The Plea of a Humbled King


The Plea of a Humbled King

Psalm 51:1
by Bob Burridge ©2000, 2012

There is no one in all the natural descendents of Adam who can claim that he never does anything wrong. Only the irrationally self-deceived would argue against that fact. God’s word calls us to be humbly honest. We need to admit when we violate the moral principles our Creator built into the world when he made it. In the mid 17th century, Bible Scholars gathered at Westminster brought together the teachings of Scripture to define sin as, “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” (Shorter Catechism Question 14)

God’s word also calls us to deal with our sins in the right way. One of the great helps in remembering our right response to our moral failures is Psalm 51. Commentator William Plumer called this psalm, The Sinner’s Guide.


The Psalm title gives us the setting.

The Psalm titles appear in the oldest manuscripts which removes any reason to doubt that they are part of the inspired text. In the original Hebrew of this Pslam the title takes up the first 2 verses. Our English verse 1 is verse 3 in the Hebrew text. This title gives us background information to provide historical context.

Psalm 51:title, “To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”

This Psalm was not only written for the benefit of King David, nor was it only designed for private meditation. It was for use in the public gathering of God’s people for worship. It was to be delivered to the person in charge of the music for worship in the Tabernacle. It is a song to teach us by this king’s amazing example how we too should deal with our sins. But the lesson has a tragic beginning.

2 Samuel 11 tells of David’s fall into the depths of sin. One night in the Spring while his armies were off in battle, King David watched from his palace roof as Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, was bathing herself. His physical desires for her were strong so he had her summoned to his palace. There, the king was intimate with her. In the days following she came to him and told him that she was pregnant with his child.

David had sinned horribly. His first response made it worse. He shamefully used his power as king to cover up his sin by deception and violence. To make Uriah think it was his own child, he called him home from battle to be with his wife. If he slept at home a few nights, perhaps he would think that Bathsheba’s baby was his. But Uriah was a very noble man. He would not sleep with his wife while his men were still out on the battlefield away from home.

In frustration David entertained Uriah and got him drunk with wine, thinking that then, with his judgment impaired, he would go home and sleep with his wife. But still Uriah didn’t spend the night with Bathsheba.
Desperate hearts do foolish and cruel things. So David sent Uriah back to battle with sealed orders from the King for Joab his commander. Joab was to place Uriah in the fiercest part of the battle and withdraw the troops leaving him to be killed. Perhaps with the husband out of the way no one would know that he hadn’t been with his wife. Joab obeyed the king and after the next great battle, Uriah was dead.

When the report came back, Bathsheba mourned her husband for a respectable time, then was taken as the wife of the King. In time a son was born to Bathsheba.

David might have thought he had gotten away with his wickedness. But God sees all our sins, even those we suspect are committed in secret. God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David with his sin. 2 Samuel 12 tells us how the prophet skillfully brought David to realize his offense.

2 Samuel 12:13-14, “So David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the LORD.’ And Nathan said to David, ‘The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also who is born to you shall surely die.’ “

It was upon this occasion that David wrote Psalm 51.

We learn that David, the slayer of Goliath, the great King of Israel, the author of many Psalms, was just a sinner saved by grace. If the great King David could fall so horribly, so could any of us.

We fail to live up to God’s holy standards every day. We may not daily commit capital crimes like adultery, and plotting a man’s death, but all our sins are offensive to God. We can look at people in the Bible like Judas or Jezebel and label them as exceptions. However, they are like us — descendants of Adam.

Sin is the universal trait of all of us. As Paul wrote in Romans 5:12, “… just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men … ”

The Bible tells us how depraved that makes our heart. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?”

In Romans 3:10-12, Paul quotes from the Psalms saying, “As it is written: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.’ ”

Yes, as hard as it is to admit, people like us could do as wicked a thing as David did. If we don’t, it is because of God’s gracious work to restrain us from doing wrong. We give him all the glory for any good we may do or evil we pass up on doing. As Paul wrote in Philippians 2:13, “it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”

James 1:17 reminds us, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.”

Who was Judas, Hitler, or Manson? Each was but a fallen sinner, not restrained in certain ways by God’s mercies. How immoral our lives would be if God did not hold back the flood of depravity in us. But he does!

If there is a moment of obedience in our lives, it should be a cause for humble thankfulness to God who holds back our sin. When we falter and sin we should be humbled to see the depravity that lurks within, and we should be quick to come in repentance, trusting in the Savior to forgive and to restore.


But what should we do when we fall into sin?

David’s example offers help for each one of us. He cried out to God for mercy.

Psalm 51:1, “Have mercy upon me, O God, According to Your lovingkindness; According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, Blot out my transgressions.”

