We commonly refer to Psalm 51 when partaking of the emblems. It highlights the importance of recognizing sin, repentance, and Yahweh’s forgiveness. Psalm 51 records David’s plea for mercy after Nathan the prophet confronted him over his sin with Bathsheba. What we learn from this powerful record is that willingness to honestly admit our mistakes is the first step in dealing with them; and secondly, that forgiveness does not remove the consequences of sin.

We read of this sad incident in David’s life in 2 Samuel 11:2. David lusted after Bathsheba. The Bible doesn’t exaggerate when it says she was very beautiful – she was! There are two issues to consider here: Bathsheba shouldn’t have been as careless as she was, and David should have thought better. Let’s underscore a practical point; it is very important in our society, where anything goes, to remember that if we want to overcome sensuality we must work in co-operation with righteousness. That means that we must give thought to our actions, our dress, our ‘looks’ and our conduct. When our eye catches something alluring which may cause us to fall, we must turn away and refuse to linger. David, for all his godliness, did not handle this situation. He stopped, he stared, he lusted, he sought her, and he sinned. Consider how this one act of David with Bathsheba caused a chain of disastrous events to follow.

When David enquired who the woman was, the answer was wisely given, “Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” David was given a Warning with a capital ‘W’. Normally in Israel a person’s genealogy would be given without relation to their spouse, but here he is told her husband’s name as well. In other words he is being told that she is a married woman. But David did not heed this warning and continued on his wicked course – he sent for her, and sinned by committing adultery with her.

The deceitfulness of sin

We read: “And the woman conceived, and sent and told David, and said, I am with child” (v5). At this point David should have acknowledged his sin before God, but one sin so often leads to many sins and before long you can’t turn back. David then ordered Joab, the captain of the army fighting against the Ammonites, to send Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, home from the battle. He asked Uriah how the people were, and whether the war effort was prospering, all of which was a screen for his real plot. David’s immediate concern was not about the war but about covering his sin.

David told Uriah to go home with his wife, hoping this would cover his sin, but Uriah was motivated by higher principles at that time, and he refused and slept at the door of his house. David even made Uriah drunk, but still he refused to enter his own home. His response reveals his integrity and David’s lack of it. Uriah said: “The ark, and Israel, and Judah, abide in tents; and my lord Joab, and the servants of my lord, are encamped in the open fields; shall I then go into mine house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? as thou livest, and as thy soul liveth, I will not do this thing” (v11).

When a person gets desperate he will contemplate and do things he would never do when in a normal frame of mind. So now David sends Uriah back to the battle with a letter addressed to Joab! In his hand Uriah faithfully delivered his own death warrant, and died a valiant and faithful soldier.

David’s callousness in covering his sin was evident when he was told of Uriah’s death – and it wasn’t just Uriah who fell, but other soldiers died needlessly that day. Let us learn the lesson. When we act in panic, we don’t think logically – in fact, we usually don’t think at all, we react. David covered up, clouded over, denied, and schemed until eventually he found himself in such a maze of lies that he couldn’t escape. He had deceived himself into thinking his sin was covered: “but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (Heb 4:13). Sin cannot he hidden from Yahweh. The Divine comment was given: “But the thing that David had done was evil in the eyes of Yahweh” (v27 mrg).

Did David close this dark chapter in his life? No, as Psalm 32:3–4 shows David suffered greatly – sleepless nights, physical illness, fever, haunted memories, and spiritual separation from his God. Others in the city would have suspected or known of his sin, but no-one had the courage to confront him until over nine months later when Nathan the prophet of God came knocking on his door. In 2 Samuel 12, through the use of a parable, Nathan was sent to show David his sin. As David listened to this story, recorded in verses 1–4, we can imagine his anger building up, for he was a man of compassion and of mercy. How would he have felt as Nathan sadly and deliberately looked him in the eye and uttered those words, “Thou art the man”!

David’s immediate response was, “I have sinned against Yahweh”, and Nathan told him that Yahweh had put away his sin and he would not die (v13). But the ‘consequences of sin’ would follow. He would suffer the loss of his child born to Bathsheba, the sword would rule his house and those of his own family would rise against him, and he would pay “fourfold” (the law required it) for his crimes with the loss of four sons.

David’s confession and prayer for forgiveness

David wrote Psalm 51, a psalm of confession and repentance, immediately after Nathan had come to see him, as the title of the psalm confirms. We must learn that the only way to deal with sin is to confront it, confess it and seek forgiveness. David had sinned in secret and hidden it, but now he publicly confessed before all Israel and sought forgiveness. This psalm is a testimony of his true repentance.

How else could David open this prayer but by calling on the Name of Yahweh? For Yahweh is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex 34:6–7). David desperately needed mercy and forgiveness and so he prayed: “Blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (v1–2).

