Today’s subject is heavy.* The weight of guilt for things we have done or not done, for things we have said or failed to say can be overwhelming and crushing. Guilt – the awareness of having done wrong accompanied by feelings of shame and regret – is a powerful emotion, but guilt isn’t helpful if it doesn’t lead to a change in our thinking, behavior, or speech. Guilt is good when it causes us to be penitent. The word “penitent” means, “expressing or feeling regret or sorrow for having committed sins or misdeeds.” Guilt is good when it leads to penitence and repentance, when it leads to change within us.
Psalm 51 – Create in Me a Clean Heart
*Note – For those not present for worship, we put on the screen, “Which weighs more?” followed by a picture of an aircraft carrier, then a skyscraper, a mountain, and finally the word GUILT.
According to a tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages, seven psalms are considered penitential Psalms (6, 32 [a Song of Thanksgiving and Augustine’s favorite], 38, 51, 102, 130, 143). In these Psalms the affliction which people plead for deliverance from is a heavy and deep sense of guilt because sometimes the enemy is not “out there” in the world but is present “in here” in the depths of our own being. Sometimes our greatest battles are fought internally. If you look in your Bible there should be a superscription or title to Psalm 51, that says, To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. You’ve heard the scripture from 2 Samuel 11:27-12:15 (this is written at the end of this message) that recounted King David’s sins of lust, adultery, and murder as he violated about half of the Ten Commandments. Psalm 51 conveys David’s desire for mercy and cleansing in such an eloquent way that it has been used and said by countless people through the centuries who have sought God’s mercy, renewal, and hope after they have sinned. Listen to Psalm 51:
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a generous spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
An Old Testament theological scholar Bernhard W. Anderson wrote, “The sentence that is basic to all penitential prayer in the Old Testament is the simple confession, ‘I have sinned.’” Psalm 51 is the fullest exposition of that sentence in the Bible.” One of the things I truly appreciate about Psalm 51 is that David fully admits and accepts responsibility for the wrong he did, and says it is his fault. “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.” There is no complaint against Bathsheba or Uriah or God, there is no passing the buck, no ducking or denying; there is no stepping and fetching, there is no blaming genes or environment or someone else. This is refreshing because it is so rare in our time. The problem is within, in him and he knows it and he says so. The problem is a self that has broken relationship with God and with other people because of sin and needs the renewal that can only come through God’s grace and re-creation.
The whole structure of the prayer is in the asking mode. The psalm asks for God to do whole lot but it all builds off the theme of the opening verse,
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” It is far better to appeal to God based on the Lord’s character, based on God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy, rather than on our merits or because we think we deserve it or have earned it. Especially when we are praying in a humble penitential way because we have sinned, we don’t want our prayer to be based on our character. Can you imagine how David’s prayer would have sounded if he had done that? “Have mercy on me, O God, because basically I’m a good person even though I broke a lot of commandments including murdering one of my most faithful and trusted soldiers after I got his wife pregnant.” I know a little about prayer and I can tell you this is not a prayer that is going to be received favourably. When we have sinned, we are far better off admitting our fault and appealing to God’s character rather than our own, rather than trying to downplay what we’ve done and justify ourselves before God or others. Psalm 51 models how to pray when we are seeking cleansing and forgiveness from our transgressions, iniquities, and sins. Our confession of sin is based on the grace and mercy of God. We are sinners, God is gracious. This is also what Jesus taught.
In Luke 18:9-14 Jesus told a story about two men who went to the temple to pray, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus says the man whose prayer was heard prayed the opening words of Psalm 51. The reason why someone would be reluctant to look up to heaven, beating on his chest crying out for mercy is that he knows and believes that his life is judged by God and he knows what he has thought, said, and done. Some people don’t believe in God and so don’t feel accountable to anyone but themselves. Some folks who claim to be Christian don’t live in a way that seems to reflect that they truly believe their life will be judged by God either. The reality of sin is that it puts our life in question before God. Our sin also always impacts other people as well as God and ourselves. If I lose my temper, someone else is impacted. If I abuse someone verbally or physically someone else is impacted. If I gossip, if I grouse and complain, someone else is impacted. The idea that what I do doesn’t impact or concern anyone else is nonsense from a biblical point of view. Anytime we sin, we are hurting someone. There are hidden sins and unintended sins but no private sins. David’s sins impacted Bathsheba, Uriah, and an unborn child – and that was just the beginning – the circle of pain spiraled out to their families, the Israelite army, and the nation. Psalm 51:4 defines sin as doing “what is evil in (God’s) sight.” The idea we live with is that God sees us and judges us so we should live accordingly.
The prayer of Psalm 51 confesses not simply a few sins, it confesses sinfulness. It concerns the condition of our sinful self, not just accepting responsibility for a particular transgression. It uses words like, “sin, iniquity, and transgression,” to explain what is wrong, but basically it is making the point that “I am a sinner. My problem is not just the need of pardon for a particular wrong but deliverance from the predicament of myself.” This is something we need to grasp and accept. Of all the doctrines of Christianity the sinfulness of humanity is the one for which there is perhaps the most evidence. All one has to do is look around and the evidence is everywhere in the world from the smallest, pettiest words and deeds to the largest, most grievous, and violent offenses.
If we look at our own lives honestly the difficulty of our own sinfulness is apparent. Most of us would probably say that there are areas that we may perpetually struggle with or have for years and years. This is a reflection of our sinfulness. We know what we don’t want to do and we do it anyway. It could be any number of things or issues – I don’t have to enumerate them – you know what it is for you if you just honestly think about it for a moment. Paul sums up the problem we all face in Romans 7 when he wrote: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Paul is dealing with the same issue as Psalm 51: the sinfulness of humanity and our need for renewal and salvation that comes from outside of ourselves. The good news is when we confess our sin, when we truly desire to turn away from it God is willing to grant us forgiveness and renewal. The central desire of Psalm 51 is in verse 10, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” This is a prayer many of us could pray is it not? It is important to understand what is being asked for in this verse. Many prayers for help both in the Psalms and in our own lives basically say “Change my situation God so I may praise you.” Psalm 51:10 says, “God, I am the problem, change me.” The Hebrew verb “create” (Hebrew bara) is a special verb that is used only of an action that God performs freely. It means to bring into existence what was not there before (Genesis 1:1; Isaiah 45:12). In Psalm 51 it describes the action of God that restores one to a right relationship with the Creator. So “create in me a clean heart” means a heart that wasn’t there before, that I didn’t previously possess. It’s kind of like asking for a heart transplant in a spiritual rather than a physical sense. The Hebrew word for “heart,” refers to the mind and the will that is the center of the self from which our actions and loyalty spring. What the prayer is seeking is a clean heart and a steady spirit that can only come from God. A steadfast spirit would be a mind and will fixed and steady toward God – true to God’s covenant (Psalm 78:37), trusting even during evil times (Psalm 112:7) and ready to praise (Psalm 57:8).
The Psalm asks God, “wash me, cleanse me, purge me.” It is looking for renewal and creation that goes deep and to the core. We all know there is a difference between surface cleaning and really cleaning. There is a difference between just cleaning the areas folks will see and cleaning every room. There is a difference between “straightening up” our room by throwing everything in the closet and shutting the door and actually going through everything and opening up and cleaning every spot. Psalm 51 is asking God for a complete top to bottom scouring job. Interestingly, Psalm 51:11 contains one of only two occurrences of “Holy Spirit” in the Old Testament (look at Isaiah 63:10) as it asks for God not to take the Holy Spirit away in the process of cleansing.
With all this heavy talk about guilt, sin, iniquity, and transgressions and the sinfulness of the human self that leads us to perpetuate many of the same mistakes and to struggle with some of the same issues for many years or even throughout our life, the good news is that God doesn’t give up on us. If we have a humble and contrite heart and spirit, God will forgive us and work with us and in us. Being willing to humble ourselves is crucial though, because as long as we don’t see ourselves as sinners who need to confess our faults and humble ourselves before God each and every day, we won’t see our need for repentance and the Lord’s forgiveness and re-creation. Instead we will remain prideful, self-focused, “want to get our way and we’ll be grumpy if we don’t kind of people” that aren’t any different from folks who don’t claim to have any faith at all.
When you start looking at your life honestly in light of God’s judgment as David does in Psalm 51 – how comfortable are you with what you see? If Jesus followed you and me around 24 hours a day, for seven days this past week, what would he have seen and heard and witnessed? Is there anything we might need to confess? Where is your heart this morning?
Jeremiah 17:9-10 says, “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse— who can understand it? I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.”
The Bible also tells us many times that God promises to re-create and renew our hearts if we humbly repent and turn to the Lord. Repentance concerns who I am and not just something I have done that is an expression of who I am.
1 John 1:8-9 states it plainly, ““If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Some of the best verses about the new heart that God wants to give each of us are found in the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah 24:7, “I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.”
Jeremiah 31:33-34, “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
Jeremiah 32:39-40, “I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for all time, for their own good and the good of their children after them. 40 I will make an everlasting covenant with them, never to draw back from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, so that they may not turn from me.”
The weight of guilt and sin is immense and it is a great feeling to confess it and turn from it. God has blessed us in Christ with the way for us to unburden ourselves of the guilt we are carrying because of our sin. Paul wrote in Romans 5:6-11 “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 11 But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
Saint Augustine says that there are two kinds of people because there are two kinds of love. One is holy while the other is selfish. One is subject to God and the other endeavors to equal Him. Jesus came to transform our hearts with the love of God. Do you allow God’s love to purify your thoughts, words and actions?
God will judge us not only for the wrong we have done but also for what we have failed to do. Now is the time for God’s mercy seeking His help and grace to turn away from sin and walk in the way of God’s love. Ask the Lord to purify your heart and love as He loves. Do you treat others with mercy and love as God has treated you? Lord, may Your love rule in our hearts.
Mighty Lord, Savior and Friend, Change our hearts from hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh and let them turn to You Lord, as flowers turn toward the sun.
When we are filled with hatred, fill us with Your love.
When we complacent about Your love and goodness, incite us to a closer discipleship with You.
When we are following the wrong path, direct us onto Your way.
When we are stubborn and close-minded, open us to the influence of Your Holy Spirit.
When we are selfish and think only of ourselves, give us generous hearts and willing hands.
When we are angry, fearful and mistrusting, show us Your peaceful presence.
Help us, O Lord, to continually put on the mind and heart of Jesus to Whom we dedicate our lives.
We have all sinned and deserve God’s judgment. God, the Father, sent His only Son to satisfy that judgment for those who believe in Him. Jesus, the eternal Son of God, who lived a sinless life, loves us so much that He died for our sins, taking the punishment that we deserve, was buried, and rose from the dead according to the scriptures. If you truly believe and trust this in your heart, receiving Jesus alone as your Saviour, declaring, “Jesus is Lord,” and committing to live for Him as he taught us to, you will be saved from judgment and spend eternity with God in heaven.
2 Samuel 11:27-12:15
“But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, 12 1 and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 3 but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. 4 Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” 5 Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6 he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” 7 Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; 8 I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. 9 Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. 11 Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. 12 For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.” 13 David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14 Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.” 15 Then Nathan went to his house.”