Is the Book of Psalms Obsolete?

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
–Psalm 51:1 ESV

David wrote about his experience with sin and his discovery of important moral truths nearly three thousand years ago. What does his writing have to do with twenty-first century human beings?

The first time I wrote a blog post questioning the use of the word “marriage” for same-sex unions, I received quite a few comments. Among them were several writers who objected strenuously to my position on that moral question. One person, unlike the other objectors, did not try to persuade me that I had misinterpreted the Bible. Instead, he protested the whole idea of using the Bible to learn the right thing to do. He said that he was smart enough to decide for himself what was right and wrong, and he did not need a Bible to tell him. I had never before encountered someone who thought he needed no external standard to guide his moral choices, and I asked him how he knew that he was doing it right. He replied, “When it makes me feel good, then I know it is right.”

If David had subscribed to that moral standard, he never would have written Psalm 51.

I have been blogging for about 10 years, and I have often blogged about the effect of sin in our lives. David wrote about that problem, too, and in Psalm 51 uses the word “sin” more than once:

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
–Psalm 51:2-3

The word “sin” is not a popular word among secular thinkers, and among those who call themselves “progressives,” there are many who believe that it is immoral to call anyone a sinner. They feel so strongly about it that they even accuse parents of child abuse if the parents tell their children that they are born sinners.

If David’s worldview included rejection of the whole concept of sin, he would never have written Psalm 51.

David makes other comments that arouse scorn and pejorative labels in contemporary culture. David speaks to God and says,

Against 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.
–Psalm 51:4

Contemporary culture expresses scornful dismissals and abusive language for God that is unthinkable in polite conversation, let alone public discourse. The intellectual elite think they are being polite when they accuse Christians of serving an “imaginary friend,” and those who believe that nothing in all the universe is more intelligent or powerful than themselves utterly reject the notion of letting God push them around with a bunch rules. They believe that they are quite well able to know what is good for them, and they don’t need an imaginary friend to tell them anything.

If David had agreed with contemporary culture that no power in the universe had any right to tell him what to do, he would never have written Psalm 51.

If you closely examine contemporary cultural mantras, you know that the culture would never send you to a higher power in order to fix what is broken in your life. The culture believes that you must merely “dig deep” within yourself to find the power to do the things that make you feel good. When you do what makes you feel good, the culture says that you won’t be wallowing in self-degradation and begging to be cleansed, because, according to secular thinkers, when you feel good about what you are doing, you won’t feel bad about yourself.

Furthermore, if you do doubt yourself, you can simply take a poll and find out what everyone else thinks, and that should clear up your moral choices. According to the culture, when you are part of a consensus that something is right, whether it is abortion, homosexual behavior, or full frontal nudity, the fact that there is consensus means you are not alone. If you act consistent with the consensus, you do not need to do any research at all to know what is right. If everybody else feels good about doing it, you can do it, too, and feel good about it.

If David had believed that knowing the consensus was the same thing as knowing what was right, he would never have written Psalm 51.

David would not have fitted in with contemporary culture at all, just as confessing Christians do not fit in. Studies of the culture, conducted by Barna and Pew, reveal that the culture regards many central Christian teachings as either irrelevant, detrimental to the culture, or dangerous. The idea of sin is anathema to secular thinkers. The idea of God is anathema to all who consider evolution to be the guiding power in the universe. A man who calls himself a sinner for doing something that made him feel good looks ridiculous to secular thinkers. A man who believes he has broken his relationship with the Creator of the universe by doing something that displease the Creator is to be pitied for his lack of self-esteem. A man who believes he needs to be cleansed because he is a filthy sinner, a man who believes he needs to be born all over again with a new heart because he is out of sync with the will of God will be laughed to scorn by those who say they can plainly see that there is no God.

We can all be grateful that David was not a contemporary secular thinker, because instead of leaving us to contemplate our own sinful human nature and our multiple specific sins against God, David confessed his own experience with sin, and then he showed us how to be healed when we sin:

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.          –Psalm 51:10

If you have ever been suddenly brought to attention by the recognition that you committed sin against God, sin you hid from even yourself as you did it, then you know that you cannot heal what is sick, or fix what is broken, by claiming that it made you feel good at the time. You know what David knew—you are a sinner. You have built a wall between yourself and God, a wall  made up of your own will and wishes. Furthermore, the “good” feelings that accompanied your behavior are dissolving in your shame when you realize that your barrier is full of holes, and God can see exactly who you are. Then is a good time to borrow David’s words and pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

The Bible is full of Jesus, from the first page to the last. The day that Jesus rose from the dead, he joined a couple of men walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus. As they walked together, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Christ] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). David’s Psalm 51 surely came up that day. When you read David’s words, baptism is vividly referenced in David’s statements, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” (Psalm 51:2 ESV) David further wrote, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10 ESV), obviously pointing forward to the work of Christ on the cross, which Paul would describe by saying, “if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV).

