“Blessed Are Those Who Mourn”


The power of Psalm 51 arises from its deeply complex origin. As a vital part of the canon of Scripture, its inspiration is assumed and thus will carry the freight for “doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Not only has the Spirit inspired it, its feeling, pleadings, lament, and confidence arise from the soul of one who is in a state of deep perception of his intrinsic wickedness. This congenital condition of a rebellious spirit has been exacerbated by the horror of his specific sins, leading to a deeply felt remorse for the unholy and destructive character of his sin. In addition, poetic genius combined with this intensified spirituality overflows with some of the most wrenching phrases in poetry and the literary coexistence of absolute polarities within the same soul. When the sinner sees himself and God at the same time, the experience is explosive and cannot but alter the way we think and act.

I. The Sinner’s justification of God and recognition of dependence on absolute mercy verses 1-4

A. A plea for Grace from a covenant-keeping God (1)

  1. The first impulse that David had was to ask for grace. He certainly would get to the point of his sin, but he must implore God for undeserved clemency here at the beginning or he could have nothing to say. This is an admission of guilt in itself, by covering the entire petition with the need for a gracious hearing. No matter how great or small the offense, every audience before God comes only as he extends the scepter of acceptance out of mercy.
  2. He does not ask for grace without a divine warrant to do so. The warrant does not lie within him, but in the covenant arrangements and faithfulness of God. His lovingkindness (what a beautiful word!) is the covenanted love he pledged to Israel that is celebrated so thoroughly and with such insistence and vigor in Psalm 136. Jeremiah 31:3 indicates that the particular manifestation of God’s attributes moved him to look upon Israel as a special people unto himself: “The Lord has appeared of old to me, saying: ‘Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you.’”
  3. We call upon the Lord according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19). We have no warrant for expectation for anything that has not been granted to us for Christ’s sake. Nothing can separate us from the love of God which “is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

B. He asks not only for forgiveness, but for cleansing.

  1. David knew that forgiveness arose only from the great compassion of God. This went hand in glove with the covenant love of God. The fulness of revelation we have in the New Testament on this point is overwhelming.
  • “God demonstrates his own love toward us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 NKJV).
  • For God so loved the World, that he Gave His only-begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
  • “Herein is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us, and sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
  • “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4, 5).
  1. “Blot out my transgressions” – God’s love would provide a means for the “blotting out” of transgressions. This is to treat them as if they have all been erased, taken away. Our transgressions, as were David’s, are blotted, out, taken away, forgiven, because Christ himself has suffered the penalty due to them. God is of such pure equity that he will “by no means clear the guilty;” but he is so wise that he has made a way that he might be just and yet justify those who have faith in Christ (Romans 3:26).
  2. “Wash me thoroughly . . . and cleanse me.” Sin has a putrefying effect on the soul. David is asking that the residual corruption of his transgression be removed. The ugliness of life that gives rise to transgression and that is satisfied for the tarnish and corrosion that sin give to one’s spirit and mind to remain David finds repulsive. He asks, therefore, for grace to cleanse him from the insipid lack of resolve against sin. If he does not learn to hate sin and its corrosion, he will slide easily into it again.

C. He pleads no extenuating circumstances but acknowledges frankly and fully his guilt (3). “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” The evil of what he did is present in his mind. He does not seek to escape just blame for his own actions. He owns it entirely and can find no escape except in the rich mercy of God.

D. All sin, in the truest sense, is against God and God only. David does not mean that no wrong had been to Bathsheba and that Uriah’s death, which he arranged, was not a sin against him. He sees sin as first against God.

  1. Sin exists only in a world where moral absolutes exist. Moral absolutes exist only when God has established law. Any sin, therefore, is first against the one whose moral prerogative has established ethical and moral relationships.
  2. All law is built on the foundation of divine glory. The first four commandments have to do with the right worship of God. The others are violated only when there has been a violation of right worship of God. The first “Great commandment” is to love God with all the heart, mind, soul, and strength; the second is to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. Acting toward our neighbors outside of love indicates that we already have dismissed and ignored, even resented, the command to love God first and foremost. When we do not love God we make all other violations much easier to commit.
  3. Ontologically, God is infinitely above any creature in value, loveliness, holiness, and beauty. To ignore God and have the audacity to run roughshod over his commands is the primary fault in any sin and proves both the evil and irrationality of sin.
  4. The restoration of civility in social relationships is an isolated good in a limited sphere. It is good for society and for horizontal relationships of the offending and offended individuals, but treats only symptoms. Full restoration of the person does not occur unless the problem manifested toward God and his law is healed. David went straight to that as the key issue.


II. The writer explores the source of his sin and shame

A. It was with him from birth, even from conception. He does not state this explanation as an excuse but as a matter of deeply sensed corruption and as a matter to be confessed. He is not speaking of any perversity of his mother but of the participation that all of us, as sons of Adam, have in his fall from obedience. Adam died when he fell and into that death we all are born. Spurgeon said, “It is a wicked wresting of Scripture to deny that original sin and natural depravity are here taught. . . .Surely people who cavil at this doctrine have need to be taught of the Holy Spirit what be the first principles of faith.”

B. As sin is from within, tied to our fallen nature, so the remedy to its corruption must work within (verses 6, 7). The inward parts or the innermost being refers to the original seat of all our thoughts, words, actions; the most deeply-seated affections drive all else and inject everything with the tint of their complexion.

