Although I recognised all the great things David did, it puzzled me for some time why David was so special in the Bible, considering his devastating failure which is made public in his story and in this psalm. Paul says in one of his sermons to Jews in a synagogue over 1000 years after David:
After removing Saul, [God] made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’ (Acts 13:22)
What does it mean then to be a man or a woman after God’s own heart?
Well, obviously it does not mean being sinless. If so, that rules out David and the rest of us straight away. Although not the only thing, I think a key lesson is found in the contrast between King Saul and David. In 1 Samuel 15 we discover that King Saul had been sent out by God to do a certain job and the instructions were clear what was required of him. But, as the story goes on, we discover that for various reasons, including the fear of man (verse 24) he did his own thing and did “not obey the Lord …and [did] evil in the eyes of the Lord.” (verse 19)
So far, not too different to David, you might think? True, but the difference comes in what follows next. In the way they respond to getting caught! Saul initially lies about the situation to Samuel, his mentor. He says, “I have carried out the Lord’s instructions” (verse 13). Then, when Samuel points out the flaws in his statement, he tries to justify his disobedience, even blaming others. (verses 14-15). When Samuel finally spells it all out (verses 22-23), Saul realizes he is caught, admits his sin and asks Samuel to cover for him (verse 25 and 30).
Quite different to David’s response when confronted by Nathan, which we have already looked at previously. And then in this psalm, we get a close up look at David’s heart. He was a man who was able to lay it all out before God and in “fierce sincerity and ruthless self-exposure” (# 37) humbly admit his sinfulness, seeking God’s mercy and forgiveness. So, he prays:
10 Create in
me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
David’s recognizes his helplessness without God’s intervention in his life, because he knows that “even if God wipes out the sin, the evil propensity, the bend in his heart, the stain still remains.” He seeks God and his solution to his problem. “He was hungry now for the blessed presence of God, for the buoyancy of the Holy Spirit sustaining his heart, infusing his resolution, uplifting, fortifying. He was thirsty for the joy he once had known…when indwelt by the emancipating Spirit of God he had outrun a host and laughed at peril.” (# 37)
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
you who are God my Savior,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, isa broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.
David desires that, despite the painfulness of his terrible failure, others in similar circumstances (i.e. transgressors…sinners – verse 13) will learn from this and turn back to God.
Concerning verses 14 – 17 Brueggemann writes:
“The very lips that diminished the self are now able to exalt God…The full psalm shows that one cannot ask for lips to praise until one has engaged in a profound yielding and emptying. That is because the God of this psalm wants no religious conventions…but only a dismantled self…characterized in verse 17, [it] requires a shattering of one’s spirit, a brokenness of one’s heart. True worship and new living require a yielding of self to begin again on God’s terms.” (# 2)
When we find ourselves in such a place (and who hasn’t been there?) may Psalm 51 help us in returning to God, as we pray Create in me a pure heart, O God. Make me a man/woman after your own heart. Amen.
Then pray for others as the psalmist does in his conclusion to this remarkable psalm.
18 May it please you to
to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
in burnt offerings offered whole;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.