The moral values of contemporary culture are not very different from the values in the cultures contemporary with David’s lifetime. In fact, contemporary values are well described as far back as Genesis, where God observed that “every imagination of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5 ESV). That is why the work of Jesus on the cross is relevant to every era. In every age it is always necessary to pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10 ESV).

Everybody Needs a Heart Transplant

Psalm 51 is classified as a penitential psalm. The definition of penitence is sorrow for sin or faults. The psalm certainly lives up to that definition, expressing profound sorrow, but it does a great deal more than wallow in recognition of personal wrong-doing.

The header on this psalm links it to David’s adultery with Bathsheba, a sin that was magnified by the murder of her husband. Jesus spoke of the moment David fell into sin. Jesus said, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28 ESV). Jesus said that David’s sin originated in his heart. In fact, Jesus said that the heart is the place where our sins are born: “out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matthew 15:10 ESV). Apparently, the problem with the world is sinful hearts.

When David wrote Psalm 51, he recognized his real problem. He confessed his sin and his need of God’s forgiveness and cleansing, and then he said, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10 ESV). David knew that his heart would continue to be a source of sin if something did not change. His heart needed to be different, and he knew he could not merely decide to be a better man.

Contemporary culture would have us believe that we can simply decide and then become. “If you can dream it, you can be it,” the culture says. Every person who struggles with diet and exercise can testify that dreams simply are not enough. David looked at himself and saw the way his attitude and behavior had been perverted by the lust in his heart, and he recognized that his heart was the problem. He also recognized that imagining himself as a better man would not fix his heart. He said, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5 ESV) David could see what Jesus saw in the heart—the source of his sinful thoughts, words and deeds. His heart needed to be fixed, and he could not fix it himself.

David turned to the One who could fix what was broken in his heart, and I find that I need to do the same thing. David could not fix himself, and I cannot fix myself, either. David cried out, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10 ESV), and I cry out the same way. My heart is a mess, just as his was, and I turn to the same source for help.

I share meditation on Scripture with an online group, and that means that when I read a text like this with the group, I benefit from the insights God gives to other people. In the group, many people recognized and rejoiced in the cleansing of the heart. That part of David’s cry was thoroughly celebrated, but one person saw the next level of blessing. She recognized that God did not merely cleanse David’s heart, but he “created” a new heart. We don’t simply get washed down. God does not merely paint over the scars of our sin. We get new hearts. She said, “He ‘created’ a new heart in me.”

That is the real blessing. I am not merely clean. I’m all new. I am like the advertising mantra “new and improved.”

Every time I read Genesis 6, I feel a pain in my stomach when I read, “GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5 ESV). Here, too, I am reminded that the heart is the origin of sin, and it boils out of us like an erupting volcano, ultimately destroying everything beautiful in the world God created. Fortunately, the Bible does not stop there. God’s story continues, and instead of despair, there is hope. David looked at himself and saw his own wickedness and evil, but he saw the hope. David knew God as a God who not only forgives us but makes us new. His experience foreshadows the coming of Jesus to work our salvation through Christ. When David asks for a new heart, he exercises the kind of faith that Abraham had, and Paul said that Abraham’s faith made him righteous, just as ours does. The author of Hebrews repeated that assertion that many people who lived before Christ had faith in God’s promise and God counted it as righteousness for them, too. The same faith worked for David.

There is only one way for us to be made clean, righteous, new, and that way is Christ. David’s prayer calls forth the same cleansing power as I experienced when I professed my faith and was baptized. God’s heart was broken by human sin in the Garden of Eden, at the time of Noah, when David took Bathsheba from her husband, and every time anyone chooses evil rather than good. Fortunately, because of the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, every human being can safely and confidently pray with David, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10 ESV)

With the Holy Spirit as the wind in your sails, you may look tilted to contemporary culture.

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