Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgement.— Psalm 51:1-4
The background to this Psalm is all-important in understanding it.
David has committed a whole host of sins, each one bad enough in and of itself, but together they form quite a catalogue of despicable acts. First, David was neglecting his duties as king by not leading his troops into battle. Second, he lusted after another man’s wife. Third, he acted upon his immoral thoughts by seducing Bathsheba to have sex with him while her husband was away at a battle David should have been fighting. Fourth, when he discovered Bathsheba was pregnant with his child, he invites her husband, Uriah, home to try and cover his tracks. Fifth, when Uriah refuses to go home to be with his wife while his comrades are dying on the battlefield, David devises a plan to have Uriah murdered. Sixth, he has the plan carried out, and callously blames it on the battle, because after all life is cheap on the battlefield. Seventh, he does his best to cover up his guilt.
It is then that God sends his prophet to confront David with a word of Law. It is only after the crushing sentence of the Law has been pronounced that David realises the despicable depth of his sins. Confronted with his evil deeds, he knows he deserves nothing but death as a just punishment. He realises he has no ground upon which to stand, and left to his own devices he would utterly despair.
However, David throws himself upon the “steadfast love and abundant mercy” of God. He no longer tries to whitewash his actions, as he calls them “sins, transgressions, iniquities, and evil”. He confesses that God has every right to deal justly and severely with him. However, he begs God to wash him, to cleanse him, and to forgive him. Yes, he will have to live with the consequence of his sin, and they were great, but he had the assurance that God had forgiven him all the evil he had done.
We, too, are in a similar spot. Before God we must confess our transgressions, iniquities, sin, and evil. They may not include adultery, murder, neglect of office, and cover up, but let’s be honest, we do like to sin. And we, too, cast ourselves upon a merciful and forgiving God, who has every right to severely punish us for breaking His Laws. But we, like David, are assured that God has forgiven our sins through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Each Sunday we are pronounced forgiven, absolved of all wrongdoing, we are washed and declared whiter than snow (51:7). And this message of forgiveness restores to us the joy of salvation (51:12) and we will declare God’s praise, who through His Word of Law and Gospel has broken our spirits and given us a contrite heart that seeks His mercy for Jesus’ sake.
Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy, Amen.