GUILT. What a horrendous burden.
Sometimes people carry a tremendous weight of subjective guilt — i.e., of felt guilt — when they are not really guilty. Far worse is the situation where they carry a tremendous weight of objective guilt — i.e., they really are guilty of some odious sin in the eyes of the living God — and are so hardened that they do not know it.
The superscription of Psalm 51 discloses that as David writes he consciously carries both objective and subjective guilt. Objectively, he has committed adultery with Bathsheba and has arranged the murder of her husband Uriah; subjectively, Nathan’s parable (2 Sam. 12) has driven home to David’s conscience something of the proportion of his own sin, and he writes in shame.
(1) David confesses his sin and cries for mercy (51:1-2). There is no echo of the cries for vindication that mark some of the earlier psalms. When we are guilty, and know we are guilty, no other course is possible, and only this course is helpful.
(2) David frankly recognizes that his offense is primarily against God (51:4), not against Uriah, Bathsheba, the child that was conceived, or even the covenant people who bear some of the judgment. God sets the standards. When we break them, we are defying him. Further, David knows that he sits on the throne out of God’s sheer elective grace. To betray the covenant from a position of God-appointed trust is doubly appalling.
(3) David is honest enough to recognize that this sequence of sins, though particularly vile, does not stand alone. It is a display of what is in the heart, of the sin nature that we inherit from our parents. Nothing avails if we are not finally cleansed inwardly, if we are not granted a pure heart and a steadfast spirit (51:5-6. 10).
(4) For David this is not some merely cerebral or cool theological process. Objective guilt and subjective recognition of it so merge that David feels oppressed: his bones are crushed (51:8), he cannot escape the specter of his own sin (51:3), and the joy of his salvation has dissolved (51:12). The transparent honesty and passion of David’s prayer disclose that he seeks no blasé or formulaic cleansing.
(5) David recognizes the testimonial value of being forgiven, and uses it as an argument before God as to why he should be forgiven (51:12-15). Implicitly, of course, this is an appeal for God’s glory.
(6) Steeped as he is in the sacrificial system of the Mosaic covenant, David nevertheless adopts more fundamental priorities. The prescribed sacrifices mean nothing apart from the sacrifice of a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart (51:16-19).