The Path of Repentance – Psalm 51

Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, wrote this about the Psalms in the 4th century; “To me it seems that the Psalms are to him who sings them as a mirror, wherein he may see himself and the motions of his soul and with like feelings utter them. So also one who hears a psalm read, takes it as if it were spoken concerning himself.” This Psalm is a primer on repentance and forgiveness.


The 51st Psalm is one of the penitential songs written by David after Nathan the prophet brought God's rebuke to him concerning his affair with Bathsheba and the subsequent murder of her husband. His first plea is for mercy because of God's loving kindness. David made no excuses; he asked for mercy not based on who he was, but on the character of God. As James stated in his writing; “The Lord is very pitiful and of tender mercy.” David knew that... as all God's children should. (Isaiah 57 speaks to God's mercy and pity toward those who have a humble and contrite heart.)

Then David addresses his transgressions, a plurality of them! There was adultery, treachery, lying, and murder. He ackowledges his sins; in repentance asking God to wash them as a garment that is not just rinsed but is laundered as a deeply stained garment would be. This was far more than a daily asking for forgiveness of daily failings. Every night as our head hits the pillow there are words or acts we need to ask God to forgive. It we have a sincere heart and wish we had said or done things differently God forgives even though He knows we have not felt an unbearable sorrow over them. But those feelings are far removed from the contrition David felt in his soul. A contrite heart is one that is feeling crushed or ground down by sorrow for sin. That is how David felt when he wrote this song understanding that before anyone else his sins were against the God who had been his rock, shelter, protector all his life!

The depth of his sorrow is found in the words he uses; purge me, cast me not away, restore my joy, deliver me, wash me, cleanse me, etc. He asked God to create in him a clean heart and to renew a right spirit within him. He knew that only His Creator could do such a supernatural thing! We can ask forgiveness of those we have wronged, and give forgiveness to those who have wronged us, but we cannot cleanse each others hearts or renew spirits. Only the Creator can do that for those He has created, and only a child of God can experience that miracle. The Apostle Paul had a past of persecution and murder, but he said he was “forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before.” He was able to live with his past because God had cleansed his heart. It is an amazing thing that God does for His children. Who would not want to replace the emotional pain and irritation of a guilty heart with the joy and peace of a restored and renewed heart???

David comes to the end of his song telling God that he would offer a burnt offering, but he knew what God really wanted from him; “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart-- these O God, thou will not despise.” There is much the Bible has to say about a humble and contrite heart, but it is generally ignored as it goes against human nature. What is also forgotten is that it is not an option if we want to experience cleansing, restoration and renewal in our Christian life. This is all part of the growing process for the Christian. So because God loves us he keeps reminding us in sometimes painful ways we had best deal with our sin sooner than later! Otherwise it seeps into the heart and spirit slowly staining every part of our life and makes us not much different than unbelievers.

“The deeper the sense of sin, and the truer the sorrow for it, the more heartfelt also will be the thankfulness for pardon and reconciliation. The tender, humble, broken heart, is therefore the best thank-offering.” (J.J. Perowne)