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Psalm 51:  The Big Picture

  1. David recognizes and confesses his sin before a holy God (51:1-6)
  2. Eight requests and David’s confident expectation in God (51:7-12)
  3. David’s response to teach others, praise God, and live a holy life (51:13-17)
  4. David’s prayer for national Israel (51:18-19)


The doctrine of repentance has undergone a rather large transformation from the Biblical ideal in the minds of many professing Christians today.  In fact, the doctrine of repentance is scarcely present in the teaching or system of belief of a large percentage of churches and institutions that would identify themselves as “evangelical.”  Moreover, modern evangelism is wishy-washy at best when it comes to any proclamation of the depravity of man within what the contemporary church thinks is the preaching of the gospel.  On the other end of the spectrum is the self-flagellating legalist who never rejoices in the joy of the gospel of forgiveness but instead chooses to wallow in the mire of his sin.

Recovering a Biblical understanding of repentance is imperative.  There can be no true preaching of the gospel and thus no true believing of the gospel and thus no true salvation apart from true repentance.  Furthermore, spiritual growth is hindered and spiritual intimacy squandered in the absence of true repentance.

With this in mind, we come to Psalm 51 and David’s chronicle of Repentance.  In this text we are able to get a birds-eye view regarding what repentance really is as well as what it is not.  There are at least five (5) biblical facts regarding repentance.

Repentance realizes the sinners condition before God

As a needy and unworthy beggar (51:1)

The very first phrase of this Psalm demonstrates the repentant sinner views himself as a needy and unworthy beggar.  “Have mercy upon me, O God.”  The word “mercy”, according to Zodhiates “[often] has the connotation of showing kindness to the poor and needy.  Jehovah is the subject of this verb forty-one times” (Lexical Aids to the Old Testament, in The Key Study Bible, p. 1613).

Here is David, the great king of Israel as he approaches the King of Kings and he does so as a poor and needy man.  He beseeches the King just like a beggar would beseech him.  There is no pomp and circumstance here, no respect of persons, just a sinful man approaching a holy God.

That is what we are before God.  There is nothing we have to offer him.  We are needy and poor.  The words on the lips of every repentant sinner are:

Nothing in my hand I bring;

Only to Thy cross I cling.

(Augustus Toplady)

As dirty and needing to be cleansed (51:2, 7, 10)

David seeks not for his clothing to be washed but rather for himself to be cleansed.  Why?  Because that is how the sinner responds to his sin—that is the very foundation of repentance.  David does not see himself as just spotted up a little, no, he is dirty and must be washed to the uttermost.  He seeks a thorough cleansing.

The Bible pictures men as stained with sin.  The dirt of corruption, immorality, and unrighteousness mars his being.  He is stained so deeply with sin that even what he considers to be his best or highest righteousness appears as dirt and filth before the King.  “But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6).  Indeed Scripture constantly paints the picture of repentance as a washing (cf. 1 Cor. 6:11; Titus 3:4).  Here is a man who is sick of his sin!

As a sinner (51:3)

“For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.”  Those are the words of a man who is no longer trying to cover up his wickedness.  Though it may seem to be stating the obvious, we see that the repentant sinner sees himself as exactly that, a sinner.  There was no way around it for David, for he knew his sin—he was intimately aware of his sin.  He had come face to face with the reality of his sin.  Without this repentance is impossible.

As justly guilty before God (51:3-4)

David had sinned.  God’s prophet confronted him with his sin.  He sinned in the sight of God.  God was the eyewitness of his sin with Bathsheba and against Uriah.  And he is ultimately accountable to God, so he says, “Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight—that You may be found just when You speak, and blameless when You judge.”  God had seen everything and consequently was just in His judgment against David.

The man who tries to weasel his way out from under his guilt by giving reasons as to why his situation is different knows nothing about true repentance and for that reason can never know the gospel.  Not only that, when a Christian runs so far away from the truth that he makes excuses for his sin, he looses the ability to grow spiritually.  We don’t find David claiming psychological or physiological reasons for his “unhealthy behavior.”

As sinners by very nature (51:5)

David neither blames God, like Adam, nor does he blame his parents.  “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.”  In this verse he humbly confesses that his sin was not a one-time occurrence.  Rather, from the very beginning of his life he was a sinner.  This is his nature.  The repentant sinner doesn’t see his goodness but his sinfulness and God’s goodness.