Few psalms have garnered attention like David’s plea for forgiveness following his sin with Bathsheba and his consequent confrontation with Nathan the prophet. The power of the emotions expressed in the imagery of Psalm 51 not only documents how spiritual frailty affects the most important and dedicated of men but also offers a guide and vocabulary to all who sin in reaching back to a God whose steadfast love keeps Him willing to listen to His people despite failure upon failure. But more than that, this psalm reveals the character of the very flawed man whom the Lord still called a man after His own heart (Acts 13:22). The beautiful words of this psalm, poetic and tender as they may be, do not provide a magical incantation by which man reaches out for forgiveness. Rather, they give insight into the heart of a man who has come to understand all too well the horror of his sin, the depth of his iniquity, and all that his failure has put at risk.
A penitent heart sees so intently the deep chasm that sin has created that nothing else matters until that breach can be healed. Getting right with God becomes the healthiest obsession in existence for one who values the relationship with God he has placed in jeopardy. Moreover, taking full responsibility for the iniquity, repentance turns with the utmost humility back to the very One offended, knowing that only the holiest love can still make room for forgiveness (Psa. 51:1-3). A penitent heart makes no excuses. No matter how much service previously rendered to God, penitence sees the sin that separates from God (Psa. 51:4-5). The right heart therefore corrects not only the external and obvious problem but the internal and spiritual problem (Psa. 51:6-7). Thus spiritually-centered, the greatest joy imaginable is forgiveness granted by God (Psa. 51:8-9). Regardless of the extent of the sin or the heinousness of the heart that conceived it, God can still forgive. Therefore, rather than taking from this a cavalier attitude toward sin, as if it must not be that bad for God to be willing to blot it out, the penitent heart understands the amazing love of God that can still reach down and care for man at his lowest. However, God’s goal and ours is not to be a testimony simply to the heart of God but to how God’s heart can and should affect our own. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psa. 51:10). The right heart’s response to sin is not for God to paper over it and just to relieve the burden of it but to rid oneself of it entirely. Until we have this kind of heart, we will cling to our sin and try to tell God what He should forgive. But a penitent heart wants to be clean once more, because that is how God is. That is Who God is.
Unfortunately, many people miss the heart of this psalm and of David’s request. In appreciating the heart of God, people miss the heart of David. It can be only too easy to ask God to forgive us of our sins. We reduce God’s plan to the externals of baptism (Acts 2:38) and prayer (Acts 8:22; 1 Jn. 1:9) without proper consideration of the character of the heart making the request. The right heart will take the right actions. But to have a clean heart, we must first realize just how filthy we have allowed ours to get in the first place.