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Bible Commentaries

Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

Psalms 51

Verses 1-2

Psalms

DAVID’S CRY FOR PARDON

Psa_51:1 - Psa_51:2 .

A whole year had elapsed between David’s crime and David’s penitence. It had been a year of guilty satisfaction not worth the having; of sullen hardening of heart against God and all His appeals. The thirty-second Psalm tells us how happy David had been during that twelvemonth, of which he says, ‘My bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night Thy hand was heavy on me.’ Then came Nathan with his apologue, and with that dark threatening that ‘the sword should never depart from his house,’ the fulfilment of which became a well-head of sorrow to the king for the rest of his days, and gave a yet deeper poignancy of anguish to the crime of his spoiled favourite Absalom. The stern words had their effect. The frost that had bound his soul melted all away, and he confessed his sin, and was forgiven then and there. ‘I have sinned against the Lord’ is the confession as recorded in the historical books; and, says Nathan, ‘The Lord hath made to pass from thee the iniquity of thy sin.’ Immediately, as would appear from the narrative, that very same day, the child of Bathsheba and David was smitten with fatal disease, and died in a week. And it is after all these events-the threatening, the penitence, the pardon, the punishment-that he comes to God, who had so freely forgiven, and likewise so sorely smitten him, and wails out these prayers: ‘Blot out my transgressions, wash me from mine iniquity, cleanse me from my sin.’

One almost shrinks from taking as the text of a sermon words like these, in which a broken and contrite spirit groans for deliverance, and which are, besides, hallowed by the thought of the thousands who have since found them the best expression of their sacredest emotions. But I would fain try not to lose the feeling that breathes through the words, while seeking for the thoughts which are in them, and hope that the light which they throw upon the solemn subjects of guilt and forgiveness may not be for any of us a mere cold light.

I. Looking then at this triad of petitions, they teach us first how David thought of his sin.

You will observe the reiteration of the same earnest cry in all these clauses, and if you glance over the remainder of this psalm, you will find that he asks for the gifts of God’s Spirit, with a similar threefold repetition. Now this characteristic of the whole psalm is worth notice in the outset. It is not a mere piece of Hebrew parallelism. The requirements of poetical form but partially explain it. It is much more the earnestness of a soul that cannot be content with once asking for the blessings and then passing on, but dwells upon them with repeated supplication, not because it thinks that it shall be heard for its ‘much speaking,’ but because it longs for them so eagerly.

And besides that, though the three clauses do express the same general idea, they express it under various modifications, and must be all taken together before we get the whole of the Psalmist’s thought of sin.

Notice again that he speaks of his evil as ‘transgressions’ and as ‘sin,’ first using the plural and then the singular. He regards it first as being broken up into a multitude of isolated acts, and then as being all gathered together into one knot, as it were, so that it is one thing. In one aspect it is ‘my transgressions’-’that thing that I did about Uriah, that thing that I did about Bathsheba, those other things that these dragged after them.’ One by one the acts of wrongdoing pass before him. But he does not stop there. They are not merely a number of deeds, but they have, deep down below, a common root from which they all came-a centre in which they all inhere. And so he says, not only ‘Blot out my transgressions ,’ but ‘Wash me from mine iniquity .’ He does not merely generalise, but he sees and he feels what you and I have to feel, if we judge rightly of our evil actions, that we cannot take them only in their plurality as so many separate deeds, but that we must recognise them as coming from a common source, and we must lament before God not only our ‘sins’ but our ‘sin’-not only the outward acts of transgression, but that alienation of heart from which they all come; not only sin in its manifold manifestations as it comes out in the life, but in its inward roots as it coils round our hearts. You are not to confess acts alone, but let your contrition embrace the principle from which they come.

Further, in all the petitions we see that the idea of his own single responsibility for the whole thing is uppermost in David’s mind. It is my transgression, it is mine iniquity, and my sin. He has not learned to say with Adam of old, and with some so-called wise thinkers to-day: ‘I was tempted, and I could not help it.’ He does not talk about ‘circumstances,’ and say that they share the blame with him. He takes it all to himself. ‘It was I did it. True, I was tempted, but it was my soul that made the occasion a temptation. True, the circumstances led me astray, but they would not have led me astray if I had been right, and where as well as what I ought to be.’ It is a solemn moment when that thought first rises in its revealing power to throw light into the dark places of our souls. But it is likewise a blessed moment, and without it we are scarcely aware of ourselves. Conscience quickens consciousness. The sense of transgression is the first thing that gives to many a man the full sense of his own individuality. There is nothing that makes us feel how awful and incommunicable is that mysterious personality by which every one of us lives alone after all companionship, so much as the contemplation of our relations to God’s law. ‘Every man shall bear his own burden.’ ‘Circumstances,’ yes; ‘bodily organisation,’ yes; ‘temperament,’ yes; ‘the maxims of society,’ ‘the conventionalities of the time,’ yes,-all these things have something to do with shaping our single deeds and with influencing our character; but after we have made all allowances for these influences which affect me , let us ask the philosophers who bring them forward as diminishing or perhaps annihilating responsibility, ‘And what about that me which these things influence?’ After all, let me remember that the deed is mine , and that every one of us shall, as Paul puts it, give account of himself unto God.

