Psalm 51: True Repentance

Jesus’ first recorded message was “repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” That is, Jesus was saying that a heavenly kingdom is almost here. And  the King and his armies are coming, and the only way to become part of the kingdom and not crushed by it is to surrender. You become part of the kingdom by surrendering to the King. But what does it mean to repent? Psalm 51 is a psalm of repentance. Let us learn from David, the man after God’s own heart, what it means to repent.

David was the King of Israel. And he loved God. But David got lazy. If you and I don’t guard ourselves we will get lazy too. And when his men were out to war, rather than going with them as he ought, he hung around the palace enjoying his kingship. And the Bible tells us one day, from the top of his palace, he saw a woman bathing on her roof, and he was overcome by lust. And he brought her to him and he committed adultery with her. Then he tried to cover his tracks. Tried to get her husband to come home from war and enjoy a night with his wife. Make it look like he was the father. But, believe it or not, that man was too honorable. He said he couldn’t enjoy his wife when his brothers were out there fighting for their God. And so David was left with one option. He had him killed in battle.

How did this happen? How could a man who loved and cherish God fall so far? And how do you get over that? When David finally came to his senses, can you imagine the weight of guilt that he had upon his heart? Committing adultery and murder? At this moment David writes this Psalm, and teaches us what it means to repent.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! (Psalm 51:1-2)

Did hear these words? You can almost feel the anguish. What is David feeling here? What is the first part of repentance? David is broken over his sin. True repentance is brokenness over your sin. You will never enter the kingdom of God until you realize how much your sin grieves the heart of God. Have you ever had someone you love throw their life away in sin? It hurt you so bad because you loved them so much. Every time you sin, God feels that way. Sin grieves the heart of God. And David, finally coming to his senses, cries out, “O God what have I done!? Have mercy on me O God, what have I done?” Does it grieve you when you grieve God’s heart in sin? Are you sorry for the sins you commit or do you not really care? If you don’t think your sin is a big deal, then that reveals that you don’t think God is a big deal. And that is an eternally big problem. My prayer is that, if you are walking in sin, you would dwell upon your sin, dwell upon how good God is and how, in sin, you have despised and taken for granted his goodness. It’s only when we realize that we’re not worthy of forgiveness that can we receive it. Those who live their lives thinking, “Oh, God is love, he’ll forgive me, it’s ok.” Will find there is no forgiveness for them.

David, reached a point of brokenness; he realized that all he deserved was wrath from God. So what does David do? He reaches for his only hope. He appeals to the love and mercy of God. Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. (Psalm 51:1, ESV) David recognizes what he deserves from God is wrath, so he pleads to God’s love and mercy. That, even though he deserves judgment, because God is merciful and loving, maybe he will forgive him. He knows that the only way that he can be forgiven is if it comes through the love and mercy of God. He know it won’t have anything to do with him.

And we are in the same boat with David. In our sin, when we sin, we clearly deserve wrath from God and our only hope for forgiveness comes from the fact that God is loving and God is merciful. And we have to look to him in brokenness to find it. Only when we are truly sorry for our sin will we will find it.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. (Psalm 51:3-4, ESV)

David here now tells us what it’s like to broken over sin. He can’t escape it. He can’t forget it about. It’s always there. Here David begins to really confess his sin. True repentance is confession of sin. To truly repent, you must acknowledge that you have sinned and confess that to God. And true healing will come when you confess that to others. It’s a painful thing to confess your sin. It humbles you. It always hurts you and others. But it’s the good kind of pain. Like a surgeon cutting you open so healing can begin. And the memory of the pain of that confession will go a long way from keeping from doing it again.

David says, “Against you, you only have I sinned…” Now this is not completely true. David certainly sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah, the woman and her husband. What I think David means here is that he recognizes that God is the one chiefly, ultimately offended at his sin. Any and every sin we commit is primarily against God. Of all the negative consequences every sin has, the greatest consequence is that we have grieved and offended the God who has been so good and merciful to us. I believe this is the heart of David’s brokenness. And because of this he says God is justified in his judgment. That God would absolutely right to give him judgment, because his sin was primarily against him.

