Let me ask, do you have any regrets? You may regret words you let rip and can’t take back, or a relationship you should never have started.

Second Samuel, chapter 11 tells us of the occasion when King David was relaxing on the roof of the palace when he saw a woman bathing. Attracted by her beauty he invited her over. But she was the wife of one of his officers. He’s away, he may have thought. And after all, I am the king.

But Bathsheba became pregnant, and David’s attempts to arrange for her husband, Uriah to return home and sleep with her, failed. So he developed a more devious plan. Uriah was sent back to the battlefield and positioned so that he would die. Like the ophthalmologist who had an affair and then arranged a murder in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, King David seemed to have committed the perfect crime. But David had forgotten God.

In Second Samuel, chapter 12 we learn that Nathan the prophet arranged to meet the King.

Knowing the power of kings, Nathan told a story of a wealthy man who had many sheep and a poor man who had just one little lamb. When the rich man needed a sheep for a meal to entertain a guest, instead of taking a sheep from his own flock, he took the poor man’s lamb. David, a former shepherd, was furious: ‘The man should be brought to justice,’ he said. Nathan’s response? ‘You are the man!’

The heading of Psalm 51 reveals that David wrote it following his affair. It is a complex, very personal psalm, but it is timeless in its application as it also speaks to us about ourselves and about God.

Have mercy on me, O God, David begins. His cry for mercy reveals that he understood he had no right to expect God’s favor. But because God had sent the prophet Nathan to speak to him, David knew God had not forgotten his promise. So, he not only cries for mercy but also appeals to God’s covenant love and compassion: Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love. Have me mercy on me, O God, according to your abundant mercy (51:3).

Confession. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me, David continues (51:3). Fully aware of his guilt before God, he didn’t just regret what he had done. He truly repented of his actions.

It’s important to think about this. David had tried to cover up and even excuse what he had done. It’s something we’re all tempted to do at times. Over the last 100 years or so academia has provided us with more and more excuses for what we do. Freud taught us to blame our parents. Marx taught us to blame the capitalist system. And 21st century medicine tells us to blame our DNA. But our guilt can fester and re-appear in ways that are usually not obviously related to the original failure. It’s sometimes why we can’t sleep.

We need to do as David did: speak to the Lord. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, he said. But what about Bathsheba and Uriah? With his words David is voicing something we all have to reckon with: our sin is first and foremost against God. Adultery and murder are second commandment issues. But when we break the second commandment – love your neighbor as yourself – we are in fact breaking the first, for the second is consequent upon the first. Sin against our neighbour is primarily sin against God.

Contrary to what psychology and psychiatry might tell us guilt is not just a psychological hang-up. It is something objective, something real, that stands between us and our Maker. The God who rules the universe is not just some impersonal force. He is a moral being, a holy judge. When we do wrong things, we offend him. As David recognizes, God’s anger towards him – as it is towards us – is justified.

The pricks of conscience we feel, reflect our awareness of an objective moral order and the existence of God. It’s not enough for the psychotherapist to help us come to terms with our guilt. It’s not even enough for the human beings we have hurt to tell us they forgive us. We are all accountable to God.

See how David puts it: You are justified, God, in your judgment, for against you alone, have I sinned… And, he adds, Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me (51:5).

David knows that his sins are the outcome of a self-centered nature. He’s not speaking against his mother nor the nature of his conception; nor is he blaming her for his actions. Rather he makes a chilling statement about human nature: no one of us is intrinsically good. As Paul the Apostle writes in Romans, chapter 3: We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (3:23).

Yet human wisdom today fails to recognize this reality. It is something that impacts every arena of life – politics and the courts, economics and education, family, local community and international relations. Malcolm Muggeridge, one-time editor of the English Punch magazine wrote: The depravity of humanity is at once the most unpopular of all dogmas, but the most empirically verifiable.

Cleansing: You desire truth in the inward being, David continues; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart (51:6). If we are going to find peace of mind and heart, it’s in our minds and hearts that the process of acquiring God’s wisdom must begin. What’s buried in our thoughts needs to be exposed before God.

Consider David’s further words:  Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities (51:7-10).

We need more than the band-aid of education or more laws. It’s not just isolated acts of sin we need to be cleansed from, but the powerful grip of our self-centredness.

It is not until we come to the New Testament that we learn the true cost for God to cleanse us. In Colossians 2:13 we read: And you who were dead in your trespasses … God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

Heart-Change. Create in me a pure heart, O God, David continues (51:10). Too often our problem is that we don’t want to pray this prayer. Indeed, unless God’s mercy and grace are at work within us, we won’t want to change. But he also knows that he can’t presume on God’s mercy. That is why he also says, take not your Holy Spirit from me (51:11).

How we need to pray with David: Restore to me the joy of your salvation (51:12) Restore reminds us that God was no stranger to David. He could recall times when things were different, when he had enjoyed an intimate close communion with God. Now, more than anything else he wanted to experience again the joy of that relationship.

‘All I can bring, Lord,’ David continues, is a broken and contrite heart (51:17). He knew that as well as being pure and just, God is also willing to forgive us and set us on a new course of life that is good for us and honors him. How often do we need to meditate on this.

There it is. A very personal, complex psalm with many layers. King David’s cry for God’s mercy is not so much a psalm for a General Confession in the gathering of God’s people, but a psalm for our own personal reflection and prayer in the privacy of our own relationship with the Lord.

Before you go to sleep tonight, let me encourage you to reflect on your own relationship with the Lord with this psalm open before you. Be honest with him, asking him to forgive you for failing to honor him at all times in your life. Pray that his Word and his Spirit will bring about the changes that God in his perfect wisdom knows are for your best, so you may know the joy of his love. Pray further that the Lord will give you the opportunities and the courage to share the joy you have found in him with family and friends.

Where is our hope in life? It is in Christ alone because of God’s amazing grace.

A prayer. Lord God, without you we are not able to please you; mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

You may like to listen to the Keith and Kristyn Getty and Matt Papa song, What is Our Hope in Life and Death.

© John G. Mason