In verse 3 he utters with awful clarity and transparency, “I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.” He acknowledged that his greatest sin was against his God: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight.” If only he had remembered Joseph’s words and acted as he did when faced with temptation: “How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God” (Gen 39:9). Why in the final analysis did David insist that he had sinned against God? All sin is against God because sin is lawlessness. Although David’s sin brought death to Uriah and the other soldiers, and shame to Bathsheba, above all it brought dishonour to Yahweh, for it was Yahweh who had placed him on the throne.

As a consequence of his unconfessed sin David suffered the agony of his guilt. Wherever he turned he could see his sin. He knew no joy any more. He appeals to God: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me… Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation” (v10–12). If our conscience is pricked when we sin it will create turmoil within us. Have you ever spoken to someone who left the Truth only to return years later and admit that even though they had said, “I’m fine… I’m doing well… having fun… no more restraints”, that inside there was an emptiness, and no real joy.

David’s three petitions and confession were a prayer for forgiveness (v1–2), a full confession of sin (v3–5), and a request for Divine help (v6–12). If Yahweh responded positively, David lists three specific ‘actions’ that he would initiate. He states certain vows that he promised to keep (v13–15), he speaks of the offering he would make (v16–17), and he expresses his desire for the honour of Yahweh’s Name (v18–19).

Despite the enormity of David’s sin we now come to see what a great man he was. He was not called a “man after God’s own heart” without having some very special qualities. He promised that if God forgave his sin, then he would teach transgressors the way of righteousness, that they might be converted (v13). He not only composed this psalm speaking of his great need for forgiveness, but he then delivered it to the Chief Musician for public use. Who of us would be prepared to do this? He humbled himself to the point that he had this psalm publicly sung to all Israel. Nothing was hidden! It revealed the enormity of the wickedness of their King who had killed Goliath, killed his “tens of thousands” and had become a mighty conqueror and hero to his people. Why did David do this publicly? So that Yahweh might be elevated and that sinners might be taught that there is a possibility of salvation if they truly repent. In 1 John 1:9 we read: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

The only acceptable sacrifice

There was no sacrifice under the Law of Moses which could clear David’s sin of adultery and murder. The person who had perpetrated these crimes was according to that Divine law to be punished with death. He was totally reliant upon God’s mercy and forgiveness. In verse 14 he pleads, “Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation”, for he knew he was guilty of the blood of Uriah whose death he had arranged.

David understood the sacrifice that Yahweh would accept and delight in: “For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it” (v16). He knew Yahweh wanted to see true remorse and repentance: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (v17). The tender, humble, broken and repentant heart is the only offering we can make.

How relieved David would have been to hear these words from Nathan, “Yahweh also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die”. However, sin leaves its consequences and David paid dearly for his sins – the loss of four sons, the incident with Tamar and the treachery of Ahithophel and Joab. Brother Harry Tennant puts it this way: “Forgiveness removes the eternal consequences but often leaves the temporary after-effects as part of the sinner’s necessary chastening.”

Mercy rejoices against judgment

We ask the question – How could Yahweh remain just and yet extend mercy to David for such sins? The answer gives us an insight into the wonder and limitless mercy of our God; it gives us an insight into the greater Son of David who is represented in the memorials that we partake of each Sunday. Throughout his life David had built up a reservoir of mercy based on the mercy he had demonstrated and extended to others and it was this reservoir he was able to draw upon when he needed it most. If David himself had not willingly showed mercy before his sin what a fearful position he would have been in now! James records: “For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy” (James 2:13).

How important is it then to extend mercy to others. The poor blind man Bartimaeus of Mark 10 recognized that he was blind, poor, destitute, a waste product of his society, and yet with determination he fought his way through the crowd and cried, “Jesus, thou son of David have mercy on me.” He knew of David’s mercy and believed in the mercy and power of the greater than David. We know that none of us are worthy of the least of Yahweh’s mercy, yet do we really believe that Yahweh is merciful and will forgive our sins? In Jude verses 21–25 we read these remarkable words: “Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And of some have compassion, making a difference: and others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh. Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen”.

As we grow older we become more acutely aware of our failings, our weaknesses, and our mortality. The Scriptures readily testify: “Yahweh is willing that none should perish”, but do we really believe that? Do we have confidence in the limitless extension of Yahweh’s mercy and forgiveness unto us? Here in Jude is the evidence. Our Lord is prepared to present us faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy. To be presented faultless is hard to acknowledge and understand until we heed the words of David. His words in Psalm 32:10–11 are a final comforting exhortation to us: “Many sorrows shall be to the wicked: but he that trusteth in Yahweh, mercy shall compass him about. Be glad in Yahweh, and rejoice, ye righteous: and shout for joy, all ye that are upright in heart.”