Passing from that, let me point for one moment to another set of ideas that are involved in these petitions. The three words which the Psalmist employs for sin give prominence to different aspects of it. ‘Transgression’ is not the same as ‘iniquity,’ and ‘iniquity’ is not the same as ‘sin.’ They are not aimless, useless synonyms, but they have each a separate thought in them. The word rendered ‘transgression’ literally means rebellion, a breaking away from and setting oneself against lawful authority. That translated ‘iniquity’ literally means that which is twisted, bent. The word in the original for ‘sin’ literally means missing a mark, an aim. And this threefold view of sin is no discovery of David’s, but is the lesson which the whole Old Testament system had laboured to print deep on the national consciousness. That lesson, taught by law and ceremonial, by denunciation and remonstrance, by chastisement and deliverance, the penitent king has learned. To all men’s wrongdoings these descriptions apply, but most of all to his. Sin is ever, and his sin especially is, rebellion, the deflection of the life from the straight line which God’s law draws so clearly and firmly, and hence a missing the aim.

Think how profound and living is the consciousness of sin which lies in calling it rebellion . It is not merely, then, that we go against some abstract propriety, or break some impersonal law of nature when we do wrong, but that we rebel against a rightful Sovereign. In a special sense this was true of the Jew, whose nation stood under the government of a divine king, so that sin was treason, and breaches of the law acts of rebellion against God. But it is as true of us all. Our theory of morals will be miserably defective, and our practice will be still more defective, unless we have learned that morality is but the garment of religion, that the definition of virtue is obedience to God, and that the true sin in sin is not the yielding to impulses that belong to our nature, but the assertion in the act of yielding, of our independence of God and of our opposition to His will. And all this has application to David’s sin. He was God’s viceroy and representative, and he sets to his people the example of revolt, and lifts the standard of rebellion. It is as if the ruler of a province declared war against the central authority of which he was the creature, and used against it the very magazines and weapons with which it had intrusted him. He had rebelled, and in an eminent degree, as Nathan said to him, given to the enemies of God occasion to blaspheme.

Not less profound and suggestive is that other name for sin, that which is twisted, or bent, mine ‘iniquity.’ It is the same metaphor which lies in our own word ‘wrong,’ that which is wrung or warped from the straight line of right. To that line, drawn by God’s law, our lives should run parallel, bending neither to the right hand nor to the left. But instead of the firm directness of such a line, our lives show wavering deformity, and are like the tremulous strokes in a child’s copy-book. David had the pattern before him, and by its side his unsteady purpose, his passionate lust, had traced this wretched scrawl. The path on which he should have trodden was a straight course to God, unbending like one of these conquering Roman roads, that will turn aside for neither mountain nor ravine, nor stream nor bog. If it had been thus straight, it would have reached its goal. Journeying on that way of holiness, he would have found, and we shall find, that on it no ravenous beast shall meet us, but with songs and everlasting joy upon their lips the happy pilgrims draw ever nearer to God, obtaining joy and gladness in all the march, until at last ‘sorrow and sighing shall flee away.’ But instead of this he had made for himself a crooked path, and had lost his road and his peace in the mazes of wandering ways. ‘The labour of the foolish wearieth every one of them, because he knoweth not how to come to the city.’

Another very solemn and terrible thought of what sin is, lies in that final word for it, which means ‘missing an aim.’ How strikingly that puts a truth which siren voices are constantly trying to sing us out of believing! Every sin is a blunder as well as a crime. And that for two reasons, because, first, God has made us for Himself, and to take anything besides for our life’s end or our heart’s portion is to divert ourselves from our true destiny; and because, second, that being so, every attempt to win satisfaction or delight by such a course is and must be a failure. Sin misses the aim if we think of our proper destination. Sin misses its own aim of happiness. A man never gets what he hoped for by doing wrong, or, if he seem to do so, he gets something more that spoils it all. He pursues after the fleeing form that seems so fair, and when he reaches her side, and lifts her veil, eager to embrace the tempter, a hideous skeleton grins and gibbers at him. The siren voices sing to you from the smiling island, and their white arms and golden harps and the flowery grass draw you from the wet boat and the weary oar; but when a man lands he sees the fair form end in a slimy fish, and she slays him and gnaws his bones. ‘He knows not that the dead are there, and that her guests are in the depths of hell.’ Yes! every sin is a mistake, and the epitaph for the sinner is ‘Thou fool!’

II. These petitions also show us, in the second place, How David thinks of forgiveness.

As the words for sin expressed a threefold view of the burden from which the Psalmist seeks deliverance, so the triple prayer, in like manner, sets forth that blessing under three aspects. It is not merely pardon for which he asks. He is making no sharp dogmatic distinction between forgiveness and cleansing.

The two things run into each other in his prayer, as they do, thank God! in our own experience, the one being inseparable, in fact, from the other. It is absolute deliverance from the power of sin, in all forms of that power, whether as guilt or as habit, for which he cries so piteously; and his accumulative petitions are so exhaustive, not because he is coldly examining his sin, but because he is intensely feeling the manifold burden of his great evil.

