Sin + Mercy

August 6, 2023

Book: Psalms

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Scripture: Psalm 51

As we examine Psalm 51, we see David in what might be the lowest point in his life – the moment after Nathan confronts him with his abhorrent actions toward Bathsheba and Uriah. David shows us how we should feel about our sin, and how God’s mercy is everything.

Good morning. It’s good to be with you all today. One thing you should know about me is that I love the Olympics. Love them. Always have. And one of the reasons I know that I have for a really long time is I used to pretend to be in the Olympics. Anybody else ever do that? Maybe. Possibly. Okay. I have one particular memory of a time when me and my best friend growing up, Mark, we were pretending to be Olympians, right? So I had an above ground pool as a kid. And so we were doing swimming and diving events and obviously winning the gold every time. And then to keep the fun going, we thought we’d bring it out on land, right? And we had a pool, so we had one of those nice, like ten-foot-long poles to clean the bottom of the pool. Right. Some of you know what I’m talking about. So I grabbed the pole and we’re like, powerlifting with it, you know, like. Yeah. And that was going well. Won another gold medal, and then. And then I’m holding the pole. And I think to myself, well, this kind of looks like a javelin. So being the good son that I was, I didn’t want to damage the pole. And I figured if I threw it just into the yard, it would maybe damage the pole. So as any third grader would do, I started thinking and I was like, you know what happens when you drop something in a pool is that it slowly makes its way down to the bottom and nothing will get hurt. And I’ll just toss this in there and it’ll just float harmlessly to the bottom. Okay? So what I did was I reeled back and I threw the javelin into the pool and instead of it floating harmlessly to the bottom, friends, you know this because you understand physics. It went right into the bottom of the pool and dug a hole right into it, you know, because it’s hollow in the middle. So it just like dug out this hole into the bottom of the pool. So Mark and I look at each other, eyes as big as saucers, doing a quick calculation. How much trouble am I going to be in? And we did any what any self-respecting third grade boys would do. We jumped in, pulled out the pole and didn’t tell anybody. That’s exactly what we did. So I go to bed. I’m worried about this. I wake up the next day, I go check on the level of the pool water. It’s looking okay. You can’t really tell yet. But of course, a few days later it starts to drop. My dad fills it up, but it’s the middle of the summer and kids splash in. It evaporates. So maybe this is just normal stuff. And days pass and eventually I hear my dad and my mom talking in the kitchen. My dad says, Man, I think there might be a hole in the bottom of the pool. I’m going to have to get on some goggles and look down there and see what’s going on because I keep having to refill it. Something’s wrong. And that’s it, it broke me. It broke me. I cried in the kitchen, I’m just crying, Dad. We were pretending it was a javelin and told him the whole story. Right. Oh, man. I’m sorry. That was a ridiculous time in my life.

I confess the whole thing. But I carried it around for a really long time. So let me ask you this. When you were a kid and you made a big mistake like that, especially one that you didn’t really mean to do, you probably thought something to yourself, like, what was your next thought at that decision point? Right? Maybe it was something like this. Maybe you said, Oh, no, I messed up. My dad is going to be so mad. Or maybe you thought, Oh, no, I messed up, I better call my dad. It was a fundamental difference between these two questions, isn’t there? Right. It’s the difference of a relationship. And I think that we all do this. And I think this is what David sort of was at this same decision point before he wrote Psalm 51. Let’s remind ourselves who David is.

