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Praying the Psalms: Psalm 51

September 12, 2010
Sermon: Praying the Psalms
Text: Psalm 51

The history of praying the psalms is very rich, going all the way back, of course, to our Jewish roots.  As a part of their devotional life, the Jewish people prayed the book of Psalms.  It served as the hymnbook of ancient Israel in synagogue worship.  Because the early Christian church was derived from synagogue Judaism, it was only natural that the psalms would become a rich part of our heritage from the very first century.  The psalms were a part of the lives of the early disciples.  We also know that the psalms were so much a part of Jesus’ life.  He even called to mind from the cross the words of Psalm 22, perhaps one of his most memorable quotes: “My God!  My God!  Why have you forsaken me?”  Throughout Christian history, using the psalms in worship has been important.

In the sixth century A.D., Benedict of Nursia, whom we know as St. Benedict, started an order of monks now known as the Benedictines.  He was convinced that these monks needed to do more than merely read Scripture.  They needed a way of incorporating Scripture into their daily lives, a way of actually bringing the Scripture into their hearts and minds so that they were influenced by God’s Word, the Bible.

St. Benedict created a method of praying the Scriptures called Lectio-Divina. This technique required the monks to pause when reading the Bible, to ponder, meditate, and then form prayers with the words of the Scripture.  People in contemporary times talk about praying the Scriptures as if the technique were brand new.  Lectio-Divina is not a new idea at all.  It is a very old tried and true method that dates back to the sixth century.

I had the privilege of visiting a Benedictine monastery in South Dakota some years ago while on a mission trip to the area of the Sioux Indians, the Lakota Indians.  I had heard the Blue Cloud Abbey there had quite a collection of Native American artifacts, the material culture, which it did.  While visiting the abbey, I had an opportunity to attend a chapel service.  Praying the psalms was very much a part of the monks’ worship.  Some psalms were chanted while others were sung.

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who wrote a little book called Praying the Psalms, traces the history of the psalms as a devotional practice from ancient Judaism until current times.

In his book Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, Dietrich Bonheoffer says, “Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray.  The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.”  We all know that we can fall into a rut in our prayer lives.  We can become stuck, and our prayers all begin to sound the same.  Sometimes we say the same prayer repeatedly.  Praying the Scriptures broadens and deepens the devotion experience we derive from the life of prayer.  The psalms are rich in meditative literature, meditative thoughts.  They take us beyond mere platitudes.  They take us deep into our own hearts.  They open us up to the Word of God.

Eugene Peterson, in his book Answering God, says, “Left to ourselves, we will pray to some god who speaks what we like hearing, or to the part of God we manage to understand.  But what is critical is that we speak to God who speaks to us, and to everything He speaks to us… the psalms train us in that conversation.  The psalms force us to deal with God as He is, not as we wish He was.”

I want to encourage you as a congregation to allow the psalms to be your guide in prayer.  Consider devoting ten or fifteen minutes of your devotional time to praying the psalms.  If you take one or two psalms a day, you can work through the book of Psalms by Thanksgiving.  Resolve to try this process for about three weeks, the time needed to develop a good habit.  After reading a psalm, linger over its meaning a few minutes, letting the words sink into your heart and mind.  Then shape the words that really capture your attention into prayers.  Doing so will enrich your devotional life.  If we all practice over these next weeks, we will find that this technique will help us as a congregation, as well.

I do have one note of caution for you when praying the psalms.  In some passages, the psalmist – David in particular – makes some very harsh comments about his enemies.  For example, David prayed that God would take almost unimaginable actions against his enemies.  David prayed that God would dash the children of his enemies against rocks.

One way to approach those passages is to understand that David was seeking a kind of revenge that is not at all what Christians have been taught to do.  The key here is to seek justice.  Let those passages remind us that we are to pray for God’s justice, as well as for His mercy.  If we take that approach, even those passages can become grist for the meal so that we can include them as a part of our prayer life.

Throughout this series, our Call to Worship and Scripture reading will often include a responsive reading.  This approach will allow us to pray the psalms together as a congregation during these special worship services.  Please join me as we read Psalm 51 responsively.

Have mercy upon me, O God…
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done this evil in your sight.
You desire truth in the inward being.
In my heart, you will make me know wisdom.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean:
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Scriptures tell us that it was the season of the year when kings went to war with their armies.  David, however, behaved in a very un-kingly fashion by staying home.  One bright sunny day, he strolled out onto the roof of his palace.  From that vantage point, he could see houses below him, houses that climbed the Mount of Zion.  When David saw a beautiful woman named Bathsheba taking a bath, he desired her.  He sent aides to bring her to his chamber where the two committed adultery.

When David discovered that Bathsheba was pregnant, he devised a plan.  He ordered Joab, his general, to send Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, home.  David hoped that if this Hittite man came home from war for a little R-and-R and spent some time with his wife, he would think the child was his.  Uriah was such a faithful soldier, though, that he would not even enter his own house because the army was at war.  When his plan failed, David sent word to Joab to move Uriah to the front line during the heat of battle.  Knowing this soldier would be killed on the front line, David basically orchestrated Uriah’s murder.

King David’s sin did not stem from impulse.  It was well planned.  He was not just reacting to circumstances beyond his control.  He was very much in control.  David was actually guilty of a double sin:  committing adultery with Bathsheba and conspiring to murder Uriah.   Like many men with political power, any kind of power, David used his influence in a sinful manner.  I suppose David was caught up in being king.  He may have thought he would not get caught or that if people knew, it would not matter.  He probably thought he had actually gotten away with the two sins until Nathan, a prophet in Israel, confronted him.

Nathan was quite courageous in addressing the issue of David’s sins.  He told the king a parable about two neighbors:  a poor farmer who had but one little lamb and a rich neighbor who had large flocks with many lambs.  Nathan told David that guests arrived at the home of the rich man.   Instead of slaughtering one of his many lambs to feed his guests a meal, he slaughtered the poor man’s only lamb.

After hearing this account, the quick-tempered David ordered, “Bring that man to me!  I will see that justice is done.”

In telling this parable, Nathan did what a good prophet does; he figuratively held up a mirror and asked, “King David, do you see what I see?  You are the man.”

At that point, David realized that God also knew his sin.  David’s prayer of confession to God is the context of Psalm 51.

In the same way that the parable was for King David a mirror, Psalm 51 also becomes for us a mirror.  We look here and see our own sin, whatever it may be.  Though I do not know the details of your life, I do know that the Scriptures tell us, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  Though I do not know what your sin is, you know and so does God.

The book of James says that coming to the Scriptures is like looking into a mirror.  If we see something in ourselves that needs correcting but we do not correct it, we cannot benefit in any way.  If we see something in ourselves that needs correcting, making those corrections before God serves us very well.

We see in Psalm 51 the way in which David dealt with his sin.  We witness a three-part process of restoration, a complete change of heart on David’s part.  I know of no shortcuts for this restoration.  Scripture prescribes the way it must be.  As we look deep into his soul, we can look deep into our own soul, as well.

Contrition is the first step in the process of restoration.  The sacrifice of God is a broken spirit.  David spoke of a contrite heart, “a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” Psalm 51 says.    He had a genuine deep sorrow for his rebellion against God.  He knew that he had sinned, that he had violated two of the Ten Commandments.  He was crushed by the weight of guilt.  With a life that was spiritually bankrupt, David determined to do things differently.

Being contrite does not mean that we rationalize, excuse, or defend our sin in a way that we justify ourselves.  We do not try to fool God or anyone else.  We recognize that God demands truth and honesty.  The absolute “truth will set you free,” declares John 8:32.  Contrition is not merely feeling bad or feeling some remorse.  Contrition is not blaming the circumstances on anyone else.  It is certainly not blaming others or God.  You remember that Adam blamed Eve:  “This woman you gave me tempted me.”  Eve blamed God.  I guess they all blamed the serpent.

Some people suggest that Bathsheba may have plotted to lure the king.  David could have blamed his sin on Bathsheba, saying, “Lord, Bathsheba must have known what she was doing when she took a bath outdoors.  She must have known I would see her.”  David did not blame her though.  He assumed responsibility for his fault, his sin.

David did not blame God either.  He might have said, “God, if you had not put me in this position so that I was here in the palace, if you had not given me this vantage point, this sin would have never happened.  If I were back tending sheep, this kind of thing would not have happened.”  A contrite heart recognizes sin just as it is: a violation of God and our relationship to him, an offense against God, a type of rebellion and disobedience, a stubbornness of heart.

God is not interested in empty apologies.  He is not interested in new promises or resolutions to do better next time.  He is not interested in some attempt to balance the evil with good deeds.  The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken and contrite heart, which David brought to Him.

Do you remember the song by Jimmy Buffett, “Wasting away in Margaritaville”?  Verse 1 says, “Some people say there’s a woman to blame.  I guess it could be her fault.”  He follows that notion in the next verse with, “Some people say there’s a woman to blame, but I know it’s nobody’s fault.”  Finally in the last verse – Revised Standard Version – Buffett admits, “Some people say there’s a woman to blame, but I know it’s my fault.”

A contrite heart admits, “It’s my fault.”

Confession is the second step in the process.  David confessed, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.  Against Thee, and Thee only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Thy sight, so that Thou art justified when Thou dost speak and blameless when Thou dost judge.”

David, first of all, acknowledged to himself, “I am acquainted, and I recognize my sin.”  He came clean with himself, and then he came clean with God.  He said, “Against you, and you only, have I sinned;” but David also actually sinned against others.  He sinned against Uriah.  He sinned against Bathsheba.  He also sinned against all of his other wives.  I suppose he sinned against all those who trusted him.  His sin is, most of all, against God.

Along with this admission of guilt and confession of sin is a desire for David to make things right.  He did not look for lenience.  He did not seek permissiveness from God.  He did not look for God to relax standards.  He simply said, “I am wrong, and You are right.”  David had a correct estimate of his own sin.

