Psalm 51, Day 1 – Clean to Death

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Today’s Passage: Psalm 51

Today we flip back to the Triad study with a new theme and a new passage for the week. We’re looking at Psalm 51, which the authors of the study chose to illustrate God’s grace as it leads us to repentance, and which David wrote in response to his sin of adultery with Bathsheba. It’s a plea for cleansing and renewal, a desire to be set right.

My initial insight into the passage isn’t even my own. In the Multiply book that supplements the Triad study, Pastor Stephen Kirk observes David’s choice of vocabulary: “Poetically choosing [just] about every Hebrew word for ‘make clean,’ David understands that his only hope is God’s great mercy” (Multiply 41). And when you look at it for yourself, you see David’s diversity of expression around the theme: “blot out” (1), “wash,” “cleanse” (2), “purify…and I shall be clean,” then “wash” again (7), another “blot out” (9), and finally “create in me a clean heart” (10). David recognizes his desperate need for a trip to the spiritual laundromat, and only God has the change for the washing machine.

But that observation, in turn, led me to another thought. Violations of the Mosaic Law were covered by sacrifices to restore purity, as we see in Leviticus 5:1-6. But adultery is a sufficiently serious offense that it’s included in the Ten Commandments, and it carries a different consequence: “If there is a man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, one who commits adultery with his friend’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10). To set things right when a person touches a corpse or lies by omission, make an animal sacrifice. To set things right when a person commits adultery: capital punishment. And for murder, which David committed indirectly by arranging for Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to die in battle? Death penalty again: “If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death at the evidence of witnesses, but no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness” (Numbers 35:30). By all rights, David should have died for his violation of God’s law.

But he didn’t. And superficially, we might chalk it up to God’s grace and forgiveness, or a go a step further and recognize that Jesus Christ’s death by crucifixion pays for every sin where we merit the death penalty, past, present, and future. But beyond that, we might observe that Nathan the prophet, whoever chronicled the circumstances of David’s adultery in 2 Samuel 11-12, and anyone else aware of David’s sin failed to execute the punishment mandated by law. Did those involved sin by failing to execute judgment? Did Nathan assess the situation and consider himself politically hamstrung to bring the king to justice? We might conclude that even as God forgives his sin, his royal position protects David from the earthly consequences of his sin: as the saying goes, it’s good to be king. Even so, the child of David’s adultery gets sick and dies, and soon after, David watches his legacy of sexual misconduct unfold as his own children commit not just adultery, but incestuous rape (2 Samuel 13:1-22).

But on the flip side, God has preserved the story of David’s adultery as a cautionary tale for us, and he’s preserved Psalm 51 as a picture of repentance and reliance on God to cleanse us when we contaminate ourselves with evil. Later, David had another son with Bathsheba, now his wife, and that son became Israel’s wisest king, the author of several proverbs and one book of profoundly amorous poetry. The circumstances of this Psalm’s composition are a spaghetti bowl of good and evil, all tangled up in each other. If they illustrate one thing, it’s that turning away from sin isn’t a single act of repentance, committed in a single moment. It’s a struggle to hold onto an attitude of humility and a desire for cleansing, and as a process, it may take years upon years.

2 thoughts on “Psalm 51, Day 1 – Clean to Death

  1. “it’s good to be king” and “it’s bad to have a king” (other than God Himself). Remember Israel only got a king over Samuel’s (and God’s) protest and severe warning. (I Sam 8)

    “his royal position protects David from the earthly consequences of his sin”. Not that it *should* but it *does*. Being king lets him enslave your children, take (some of) your goods, cattle, labor, freedom. Lets him order the battle as he sees fit, even if it kills someone whose wife he wants to have for himself. Legally, he didn’t murder Uriah, he just had bad battle plans. Morally, of course, he did. But God (through Nathan) holds him to account for the taking of Uriah’s lamb, not for killing Uriah. Being an orderer of battle was his job, even if he could abuse it. Better that the job didn’t exist, as was God’s plan for Israel before they rejected Him.

    What gets me is who pays the price for his (and Bathsheba’s) sin? Their child??? How is that just? It’s like the label ‘bastard’. Of the three people involved, father, mother, child, who sinned? NOT the one that gets labeled!


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