. Yet he had feet of clay. His shield adorns the flag of the modern-day state of Israel yet he was an adulterer and an accessory to cold-blooded murder (2 Samuel 11:1–25). Even the best of us are sinners.
There may not have been times when we have been guilty of acting as savagely as David or when our decisions have resulted in such devastating consequences. Yet there is probably something within us that recognises that moment when we realise that we have no excuses for our actions and when we realise the damage that we have done.
There was not a lot David could do to sort out the mess he had made. Uriah lay dead and he had already taken Bathsheba as his wife (2 Samuel 11:26–27). When we can make up for the things we have done wrong, we should attempt to do so. If we have hurt someone, we should apologise. But it is not always possible. David was left having to make the best out of a bad situation that he alone had created. The rest of David’s story is how he had to deal with the consequences, and it is messy.
David expresses a profound sense of guilt and throws himself on God’s mercy. He appeals to God’s ‘unfailing love’ and to his ‘great compassion’ (v. 1). David’s first need is forgiveness for his wrongdoing (v. 2) but the problem is more deep rooted than absolving him for a one-off misdemeanour. David’s problem and ours is we are mired in sin. While we have to take responsibility for our individual actions there is also a sense that we couldn’t help it – we are human beings, we sin, we hurt others, we hurt ourselves, it’s just what we do. Yet it was never God’s wish. God’s desire is that we are ‘faithful’ (v. 6): faithful to him and faithful to being his image-bearers on Earth.
As well as the need for forgiveness (vv. 7, 9) the Psalm expresses the need for renewal (v. 10). At the time of writing it is the second day of a new year, already countless resolutions have been broken and in the next few weeks they’ll be joined by many more. As human beings we’re just not very good at self-improvement. If we are to be healed, it will be the work of God to create in us a clean heart and a steadfast spirit.
David isn’t quite there yet but he knows that his ultimate joy is found in being restored to the God of unfailing love who made him in the first place (v. 12).
The Psalm speaks to all of us who feel broken because of the stupid and selfish things that we have done. It does not offer us a ‘Get out of jail free’ card as we, like David, still have to deal with the consequences of our actions (although we no longer do so alone but conscious of God’s presence).
In the New Testament we see the dynamic of salvation more clearly. Through Christ we have forgiveness for sin, the slate has been wiped clean, ‘there is no condemnation’ (Romans 8:1) and the Holy Spirit is at work in us to restore the broken image, to recreate us in our Father’s image, full of love, and joy and peace (Galatians 5:22).
The last word remains with one who, like David, was a singer and songwriter. One of the biggest hits of 2017 was Blinded by Your Grace, Pt. 2 by grime artist, Stormzy. Reflecting on his own experiences growing up he sings, ‘Lord, I’ve been broken / Although I’m not worthy / You fixed me, I’m blinded / By your grace’.
In an interview with The Guardian he explained, ‘One of the things that I’m most impressed by, in God, is the grace that he has. No matter what we do, there’s always this, “OK, it’s fine. I understand.” That’s not to say I can go out and do something bad… But just that knowing that someone’s got you throughout anything, and they’re not going to judge you, they’re just going to understand your situation. That’s grace.’