A Prayer of Confession


Week of November 18, 2018

The Point:  God forgives when we come to Him in repentance.

A Prayer of Repentance:  Psalm 51:1-19.

[1] To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. [2] Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! [3] For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. [4] 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. [5] Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. [6] Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart. [7] Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. [8] Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. [9] Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. [10] Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. [11] Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. [12] Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. [13] Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. [14] Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. [15] O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. [16] For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. [17] The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. [18] Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; [19] then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.   [ESV]

“The Psalmist’s Cry for Help [1-2].  David begins by approaching God, whom he is asking to help him in his sinful state. But this is no simple approach. It is perceptive, moving, genuine, and profound. Two things come together in these verses. The first is a fierce, almost desperate clinging to God’s mercy. This is profound because mercy is the sole basis of any approach to God by sinners. We cannot come to God on the basis of His justice; justice strikes us with fear and causes us to hide from Him. We are not drawn to God by His wisdom; wisdom does not embolden us, though we stand in awe of it. No more does omniscience, omnipotence, or omnipresence. The only reason we dare come to God and dare hope for a solution to our sin problem is His mercy. Where do we learn that God is merciful? God Himself has revealed it to us. After Israel’s national disaster in worshiping the golden calf, Moses asked God to teach him His ways so that Moses might know Him. Please show me your glory, he said. God answered Moses that He could not show him His face, because man shall not see me and live. However, He would place Moses in a cleft of the rock, cover him with His hand, and then pass by. God said, I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy [Ex. 33:12-23; 34:6-7]. According to this revelation, the very essence of God and the most important thing that sinners can ever know about Him is that He is merciful. David begins this way. And lest we miss the force of this important beginning, he elaborates his opening by two other words that also highlight this important aspect of God’s character: steadfast love and abundant mercy (compassion). Mercy denotes God’s loving assistance to the pitiful. Steadfast love points to the continuing operation of this mercy. Compassion teaches that God feels for our infirmities. The second striking thing in these opening verses, which come together with the first, is David’s profound awareness of his sin and its true nature. In verse 1 he used three words to describe God’s compassion. In verses 1 and 2 he uses three corresponding words to describe his sin. The first word is transgressions. It refers to crossing a forbidden boundary with the thought that this is a serious rebellion. We have crossed the boundary of God’s moral law and are at war with Him. The second word is iniquity. It means ‘perversion’ and refers to what we usually call ‘original sin’ or the ‘depravity’ of our natures. Significantly, it is the word used in the first part of verse 5, in the phrase brought forth in iniquity. The third word is sin itself. It means ‘falling short’ or ‘missing the mark.’ We miss God’s high mark of perfection, falling short of it in the same way an arrow might fall short of a target. These three words occur again later in the psalm [3,4,5,9,13]. All refer to personal failure, which David emphasizes with his repeated use of the personal pronoun my. We should note, too, that this opening of the psalm is similar to that of Psalm 32, which also begins with the same three words for sin.

Confession of Sin [3-6].  Psalm 51 seems to be constructed on the basis of parallel statements in sets of threes. Part one contains three words that describe God as being merciful: mercy, steadfast love, abundant mercy. There are also three words for sin: transgressions, iniquity, sin. In this second section of the psalm, in which David confesses his sin, we find three strong statements. (1) I know my transgressions [3]. This may seem self-evident. But most of our problems with sin begin at just this point. We do not confess our sins because we do not believe ourselves to be sinners, and this is because we do not recognize that what we do is sin. Moreover, David was very much aware of his sin: my sin is ever before me. (2) Against you, you only, have I sinned. Sin by its very definition is against God, since it is only by God’s law that sin is defined as sin. It is only because God is in the picture that even a wrong done to our neighbor is a wrong. It is because our neighbor is made in God’s image and is endowed with rights by God that it is wrong to harm him or her. (3) I was brought forth in iniquity. David confesses that sin springs from his thoroughly evil nature. This is the most perceptive statement of all, for it is the equivalent of what we today call the doctrine of original sin. David is confessing that there was never a moment in his existence which he was not a sinner. Verse 6 provides the positive side of this same truth. It teaches that God desires inward purity. This goes along with verse 5, for David’s sin was that of an inward nature disposed to sin as well as the act itself, and what God requires is a pure nature as well as upright conduct. The second half of the psalm develops this thought further. In other words, the sinner has two needs: pardon for sin and purity of heart. The first half of the psalm talks about the first need. Verses 10-12 describe the second.

Cleanse Me with Hyssop [7-9].  The pattern of triple parallel statements continues in verses 7-9, with a list of three things David wanted God to do: purge me with hyssop [7], wash me [7], and blot out all my iniquities [9]. David wanted to have his sin completely purged away. He did not want to retain even a stain of it. He wanted to be washed until he was clean. This purging, washing, and blotting out is not without great cost, of course. This is taught in the four words that begin verse 7, words that I think are the most important in the entire psalm though they are probably also the lease understood: Purge me with hyssop. Hyssop was a small plant frequently found growing in the crevices of stone walls. Because of its shape and structure, it was used as a small brush. In the ceremonies of the temple it was used to sprinkle blood to indicate ceremonial cleansing. Hebrews 9:19-22 tells us that hyssop was used in the enacting of the covenant in Moses’ day. When David asked that God cleanse him with hyssop he meant “cleanse me by the blood, forgive me and regard me as cleansed on the basis of the innocent victim that has died.” That is how we must come to God too. We need forgiveness badly. But without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. It is only on the basis of the shed blood of Jesus Christ that we may find God’s mercy. Have you found mercy? Your sin may be as great as David’s, even greater. But however great it is, you will find God to be wonderfully merciful if you will come to Him as David did.

A New Creation [10-12].  In some ways the most important and perceptive part of the psalm is the fourth section [10-12], in which David prays for inward renewal. It indicates that his confession of sin in part one was genuine, because it shows that he could not be content merely with forgiveness. His sin and its effects were so terrible to him that David did not want to fall into sin again. In addition, this fourth section shows David’s awareness of his true problem, that his sinful acts sprang from a sinful heart that would certainly cause him to sin repeatedly unless God dealt with it. Following the pattern of triple parallel statements noted above, we find David asking God to do three things for him in this section. (1) Create in me a clean heart [10]. This is a startling request, and we must not miss its force. David realizes that he has an unclean heart and only a work of God’s creating power can replace his unclean heart with a new, clean heart. Only God can bring to life a new, right spirit within David: renew a right spirit within me. (2) Cast me not away from your presence [11]. Even if God should re-create him, David is still worried that he might again fall into sin. Hence there is much in these verses about God sustaining him in his renewed state. He prays for a right spirit [10]. He uses the word uphold in verse 12. The positive is also expressed by the negative in verse 11. What did David mean by his prayer in verse 11 that God would take not your Holy Spirit from me? Did he mean that it is possible to be born again, which is the work of the Holy Spirit, and then to be unborn? Most commentators recognize that David is not talking about eternal security or the fear of losing his salvation here. He is only acknowledging that he is unable to live a holy life without God. Therefore, he needs the help and power of the Holy Spirit every single moment if he is to be able to overcome temptation and follow after godliness. (3) Restore to me the joy of your salvation [12]. The third of David’s requests in this section is that God would restore the joy of His salvation. As long as he was living in sin David had no joy. His fellowship with God was broken. Now that he has repented of his sin, found cleansing, and is seeking a renewed spirit, he wants to have that joy again. How relevant to many people’s thinking today. Many think that the way to joy or a good time is by sinning. They think that godliness is dull. Actually the opposite is the case. Sin brings sorrow. Righteousness brings rejoicing. Allowed to continue, sin will remove every good thing from our lives. Only righteousness will restore them.

Sinners Then Shall Learn from Me [13-17].  Religion is a personal thing, and the confession of sin is particularly personal. We must confess our own sin, not someone else’s. This does not mean that true religion can ever be individualistic or entirely private, however. We see this in the last two sections of the psalm. For having been forgiven, cleansed, and renewed by God, David now recognizes that he has a duty to those around him. In this section he vows to teach what he has learned about sin and forgiveness to other sinners, so they may confess their sin and turn back to God too. There are two things David says he is going to teach others: (1) the ways of God [13], and (2) your righteousness [14]. The ways of God is a broad designation that usually means the path of righteousness set out in the law. Righteousness itself usually means that upright character of God that we associate with His holiness. Probably neither of these terms means exactly that here. In the context your ways probably means His ways with sinners – that is, the way in which He afflicts them in their sin and accounts them righteous on the basis of the sacrifices, which point forward to the atoning work of Christ, when they confess it. Similarly, the word righteousness in verse 14 is not so much the righteousness of God as He is in Himself, but rather His righteousness in the justification of sinners. God acts justly and in faithfulness to His promise when He forgives sin. He is just because He does it on the basis of Christ’s atonement, and He is faithful because He has promised to forgive all who will confess their sin and come to Him through faith in Jesus. Teaching is not the only thing David wants to do, however. He also wants to praise God rightly. He wants to praise God out of a broken spirit and a contrite heart. This is the way in which we are to understand his words about sacrifices and burnt offerings in verse 16. Forgiveness is on the basis of the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ. There is no forgiveness without faith in Him. However, having been justified by faith in Christ, we are not to think that a right relationship with God is now somehow to be retained or advanced ceremonially, as if sacrifices without an upright heart can please God. They cannot. What God requires in regenerate people is a yielded spirit, which will express itself in willing obedience [17].

Blessing for Zion [18-19].  This changed attitude is evident in verses 18-19. These two verses, the last of the six sections of this psalm, are a prayer for God’s blessing on Zion, that God would prosper the city, build up the walls, and make it a place where godly people could continue to present their sacrifices. As for the walls being built up, two views are possible. David may be speaking metaphorically, suggesting that the strength of Jerusalem is in the righteousness of its people and that this had been weakened because of his sin and now needed to be restored. Or he may be speaking literally, since the walls, buildings, and temple were not completed until the days of Solomon. In this case, David would be praying that this important work might not be hindered by his sin and might continue. Let us remember that everything we do affects other people, whether for good or evil. It is not true that we can sin “as long as it does not hurt anyone,” because sin always hurts someone. But it is also true that those who confess their sin find forgiveness and renewal, teach others the ways of God, and become a blessing.”  [Boice, pp. 423-436].

“Nine practical lessons arise from David’s example in this psalm that all Christians can learn.

First, no one is too holy to fall. David was a man of outstanding virtue and deep dedication to God. Yet his was among the most heinous sins recorded in the Old Testament and brought suffering to generation after generation of his family and nation. Holy living requires constant vigilance against sin.

Second, we may learn from David the right way to receive reproof and correction from others. When confronted of his sin, David immediately confessed and fell on his face in contrition. Pride must not stand in the way of repentance.

Third, we can share David’s estimation of God’s judgment. It mattered not to him what men thought. They might acquit him, but if God held him guilty, he knew he must repent or be cast forever from God’s presence.

Fourth, we can share David’s horror at sin. We can learn to see it not only as isolated acts, but as the warp and woof of our nature, to think of it not as trivial but as the ugly, monstrous rebellion and corruption that it really is. Like David, we can refuse to make excuses for it, but rather acknowledge that it is an offense against God.

Fifth, we can join David in making confession, repentance, and (insofar as it is possible) restitution public. Public sins require public confession. What reason have we to hide our sins but pride? And is that not sin itself? So long as we remain prideful, do we not cling to sin and to the disease of soul that it causes?

Sixth, we can learn from David never to despair of forgiveness. No one is so sinful that he will not find pardon and cleansing if he goes to God with a broken and contrite heart. If anything, we have more reason than David had to hope for forgiveness. For while he rested in the promise of God’s merciful redeeming act to come, we have the privilege of looking at that act accomplished by Christ on the cross.

Seventh, David’s example teaches us that assurance of forgiveness is not always easily gained but must sometimes be sought long and hard. One means of gaining assurance of forgiveness that David exemplifies for us is the sincere use of ceremonies prescribed by God to declare His grace. We must be faithful in our attendance of corporate worship and sitting under the preaching of God’s Word.

Eighth, like David we must never be satisfied with pardon alone, but must press on toward practical righteousness – day-by-day conformity with God’s moral law. And we, like him, will be helped toward that by keeping our sins in remembrance so that we may be humbled by them, and by asking God daily to renew a steadfast and willing spirit within us. A cleansed heart must remain contrite lest it be soiled anew.

Finally, David let God’s grace bestowed on him stir him to bring that grace to others.”   [Beisner, pp. 112-115].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What is the meaning of the three words used to describe God’s compassion: mercy (gracious), steadfast love (faithful, covenant love), and abundant mercy (compassion)? (Note how these three terms are the basis for God’s glory in Exodus 34:6). What is the meaning of the three words used for sin: transgressions, iniquity, and sin? How does God’s compassion meet our need caused by our sin?
  2. What three statements does David make when he confesses his sin in verses 3-6? Why are these statements necessary for any true confession? How do the three parallel statements in verses 7-9 relate to the three parts of David’s confession. What is David asking God to do in verses 7-9? Why does Boice write that purge me with hyssop are the most important words of the psalm?
  3. What does David recognize in verses 10-12? What three things does David ask God to do? How does David respond in verses 13-17 to God’s actions in verses 10-12? What two things will David teach others? Why is it important for God’s people to know these two things?
  4. What nine practical lessons does Beisner suggest that all Christians can learn from David’s example in this psalm?
  5. Ask yourself the following questions. Do I have a proper view of myself and my sin nature? Do I spend adequate time confessing sin to the Lord each day? When confessing my sin, do I identify the specific sins that I am guilty of committing? Do I recognize my need for God’s work in my heart in order to protect me from future sins? Do I praise God after having confessed my sins and received His forgiveness? Do I proclaim His abundant mercy to others?


Psalms of Promise, E. Calvin Beisner, P&R Publishing.

Psalms, vol. 2, James Boice, Baker.

Psalms, vol. 1, Allan Harman, Mentor.

A Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 2, Allen Ross, Kregel.

Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts