For the music leader. A psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came
to him just after he had been with Bathsheba.
51 Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love!
Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion!
2 Wash me completely clean of my guilt;
purify me from my sin!
3 Because I know my wrongdoings,
my sin is always right in front of me.
4 I’ve sinned against you—you alone.
I’ve committed evil in your sight.
That’s why you are justified when you render your verdict,
completely correct when you issue your judgment.
5 Yes, I was born in guilt, in sin,
from the moment my mother conceived me.
6 And yes, you want truth in the most hidden places;
you teach me wisdom in the most secret space.
7 Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean;
wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and celebration again;
let the bones you crushed rejoice once more.
9 Hide your face from my sins;
wipe away all my guilty deeds!
10 Create a clean heart for me, God;
put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!
11 Please don’t throw me out of your presence;
please don’t take your holy spirit away from me.
12 Return the joy of your salvation to me
and sustain me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach wrongdoers your ways,
and sinners will come back to you.
14 Deliver me from violence, God, God of my salvation,
so that my tongue can sing of your righteousness.
15 Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will proclaim your praise.
16 You don’t want sacrifices.
If I gave an entirely burned offering,
you wouldn’t be pleased.
17 A broken spirit is my sacrifice, God.
You won’t despise a heart, God, that is broken and crushed.
18 Do good things for Zion by your favor.
Rebuild Jerusalem’s walls.
19 Then you will again want sacrifices of righteousness—
entirely burned offerings and complete offerings.
Then bulls will again be sacrificed on your altar.
Thoughts on the passage:
Wednesday was Yom Kippur, which is the day of atonement in the Jewish tradition. On this day, Jews across the world gather in synagogues to confess their sins and seek atonement from God. Seeking atonement for one’s sins however starts long before this high holiday. Before one can begin to ask God for forgiveness, one first has to admit one’s mistakes and then seek forgiveness from the person you have wronged. Atonement from God is the culmination of a process of taking responsibility for our actions. It is not a shortcut to grace, but the completion of a transformation that occurs in an individual.
The Christian faith, with its understanding of a grace that comes from Jesus Christ, has changed a lot about how we view sin and repentance, but in this area, our stance has changed little. We still believe there is a need for a person to own up to their mistakes and to seek the forgiveness of the person they have sinned against before they seek God’s grace. In the gospels, Jesus teaches his followers that before one brings an offering to the Lord one should first go and find the person they have wronged and apologize. Thanks to Christ, God’s grace is available to all, but to receive it fully we need to accept our need for that grace, and that requires us to confess our sins, not just to ourselves, but to God and those we have wronged.
If you are like me, when you read the Psalms it is easy to skip past the headings at the beginning of the texts. There is not a heading on all of them, and some of them are pretty basic like “a Psalm,” or “Of David,” or “To the leader: with stringed instruments.” None of these really changes how we read the psalm. Psalm 51 is different. The heading on this psalm tells us it is from David, after Nathan has convicted him of his sins in how he treated Bathsheba and Uriah. This is not an ideal psalm of a poet expressing regret for a minor infraction. This is the confession of a king who abused his power to sleep with one person and kill another.
Now, I will take some exception to this psalm, David mentions that he has sinned against God alone, and I would argue that this is not true. David has sinned against Bathsheba, Uriah, and all the people who trusted him to be their leader and to behave honestly. David has also sinned against God who blessed him and called him to lead the people. Ownership of his mistakes and confession of his sins does require him to acknowledge that harm that he has done to God. In my mind he must also do something to repent and atone for his sins to others. Scriptures make no real mention of any confession he might have made to Bathsheba or Uriah’s family and since David and Bathsheba have a son together it seems likely some atonement occurred. What I want to highlight is that earnest repentance does not merely mean confessing our sins to God, but also to those we have harmed.
What I love about this passage is the distinction that David makes about God’s desire not for sacrifices but a broken spirit. Burnt offerings have long been a sign of repentance. The slaughter of animals and the burning of them, is a way of paying a cost for our mistakes. David is highlighting the fact that these costs are not what God is really after. They are the product of our broken spirit not a substitute for it.
Take for a moment parking tickets: they are not really common here in Willmar but are a frequent occurrence in bigger cities like Minneapolis or Chicago, where I went to school. If you think of breaking a parking law as a sin, then the fine is a part of our repentance, our debt to society. Another way to view the fine however is merely the cost for parking where you want to. Where I lived in Chicago there were streets that had weekly street sweeping which meant you needed to move your car by 7:00 am or get a ticket. Many a morning I would be bolting out of the apartment at 6:55 to go and move the car to avoid such a fine. A wealthier person than me might merely see the ticket as the cost they must pay to stay in bed a little longer. When they pay the fine, they are not really repenting of their bad action, merely paying a cost to park their car somewhere.
Our sacrifices to God are not merely us paying the cost of our choices. Rather, they are meant to reflect our earnest feelings that we have wronged. God does not want us to pay for our mistakes, God wants us to repent of our mistakes. God wants us to seek to be in a good relationship with God, with our neighbors and with ourselves. When we sin, when we break that relationship, what God needs is not a dead animal or a monetary gift. Instead, what God needs is for us to accept our failings, acknowledge the harm we have done, and seek to do better.
In our congregation we do not do weekly confession in worship, though maybe we should. It still is an important act of worship. If worship is about deepening our relationship to God, then confession is important because it is an acknowledgement of the brokenness in that relationship. One piece of advice I received from my grandfather at my wedding was to never go to bed mad at each other. (We have both tried to do this in our eleven plus years together) I think the same advice applies in our relationship to God. We need to make confession a regular part of our worship of God because otherwise we cannot have a complete relationship to God. If we cannot admit our mistakes or hide them from God, we are damaging our relationship. In order to worship God and grow closer to God, we need to admit just how far we are from God at times.
The act of confession in worship has three parts, there is the prayer of confession and pardon, the words of assurance, and the passing of the peace. First, we admit our sins, then we are forgiven those sins, and then we pass on that grace to those around us. Just as God has released us from our sins to God, so too are we to forgive those who have sinned against us. All three parts are important when it comes to worship and confession.
David highlights this in his cry to God. His plea is that if God will forgive him, then David will teach other wrongdoers about God. David is ready to pass along the grace and forgiveness he has received to others. We are challenged to do the same. Like David we must take ownership of our mistakes. Like David we must confess them to God and seek God’s grace. Finally, like David we need to take the grace that God has given to us and extend to all we meet.
Questions to Ponder:
What do you think of when you think of confession?
When is a time you have asked forgiveness of someone for a mistake you made?
Is there someone in your life that has asked for your forgiveness and you have struggled to give it?
How do we experience God’s grace when we do confess?
Ever-loving God, like David we fall short of who we are called to be. We fail to follow you and to love you like we should. We fail to love our neighbors and we even fail to love ourselves. Forgive us, God, we pray. Help us to know that when we sin, all that is needed is for us to confess it and your grace will be offered. We give you thanks, for your unending love and grace that we see in the life, death, and resurrection of your son, our savior, Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen