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A Song of Confession

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Psalms 51

Sometimes the most important lessons are learned from the sad experiences of others. In Psalm 51 David’s grievous sins and their aftermath become the means of teaching us the nature and content of genuine confession.


A Song of Confession

Psalm 51

Several decades ago, Katherine Power was a university student in Boston when she got involved in a revolutionary political group with other young people. This group made plans to rob a bank and use the money to buy weapons. Katherine was going to be the driver of the getaway car. But the robbery didn’t go as planned after a silent alarm notified the police. In the aftermath, shots were fired, and a policeman was killed.

Kathy escaped and moved to a distant state. For the next twenty-three years, she was known as Alice Metzinger. She married and became a mother and a citizen in good standing. “But at age forty-four Kathy Power was desperately tired, tormented by guilt, and chronically depressed. Finally, she did the only thing she felt could end her agony.” To the utter shock of her family, friends, and neighbors, she turned herself in to the authorities and revealed that she wasn’t Alice Metzinger after all. 

When she was later interviewed and asked what her motive was for finally telling the truth, she said, “I was tired of living with shame and guilt.”[1]

Her story reminds me of one of the most famous confessions in all the Bible. Psalm 51 is nothing less than David coming out of hiding and finally telling the truth to God and admitting his sin to the world.

The heading of this psalm reads, “When Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” That tragic event is recorded for us back in 2 Samuel 12, where Nathan pointed his finger in the face of this guilty king and uttered those famous words, “Thou art the man.”  In other words, it was time to come out of hiding.

Now, as we work through David’s psalm of confession, I want to highlight four key words that come to mind; and the first word is petition. David makes this plea in verse 1: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy.”

That is a great way to start because he definitely needs the mercy of God. David has been hiding sins that included lust, adultery, conspiracy to murder, hypocrisy, cover-up, and abuse of power. Without God’s mercy he doesn’t stand a chance.

But on the basis of God’s mercy, David asks God to do three things. First, he says here, “Blot out my transgressions.” That expression refers to erasing the content in an accounting ledger. David is praying, “Lord, erase the record of my sin.” And I think David knows it is going to take a very big eraser.

Second, he says in verse 2, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity.” “Wash me” is a Hebrew phrase that normally refers to laundering dirty clothing. He is saying, “Lord, I need the stains of sin washed from the garments of my life.”

Then, third, David petitions God, saying, “Cleanse me from my sin!” He’s not talking about his clothing now but about his character. Only God can purify him and cleanse him from sin. This is quite a petition.

The second key word is admission. In these opening verses, David refers repeatedly to his sins. He isn’t blaming anybody else; he isn’t pointing his finger at Bathsheba or that palace roof that should never have been built so conveniently to her backyard patio.

I don’t know how many times I have heard someone who was guilty of sin, or even a criminal act, say something like, “Well, that really wasn’t me.” David is saying here, “It really was me!”

He goes on in verse 5 to say, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Now David is not saying that his mother conceived him in sin; rather, he’s saying that from the very beginning of his life, he was a fallen sinner.

This is what theologians call original sin—the fallen human nature we inherited from Adam—and we are all born with it. If you think your little newborn angel isn’t a sinner, just wait. You will never have to teach her to want her own way or how to tell a lie. She will be able to do all of that without any lessons from you.

You will never have to teach your little boy how to be selfish with his toys. You are going to have to teach him how to share.

David is admitting here that his sin came from his own sinful nature. He didn’t fall into sin with Bathsheba; instead, he walked into it willingly with his eyes wide open. Beloved, this is a genuine admission of guilt.

Now I want to add a third key word here that is so important; it is the word restoration.

David says in verse 7, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.” Hyssop is a small plant that can be found growing in the crevices of rock and even in the stone walls there in Jerusalem. It was used to make what we would call today a paintbrush.

When God announced the final plague on Egypt, He commanded the Israelites to take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood of the lamb and paint it on the doorposts (Exodus 12:22). This pictured the future death of Christ and the cleansing power of His shed blood being painted, as it were, over our sinful hearts.

David does not just want a quick pardon from the Lord; he wants lasting purity, and he knows that only God can paint a guilty sinner clean.

David writes in verse 10, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” David uses the word for creation here that we found back in Genesis chapter 1 with God creating the heavens and the earth out of nothing. That was an astounding miracle to create something out of nothing.

When David says to God, “Create in me a clean heart,” he is basically saying, “Lord, you have nothing to work with as it relates to me. You are going to have to perform a miracle of creation in order to make in me a clean heart.”

This is genuine, true, confession. And this is exactly why David experienced genuine restoration in his life.

Now here is the fourth and final key word I want to point out: resolution. Part of genuine confession is having the resolve to make things right and start living an honest life before God and others.

David says in verse 13, “Then, I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” In other words, “I want my testimony to encourage others to come out of hiding and confess their sin too and live for God.”

Consider how amazing it is that this resolution came true again—today! This very day, we are reading and studying David’s testimony here, and we have been warned, encouraged, and instructed by it.

Think about it—some 3,000 years after David wrote his song of confession, we are still using it as a model for what it looks like to genuinely confess our sin, to come out of hiding, and to get right with God. This is how to avoid living a secret life, like the life of Alice Metzinger with all its devastating consequences.

Let’s refuse to live like that. Instead, let’s teach our world what it looks like to be a Christian—someone who isn’t perfect, but someone who knows how to make the right petition, how to approach God with honest admission, how to experience the joy of restoration, and then how to make the right resolutions in moving forward as we walk with God.

[1] Craig Brian Larson, 750 Engaging Illustrations (Baker Books, 2007), 225.

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