The Saint’s Prayer
of Confession

a brief study of Psalm 51, adapted from PCC Prayer Meeting Exhortation on 18 April 2008

Psalm 51 is one of the most famous psalms. Very few of us would not know off-hand that it was written on the occasion of David’s sin of adultery with Bathsheba.

The title of the Psalm reads:

To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

One day when David’s army had gone to war, David was idling upon the rooftop of his palace when he spied Bathsheba taking a bath in a pool near by. He summoned for her and committed adultery with her. Then to cover up his sin, he summoned Uriah her husband back from the battlefield in order that he might sleep with her so that no one would suspect that the child she was bearing was his.

His plan did not work because Uriah,—who was a principled man and a loyal soldier,—could not get himself to sleep with his wife while his men were suffering in the field.

Adding sin upon sin, David then got his general Joab to put Uriah where the fighting was fiercest. It was a plot have Uriah killed. David essentially murdered Uriah so that he might marry his wife.

A year later, the Lord revealed what had happened to the prophet Nathan. Nathan approached David with a parable about a rich man who killed the beloved lamb of a poor man to entertain a traveller. David had responded with anger that the rich man must pay fourfold. It was then that Nathan said: “Thou art the man!” David was immediately struck in his conscience and cried “I have sinned against the LORD” (2 Sam 12:13).

From that moment David was under deep conviction for his sins. In the days following, David wrote two Psalms, namely Psalms 32[1] and 51. Most likely, Psalm 51 was written immediately after Nathan the prophet rebuked him, whereas Psalm 32 was probably written later when he had fully confessed his sins, and knew that he was forgiven, so that he was ready to keep his promise to teach transgressors the Lord’s ways (cf. v. 13).

This is a psalm that every believer may use when he is grieved due to a sin in his life.

But the question may be asked,—especially to those of us who believe that the Psalms are all Messianic,—whether this psalm could even be taken up in the lips of our Holy Saviour who was tempted at all points like as we are and yet without sin?

Could our Lord have sung it? Could it reflect the experience and thought life of our Saviour? Well, I must confess that I don’t know of any commentator who would venture to say that Psalm 51 reflects the thought and experience of our Saviour. Andrew Bonar wrote a beautiful statement to show how Psalm 32 could apply to Christ. He says:

We generally take up this Psalm as if it was for the members of Christ alone; but we should not forget that the Head himself traversed the way of forgiveness. He stood for us, in our room, in our very place. He stood as substitute, and all the sins of all “that great multitude which no man can number” were upon him.… In this state He acknowledged our sin; it was only ours he had to acknowledge; he spread it out before God on the cross; he continued to do so till it was forgiven him as our substitute.

But when it comes to Psalm 51, which I believe was written on the same occasion, Bonar denies that it could have been taken up by our Lord. I think the verse that tips the scale must be verse 5—

5 Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Well, I think it is still possible that these words could have been taken up by our Lord—just as our Lord sought baptism though he had no sin, nor need of repentance.

Nevertheless, I think that this Psalm is best taken not as directly expressing our Lord’s thought on the cross and so to be used by us in empathy with His suffering. Rather, it should be taken as a Psalm given by our LORD to sing and to express our guilt and grief; and our Lord would have used it in empathy with us.

Therefore, it is profitable for us to apply this psalm directly to ourselves, and to sing it, thinking of our own sin rather the sin of David or the suffering of our Lord for our sin.

This psalm has 3 stanzas corresponding to the 3 simple responses that the child of God should have whenever he is convicted of his sin, namely (1) a plea for mercy; (2) a plea for restoration and (3) a plea for forgiveness.

1. Plea for Mercy

This is essentially what David is doing in verses 1-6.

1 Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.

David begins by appealing to the loving kindness and tender-mercies of the LORD. This is what we must do whenever we come to the Lord in contrition, for ultimately, sin makes us abominable and disqualifies us from every blessing.

We have no right to ask for anything. So we can only appeal to the Lord on the basis of his mercy and loving-kindness, recognising that God is not obliged to hear our cries.

But we go to the LORD on the basis of what He has revealed to us about Himself, namely that he is merciful and kind.

So David goes to the LORD, humbly acknowledging his sin.

2 Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.

Notice how David speaks about his sin. He had sinned grievously against Bathsheba and especially against Uriah. But notice how he says, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned.”