That first petition conceives of the divine dealing with sin as being the erasure of a writing, perhaps of an indictment. There is a special significance in the use of the word here, because it is also employed in the description of the Levitical ceremonial of the ordeal, where a curse was written on a scroll and blotted out by the priest. But apart from that the metaphor is a natural and suggestive one. Our sin stands written against us. The long gloomy indictment has been penned by our own hands. Our past is a blurred manuscript, full of false things and bad things. We have to spread the writing before God, and ask Him to remove the stained characters from its surface, that once was fair and unsoiled.

Ah, brethren! some people tell us that the past is irrevocable, that the thing once done can never be undone, that the life’s diary written by our own hands can never be cancelled. The melancholy theory of some thinkers and teachers is summed up in the words, infinitely sad and despairing when so used, ‘What I have written I have written.’ Thank God! we know better than that. We know who blots out the handwriting ‘that is against us, nailing it to His Cross.’ We know that of God’s great mercy our future may ‘copy fair our past,’ and the past may be all obliterated and removed. And as sometimes you will find in an old monkish library the fair vellum that once bore lascivious stories of ancient heathens and pagan deities turned into the manuscript in which a saint has penned his Contemplations, an Augustine his Confessions, or a Jerome his Translations, so our souls may become palimpsests. The old wicked heathen characters that we have traced there may be blotted out, and covered over by the writing of that divine Spirit who has said, ‘I will put My laws into their minds, and write them in their hearts.’ As you run your pen through the finished pages of your last year’s diaries, as you seal them up and pack them away, and begin a new page in a clean book on the first of January, so it is possible for every one of us to do with our lives. Notwithstanding all the influence of habit, notwithstanding all the obstinacy of long-indulged modes of thought and action, notwithstanding all the depressing effect of frequent attempts and frequent failures, we may break ourselves off from all that is sinful in our past lives, and begin afresh, saying, ‘God helping me! I will write another sort of biography for myself for the days that are to come.’

We cannot erase these sad records from our past. The ink is indelible; and besides all that we have visibly written in these terrible autobiographies of ours, there is much that has sunk into the page, there is many a ‘secret fault,’ the record of which will need the fire of that last day to make it legible, Alas for those who learn the black story of their own lives for the first time then! Learn it now, my brother! and learn likewise that Christ can wipe it all clean off the page, clean out of your nature, clean out of God’s book. Cry to Him, with the Psalmist, ‘Blot out my transgressions!’ and He will calm and bless you with the ancient answer, ‘I have blotted out as a thick cloud thy transgressions, and as a cloud thy sins.’

Then there is another idea in the second of these prayers for forgiveness: ‘Wash me throughly from mine iniquity.’ That phrase does not need any explanation, except that the word expresses the antique way of cleansing garments by treading and beating. David, then, here uses the familiar symbol of a robe, to express the ‘habit’ of the soul, or, as we say, the character. That robe is all splashed and stained. He cries to God to make it a robe of righteousness and a garment of purity.

And mark that he thinks the method by which this will be accomplished is a protracted and probably a painful one. He is not praying for a mere declaration of pardon, he is not asking only for the one complete, instantaneous act of forgiveness, but he is asking for a process of purifying which will be long and hard. ‘I am ready,’ says he, in effect, ‘to submit to any sort of discipline, if only I may be clean. Wash me, beat me, tread me down, hammer me with mallets, dash me against stones, rub me with smarting soap and caustic nitre-do anything, anything with me, if only those foul spots melt away from the texture of my soul!’ A solemn prayer, my brethren! if we pray it aright, which will be answered by many a sharp application of God’s Spirit, by many a sorrow, by much very painful work, both within our own souls and in our outward lives, but which will be fulfilled at last in our being clothed like our Lord, in garments which shine as the light.

We know, dear brethren! who has said, ‘I counsel thee to buy of Me white raiment, that the shame of thy nakedness may not appear.’ And we know well who were the great company before the throne of God, that had ‘washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’ ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.’ ‘ Wash me throughly from mine iniquity.’

The deliverance from sin is still further expressed by that third supplication, ‘Cleanse me from my sin.’ That is the technical word for the priestly act of declaring ceremonial cleanness-the cessation of ceremonial pollution, and for the other priestly act of making, as well as declaring, clean from the stains of leprosy. And with allusion to both of these uses, the Psalmist employs it here. That is to say, he thinks of his guilt not only as a blotted past record which he has written, not only as a garment spotted by the flesh which his spirit wears, but he thinks of it too as inhering in himself, as a leprosy and disease of his own personal nature. He thinks of it as being, like that, incurable, fatal, twin sister to and precursor of death; and he thinks of it as capable of being cleansed only by a sacerdotal act, only by the great High Priest and by His finger being laid upon it. And we know who it was that-when the leper, whom no man in Israel was allowed to touch on pain of uncleanness, came to His feet-put out His hand in triumphant consciousness of power, and touched him, and said, ‘I will ! be thou clean.’ Let this be thy prayer, ‘Cleanse me from my sin’; and Christ will answer, ‘Thy leprosy hath departed from thee.’

