Un-shading the Truth


A Pattern of Prayer, part 2: A Pattern of Contrition
February 21, 2016 | Psalm 51
(David’s repentant prayer)

Sometimes people who have done wrong attempt to shade the truth. They tell the story in a way that shifts blame a little bit: “And then, the gun went off”; or “She got hit in the fight.” instead of “I shot him,” or “I hit her.” It is very hard to tell the complete truth. “Mistakes were made,” is the preferred non-apology of politicians.

We recently read in the news that Volkswagen had systematically evaded emissions standards for its diesel engines. To explain why he resigned, Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn said he was resigning “in the interests of the company even though I am not aware of any wrongdoing on my part.”

Here’s what happened. Modern internal combustion engines are highly computerized. If you had a science class in which your teacher taught you how an internal combustion engine works, that’s still the same —

fuel + air + compression + heat = combustion

— but now the way that process is controlled has a lot to do with the precise way a computer tells the engine to act. The computer controls the various factors to provide a proper balance between performance which is acceptable to the driver and emissions which are acceptable to the regulators.

What seems to have happened is that some Volkswagen programmers, with or without the knowledge of their bosses, programmed the engines so that the engines could tell whether they were being tested. If they were being tested for emissions, they hardly produced any nitrogen oxides (NOx) at all. But once the test was over, the engines just spewed out NOx — something like 40x the allowable amount.

Apparently, the road to cheating was just a step-by-step process, as first engineers tried to write software that would meet the standards, then software that would be particularly careful to pass the tests (and generally meet the standards), and finally software that would pass all the tests without paying any attention at all to the standards.

Sociologists and engineers call this the “normalization of deviance” — the slow adjustment of standards so that what was once considered unacceptable behavior gradually becomes acceptable. And that turns out to be relevant to our examination of the prayers of the Bible . . . .

Stop, stop, stop.

I know that some of you are distracted by the fact that my illustration does not fully cover the engineering, political and programming aspects of the Volkswagen scandal. I want you to set that aside for now. After church, for those of you interested in the automotive engineering, please see John Freeman or Nate Potratz; for those of you interested in the political aspects of emissions laws, please see Mack Crenshaw or Isaac Brohinsky; for those of you interested in the programming issues confronted by the software engineers, please see Jonathan Johnston or Russ Clarke.

Back to the current point.

“Normalization of Deviance.” Little-by-little, step-by-step, calmly and incrementally, there is a cultural shift in what is considered “okay.” We get used to increasingly deviant behavior.

As we turn this concept over in our minds, we begin to see that it helps us understand how people find themselves in the position of straying far from what they had believed to be acceptable.

Today we are going to look at a very famous series of events in the Hebrew Scriptures, which leads to King David’s recognition that little-by-little, step-by-step, he had moved very far from behavior which God considered acceptable.

Let’s pray.

* * *

No series on prayer would be complete without arguably the most famous prayer from the Hebrew Scriptures, Psalm 51:

To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet
went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

Let’s remember the situation:

In 2 Samuel 10, the nation of Israel, under King David, had been fighting against the  Ammonites. David had been leading the battle. When the winter weather came, it was necessary to disengage and both sides retreated to their homes.

Chapter 11 begins with the famous and ominous words:

111 In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel. And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.

(ESV). At the time when David should have been leading his army, he stayed home, leaving the work to others.

Tired and bored, he sees a woman he would like to sleep with. She is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, who is one of his soldiers. And you know this story very well. He sends for her — he is the king, of course, and people obey — and she is brought to him. He sleeps with her and she becomes pregnant.

This is very bad, and the narrator of 2 Samuel 11 lays it all on David. There is no focus on Bathsheba’s role, the passage is all about David’s responsibility.

David tries to cover up what had happened by recalling Uriah so that people (including Uriah himself) might come to believe that the baby is his. This does not work, because of Uriah’s loyalty to the king, the nation, and his fellow soldiers.

David then uses Uriah as a messenger to carry a communique to the general (Joab) at the front lines. The message (which Uriah does not read, because he is trustworthy and obedient) says that Joab should

1115b “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then
draw back from him, that he may be struck down, and die.”

(ESV). Joab does as he is told, and Uriah is killed by the direct command of his own king. The text tells us others died as well because of this tactic.

David is given a report of the events, and his response is essentially, “Well, that sort of thing happens in war.”

As soon as the period of mourning is over, David marries Uriah’s widow. She then has the baby.

Of the ten commandments, David has at least broken four:

10.You shall not covet.

7.You shall not commit adultery.

6.You shall not murder.

9.You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor [i.e., lie].

The chapter ends with words at least as ominous as the beginning:

But the thing that David had done was evil in the sight of the Lord.

2 Samuel 11:27b (ESV).

And so, in chapter 12, the Lord sends Nathan the prophet to confront David.

In one of the most beautiful accounts in Scripture, Nathan tells David a story which arouses David’s sense of right and wrong. (This sense of right and wrong has been dormant for at least nine months.)

When Nathan reveals to David that the story is really about David, David’s defenses crumble:

127 Nathan said to David,

You are the man!

Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, I anointed you king over
Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. 8And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. 9Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.

(ESV). And David sees it completely:

13David said to Nathan, I have sinned against the Lord.

And Nathan said to David, The Lord also has put away your sin;
you shall not die.

It is an amazing story. If you have not read it in a while, I encourage you to go back and look at it this afternoon.

But now, turn back to Psalm 51, which comes right between “I have sinned against the Lord.” and “The Lord . . . has put away your sin, you shall not die.”

This is a poem, carefully crafted to reveal the emotional turmoil and anguish David is in. It must have been written later in reflection and then deposited in the sanctuary for the benefit of others. As we read it, remember that it is not written as history or theology, it is written as poetry. There are not a lot of facts or propositions — there are a lot of emotions and images.

Begin after the inscription:

Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant [compassion]

[Erase] my transgressions.

2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and

cleanse me from my sin!

This is a prayer for forgiveness based on God’s character, not David’s.

He asks for God’s “mercy” based on God’s “steadfast love” and “abundant compassion.”
“Mercy” is undeserved favor — grace. Why does he hope for mercy? Because of God’s hesed — his steadfast love — and because of God’s “compassion.”
Hesed is the loyal love of God for those he is in covenant with.

The word translated as “compassion” “stresses the compassionate feeling one has for someone who is helpless and dependent (as a mother’s feeling for the child of her womb).” Ross, Psalms, vol. 2, 184.

The writer can ask for mercy because of who God is. He is a God who keeps covenant with his people and who has compassion for them in their weakness and helplessness.
He needs mercy because of three things, and here he uses three different words to reflect his

Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant [compassion]

[Erase] my transgressions.

2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and

cleanse me from my sin!

He does not say “mistakes were made,” or “I didn’t mean it,” or “the sun got in my eyes.”

“transgressions” are rebellious acts, used in military and political contexts of intentional, open rebellion;

“iniquity” is from a word which means “to stray”

“sin” means to miss the standard which God established.

He uses these three words to capture the whole of his fault.
These are the same three words used in Exodus 34 to describe God’s willingness to forgive sins:

6 . . . “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to
anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, . . . .”

(ESV). Because the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and full of hesed and
compassion, he is the right one to approach for mercy.

David couples these three different words for his sin, with three words to capture the whole of what he is asking for:

Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant [compassion]

[Erase] my transgressions.

2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and

cleanse me from my sin!

“Erase” means to scrape off the words from the surface of a written page. The idea is not to blot off extra ink, but to scrape the paper to make it clean.

“Wash” is a laundry word, but remember they would have washed by beating out the dirt before using water

“Cleanse” is a word that related to the work of the priests, here used not as a literal ritual, but as
a figure of speech to show that David needs to become spiritually clean.


Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant [compassion]

[Erase] my transgressions.

2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and

cleanse me from my sin!

He is desperate for God’s mercy:

3For I know my transgressions,

and my sin is ever before me.

