<To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.>
1 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 alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my 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 crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
19 then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
The relationship between the speaker and God has been broken because of the psalmist’s own actions and there is no future without God’s forgiveness. The superscription gives us one possible moment to read the psalm from: the moment when David is confronted by the prophet Nathan about his adultery with Bathsheba and the arrangement of the murder of her husband, Uriah. (2 Samuel 11-12) This moment of betrayal of both David’s responsibilities to his people and the favor that God has bestowed upon him changes everything: trust has been broken, the innocent bore the cost of David’s actions and in the words of this psalm David’s iniquity, sin and transgressions have broken the relationship with God. Yet, this psalm could apply to any experience of guilt and shame where one’s actions have failed match one’s called identity as a person of faith. When a person who sought God’s heart stumbles, when a righteous one commits iniquity, when the one who once was clean is now polluted by sin and when one’s transgressions place a wall between the transgressor and God these words allow the penitent one to seek the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation with God and a return to their former state of grace.
The hope of the penitent lies in the character of God outlines in verse one: God is a God of steadfast love and abundant mercy. There characteristics of God’s character are matched against the trilogy of terms for acts against God: iniquity, sin and transgression. The sinner in the psalm stands permanently marked by their sin and in need of cleansing. They have become defined by their actions and their guilt shows them how their actions have not matched the calling they bore before the people. The guilty one was a righteous one whose entire life was lived in the presence of God and now their actions which may have once been concealed from others were seen by God and they confess that God is justified in God’s judgment of them. Others may have been injured by the psalmist’s actions (and the in the narrative of David and Bathsheba a family was broken, a man was killed, and David failed to be the king he was supposed to be) but here the brokenness is between the psalmist and God and the hope rests in God’s cleansing and restoration.
The guilt of the actions has transformed the person at their deepest level. Everything of who they are is now tainted by a part of themselves they wouldn’t have believed before. They question everything about their story from their conception to the present. They have been transformed into a sinner, one who is separated from God and others and is defined by their transgressions. The psalmist probably doesn’t see their actions as a result of “original sin” passed on from generation to generation but instead views their entire life under the judgment and pollution of their iniquity. They know they need to be purged, cleansed and washed by God in order to remove the stain that their sin causes them to bear. They know that they need to learn truth after their lies, wisdom after the folly of their innermost heart, a holy spirit to replace their sinful one. They need to be recreated as a new being in order to have a future beyond their brokenness. Yet the God of mercy and steadfast love could forgive the people of Israel when they worshipped a golden calf (Exodus 32-34) and while cleansing oneself and receiving a new heart, spirit and future are impossible for the psalmist on their own, they are the type of action that a merciful and forgiving God does. The psalmist hopes for a return to their life in God’s presence where God no longer looks upon their sins but upon the redeemed sinner.
From their place of shame, the psalmist attempts to barter with God. I know when I was growing up that I was taught not to barter with God but the more of the scriptures I read the more I see places like this psalm where a person attempts to barter with God, and I’ve had to rethink this. For the speaker, they will teach, sing, declare and offer right sacrifice If God will restore the relationship. The psalmist doesn’t have much to offer beyond their acknowledgment of their sin which broke the relationship and their promise to live better in the future but the offering a broken spirit, broken and contrite heart. They are hoping through an exchange with God of receiving a new spirit and heart in return for their broken spirit and heart. God becomes for the poet the surgeon who can place in them a new heart and renew a right spirit. Perhaps by the penitent’s witness the good that God does for them will also extend to the rest of the people and allow for Zion’s pleasure and strength to be renewed. As we saw in the previous psalm the sacrifices and burnt offerings are not needed by God, but just as a broken heart and spirit were preconditions in the psalm for forgiveness and renewal the new orientation of the speaker places sacrifices and worship as acts of thanksgiving for the God who blots out transgressions, washes away the iniquity and cleanses the sin because of God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy.