Did you know that the text in front of a Psalm was actually the first verse in Hebrew? That’s right, those subtitles are part of the inspired text. There is no place that is seen better than Psalm 51.
The first Hebrew verse reads, “For the choir director. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” This sets the tone for the whole Psalm, because it reflects what was on David’s mind at the time of its writing.
What we need to understand is a little historical context. David, at a time when warriors went out to war, remained at the palace, ostensibly to take it easy. This can be gleaned from the details of the story in 2 Samuel 11:2, which tells us that David got out of bed in the evening, implying he had been in bed all day. When he rose, he walked around on his roof (not unusual behaviour, it was likely constructed this way), where he saw a beautiful woman bathing. David’s inquires as to who it may have been, which may have been a mistake to begin with, and finds it to be the wife of one of his bravest and most loyal officers, Uriah the Hittite. David sends for her, they “sleep” together (there was no sleeping involved), Bathsheba gets pregnant, and very quickly, David has quite literally a royal mess on his hands.
To compound matters, David, in an attempt to cover his adultery, recalls Uriah from the field under the guise of gaining military intelligence, in order to have Uriah sleep with his wife and let David off the hook. Because of Uriah’s great loyalty to his men, he won’t go home, opting instead to sleep in the gate of the palace, thinking that it was some terrible thing to take his comfort when the army he was a part of was in the field. David now had to take his cover-up to a different level.
David conceives a plan to send Uriah into the thickest part of the battle, and then withdraw tactical support from him, allowing the enemy to take care of his problem for him, effectively murdering Uriah. This way, he is free to take Bathsheba as a wife.
David has committed both adultery and then murder, the two commandments of the Law that have no mechanism for forgiveness. It is hard for me to understand what he would have told himself that would have made this all right, but he clearly did it, because he simply went on with his life, marrying Bathsheba, and she bore him a son from these events.
It was sometime after these things that the Lord, who truly loves us all, sent Nathan to confront David (at least 9 months had passed, because the baby was born) about his grievous sin. Nathan, a very wise man apparently, tells David the story (see 2 Sam. 12:1-14) in a way that engages David’s emotions on the side of right. David is incensed, declaring that the man deserves death. Then Nathan says, “You are the man!”
After Nathan had pronounced the judgement of God on David, David finally sees reality. He says, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Can you imagine the enormity of his deeds sinking in all at once? David knew the law, and knew he was now to be taken outside the city and stoned to death. Just as that fearful expectation of judgement was beginning to set in, Nathan speaks. “And the Lord has taken away your sin; you shall not die.” Though David would still suffer temporal consequences for his actions, and this child would die as a result, David the murdering adulterer had his verdict vacated, his penalty falling on Another at a later time. David had been freed from the penalty of his sin.
With that historical context in mind, we may now understand the depth of heart reflected in the verses of this prayer. See David’s plea.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” David knew he was now damaged goods, so to speak. He knew his only source of cleansing and renewal was God Himself.
“Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your Holy Spirit from me.” David knew that Sinners could not stand before God. He pleaded in this phrase that God be merciful and loving so that David could remain in His presence. David also understood that God had given him the Holy Spirit and that it was He that led David’s actions.
“Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and sustain me with a willing spirit.” David knew he needed restoration. I find it interesting that he knew that he walked in God’s salvation, and that God’s salvation is marked by joy. David also knew he in himself needed willingness to walk in that salvation, and that such a spirit was a gift from God.
“Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and Sinners will be converted to You.” David also knew his purpose for all this was to communicate the mercy and grace of God to others who needed it, and that sinners would be converted, that is, changed by that mercy and grace.
The Apostle Paul referred to himself as the chief of all sinners (I disagree, I think of myself in that place). God still saved him (and me) from his (and my own) sins, setting us free from their penalty and power over us. We must remain thankful and contemplate these things, as did David, bearing in mind that we are living sacrifices intent on telling people about the God that set us free.