  1. Jesus said, “Those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are things which defile a man” (Matthew 15:18-20). From the innermost being, the heart, arise every violation of the law of God against neighbor. All of these are expressions of the evil resistance to the glory of God (“blasphemies”). It is here that God looks for truth.
  2. The lie, however, so thoroughly has strangled us, that only God can make us to know wisdom. When grace arrests us and bestows blessings, into the hidden part true wisdom is imparted (Cf. 1 Corinthians 1:20-25: “Where is the wise? . . . Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God”).
  3. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” Matthew 5:8).
  4. By referring to “hyssop” (7), David referred to the application of redeeming blood applied under the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.
  • In Exodus 12:22 the blood of the Passover Lamb was applied with hyssop to the doorposts.
  • In Leviticus ceremonial law required the use of hyssop, along with cedar, scarlet cloth, and live bird, to sprinkle blood seeping in running water from a sacrificed bird to symbolize that a leper has been cleansed (Leviticus 14:4-6).
  • Hyssop was used to sprinkle water infused with the ashes of a red heifer that had been slain and burned for rites of purification (Numbers 19).
  • David referred to these ceremonial figures of redemption and purification in submission to the truth that his sin along with its corrupting power could only be removed by the radical provision of sacrifice. The water used in these rites looked to the infusion of power from the Holy Spirit in regeneration and sanctification. Both forgiveness and the change of a sinner from corruption to holiness involve death—the wages of sin—and omnipotently applied rebirth, resurrection from the death of sin, and war with the internal corruptions that have trained the heart since conception.

C. He prays for the restoration of joy and wholeness that is effected by such a purged conscience (8, 9). This is the blessedness that Jesus announced in the opening words of his sermon on the mount. (Matthew 5:3-12).


III. The writer asks for transformation at this source. He reviews the necessity as well as the cost for a deep work of God – verses 10-13

A. He reviews in more detail the necessity of internal cleansing (10). This work on the heart is like a new creation. The old passes away the new comes. The enmity of soul is expelled and delight in the law of God is infused. This is not a mere change in external deportment, but the granting of a steadfast spirit. He wants to be rid of the haze that blinded his soul to the beauty of holiness and to have a steady gaze upon divine beauty as reflected in God’s law to us. The conviction of Psalm 19:9-11 should be the unvarying principle of life: “The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether. They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.”

B. He recognizes that divine justice could cast him away. He could be banished from the divine presence, even as Adam and Eve were banished from the garden. Every sin deserved infinite wrath and only sovereign grace, effectually provided and justly sufficient can secure us. The Holy Spirit indwells us but the unholiness of our hearts would make it just for him to abandon us to ourselves and let us experience the devastation of inward rebellion. The Spirit, however, is a gift poured out on the redeemed of Christ; and, because of the full efficacy of Christ’s death for our benefit, the Spirit will complete his work and will “never leave us nor forsake us” (Hebrews 13:5, 12).

C. He desires for his very being to be consumed with the realization of the freeness and power of divine grace (verse 12). This is the third way that he has asked for steadiness and perseverance in this pursuit of holiness. He has asked for a “steadfast spirit,” for the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, and now for the grace of being sustained “with a willing spirit.” The joy that we seek from the world and in the world only comes through the eternal blessings of salvation. Only the transformation of the heart by the irresistible operation of the Holy Spirit can so direct the will.

D. His witness for God will focus on the reality of sin and its solution. As a king, he could vow to deal only with men of high estate, with potentates, with those, like him before, so full of themselves and their power that they have made gods of themselves, to do just as they deem most likely to give them pleasure. Now, however, his concern is with transgressors and sinners. He wants to teach them what he has learned, that the grace of God will release them from the penalty of sin and will continue its work till we are released from the power of sin. He looks both to justification and sanctification. Earthly power has its place and should be wielded for the good of people; but the work of teaching sinners the ways of God and working for their conversion can be transcended by no other work. Mighty sinners subdued by invincible divine grace, tasting the sweet fruit of forgiveness and progressive holiness, may do the most important work this side of eternity—teach transgressors the ways of a redeeming God.


IV. He asks for a restoration of true praise as the driving purpose of his life.

A. Note again the juxtaposition of extreme sin, ready salvation, and divine righteousness (verse 14). Here he calls to mind particularly the death of Uriah that David had arranged by deceit and stealth. He could provide nothing to atone for such a sin, but God, in infinite wisdom, could find a way. Surely David could see that one of infinite worth, one whose death would resound with effects for eternity and would be a more powerful suasive for forgiveness than any sin could be for condemnation, would be provided by this God of unfaltering righteousness. He would not merely pass over the sin with no just recompense given. This is why David speaks of his righteousness in this context. In righteousness, God would provide a means of forgiveness far beyond human ken. Jesus “suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

B. He desires that true praise arises from a divine impetus. For praise to be worthy of the great and holy one, he himself must open our lips. He opens our lips by opening our eyes and hearts (2 Corinthians 4:6) so that his praises naturally flow: “Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to his name” (Hebrews 13:15).

C. He discerns clearly the distinction between ceremonial worship and the worship of Spirit and truth (16, 17).

  1. God Himself required the system of sacrifices that defined the ceremonial aspect of Israel’s worship. The lack of delight and pleasure that God had was in the limitation of worship merely to the ceremony and the absence of heart. The principle had been stated clearly by Samuel on two occasions in 1 Samuel 13:13, 14; 15:22 when Saul set the ritual of sacrifice above obedience to God. These very events led to the eventual enthronement of David.
  2. Malachi gave a verbal scalding to the priests who made the sacrifices with unsubdued hearts, functioning ceremonially while despising the meaning. Their offering of blemished and polluted sacrifices indicated blemished and polluted affections (Malachi 1:6-14).
  3. David wanted a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart. He desired to sustain a lament that would support a continual overflow of joy in salvation.


 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Matthew 5:3-8

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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