In his book entitled Whatever Became of Sin? Carl Menninger, claims that we tend to call our sins “mistakes,” “errors,” “slip-ups,” or “mishaps.”  No, we must accept that sin is sin.  We have to forsake a sin that we find loathsome and disgusting, a sin that we ourselves disapprove of because it violates our own sense of integrity.  We must renounce our sin.

That realization brings us, as Christians, to the cross of Christ.  We might look at David’s actions and say, “I have never done anything that bad – no adultery, no murder.”  Let me tell you something.  The ground at the foot of the cross is level.  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  Sin has no degrees.  Sin is sin is sin is sin.  When we come to the cross, we look into the face of Jesus.  We see that excuses, blame on others, and shortcuts are not remedies.  For those of us who are Christians, the only remedy for our sin is coming to God in honesty.  The remedy is coming to Christ.

Solomon said, “He who conceals his transgression will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion” (Proverbs 28:13).  Isaiah said, “Woe to me!  I am ruined!  For I am a man of unclean lips…” (Isaiah 6:5).  Simon Peter fell at the feet of Jesus, saying, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Luke 5:8). The publican beat his chest and prayed, “God be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).  The Apostle Paul proclaimed, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – among whom I am the chief of all.” (I Timothy 1:15).  We must be contrite, and we must confess.

The third step in the process of restoration is cleansing.  David recognized the contamination of his soul.  In his desire to be cleansed, David asked God, “Cleanse me with hyssop,” an herb used to purge the body.  “I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow… Hide Thy face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.  Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

My mother used to wash my mouth out with yellow Octagon soap when I said a bad word or said something unkind.  She washed it out especially hard after I had spent any time with my grandfather.  I believe I would have rather had hyssop.  After administering this punishment, she would say, “We are going to wash all of that out.”  God wants to wash out all of the sin in our hearts, too.

David prayed, “Blot out my iniquities.  Create in me a clean heart and renew within me a right spirit.”  He knew that the heart could be more deceitful than anything else.  He knew that if he was going to get his relationship with God right, he had to have a clean heart.  The sin had to be eliminated.  The only way that joy, the joy of his salvation, could be restored to his life, was for God to use a big eraser to purge the ugliness in his life.

John wrote in his first letter, “If we confess our sins, he (God) is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).  God does exactly that.  He cleanses us.

When a new priest came to serve in a Roman Catholic church, a woman from the diocese went to the priest.  She told him, “I have seen the Lord and talked with him.  He has told me that I am to pray for you every day.  I want you to know that I am praying for you.”

The priest, quite skeptical about this woman’s claim, said, “You have seen the Lord?”

She said, “Yes.”

“And you have talked with the Lord?”


“Well, OK.  Thank you for praying for me.”

A few weeks later, the woman returned and said, “I have had another conversation with the Lord.  He wants me to tell you that He appreciates the good work you are doing for His sake among the people here.  He also wants me to tell you not to lose heart.  You have been called here for a specific purpose.”

“You mean you have seen the Lord again?”

“Yes.  I have talked to him, and that is what he told me.”

The priest confessed, “I have my doubts about this, and I want to put this to the test.  The next time you see the Lord, say to him, ‘Years ago, this priest committed a terrible sin that he told no one except you, Lord.’  Ask the Lord what that sin was.  When you see me again, I want you to tell me what the Lord said.  Then I will know that you really are seeing and conversing with him.”

When the woman came back in a few weeks, she told the priest, “I have had another conversation with the Lord.  I told Him that you said you had committed a terrible sin many years ago and that you wanted Him to tell me what it was.”

The priest looked at her and said, “And what did the Lord say?”

The woman answered, “The Lord wants you to know that you confessed that sin years ago, and He has forgotten all about it.”

Psalm 103:12 tells us, “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our sins from us and he remembers them no more.”  We talk about forgiving and forgetting.  We can forgive, but it is so hard to forget.  The Lord is capable of forgetting.

People have come to me so many times in these forty-five years as pastor and counselor, and said, “I have done the most horrible thing, something even God cannot forgive.”  It is not true.  Thinking that our sins so outweigh God’s forgiveness is a form of arrogance.  That attitude diminishes the power of God.  The truth is that God can forgive any sin, any sin, of the person who comes with a contrite heart, who offers genuine confession, and who receives the cleansing of the Lord.  He removes our sins from us, and He will “remember them no more” (Hebrews 10:17).

Corrie Ten Boom says that once we confess, God buries those sins in the deepest part of the ocean.  He puts up a “No Fishing” sign.  The sins are over.  They are gone.

We do not have to live with a constant burden of guilt.  We see another way here in Psalm 51 by examining King David, who committed adultery and conspiracy to commit murder.  It is amazing that Scripture can say that this man, who committed those sins, was a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:13-14).  David’s sins were forgiven.  Your sins can be forgiven, and so can mine.  We are forgiven by the grace of God.  It is not our doing.  It is not something we can make happen.  We simply come to Jesus Christ, the Savior who died for every sin and every sinner.  When we accept that, we have the forgiveness of God.

Have you received that kind of forgiveness in your life?  It is available to you.  All you have to do is accept Jesus Christ as your Savior.  He wants to receive you into his kingdom.  We invite you to make that decision.

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