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart. (Psalm 51:5-6, ESV)

David continuing to confess his sin gives us two things to behold. (1)He was born a sinner! He came out the womb ready and willing to sin. We are born with sin natures and sinful desires. That’s why you can’t just “follow your heart” like the world tells you. The Bible says your heart is wicked! You have follow God. That’s where forgiveness and joy is found. David says, “Behold, I was born a sinner.” (2)Behold you delight in truth in the inward being. That is God desire for us is not just to do truth, but to love truth, that truth would be in us. Truth is connected to sin in that all sin takes its root in a lie: that something outside of God’s design is good. God wants truth to be in us, not lies, not sin.

So David here poses us with a problem. He is born a sinner, but what God desires is truth in him. We are born full of lies, yet God wants truth in us? How can this happen?

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Psalm 51:7, ESV)

The bridge here is the inner cleansing that God provides. God saves you and changes you from the inside out. That’s how someone born a sinner gets truth in their inward being. God puts it there. Changes your mind, changes your desires. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:25-27, ESV)

David pleads with God for this cleansing from his sin. He says, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.” What is hyssop? The first time hyssop is mentioned in the Bible is in Exodus 12. Hyssop was what the Israelites were to use to apply the blood of the Passover Lamb on their doors and doorposts. It was used to apply the blood of the Lamb that they would be passed over by the destroyer. I think this is a prophetic call to the cleansing we have in Christ. “God take the blood of your Passover Lamb, Jesus, and wash me clean, and I shall be whiter than snow.” The only way to receive a new heart and mind is to be washed by the blood of Jesus. To repent in brokenness and confession and humility and rest in the payment Christ made with his blood.

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. (Psalm 51:8-12, ESV)

What repentance seeks: Here I see two things that the repentant heart seeks: (1) The repentant heart seeks renewal.  The truly repentant want to be changed, they do not want to give into that sin again. Thus David prays, and you should remember these prayers as well: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me!” Let your heart cry that out to God. He will answer you, he will help you. (2) The repentant heart seeks joy. David understands that joy only comes from a right relationship with God. That to seek one is to the seek the other. So in seeking forgiveness he knows he is also seeking his joy in a right relationship with God and he prays for it. “Let me hear joy and gladness. Restore to me the joy of your salvation.”

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. (Psalm 51:13-15, ESV)

Next we seek the results of repentance, or the results of forgiveness that repentance yields. When you and I receive this great forgiveness from God that he offers in his Son, these two things should happen: (1) Proclamation. The forgiven proclaim God’s goodness. David says, “I will teach transgressors your ways.” He is saying he will tell of the goodness of God. If you have been forgiven, tell of his goodness, young men and women. (2) Praise. The forgiven praise God’s person. David says, “Open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.” When you really feel the weight of your sin and then recognize that God will actually show you forgiveness, all you can do is sing praise! Thank you God for forgiving sinners like me! Like us!

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar. (Psalm 51:16-19, ESV)

The last thing I want to talk about is the offerings God really loves. In David’s day, they offered animal sacrifices to please God. Today our sacrifices are a little different. When we sin, rather than kill a goat, we like to try to make up for it in other ways. Religious activity. “O, I messed up here, well let me just go to church, maybe read the Bible a little pray. That’ll make me and God ok again.” But that’s a lie. That’s not true. That’s not what God really wants. David tells us here. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” God will not despise anyone who comes to him in brokenness truly sorry for their sin. That is our hope. It is our only hope. It is a great hope.


1. What does it mean to repent? Why do we need to repent? What are signs of true repentance? Have there ever been a time when you feel like you truly repented of your sin before God? Discuss.

2. Why is all sin primarily hurtful to God? What does sin earn from God? Why would God forgive someone if they don’t deserve it? How can God make us clean, how can he forgive us?

3. Read Ps. 51:17. What can we do to restore right relationship with God? (Nothing. Jesus has done it. We can only come broken over overselves, and look to Christ on our behalf. What God desires is not religious activity but hearts humble before him.)


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