Before many of the Psalms come these little superscriptions. A lot of them are about who gets credit; “of David” shows up a lot. Other times it’s a musical instruction: “for the flutes” (Psalm 5) or “with stringed instruments” (Psalm 6). But most interesting to me is when we’re given a little detail about the context of the Psalm. Like Psalm 34: “Of David, when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.” That little introduction should give you a, “Wait – what?” kind of reaction. I mean, that’s gotta be a good story; tell me more! (And if you do want more, you can turn to 1 Samuel 21.)
Today’s Psalm might be the most infamous context of all. The superscription tells us: “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”
Remember that one?
If you don’t, you really ought to read 2 Samuel 11-12 for yourself. It’s the kind of stuff that would make a reality TV star blush. King David looks out from his balcony onto the rooftops of Jerusalem. On one of those rooftops is a married woman named Bathsheba, taking a bath. When David sees that, he wants that – and because David is the king, he calls for that and has that.
And then guess who winds up pregnant?
Inconveniently enough, Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, hasn’t been around. He’s off at war. So King David begins an elaborate cover up scheme. He tries to get Uriah to come home and be with his wife, but Uriah is a dedicated soldier and won’t go see his wife until the battle is over. As Bathsheba’s pregnancy is on the brink of showing, David makes a desperate move: he sends Uriah to the front lines, hoping he’ll get killed. Which he does. At which point David takes on a recent widow as his new wife – Bathsheba.
Cover up complete.
Until: “…the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” Nathan calls David out.
Remember that one? Remember it now?
How could we forget, right? Especially with this superscription: “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” After reading that, we carry David’s sin with us into Psalm 51:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love…
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin…
Against you, you alone, have I sinned…
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me…
Psalm 51 is all about David seeking forgiveness for his big sin.
Which is a big deal.
Such a big deal that we might miss the even bigger deal happening in Psalm 51… how David doesn’t just ask to be saved from this one sin, but from the source of all his sin.
Psalm 51 says it like this:
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me…
…wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow…
Create in me a clean heart, O God…
If we focus only on the sin, the sin continues to be a problem. What we need isn’t to be made clean on the surface, where it shows, but on the inside, where it starts.
The best way I know how to explain that… is with laundry.
The laundry struggle is real.
I’m not so much talking about quantity. Full disclosure: my husband does like 80% of the laundry in our house. Yes, we make a lot of laundry as a family, but thanks to my mountain man who loves me enough to have mastered even the delicate cycle, I don’t have to worry a lot about the quantity.
It’s the stains I’m thinking about. The stain struggle is real.
I have two kids. Two very active kids. Kids that like to power slide downhill in the grass; kids who have gotten into “par-core” as of late (which I didn’t think was still a thing, but it is); kids who trip and fall a lot; kids who love to eat sloppy foods like chocolate ice cream and spaghetti.
Speaking of food – let’s talk about that mountain man of a husband. Alan has this trademark facial hair that serves as a kind of man-bib for some food items, but it doesn’t catch everything. It’s only a matter of time before every single light-colored shirt of his has some sort of stain on the front.
But don’t let me imply that it’s just the other people in my family who are ruining their clothes with stains. Oh, I’m just as guilty. In fact, my very existence exudes stains in the form of sweat from my armpits. I am almost always a little bit cold, and at the same time almost always a little bit sweaty. I don’t know how that’s physiologically possible, but it means every white shirt I own eventually develops yellow stains under the arms.
Grass. Dirt. Food. Sweat. There’s not a load of laundry we fold that doesn’t include one item now too far gone to be presentable. And these clothes cost money, people! I may only wash 20% of them, but I purchase about 90% of them. We can’t keep staining things like this!
So what do we do? The stains are a problem, but it’s like we’re bent toward creating stains. I try to get my kids to be careful… and Alan tries to eat over his plate… and I try not to be so sweaty… but no matter what we do, stains still happen.
You know what we need? And if you could invent this, you’d be a millionaire… What we need is a new kind of clothing that can’t be stained. I don’t know how it would work; maybe it would sound an alarm before my kids decide to roll in the mud, or block the food from ever hitting our shirts, or soak up the sweat and transform it into Febreeze? Look, I know it would be nothing short of a miracle, but that’s the only real solution: to ditch these old clothes that keep getting stained and trade them in for a miraculous new set of clothes.
Wouldn’t that be amazing?
Now take that dream solution for your laundry prone to stains… and apply it to your life prone to sin.
Yes, David needs to confess his big sins and be forgiven. And yes, you need to confess your big sins and be forgiven of them. But what God is offering us is more, and in Psalm 51 David is claiming that. He doesn’t just want to be forgiven from the epic sin he committed, he wants a new heart that isn’t bent toward creating sin in the first place. Thanks to Jesus Christ, that bold prayer isn’t just one that can be prayed by all-stars like David – he can be prayed by any one of us. We, too, can let our old heart full of sin die on the cross and take on a new one that’s full of the Holy Spirit.
So when you read Psalm 51, don’t let the superscription keep your focus on the sin. And in your own life, don’t focus on the sin so much that you only ask for forgiveness. Go beyond that, and ask for a whole new heart. Trade the whole basket in. Claim the fact that your old self died on the cross with Christ; accept the invitation to be reborn with a spirit made strong by the Holy Spirit.
Let Christ create a clean heart in you.
Anyone who’s done this already can tell you: it’s hardly a one-time deal. It’s an every day, every moment kind of thing. It’s the way of Jesus Christ. So I invite you – for the first time, or for the thousandth time – to join with me in trading it all in for the miracle that we’re being offered.
Jesus, I admit it: I have sinned.
Not only that: my heart is drawn to sin.
I want a new, clean heart filled with a right spirit – your Spirit.
So I choose to let my old self go.
I let it die with you on the cross.
Resurrect me. Bring me to new life.
Today, and every day –
Let my life be led by your Spirit.