He cannot stop thinking about what he has done.
And he sees finally, that it is not so much the sins against Uriah and Bathsheba but the rebellion against God which is so staggering:

4Against you, you only, have I sinned

and done what is evil in your sight,

This is poetry — don’t take it that he is literally saying “Although I didn’t hurt anyone else, I hurt you, Lord” — that would be silly, and that’s not what he means. This phrase might be easier if you take it as “against you [above all] I have sinned.”
All sin is “against God, above all” because as creator, God has a right to make demands on us with regard to our behavior, and when we sin we rebel against God.

4Against 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.

This is pretty confusing. What it amounts to is that David is stating that God has every right to judge him and punish him, and that whatever punishment is allotted, it will be no worse than David deserves.
You might point out that God really doesn’t need David’s permission, but it is certainly important that David recognizes God’s authority.

5Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,

and in sin did my mother conceive me.

6Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,

and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

These lines go together. “Behold” or “Look,” hinneh — the word makes us pay attention. This is not a slur on sexual intercourse or an insult to infants, he is saying “From the beginning of my life there have been two things warring in me sin/iniquity on the one hand, truth/wisdom on the other.”  There has always been sin in David, but the Lord wants to grow truth in him — David recognizes this.

The next three verses can go together, as he tells in six ways that he wants God to remove his sin:

7Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

8Let me hear joy and gladness;

let the bones that you have broken rejoice.

9Hide your face from my sins.

and blot out all my iniquity.

David will be clean if God “purges” him — literally if God “un-sins” him.
David will be whiter than the whitest thing he could think of if God washes him.
David will have joy if God takes away his spiritual depression.
David will be mended in his spirit if God repairs him.
David asks that God look away from David’s sins.
David asks that God scrape away his iniquities.
The next three verses focus on David’s need for God to renovate his spiritual life (it is not enough that David is forgiven, he wants to be repaired so that he does not rebel again):

10Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and renew a right spirit within me.

11Cast me not away from your presence,

and take not your Holy Spirit from me.

12Restore to me the joy of your salvation,

and uphold me with a willing spirit.

David wants God to remake his heart so that it is clean. (The word for “create” is one only used of God when he is creating or recreating something.)  David wants God to revitalize his spirit in righteousness.
When David says

11Cast me not away from your presence,

and take not your Holy Spirit from me,

we need to remember that the Old Testament believers were not sealed with the Holy Spirit, but instead they were indwelled with the spirit temporarily for service.

David would have been very aware of this, because God took away his spirit from David’s predecessor, King Saul. David can see that God might do that to David because of what he had done.

No Christian need pray this verse as David did. God is not going to take his Spirit from you. God seals us with his Holy Spirit as a downpayment guaranteeing our salvation. (2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13).

It was a real possibility for David in a way it is not possible for us.

12Restore to me the joy of your salvation,

and uphold me with a willing spirit.

Finally David asks that God restore his inner joy and his ability to worship freely.
Once God has removed his sin, and renovated his spiritual life, David will again be able to do the work God has given him — as king and spiritual leader of Israel:

13Then I will teach transgressors your ways,

and sinners will return to you.

Once he is remade he will be able to teach others. And this David has done, through this Psalm, for three thousand years.

David also wants to be freed to worship, as he has not been free.

14Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation,

and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.

15O Lord, open my lips,

and my mouth will declare your praise.

16For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;

you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.

17The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;

a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Perhaps David had participated in worship over the previous nine months, in the role of the king and in the role of an ordinary worshiper. But if he did, he did it as a hypocrite pretending to be truthful, but always shading the truth.

And David recognizes that those sacrifices would have been despised by God. Although the Lord established the sacrificial system in Israel and commanded his people to follow it, he was never pleased with lying, hypocritical outward compliance.

And David knew this as well as you and I do.

God does not want “praise” songs out of our lying mouths,

he does not want looks of “devotion” from lustful eyes,

he does not want “good” deeds from wicked hearts.

Here’s what he wants

a broken spirit;

a broken and contrite heart

“Broken,” is a common word meaning, well, “broken,” like a dish or a bone. “Contrite” is really “crushed,” like something that is reduced to powder.

When Israel brought sacrifices, they could only bring that which was perfect and unblemished. Even the priests had to be physically whole.

But the only kind of spirit, the only kind of heart which is acceptable to God is one that is broken and crushed.