III. These petitions likewise show us whence the Psalmist draws his confidence for such a prayer.

‘According to the multitude of Thy tender mercies, blot out my transgressions.’ His whole hope rests upon God’s own character, as revealed in the endless continuance of His acts of love. He knows the number and the greatness of his sins, and the very depth of his consciousness of sin helps him to a corresponding greatness in his apprehension of God’s mercy. As he says in another of his psalms, ‘Innumerable evils have compassed me about; they are more than the hairs of my head. . . . Many, O Lord my God! are Thy wonderful works. . . . They are more than can be numbered.’ This is the blessedness of all true penitence, that the more profoundly it feels its own sore need and great sinfulness, in that very proportion does it recognise the yet greater mercy and all-sufficient grace of our loving God, and from the lowest depths beholds the stars in the sky, which they who dwell amid the surface-brightness of the noonday cannot discern.

God’s own revealed character, His faithfulness and persistency, notwithstanding all our sins, in that mode of dealing with men which has blessed all generations with His tender mercies-these were David’s pleas. And for us who have the perfect love of God perfectly expressed in His Son, that same plea is incalculably strengthened, for we can say, ‘According to Thy tender mercy in Thy dear Son, for the sake of Christ, blot out my transgressions.’ Is the depth of our desire, and is the firmness of our confidence, proportioned to the increased clearness of our knowledge of the love of our God? Does the Cross of Christ lead us to as trustful a penitence as David had, to whom meditation on God’s providences and the shadows of the ancient covenant were chiefest teachers of the multitude of His tender mercies?

Remember further that a comparison of the narrative in the historical books seems to show, as I said, that this psalm followed Nathan’s declaration of the divine forgiveness, and that therefore these petitions of our text are the echo and response to that declaration.

Thus we see that the revelation of God’s love precedes, and is the cause of, the truest penitence; that our prayer for forgiveness is properly the appropriating, or the effort to appropriate, the divine promise of forgiveness; and that the assurance of pardon, so far from making a man think lightly of his sin, is the thing that drives it home to his conscience, and first of all teaches him what it really is. As long as you are tortured with thoughts of a possible hell because of guilt, as long as you are troubled by the contemplation of consequences affecting your happiness as ensuing upon your wrongdoing, so long there is a foreign and disturbing element in even your deepest and truest penitence. But when you know that God has forgiven-when you come to see the ‘multitude of Thy tender mercies,’ when the fear of punishment has passed out of your apprehension, then you are left with a heart at leisure from dread, to look the fact and not the consequences in the face, and to think of the moral nature, and not of the personal results, of your sin. And so one of the old prophets, with profound truth, says, ‘Thou shalt be ashamed and confounded, and never open thy mouth any more because of thy sin, when I am pacified towards thee for all thou hast done.’

Dear friends! the wheels of God’s great mill may grind us small, without our coming to know or to hate our sin. About His chastisements, about the revelation of His wrath, that old saying is true to a great extent: ‘If you bray a fool in a mortar, his folly will not depart from him.’ You may smite a man down, crush him, make his bones to creep with the preaching of vengeance and of hell, and the result of it will often be, if it be anything at all, what it was in the case of that poor wretched Judas, who, because he only saw wrath, flung himself into despair, and was lost, not because he had betrayed Christ, but because he believed that there was no forgiveness for the man that had betrayed.

But Love comes, and ‘Love is Lord of all.’ God’s assurance, ‘I have forgiven,’ the assurance that we do not need to plead with Him, to bribe Him, to buy pardon by tears and amendment, but that it is already provided for us-the blessed vision of an all-mighty love treasured in a dying Saviour, the proclamation ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them’-Oh! these are the powers that break, or rather that melt, our hearts; these are the keen weapons that wound to heal our hearts; these are the teachers that teach a ‘godly sorrow that needeth not to be repented of.’ Think of all the patient, pitying mercy of our Father, with which He has lingered about our lives, and softly knocked at the door of our hearts! Think of that unspeakable gift in which are wrapped up all His tender mercies-the gift of Christ who died for us all! Let it smite upon your heart with a rebuke mightier than all the thunders of law or terrors of judgment. Let it unveil for you not only the depths of the love of God, but the darkness of your own selfish rebellion from Him. Measure your crooked lives by the perfect rightness of Christ’s. Learn how you have missed the aim which He reached, who could say, ‘I delight to do Thy will, O my God!’ And let that same infinite love that teaches sin announce frank forgiveness and prophesy perfect purity. Then, with heart fixed upon Christ’s Cross, let your cry for pardon be the echo of the most sure promise of pardon which sounds from His dying lips; and as you gaze on Him who died that we might be freed from all iniquity, ask Him to blot out your transgressions, to wash you throughly from your iniquity, and to cleanse you from your sins. Ask, for you cannot ask in vain; ask earnestly, for you need it sorely; ask confidently, for He has promised before you ask; but ask, for unless you do, you will not receive. Ask, and the answer is sent already-’The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin.’

Verses 10-12

Psalms

DAVID’S CRY FOR PURITY

Psa_51:10 - Psa_51:12 .

We ought to be very thankful that the Bible never conceals the faults of its noblest men. David stands high among the highest of these. His words have been for ages the chosen expression for the devotions of the holiest souls; and whoever has wished to speak longings after purity, lowly trust in God, the aspirations of love, or the raptures of devotion, has found no words of his own more natural than those of the poet-king of Israel. And this man sins, black, grievous sin. Self-indulgent, he stays at home while his army is in the field. His moral nature, relaxed by this shrinking from duty, is tempted, and easily conquered. The sensitive poet nature, to which all delights of eye and sense appeal so strongly, is for a time too strong for the devout soul. One sin drags on another. As self-indulgence opened the door for lust, so lust, which dwells hard by hate, draws after it murder. The king is a traitor to his subjects, the soldier untrue to the chivalry of arms, the friend the betrayer of the friend. Nothing can be blacker than the whole story, and the Bible tells the shameful history in all its naked ugliness.