There was no defense, no excuse. He made no attempt to come up with a list of special circumstances. He didn’t whine about hard it was being king. He didn’t try to minimize what he had done by reminding God that everybody sins.

David knew there was only one relief for what he had done — the grace of the God he had offended. So he pleaded that his Heavenly King would be gracious to him.

David knew better than to ask for fairness or justice. That would mean eternal torments and separation from God. Only the arrogant fool demands from God what he deserves. Instead, David called upon that Sovereign kindness that met the demands of justice for him. That was not something any man could earn. It was available only as an undeserved kindness. That grace accords with two things

1. It comes to us because of God’s lovingkindness.
Lovingkindness is a compound English word, a kindness moved by love. The form has fallen out of many of our modern dictionaries. It was used to translate the original Hebrew word khesed (חסד) which means “mercy” or “grace”. It is the unearned favor which God shows toward us when we are forgiven.

2. And that grace is founded upon God’s great compassion.
We may have compassion upon those who suffer from hunger, disease, and oppression. But the compassion David mentions here is so great that it reaches out to the unworthy, to those who break the law of the God himself.

It is not a compassion like we have toward hapless victims of tragedy. It extends to thieves who use God’s blessings for selfish purposes, who spend his tithe, who abuse their time and talents, who satisfy their desires by sexual sins and gluttony, who look with apathy toward learning his word, toward devotion in prayer, toward faithfulness in supporting worship, toward the needs of the saints. They treasure more their earthly security and luxury, than growing in spiritual maturity.

David disregarded God’s ordinance of marriage so he could have sex with a beautiful woman. He deceived and planned a massive cover-up to protect his reputation and popularity. He even plotted against a man’s life rather than confess his sin before God and man.

But God loved this David! He loved Peter, who denied him three times the night he was betrayed. This same unmerited grace is the only hope for each of us, though at times we are moral criminals against heaven itself.

Even our coming to him is an act of his own mercy toward the unworthy. Jesus made it clear that our first approach of faith is alien to our fallen hearts. Only when it is put there by God’s mercy will anyone turn to him.

Jesus said in John 6:44, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; …”

God loves no man because he repents. Man repents because he is loved by God. Paul’s words in Romans 2:4 make this very clear, “Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” As the Apostle John said, in 1 John 4:19, “We love Him because He first loved us.”

David made his purpose very clear. He asked for mercy so that his transgressions would be blotted out

The language David uses here is that of a judicial indictment of a court. In ancient times indictments were often written with ink on parchments. Commentator Adam Clarke points out that David was asking that whatever fluids were needed would be used by God to dissolve away the ink representing the words of the judgment against him.

He did not mean that somehow God would forget this part of real history. An immutable and omniscient God cannot have things removed from his memory. David meant that the charge of guilt would be removed by powers beyond what human justice could imagine.

We now know so much more than David did about how God would accomplish this redemption. Abraham, Moses, and David only knew that somehow God would satisfy justice in their place. They had a general idea that the sacrifices foreshadowed a coming Savior hinted at way back in Genesis 3:15, but they didn’t have the details to piece it all together. Today we are privileged to know that Jesus accomplished this work by being born as a human. He lived with perfect innocense among us, yet he suffered and died as if he was a criminal on the cross. He represented his people as he lived a perfect life in their place. He also represented those same loved ones as he died in their place for their sins.

David begged for mercy knowing that justice is only met for sinners by God’s grace. It was that grace that sent the Savior to take our guilt and punishment upon himself. When we sin, we call upon that same grace knowing the source from which this goodness flows in abundance.

Christians are not those who never do wrong. But they desire to handle their wrongs rightly. David knew his sin was not excusable. Neither is ours. But in God’s mercy we have this Psalm to remind us how we ought to deal with our transgressions as did this great ancient king. So, how great is that lovingkindness and compassion of God? As Moses wrote in Lamentations 3:21-24, “This I recall to my mind, Therefore I have hope. Through the LORD’s mercies we are not consumed, Because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I hope in Him!’ ”

How do we know that he accepts our repentance and forgives us? He promised it in his word, and his word never fails. As Jesus said in John 6:37, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.”

John later wrote in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

When you sin later today, tomorrow, and throughout this week ahead (and if we are honest we admit that we each surely will) plead with God for his grace, for his lovingkindness and compassion. They will abound toward us when we do so because God has promise it. And remember as you cry out to him, that it is already his grace at work in your heart or you would not seek him at all.

Don’t let a moment pass where sin lingers without repentance. Come to the fount of every blessing.

(Note: The Bible quotations in this article are from the New King James Bible unless otherwise noted.)

About Bob Burridge

I've taught Science, Bible, Math, Computer Programming and served 25 years as Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Pinellas Park, Florida. I'm now Executive Director of the ministry of the Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
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