This is the same David, right, who was called a man after God’s own heart, the same David who defeated Goliath with just a little bit of faith and a few stones. The same David who was hand-selected by God to be the king of Israel over his more handsome brothers. That’s an embarrassing thing to have in the Bible, his more handsome brothers and over the king at the time, Saul. He was chosen, right? This same David has descended from the moral and religious and righteous high ground to an unthinkable place of failure and incompetence. He commits this act of unconscionable betrayal, right? Not once in a fit of passion, but a calculated, cold blooded series of events that make it one of the most disturbing stories in all of scripture. And it’s not until Nathan, the Prophet, confronts him that he begins to turn his heart from these evil things. He has screwed up very, very badly. And he writes Psalm 51 as his response. And so as we look at it today, I’d ask you to look at it sort of through this lens that God’s mercy is the only solution for your sin. Because it really is. And we’re going to look at how and why. So the psalm, this psalm, like a lot of psalms, starts with a bit of a subheading, as it were, a bit of an instruction to the people of Israel to how they can use this psalm and this one in particular is to the choirmaster. So this was made into a song, a psalm of David, when Nathan, the prophet, went to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba. And so we heard about when Nathan the Prophet confronted him. And so here’s the key point about just this little bit, is that David is no hero. David is not the hero that we’re supposed to think. Yeah, I want to be just like that guy. He was a flawed, deeply flawed person. But where David can be an example to us is that he can be an example of what God can do with deeply flawed, sinful people like us, and praise God for that. But there’s another way that I think we can emulate David here in an appropriate way. See, what David was feeling here is he got very uncomfortable with his sin. He hid it for a while. He pretended it wasn’t there for a while. And then once he was confronted, he became very uncomfortable with his sin and friends. I think we get too comfortable with our sin. I think it’s too easy for us not to feel the tension that we should feel when we disobey God and defy his commands. And so as we look at this psalm, it moves; there are some movements within it, if you will, and this is how I see it in movements.

In verses one and two, David begs for mercy. In three through five. He owns up to his sin. In six through 12 he seeks renewal and reconciliation with God. He wants that relationship restored. In 13 through 17 he worships in response to God’s character, and in 18 and 19 he sees God’s mercy as a received responsibility that He has with his community. So we’re going to look at these with each movement one by one.

So let’s look at verses one and two first, where David begs for mercy. He says, “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”. So in order to understand this, we need to understand mercy. And I guess I’ll go back to my childhood again if I can. I used to play a game called Mercy. Maybe some of you played this too, where you would, like, put both hands up like this and then you’d interlock fingers with your friend and then you’d say, go. And then you’d try to, like, get over the top of them and see if you could bend back their fingers. Why in the world do we do this as children? I don’t, I don’t know. And the reason the game that, at least the version I played was called Mercy, it was the only way you could end the game was the first person to say “mercy” when you’re in the losing position, right. And asking for that person to be merciful. And this is a good example of what mercy really is, because the winning person, which I’m sure was almost always me, right, was in the position where they could just like snap off your index finger if they wanted to, right. They were in complete control. And the only thing stopping them was mercy because mercy, is a punishment deserved but not given. Mercy is when somebody has the right to punish, the ability to punish, but chooses not to. That’s what mercy is. And that’s what David is begging for. That’s what David is asking for. He’s saying, ‘Look, God, I know, I know. I have failed. All I can appeal to is your mercy. That’s it. That’s all I have’. And what’s interesting, too, is when we get our Bibles, our modern Bibles are all bound together in this one book. And sometimes we forget that David didn’t have the advantage that we have. We get to look back at the grand act of love that was the cross and the tomb and have assurance of God’s love for us specifically. And David didn’t have that. He couldn’t recall back to the cross and know that he could be saved by that. So what he had to do instead was he had to trust in God’s character, and that’s what he appeals to here. He says, according to your steadfast love God, God, I know that you have this love that is faithful. According to your abundant mercy, God, you have all this mercy. Can I have some of it? Can I have some? And that’s what all of us feel when we’ve made a mistake. Especially when we’ve wronged someone who we love. At some point we have to come before them humbly and say, I was wrong. I have no other recourse. I just have to ask for your mercy. That’s what forgiveness is in the end. And so what we see here, of course, is this idea, God’s mercy, it’s the only solution for our sin. David knew it, and that’s what he’s appealing to. And here’s the thing – begging for mercy would be a fool’s errand if God wasn’t merciful. But if God is full of mercy, if God is full of abundant love, then it’s not foolish at all. It’s the greatest wisdom there is to ask for mercy from God and ask for his forgiveness.