Many a precious lesson is contained in it. For instance, It is not innocence which makes men good. ‘This is your man after God’s own heart, is it?’ runs the common, shallow sneer. Yes; not that God thought little of his foul sin, nor that ‘saints’ make up for adultery and murder by making or singing psalms; not that ‘righteousness’ as a standard of conduct is lower than ‘morality’; but that, having fallen, he learned to abhor his sin, and with deepened trust in God’s mercy, and many tears, struggled out of the mire, and with unconquered resolve and strength drawn from a divine source, sought still to press towards the mark. It is not the attainment of purity, not the absence of sin, but the presence and operation, though it be partial, of an energy which is at war with all impurity, that makes a man righteous. That is a lesson worth learning.

Again, David was not a hypocrite because of this fall of his. All sin is inconsistent with a religious character. But it is not for us to say what sin is incompatible with a religious character.

Again, the worst sin is not some outburst of gross transgression, forming an exception to the ordinary tenor of a life, bad and dismal as such a sin is; but the worst and most fatal are the small continuous vices, which root underground and honeycomb the soul. Many a man who thinks himself a Christian, is in more danger from the daily commission, for example, of small pieces of sharp practice in his business, than ever was David at his worst. White ants pick a carcase clean sooner than a lion will.

Most precious of all is the lesson as to the possibility of all sin being effaced, and of the high hopes which even a man sunk in transgression has a right to cherish, as to the purity and beauty of character to which he may come. What a prayer these clauses contain to be offered by one who has so sinned! What a marvellous faith in God’s pardoning love, and what a boldness of hope in his own future, they disclose! They set forth a profound ideal of a noble character; they make of that ideal a prayer; they are the prayer of a great transgressor, who is also a true penitent. In all these aspects they are very remarkable, and lead to valuable lessons. Let us look at them from these points of view successively.

I. Observe that here is a remarkable outline of a holy character.

It is to be observed that of these three gifts-a right spirit, Thy Holy Spirit, a free spirit-the central one alone is in the original spoken of as God’s; the ‘Thy’ of the last clause of the English Bible being an unnecessary supplement. And I suppose that this central petition stands in the middle, because the gift which it asks is the essential and fundamental one, from which there flow, and as it were, diverge on the right hand and on the left, the other two. God’s Holy Spirit given to a man makes the human spirit holy, and then makes it ‘right’ and ‘free.’ Look then at the petitions, not in the order in which they stand in the text, but in the order which the text indicates as the natural one.

Now as to that fundamental petition, ‘Take not Thy Holy Spirit from me,’ one thing to notice is that David regards himself as possessing that Spirit. We are not to read into this psalm the fully developed New Testament teaching of a personal Paraclete, the Spirit whom Christ reveals and sends. To do that would be a gross anachronism. But we are to remember that it is an anointed king who speaks, on whose head there has been poured the oil that designated him to his office, and in its gentle flow and sweet fragrance, symbolised from of old the inspiration of a divine influence that accompanied every divine call. We are to remember, too, how it had fared with David’s predecessor. Saul had been chosen by God; had been for a while guided and upheld by God. But he fell into sin, and-not because he fell into it, but because he continued in it; not because he did wrong, but because he did not repent-the solemn words are recorded concerning him, that ‘the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him.’ The divine influence which came on the towering head of the son of Kish, through the anointing oil that Samuel poured upon his raven hair, left him, and he stood God-forsaken because he stood God-forsaking. And so David looks back from the ‘horrible pit and miry clay’ into which he had fallen, where, stained with blood and lust, he lies, to that sad gigantic figure, remembered so well and loved by him so truly-the great king who sinned away his soul, and bled out his life on the heights of Gilboa. He sees in that blasted pine-tree, towering above the forest but dead at the top, and barked and scathed all down the sides by the lightning scars of passion, the picture of what he himself will come to, if the blessing that was laid upon his ruddy locks and his young head by the aged Samuel’s anointing should pass from him too as it had done from his predecessor. God had departed from Saul, because Saul had refused His counsel and departed from Him; and Saul’s successor, trembling as he remembers the fate of the founder of the monarchy, and of his vanished dynasty, prays with peculiar emphasis of meaning, ‘Take not Thy Holy Spirit from me !’

That Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, had descended upon him when he was anointed king, but it was no mere official consecration which he had thereby received. He had been fitted for regal functions by personal cleansing and spiritual gifts. And it is the man as well as the king, the sinful man much rather than the faulty king, that here wrestles with God, and stays the heavenly Visitant whom his sin has made to seem as if He would depart. What he desires most earnestly, next to that pardon which he has already sought and found, is that his spirit should be made holy by God’s Spirit. That is, as I have said, the central petition of his threefold prayer, from which the others come as natural consequences.

