Repentance hopes in the merciful character of God
There is the note of triple repetition in verses one and two where we read: “my transgressions”; “my iniquity”; “my sin”. When we read this we might tend to focus only on the sinfulness of man, allowing the darkness of sin to cloud the bright glory of God’s grace. But the glory of the gospel of grace is that where sin abounds grace doth abound much more (Rom. 5:20)! And so to go along with the three-fold repetition of David’s sin we see the three-fold repetition of God’s gracious character.
We read, “have mercy, … O God”; “Your lovingkindness”; “Your tender mercies”. The repentant sinner realizes a wondrous and magnificent truth—wherever he meets his sin, the God of grace is also present. And while Satan and sin would tempt him to despair he looks beyond the dark clouds of sin and sees a merciful and compassionate God and he is not without hope. Our Lord taught us this very thing when He told us about the young man who broke his father’s heart by demanding his portion of the inheritance, leaving home, and living a riotous and unrighteous life. But as the story goes, that young man despaired in his sinfulness as he sat there in the pig-pen with nothing to eat but pig food and his only company a bunch of pigs. And as he sat there despairing he remembered his father. O glorious memory of memories! He thought of the wealth and prosperity of his father and longed to return home if only to be like one of his father’s servants. At least then he would enjoy the blessings of his father. And so, driven by his repentance, he made his way back to his father’s house only to find much more than he ever expected. As he walked that road back to his father’s house it was the father who was on lookout for his wayward son. You can probably imagine the picture in your mind. There is that father standing at the end of lane and off in the distance he sees the figure of a man walking and his heart skips a beat. After a few moments and when he can no longer contain himself he runs to the end of the lane and grabbed hold of his son and kissed him and hugged him. The son could barely get any words out of his mouth before the father was shouting to the servants—“Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calk here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found’” (Luke 15:22-24).
That wonderful story, if it communicates anything to us, expresses the lavish mercy of our God. In Psalm 51, David, the repentant sinner, threw himself on the mercy of his God. The Apostle John recognized the same merciful character of God when he wrote, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). The one who confesses his sins before God is simply agreeing together with God about his sin—it is another way of referring to true repentance.
Where else do you meet this kind of teaching? In the religions of the world you find only hopeless condemnation. God is neither indifferent nor hostile but He is merciful and gracious by nature. Those whose hope is founded in human relationships are always bitterly disappointed but those who hope in the merciful character of God find eternal hope.
Take note of David’s exact words: “Have mercy upon me, O God”, begins his prayer of repentance. The word for “mercy” refers to showing kindness. David did not deserve to be shown kindness, but God is kind and so he has the right to call upon God to demonstrate His kindness. There is no doubt as to the One Who would grant this request—the One true God.
Next, David asks for this mercy to come to him “according to Your lovingkindness”. This word “lovingkindness” is used as an attribute of God. The English translation is beautiful for God is both loving and kind—that is who God is. In Psalm 136 this same term is used 26 times of God and is called an eternal attribute of God. Praise His name that He changes not. God was full of lovingkindness when my great grandfather called on His name in repentance and when my father called on His name and when I called on His name!
Finally, David sums up his request with “according to the multitude of Your tender mercies”. He is speaking here not of mercy in the singular but of mercies—in the multiplied plural and that speaks of great abundance. The word itself brings to mind the image of the way of mother cares for her child even when the child is in her womb. There are few things that express such tenderness or compassion. Yet take such compassion and tenderness and multiply that infinitely and we begin to gain an understanding of God’s approach to the repentant sinner.
David asks God to be God in regards to his sin. He throws himself before the Almighty King who is Compassionate and Gentle. That is how our God treats the repentant sinner. That is what we are to expect of Him. When we bow before Him in humble repentance we are not to expect the edge of the sword but a warm reception of grace and mercy.