By Shawn McMullen
King David wrote Psalm 51 after being confronted with a string of wicked offenses against the Lord. Second Samuel 11 records the story.
While Israel’s army was away at war, David lusted after another man’s wife, summoned her to his palace, committed adultery, and tried to cover up the resulting pregnancy by bringing her husband home from the front to sleep with his wife so the child would appear to be his. When his scheme failed, David gave his army captain orders to put the woman’s husband at the front of a military assault and then pull back the troops so her husband would be killed in battle.
David’s devious plan worked. Uriah the Hittite, husband of Bathsheeba, was killed in the battle—along with other Hebrew soldiers who were fighting with him for King David and the nation of Israel. Making this act even more deplorable is the fact that Uriah the Hittite is listed as one of David’s elite warriors in 2 Samuel 23—a group known as “David’s mighty men,” who protected the king with their own lives. How arrogant, selfish, and manipulative can a person get? David was guilty on all counts.
Some time later, when the prophet Nathan confronted David with his sin, David confessed his guilt before the Lord. God forgave David (see 2 Samuel 12:13), but there were consequences. The son born from his act of sin was stricken by the Lord and died (vv. 15, 18).
This tragic story forms the backdrop of Psalm 51. The psalm shows that David did at least three things in his brokenness that brought him back to God—three things we should do when we come to terms with our sin.
He cried for mercy.
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love” (Psalm 51:1).
This is the cry of a broken man reaching out to God for mercy. There’s no attempt to maintain dignity or preserve pride. Like a drowning man crying out for a life preserver, David cried to the Lord with a shameless and desperate sense of urgency. This is true repentance that leads to lasting transformation.
He owned his sin.
“I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (vv. 3, 4). By owning up to his sin, David positioned himself to receive God’s mercy. David shows us where real change begins. Conviction precedes conversion.
He recommitted himself to God.
“Then I will teach transgressors your ways” (v. 13). Once he confessed his sin and received pardon, David made a promise to the Lord—to tell others about God’s mercy and live his life as a testimony to his grace (vv. 16, 17).
Near the end of the psalm, David expressed a sentiment we would all do well to embrace. God is willing to forgive our sin, but first we must be willing to humble ourselves before him: “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, O God, will not despise” (51:17).