And what is this ‘holiness’ which David so earnestly desires? Without attempting any lengthened analysis of the various shades of meaning in the word, our purpose will be served if I point out that in all probability the primary idea in it is that of separation. God is holy-that is, separated by all the glory of His perfect nature from His creatures. Things are holy-that is, separated from common uses, and appropriated to God’s service. Whatever He laid His hand on and claimed in any especial manner for His, became thereby holy, whether it were a ceremony, or a place, or a tool. Men are holy when they are set apart for God’s service, whether they be officially consecrated for certain offices, or have yielded themselves by an inward devotion based on love to be His.

The ethical signification which is predominant in our use of the word and has made it little more than a synonym for moral purity is certainly not the original meaning, as is sufficiently clear from the fact that the word is applied to material things which could have no moral qualities, and sometimes to persons who were not pure, but who were in some sense or other set apart for God’s service. But gradually that meaning becomes more and more completely attached to the word, and ‘holiness’ is not only separation for God, but separation from sin. That is what David longs for in this prayer; and the connection of these two meanings of the word is worth pointing out in a sermon, for the sake of the great truth which it suggests, that the basis of all rightness and righteousness in a human spirit is its conscious and glad devotion to God’s service and uses. A reference to God must underlie all that is good in men, and on the other hand, that consecration to God is a delusion or a deception which does not issue in separation from evil.

‘Holiness’ is a loftier and a truer word than ‘morality,’ ‘virtue,’ or the like; it differs from these in that it proclaims that surrender to God is the very essence of all good, while they seek to construct a standard for human conduct, and to lay a foundation for human goodness, without regard to Him. Hence, irreligious moralists dislike the very word, and fall back upon pale, colourless phrases rather than employ it. But these are inadequate for the purpose. Man’s duties can never be summed up in any expression which omits man’s relation to God. How do I stand to Him? Do I belong to Him by joyous yielding of myself to be His instrument? That, my friends! is the question, the answer to which determines everything about me. Rightly answered, there will come all fruits of grace and beauty in the character as a natural consequence; ‘whatsoever things are lovely and of good report,’ every virtue and every praise grow from the root of consecration to God. Wrongly answered, there will come only fruits of selfishness and evil, which may simulate virtue, but the blossom shall go up in dust, and the root in stubble. Do you seek purity, nobleness, strength, and beauty of soul? Learn that all these inhere in and flow from the one act of giving up yourself to God, and in their truest perfection are found only in the spirit that is His. Holiness considered as moral excellence is the result of holiness considered as devotion to God. And learn too that holiness in both aspects comes from the operation and indwelling in our spirits of a divine Spirit, who draws away our love from self to fix it on Him, which changes our blindness into sight, and makes us by degrees like Himself, ‘holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners.’ The Spirit of the Lord is the energy which produces all righteousness and purity in human spirits.

Therefore, all our desires after what is good and true should shape themselves into the desire for that Spirit. Our prayer should be, ‘Make me separate from evil, and that I may be so, claim and keep me for Thine own. As Thou hast done with the Sabbath amongst the days, with the bare summit of the hill of the Lord’s house among the mountains, with Israel amidst the nations, so do with me; lay Thine hand upon me for Thine own. Let my spirit, O God! know its destination for Thee, its union with Thee. Then being Thine, it will be clean. Dwell in me, that I may know myself Thine. Seal me with that gracious influence which is the proof that Thou possessest me, and the pledge that I possess Thee. “Take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.”‘ So much for the chief of these petitions, which gives the ideal character in its deepest relations. There follow two other elements in the character, which on either side flow from the central source. The holy spirit in a man will be a right spirit and a free spirit. Consider these further thoughts in turn.

‘A right spirit.’ You will observe that our translators have given an alternative rendering in the margin, and as is not seldom the case, it is a better one than that adopted in the text. ‘A constant or firm spirit’ is the Psalmist’s meaning. He sees that a spirit which is conscious of its relation to God, and set free from the perturbations of sin, will be a spirit firm and settled, established and immovable in its obedience and its faith. For Him, the root of all steadfastness is in consecration to God.

And so this collocation of ideas opens the way for us to important considerations bearing upon the practical ordering of our natures and of our lives. For instance, there is no stability and settled persistency of righteous purpose possible for us, unless we are made strong because we lay hold on God’s strength, and stand firm because we are rooted in Him. Without that hold-fast, we shall be swept away by storms of calamity or by gusts of passion. Without that to steady us, our own boiling lusts and desires will make every fibre of our being quiver and tremble. Without that armour, there will not be solidity enough in our character to bear without breaking the steady pressure of the world’s weight, still less the fierce hammering of special temptation. To stand erect, and in that sense to have a right spirit-one that is upright and unbent-we must have sure footing in God, and have His energy infused into our shrinking limbs. If we are to be stable amidst earthquakes and storms, we must be built on the rock, and build rock-like upon it. Build thy strength upon God. Let His Holy Spirit be the foundation of thy life, and then thy tremulous and vagrant soul will be braced and fixed. The building will become like the foundation, and will grow into ‘a tower of strength that stands four-square to every wind.’ Rooted in God, thou shalt be unmoved by ‘the loud winds when they call’; or if still the tremulous leaves are huddled together before the blast, and the swaying branches creak and groan, the bole will stand firm and the gnarled roots will not part from their anchorage, though the storm-giant drag at them with a hundred hands. The spirit of holiness will be a firm spirit.

But there is another phase of connection between these two points of the ideal character-if my spirit is to be holy and to preserve its holiness, it must be firm. That is to say, you can only get and keep purity by resistance. A man who has not learned to say ‘No!’-who is not resolved that he will take God’s way in spite of every dog that can bay or bark at him, in spite of every silvery voice that woos him aside-will be a weak and a wretched man till he dies. In such a world as this, with such hearts as ours, weakness is wickedness in the long run. Whoever lets himself be shaped and guided by anything lower than an inflexible will, fixed in obedience to God, will in the end be shaped into a deformity and guided to wreck and ruin. Dreams however rapturous, contemplations however devout, emotions however deep and sacred, make no man pure and good without hard effort, and that to a large extent in the direction of resistance. Righteousness is not a mere negative idea, and Scripture morality is something much deeper than prohibitions. But there is no law for us without prohibitions, and no righteousness without casting out evil that is strong in us, and fighting against evil that is attractive around us. Therefore we need firmness to guard holiness, to be the hard shell in which the rich fruit matures. We need a wholesome obstinacy in the right that will neither be bribed nor coaxed nor bullied, nor anyhow persuaded out of the road in which we know that we should walk. ‘Add to your faith manly vigour.’ Learn that an indispensable requisite of holiness is prescribed in that command, ‘Whom resist, steadfast in the faith.’ And remember that the ground of all successful resistance and the need for it are alike taught in that series of petitions, which makes a holy spirit the foundation of a constant spirit, and a constant spirit the guard of a holy spirit.

Then consider, for a moment, the third element in the character which David longs to possess-a free spirit. He who is holy because full of God’s Spirit, and constant in his holiness, will likewise be ‘free.’ That is the same word which is in other places translated ‘willing’-and the scope of the Psalmist’s desire is, ‘Let my spirit be emancipated from sin by willing obedience.’ This goes very deep into the heart of all true godliness. The only obedience which God accepts is that which gladly, and almost as by an instinctive inward impulse, harmonises the human will with the divine. ‘Lo! I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me, I delight to do Thy will, and Thy law is within my heart.’ That is a blessed thought, that we may come to do Him service not because we must, but because we like; not as serfs, but as sons; not thinking of His law as a slave-driver that cracks his whip over our heads, but as a friend that lets us know how we may please Him whom it is our delight to obey. And so the Psalmist prays, ‘Let my obedience be so willing that I had rather do what Thou wilt than anything besides.’

Then ,’ he thinks, ‘I shall be free.’ Of course-for the correlative of freedom is lawful authority, and the definition of freedom is willing submission. If for us duty is joy, and all our soul’s desires flow with an equable motion parallel to the will of God, then there is no sense of restraint in keeping within the limits beyond which we do not seek to go. The willing spirit sets us free, free from the ‘ancient solitary reign’ of the despot Self, free from the mob rule of passions and appetites, free from the incubus of evil habits, free from the authority of men’s voices and examples. Obedience is freedom to them that have learned to love the lips that command. We are set free that we may serve: ‘O Lord! truly I am Thy servant; Thou hast loosed my bonds.’ We are set free in serving: ‘I will walk at liberty, for I keep Thy precepts.’ Let a willing, free spirit uphold me.

II. Observe, too, that desires for holiness should become prayers.

David does not merely long for certain spiritual excellences; he goes to God for them. And his reasons for doing so are plain. If you will look at the former verses of this psalm, you will see that he had found out two things about his sin, both of which make him sure that he can only be what he should be by God’s help. He had learned what his crimes were in relation to God, and he had further learned what they indicated about himself. The teaching of his bitter experience as to the former of these two matters lies in that saying which some people have thought strange. ‘Against Thee only have I sinned.’ What! Had he not committed a crime against human law? had he not harmed Uriah and Bathsheba? were not his deeds an offence to his whole kingdom? Yes, he knew all that; but he felt that over and above all that was black in his deed, considered in its bearing upon men, it was still blacker when it was referred to God; and a sadder word than ‘crime’ or ‘fault’ had to be used about it. I have done wrong as against my fellows, but worse than that, I have sinned against God. The notion of sin implies the notion of God. Sin is wilful transgression of the law of God . An atheist can have no conception of sin. But bring God into human affairs, and men’s faults immediately assume the darker tint, and become men’s sins. Therefore the need of prayer if these evils are to be blotted out. If I had done crime against man only, I should not need to ask God for pardon or cleansing; but I have sinned against Him, and done this evil in His sight, therefore my desires for deliverance address themselves to Him, and my longings for purity must needs break into the cry of entreaty to that God with whom are forgiveness and redemption from all iniquity.

And still further, looking at the one deed, he sees in it something more than an isolated act. It leads him down to its motive; that motive carries him to the state of mind in which it could have power; that state of mind, in which the motive could have power, carries him still deeper to the bias of his nature as he had received it from his parents. And thinking of how he had fallen, how upon his terraced palace roof there the eye had inflamed the heart, and the heart had yielded so quickly to the temptations of the eye, he finds no profounder explanation of the disastrous eclipse of goodness than this: ‘Behold! I was shapen in iniquity.’