So David continues on in three through five and he shows us what it means to own up to our sin: “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. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me”. So David acknowledges, Hey, look, I’m not trying to say this didn’t happen. I’m not trying to minimize it. I sinned, I failed. I messed up. And look, he knows it’s there. I mean, it’s in his memory. It’s certainly in God’s memory, but it’s looking him in the face all the time. It’s His sin is right there with, like, the child he had with Bathsheba. It’s there with the name on Uriah’s gravestone. It’s sitting right in front of him, and it stares him in the face, metaphorically and literally every day. His mistakes, his sins. But he makes a real ownership. I’m not pretending these aren’t here. God, this sin is real. It’s here. And then he makes this interesting thing. He says against you, and you only, have I sinned. If you were Bathsheba, would you feel that way? If you were Uriah, would you feel that way? It feels almost insulting. But that’s not what David’s getting at here. David is not getting at this idea that there were no consequences to his choices. There were. He’s not abdicating responsibility. What he’s getting at is a couple of things. One is that whenever we sin against somebody else, we’re first sinning against God, because we are violating God’s commands. Our disobedience first offends God. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that what it means, though, is that God is the judge of all wrongdoing. And so now it falls on God in order to decide what he needs to do now with David. And the third thing that David didn’t have perspective with, but we do, is that God is the one who pays for the sin because Jesus was willing to die on the cross for your sin and my sin. It means that he’s the one paying the price. And if he’s the one paying the price, then it is against him and him alone that he has sinned. It’s a point of emphasis. It’s not an abdication of responsibility. And then he says that the second half of four that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. What David is saying here is, look, I’m not passing the buck here. God, I know I messed up. And whatever you decide to do, you’re justified to do. If you give me mercy, then so be it. If you punish me, which you heard some of that. Nathan told him some of the punishments he was going to receive, your right to punish me. If you end my life, God, you are justified. I think it’s important for us to remember that God is both loving and just at all times. And because of that, his judgments are good and right and holy.

And then there’s verse five. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin, did my mother conceive me. It kind of sounds like David’s being mean to his mama, which makes me uncomfortable, but I don’t think that’s really what he’s getting at here. He’s not actually talking about the act of conception. What he’s talking about is that we as humans are born into sin, that it’s a part of our nature, that we are messed up, screwed up and deranged. That’s part of how we come into this world. We aren’t corrupted by the world. We come into the world corrupted. And because of that, what David’s getting at is not just the specific sins that he participated in and that he’s begging God for mercy, but he’s also begging for mercy because of his sin nature, because he has always been a sinner. You know, when Paul writes his letter to the Romans, he doesn’t really mince words here. He describes it this way: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” I’m really here to encourage you guys today. The reality is, every single one of us, without Christ, is drowning in our sin problem. And we need a lifeguard to come save us. And that lifeguard is Jesus, and he is a good rescuer, and he can rescue us.

So from here, what David hopes for is renewal and reconciliation. In 6, he says, “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart”. This is an elusive little part of the psalm. It’s probably the most poetic part of the Psalm. If you see it written in your Bibles, you see it with like the indents, because this is a poem, right? And it’s a song. And this is a beautiful sentiment. And the idea here is this: that God likes it when truth is what dictates your life. Friends, I have noticed something about Christianity of late. I feel like too many Christians are too easily persuaded to things that are untrue, and that does not make God happy. And I think we will do much better if we focus on the truth of Scripture rather than the so-called truth of other sources. We need to have our lives dictated by truth, and we need to seek that truth in the place where truth comes from, which is the wisdom of God. But what’s also encouraging about this is and what this is telling us is that when we do seek truth and live a life in truth, in God’s truth, that it brings delight to the Lord.

You know, I’m a parent of five. Many of you are parents. And, you know, let’s just say this. I do lots of things that I wouldn’t necessarily choose to do myself as a dad, but I do them anyway because it brings delight to the people I love. And so when we open our Bibles and are studying God’s Word, when we are praying and communing with God, when we come to corporate worship like this, one of our motivations should be that it delights the Lord. And if we love him, we should do things that bring him delight. If I can sit through a tea party, we can do those things. You know what I’m saying? You know what I’m saying. And then it talks about this idea of the secret heart. And scholars have lots of theories about this, but here’s my best understanding of it. The secret heart is the fullest and most complete sense of you. I’ve known my wife for 23 years. We’ve been married for 16, but I’ve known her for 23. We’ve known each other a long time and we share an awful lot with each other. But she doesn’t know everything about my heart. She can’t. Not that I intentionally withhold a lot or anything like that, but there’s just parts that are never fully knowable. There are even parts that I don’t know about me that God knows. The secret heart, I think, is this place that is the truest self; that holds in it our deepest wants and desires that hides in it our greatest sins and regrets. And this is the place that God meets us. God knows exactly what’s in your heart, and He loves you anyway. And that’s a pretty remarkable truth. And if that’s true, then it’s also the place when we are fully open to who he is and fully laid bare before him that he can teach us the most. And that’s what this is talking about, that we can be taught in the secret heart in our true self.

David continues on in seven through nine. He’s looking for that renewal. And so he says, “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 broken rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out my iniquities”. So what David wants here is he’s like, okay, there’s this sin thing and it’s in me and I need you to remove it, God, because it’s creating a barrier between us. And that’s what I need. And friends, can I just caution us because I’ve been around Calvary a while now, and I know us, you know, and I’m one of us. And so I’m talking to me too, here. But I know us and we tend to say things like, Well, I just need to read my Bible more or pray more to get myself right with God. Friends. No, that’s not something we can do. We don’t have the power to do that. It’s only God who can do that. And so all we can do is beg for his mercy and ask him to clean us, to wash me, to blot out my iniquities, to purge me with hyssop. Hyssop is just a plant. But it was used in lots of ways that that people would connect to. It’s what they use to paint the blood on the doorways at Passover. It’s what they use to sprinkle blood on the altar in the temple. What David is getting at here is I don’t care how you clean me, God, just get me clean, whatever you can do. And then there’s this strange little phrase here. I don’t know if you noticed it. ‘Let the bones that you have broken rejoice’. Here’s my best understanding of what this means. It’s kind of a strange thing, and lots of different scholars have lots of different theories. But I’m reminded that David himself was, of course, a shepherd for many years. And one thing shepherds would do in the ancient world is if they had a lamb who liked to wander, right, they would break its leg because it would force the lamb to stay close. And so while it was first broken, they would just carry the lamb. And then as it was healing, they would let the lamb walk for a little while, but it could only make it a little ways. And then they’d have to pick it up again. And would it teach the lamb? Was that what they needed to do was rely on the shepherd and stay close to the shepherd. It was an act of discipline that actually was saving the lambs’ life because a wandering lamb is a dead lamb. And so what David is getting at here is the ways that you’ve disciplined me, God, it helps me to understand you better and rely on you more. And I’m thankful for it, especially in moments like this when I have failed.

So David continues on in verse ten, “Create in me a clean heart, o God and renew a right spirit within me’. He’s still looking for that renewal. And when we read ‘clean’, we’ve talked about this before – we can’t read hospital grade sterilization. That was not a thing in the ancient world. They didn’t even know what soap was. Okay. It’s not asking anybody to suds up his heart. What he’s saying is make my heart pure and of one thing. I want my desires to only be for you God. Make me like that. I don’t want to go after women or power or money. What I want is to just go after you. And if you notice in this entire Psalm, none of the exact sins that David sinned are even mentioned. Because it’s not the point. Because the focus is on who God is.

He continues on and now he’s looking for that reconciliation. He wants to be reconnected with who God is. And he says, “Don’t cast me 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”. The key point I need to make here is this: David is not afraid of losing his salvation. That’s what it might sound like to modern ears. But that’s not what he’s getting at. When the Old Testament talks about a filling of the Holy Spirit (remember, Pentecost hadn’t happened yet), and so what they’re talking about here is there’s a few examples of this and one specific one of David, where when somebody gets a blessing of the Holy Spirit, basically they’re then able to do something miraculous or at a greater ability than they would be able to otherwise. In 1 Samuel 16:13 it said, “Then Samuel took the horn of Oil and anointed David in the midst of his brothers. And the spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward”. David already had a trust in Yahweh before this – Goliath came before this, honoring God came before this. This wasn’t the moment of salvation, this was the moment when David was commissioned and anointed as King, and God was giving him a special ability to do so. So what David is asking for here is he’s not saying, ‘don’t take away my salvation’. That’s not what it’s about. He’s saying, don’t take away my special ability to lead your people, God. And so he’s begging for mercy because that’s his only recourse. Because the only solution for your sin is God’s mercy.

