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)