Is that a confession or a palliation, do you think? Is he trying to shuffle off guilt from his own shoulders? By no means, for these words are the motive for the prayer, ‘Purge me, and I shall be clean.’ That is to say, he has learned that isolated acts of sin inhere in a common root, and that root a disposition inherited from generation to generation to which evil is familiar and easy, to which good, alas! is but too alien and unwelcome. None the less is the evil done his deed. None the less has he to wail in full consciousness of his individual responsibility: ‘Against Thee have I sinned.’ But the effect of this second discovery, that sin has become so intertwisted with his being that he cannot shake off the venomous beast into the fire and feel no harm, is the same as that of the former-to drive him to God, who alone can heal the nature and separate the poison from his blood.

Dear friends! there are some of you who are wasting your lives in paroxysms of fierce struggle with the evil that you have partially discovered in yourselves, alternating with long languor, fits of collapse and apathy, and who make no solid advance, just because you will not lay to heart these two convictions-your sin has to do with God, and your sins come from a sinful nature. Because of the one fact, you must go to God for pardon; because of the other, you must go to God for cleansing. There, in your heart, like some black well-head in a dismal bog, is the source of all the swampy corruption that fills your life. You cannot stanch it, you cannot drain it, you cannot sweeten it. Ask Him, who is above your nature and without it, to change it by His own new life infused into your spirit. He will heal the bitter waters. He alone can. Sin is against God; sin comes from an evil heart; therefore, if your longings for that ideal perfectness are ever to be fulfilled, you must make prayers of them, and cry to Him who hears, ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God! take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.’

III. Finally, observe that prayers for perfect cleansing are permitted to the lips of the greatest sinners.

Such longings as these might seem audacious, when the atrocity of the crime is remembered, and by man’s standard they are so. Let the criminal be thankful for escape, and go hide himself, say men’s pardons. But here is a man, with the evil savour of his debauchery still tainting him, daring to ask for no mere impunity, but for God’s choicest gifts. Think of his crime, think of its aggravations from God’s mercies to him, from his official position, from his past devotion. Remember that this cruel voluptuary is the sweet singer of Israel, who had taught men songs of purer piety and subtler emotion than the ruder harps of older singers had ever flung from their wires. And this man, so placed, so gifted, set up on high to be the guiding light of the nation, has plunged into the filth of these sins, and quenched all his light there. When he comes back penitent, what will he dare to ask? Everything that God can give to bless and gladden a soul. He asks for God’s Spirit, for His presence, for the joy of His salvation; to be made once again, as he had been, the instrument that shall show forth His praise, and teach transgressors God’s ways. Ought he to have had more humble desires? Does this great boldness show that he is leaping very lightly over his sin? Is he presumptuous in such prayers? God be thanked-no! But, knowing all his guilt, and broken and contrite in heart crushed and ground to powder, as the words mean, utterly loathing himself, aware of all the darkness of his deserts, he yet cherishes unconquerable confidence in the pitying love of God, and believes that in spite of all his sin, he may yet be pure as the angels of heaven-ay, even holy as God is holy.

Thank God we have such an example for our heartening! Lay it to heart, brethren! You cannot believe too much in God’s mercy. You cannot expect too much at His hands. He is ‘able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.’ No sin is so great but that, coming straight from it, a repentant sinner may hope and believe that all God’s love will be lavished upon him, and the richest of God’s gifts be granted to his desires. Even if our transgression is aggravated by a previous life of godliness, and have given the enemies great occasion to blaspheme, as David’s did, yet David’s penitence may in our souls lead on to David’s hope, and the answer will not fail us. Let no sin, however dark, however repeated, drive us to despair of ourselves, because it hides from us our loving Saviour. Though beaten back again and again by the surge of our passions and sins, like some poor shipwrecked sailor sucked back with every retreating wave and tossed about in the angry surf, yet keep your face towards the beach, where there is safety, and you will struggle through it all, and though it were but on some floating boards and broken pieces of the ship, will come safe to land. He will uphold you with His Spirit, and take away the weight of sin that would sink you, by His forgiving mercy, and bring you out of all the weltering waste of waters to the solid shore.

So whatever thy evil behaviour, come with it all, and cast thyself before Him, with whom is plenteous redemption. Embrace in one act the two truths, of thine own sin and of God’s infinite mercy in Jesus Christ. Let not the one blind you to the other; let not the one lead you to a morbid despondency, which is blind to Christ, nor the other to a superficial estimate of the deadliness of sin, which is blind to thine own self. Let the Cross teach thee what sin is, and let the dark background of thy sin bring into clear prominence the Cross that bringeth salvation. Know that thou art utterly black and sinful. Believe that God is eternally, utterly, inconceivably, merciful. Learn both, in Him who is the Standard by which we can estimate our sin, and the Proof and Medium of God’s mercy. Trust thyself and all thy foulness to Jesus Christ; and, so doing, look up from whatsoever horrible pit and miry clay thou mayest have fallen into, with this prayer, ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God! and renew a right spirit within me, take not Thy Holy Spirit from me, and uphold me with Thy free Spirit.’ Then the answer shall come to you from Him who ever puts the best robe upon His returning prodigals, and gives His highest gifts to sinners who repent. ‘From all your filthiness will I cleanse you, a new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you, and I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes.’

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Bibliographical Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Psalms 51". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/mac/psalms-51.html.