We move on to 13 through 17, which gives us this next movement. And this movement is about worship in response to God’s character. David says, “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you”. Do you know that teaching others about Jesus is a form of worship? That’s what David thought. “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, o God, o God of my salvation and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. Oh, Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise”. And when I read this, I have to say I almost have a problem with it because it sounds wrong to me. What it sounds to me is that David is trying to bargain with God and that’s not how our God works. It sounds like he’s saying, God, if you do this, I’ll do that. But I don’t think that’s actually what’s happening here. What David is acknowledging is that what he deserves is the death penalty. What he deserves is to be ended. And what he’s simply pointing out is that, God, if you grant me mercy, I’m going to continue to praise you because David has lived a life to this point of doing so, just not always. So it’s not a bargain. That’s not the way Yahweh works. And thank God for that, because if it was fair, we’d all be heading to a pretty bad place in eternity. It’s delightfully unfair because of the work of Jesus.

He continues on in 16 and 17: “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”. David’s waving the white flag here. I don’t have anything to give you. I don’t have anything to bargain with you. Nothing. Nothing. You don’t need any of it. Anything that I have is nothing. And this is coming from a king, by the way. I’ve got nothing to give you. All I can give you is my surrender. That’s it. That’s a pretty good example, quite frankly.

The last little bit of the psalm is where David receives responsibility. He switches from talking about himself and instead he talks about his community. He says: “Do good to Zion in your good pleasure. Build up the walls of Jerusalem; then you will delight in right sacrifices and burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar”. What David is acknowledging here is that sin is not just a me problem. Sin is a we problem. When there is sin in us, when there’s sin in our community, it affects more than just me. It affects all of us. And so what David is asking for is that God would be merciful, not just for his sake, but for the sake of all of Israel. That’s what he’s hoping for.

So I think it’s fair to look at how David saw his sin. A pretty egregious sin, by the way. But in another way, a sin just like every other sin. And his example of how he looks at it is the way we should look at it. I think it is fair for us to look at this psalm and apply it to our own hearts and say this: I should beg for mercy when I sin. I should own up to my sin and not pretend that it’s not happening or not there. I should seek renewal. I want to be made a new creation, God, and reconciliation: I want to reconnect with you, God. Your relationship is how I grow. I think we should say I should worship in response to God’s character. Because you are worthy of praise, I should praise you God. And I think we should say I should see God’s mercy as a received responsibility. It’s not just about you. It’s about all of us together. And sin plagues our community as well as our own hearts. The reality is it becomes very easy for all of us to become comfortable with our sin, to become familiar with it. And I want to be clear. We shouldn’t choose to take the memory of our sin and turn it into shame. How insulting is it of us to look at Jesus and say, Yeah, you took the punishment for my sin, but I’m going to punish myself anyway. No. When we are forgiven, we are forgiven. And that’s the end of the conversation. But we shouldn’t tolerate sin either. It can eat us alive and it’s not good. We need to beg for mercy. We need to own our sin. We need to seek renewal and reconciliation. We need to worship in response to God’s character. We need to see God’s mercy as a received responsibility. And if we become too comfortable in our sin, what it means is we don’t want to change. John Piper warns against this. He says, ‘The mark of being forgiven is a passion to be changed by God’. Not wanting to change, being too comfortable with our sin. It’s a bad indicator and it’s something we should be very careful about.

So I’ve got to tell you, I don’t remember a lot about my parents reaction to my javelin throw. I probably got punished and I was probably grounded or something. What I wasn’t was I wasn’t kicked out of my house. I wasn’t kicked out of my family. I wasn’t shamed or berated. I wasn’t hated. What I do remember very vividly is that the solution to the problem was actually really simple. My dad and I went to the pool store, got a small piece of plastic, some special underwater glue, and in about five minutes we fixed the problem. And when it comes to our sin and God’s mercy, the solution wasn’t easy. It required death on a cross and rising from the dead. That’s not easy. But it is simple. And guys, I wasted so many days watching that water go down and worrying about how my sin was going to come back and affect me, when all I had to do was go to my father because forgiveness was available and so was the solution to the problem. See, I was thinking to myself, Oh no, I messed up, my dad is going to be so mad. But what I should have thought was I messed up, I better call my dad, and I wouldn’t have had to carry that for weeks. It would have been a lot better. God’s mercy is our only solution for sin. But God’s mercy is available to us, and we should ask for it. Let’s pray.

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