These last two verses look forward to full restoration

18Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;

build up the walls of Jerusalem;

19then will you delight in right sacrifices,

in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;

then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Either these verses are metaphorical — this is after all a poem — or they were added long after David by a later hand.

If a metaphor, it means that once David is restored and forgiven, the city (standing for the nation) will be more secure, protected by the restoration of the king to full fellowship with God.

If the walls are literal, then perhaps these last verses are a later prophet’s application of the Psalm to the time when the walls of Jerusalem have been destroyed and the nation has been carried into captivity and God is being called on to return them to the land.

I think it is a metaphor, but I am sure that the readers in the time of exile saw their situation in it.

I am sure that we who are listening to this in 2016 see our situation, too.

When we rebel against God, there is only one place to look for mercy.

* * *

That’s the psalm — but what do we learn about prayer?

Last week we drew five conclusions from the prayers in Genesis 24:

First, we saw that                it is not just the important, educated or powerful who are
permitted to pray.

Second, we understood     Prayer is addressed to the Lord God, the maker of heaven and

Third, we discerned that   It is appropriate to ask God for things you believe he wants to do,
but it is important to recognize that even if you are right about
God’s desires, you may be wrong about his methods — if you are
praying to God, you have to let him be God.

Fourth, we saw that             God uses the faithful acts of his people to answer prayer.

Finally, we noted that         As we see God’s response to prayer, we offer him worship.

I think that Psalm 51 helps us to clarify two of these points.

First, it is not just the important, educated or powerful who are permitted to pray, but they are
certainly not excluded. You don’t find many characters in the Hebrew Scripture more significant than David. But do you see how David comes? He comes in humility, he comes broken and crushed, he comes as a beggar, not a ruler. And that is very hard for people who see themselves as important, educated and powerful, so maybe it is rare.

And this is certainly the pattern of Scripture, so let’s clarify — it is not just the important, educated or powerful who are permitted to pray, but all who will come in humility before God.

And the second conclusion needs a little more work, too. Prayer is addressed to the Lord God,
the maker of heaven and earth

David recognizes God’s right to make moral demands, David recognizes the covenant
relationship he has, and David recognizes God’s holiness and his mercy. If he had not known who God is, he could not have prayed.

And this is clearly the pattern of the Scripture, so let’s refine — Prayer is addressed to
the Lord God, the maker of heaven and earth, who has the right to make demands, and
who is holy and merciful and desires the worship of his people.

But there is a new conclusion about prayer here, too.

David cannot come before God in prayer while he is shading the truth.

As long as it is someone else’s fault that he can’t have the woman he wants,

as long as he is not ready to admit he is in rebellion,

as long as his sin is placed behind a pretty, well-painted facade;

God is forever unapproachable.

David’s ability to pray and to worship is dependent on un-shading the truth.

When what he has done has finally been brought out into the open — into the light of God’s holiness — his heart can be scraped, cleaned, washed, renewed, restored, remade. David can be delivered only by the Lord.

But if God could deliver David — who in his rebellion against God, committed adultery, lied, murdered and betrayed those who depended on his faithfulness — he can clean you and me as well.

As Carolyn Arends wrote:

His love is always there

No matter where you are

His love is always greater than your fondest hopes

And bigger than what you’re afraid of . . . .

There is no heart so lost it cannot be found

There are no hopeless circumstances

There is no such thing as a God-forsaken town

‘Cause there are always second chances

Until this life is over, there is no point of no return

‘Cause everywhere you turn

His love is always there . . . .

No point of no return.

David’s horrible sin would lead to God’s great forgiveness, and to this great prayer-Psalm which shows us how we must approach God:

And this, too, is the pattern of Scripture — To approach God in prayer is to
reveal your own sin in the light of his holiness, and to accept that if there will be
any commerce with God it will be because he makes it possible.

For us, living on this side of the Cross, we know that the path to God is entirely a path prepared by Jesus, as he died and was raised, and as he set his Holy Spirit as a seal on our hearts.

In the coming weeks we will add to these ideas and refine them as we continue to examine the Pattern of Prayer in the Scriptures.

And so, let us pray . . . .

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