King David was relaxing on the roof of the palace when he saw her. Probably in his early fifties, he was attracted by the beauty of the young woman bathing on a nearby rooftop. He invited her over. But she was the wife of one of his army officers. ‘He is away’, he may have thought. ‘No-one will know; and after all, I am the king.’
But Bathsheba became pregnant. And David’s clumsy attempts to arrange for Uriah her husband to return home and sleep with her, failed. So he developed a more devious plan. Uriah was taken to the battle-front so he would die in battle. Like the dentist in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, David seemed to have committed the perfect crime.
But David had not reckoned on God. In 2 Samuel 13, we read that Nathan the prophet set up a time to meet with his king and speak to him. Knowing the power of kings, Nathan told a story of a wealthy man who had many sheep while a poor man had just one little ewe lamb. When asked to provide a sheep, the rich man, instead of taking a sheep from his own flock, took the poor man’s lamb. David, the former shepherd, was furious: ‘The man should be taken to court’, he said. At which Nathan replied: ‘You are the man’.
Psalm 51 is a poem that David wrote following this humiliation. While he wrote it about himself, it speaks to us too. For it shows us what we need to do about our own failures.
First, we must be honest and acknowledge that we all fail God. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it this way: If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
Sometimes when we have failed God we make excuses, thinking of it as a misdemeanor. At other times we express self-righteous indignation. Or we try to bury the very thought of what we have done. However, as studies show, the guilt festers and can surprisingly reappear in ways not necessarily related to the original issue at all – including physical sickness.
If we are going to find peace of mind, our hearts need changing. Repression has to give way to confession. This first step is not easy. I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me, David writes (Psalm 51:3).
Second, we need to be honest with God: Against you, you alone, have I sinned,.. (Psalm 51:4). Many find David’s words here difficult, even unfair: ‘What about Uriah? Bathsheba may have consented, but what about Uriah?’ we might ask.
David is acknowledging something we all have to come to terms with. We have all sinned against God. Committing adultery and murder break the second commandment, ‘Love your neighbor’. But in breaking the second commandment we also break the first, for the second commandment is consequent upon the first. To sin against our neighbor is to sin against God.
Guilt is not just a psychological hang-up. It is something objective that stands between God and us. God is not just some impersonal force. He is a moral being, a holy judge. When we sin against him, we’re not just violating social conventions. God is justified in his sentence and blameless when he passes judgment.
Third, David knew that supernatural therapy is needed: Create in me a pure heart, O God, he prays.
Too often our problem is that we don’t want to pray this prayer. But unless God’s mercy and grace are at work within us, we won’t want to change.
And, David continues: The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (Psalm 51:17).
The psalm is a letter of trust in God. ‘All I have Lord’, David is saying, ‘is a broken and contrite heart. But God, I know that you won’t despise that.’ David knew that God, as well as being pure and just, is also willing to forgive. Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love, he says in verse 1.
Love and compassion are words of tenderness – as of a parent for a child. No matter what we have done, God in his mercy is willing to forgive us.
And we have something David didn’t have. We have the scene of a cross and the man who died for us. The blood Jesus shed is God’s means of saving us. Jesus’ resurrection is God’s pledge to us that his promise is true.
© John G. Mason