Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Psalm 51 in Perspective

Those with a biblical church background are familiar with the story. King David is supposed to be off waging war at the time that kings went into battle, but instead he stays behind, lounging around the comfy confines of his palace in Jerusalem. In his idleness, David notices Bathsheba bathing, whom Scripture tells us was "very beautiful". An updated translation would describe Bathsheba as "smokin' hot". David, as most men would be, is captivated by her intoxicating nakedness and resolves in his heart to take her into his bed. He does this even though he is warned by his servant that Bathsheba is not on the market. She's a married woman. After having sex with her, he sends her away and discovers later than she is pregnant with his child.

David then does precisely what most of us do when we are exposed in our sin. We look for ways to negotiate and navigate around our guilt. David is no different. He brings Bathsheba's husband home from war and sets his plan in motion. Liquor up Uriah, hope that a change in scenary from war-torn fields and filthy, exhausted, blood-stained warriors, combined with a heavenly vision of his wife will be enough to entice him into a night of passion and pleasure. If Uriah will sleep with his smokin' hot wife, then David is off the hook, right?

Of course Uriah is much too honorable of a man to indulge in pleasure while his buddies are off at war. Instead of spending the night with his bride, he sleeps at the door of the king's house. He doesn't even go home! David must accelerate his plan and plots to have Uriah sent to the front lines. David signs his death warrant. Once Uriah is dead, David can take Bathsheba as his own wife and his sin will never be exposed.

Exposed he was, by a righteous man named Nathan. Once Nathan is able to bring David's buried guilt to the surface, David's polished exterior crumbles and reveals the stench of his sinful heart. You would think that the appropriate response under the old covenant would have been for David to offer a sacrifice for his sin. After all, this was the duty of the priests. The priests offered daily sacrifices for sins related to ceremonial issues such as food, drink, various washings and regulations for the body (Heb 9:10). Then once a year the high priest made an offering, first for his own sin, and then for the sins of the people (Heb 7:27). But here is the catch. The offering of the high priest, the offering of atonement for sin, was only for "the unintentional sins of the people" (Heb 9:7).

What is an unintentional sin? It is a sin of ignorance. It is a transgression committed without knowing that it is, in fact, a transgression. It's the sin of explaining to the local Barney Fife why you are speeding in a county in a part of the country that your unfamiliar with and unaware of the posted speed limit. The high priest made concessions through a blood sacrifice for these kind of sins.

But David's sin was not a sin of ignorance. It was a premeditated, willful, deliberate act of defiance against the marriage of Bathsheba and Uriah and the will of Yahweh. Was there any hope for David's rebellion? According to Numbers 15:30-31, David's prospects of restoration and forgiveness look bleak. "But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him." According to this verse, David's sin will not be removed from him.

This insight is helpful in understanding Psalm 51, one of the most famous psalms in the Scriptures. Psalm 51 is David's plea before God for mercy in the brokenness of his sin. Notice that Psalm 51 is a plea for mercy. Why? Because there is no sufficient sacrifice for the kind of treason David commits against His God. Mercy is the only hope that David has in his high-handed sin. David begins with these words: "Have mercy on me, O God, according to yoru steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! (51:1-2)"

The basis of David's plea for cleansing from his guilt is not his ability to offer sacrifice, but it is a plea in accordance with God's mercy, God acting in love and abundant mercy. We see this more clearly later in the passage. "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 (51:16-17)."

David's only freedom from his guilt and sin would be an act of God's mercy and love, not an act of sacrifice or offering. God desires brokenness and an expression of dependence and need when we are exposed in our sin. God desires that we appeal to Him on the basis of what He can and has done in Jesus, not on the basis of what we think we can offer to make up for our failures.

The rules of engagement have not changed. The only means of forgiveness for man's rebellions against our Creator is through the mercy of God as displayed in the death of the Son of God Jesus Christ. The Scriptures tells us that the blood of Jesus purifies our conscience from self-salvation (Heb 9:14). In other words, the blood of Jesus cleanses our guilt and helps us escape the mistaken notion that we can be righteous enough in our own power to be acceptable to a holy God. Our hope to be free and forgiven, our only hope when we are exposed as the sinners that we are (and we will all one day inevitably be exposed for all to see as we stand before God and give an account for our lives), is an appeal to the mercy of God by faith in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, who gave his life as a ransom so that you and I could be forgiven of all our sin (1John 1:7), the unintentional sins and deliberate acts of defiance as well.


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