David is certainly not saying that he did no wrong against Bathesheba and Uriah. But sin ultimately is a transgression of God’s law. David recognises that above and beyond the wrong and hurt that he had inflicted upon Bathesheba and Uriah and his loved ones, he had sinned against God.

This, dear reader, is one very important aspect of contrition that we must learn from David. It is one thing to be sorry to those whom we sinned against. And indeed, we must be sorry. But it is quite another thing to acknowledge to the LORD how we had betrayed his love and sinned against Him.

And if we recognise that we have sinned against the LORD, then we must also, with David, acknowledge that whatever chastisement or punishment that the LORD may mete out to us will definitely be just. For God is merciful and kind. He does not “[deal] with us after our sins; nor [reward] us according to our iniquities” (Ps 103:10).

And we have sinned from the time we were born into this world. We have not followed God’s commandments, contrary to His will. We have not pleased God, but rather have brought shame to His name. And worse still, we tend to be defensive and blind to our own faults when sin is exposed. But the LORD would have us to be totally honest when we come to confession:

 5 Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me. 6 Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.

David, you must understand, is not trying to shift blame to his mother. He is simply acknowledging that he is a sinner, and that he is prone to minimise his sin and to lie to himself and to others about his own sinfulness. But God is not mocked, and therefore David comes to him with an open heart that the Lord may show him wisdom and honesty and full contrition.

Let us learn to plead for mercy like as David—not giving excuses, not minimising our sin, not bargaining with God about what He may or may not do to us for our sin, and not hiding anything. Let us be wholehearted in our confession.

And let us not only plead for mercy, but let us also plead for restoration as David did…

2. Plea for Restoration

Many professing believers may ask God for forgiveness when they fall into a particular sin. But they would not go further than that—because they did not seem to have lost anything.

I mean, they had lived a life of hypocrisy and practical atheism. Sin took nothing away from them except their honour in the eyes of man. Sin punctured their pride, but does nothing else more. A chicken will never understand what the eagle loses when it breaks its wings.

David was different. He was a child of God who knew what he had lost by his sin and was seeking to be restored. He had experienced the blessing of fellowship with God. He knew the joy of salvation. He knew what it is to be living a life of enjoying and glorifying God. He knew the thrill of leading sinners to the LORD, as he showed them the way of righteousness.

So he cries:

7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice. 9 Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.  11 Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me. 12 Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit. 13 Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.

Beloved brethren and children, do you understand David’s concerns and desires? Do you know what David meant by “the joy of salvation”? If not, may I encourage you to go to the LORD to plead with him sincerely as David did to give you the joy and blessing that every child of God should experience.

And likewise, if you have lost that joy, and know that it is due a particular sin, then I would beseech you not to wallow in sin, but to go to the Lord to lift you up. He is a merciful God who forgave David, even David for the gross sins that he committed.

Yes, go to Him not because you are good enough or that you deserve forgiveness. Go to Him to plead for forgiveness on account of Christ.

Plead as David did in the final stanza of this psalm:

3. Plea for Forgiveness

14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness. 15 O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise. 16 For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.  17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

David knew that He was guilty. He knew that he deserved to be pursued and punished for his sin. But he also understood, albeit in a shadowy way, how there is forgiveness in the true worshipper in order that we may fellowship with God.

This is the reason why the Messiah must come. All the Old Testament sacrifices pointed to the one sacrifice of the Messiah, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

This is the reason why David said that God does not desire sacrifice. Animal sacrifices without repentance and faith in the Messiah are meaningless. On the other hand, those who worship in union with the Messiah are enabled to worship in spirit and in truth so that out of their contrite hearts and lips would pour forth sweet savour sacrifices pleasing to the LORD.

David is therefore, indirectly, seeking the forgiveness of the LORD on the basis of the perfect sacrifice of the Messiah.

And even as he pleads for forgiveness, he asks the LORD to bless His church.… for that is the reason why Christ came. Christ came to redeem His bride, the church. He came to save her from her sins (cf. Eph 5:25).

18 Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem. 19 Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.

The sacrifice of the church is only as acceptable as the sincerity of the members of the church.

Every member of the church must be mindful that his sin is no a private matter, for when one suffers, all suffer. When Achan sinned, Israel could not defeat Ai.

Today, it is the same. For this reason, we must not only seek forgiveness for the sake of our personal enjoyment of God. We must seek forgiveness for Christ’s sake—who is the Head of the church of whom we are members.


Let us, beloved brethren and children, learn from David. Let us abhor ourselves when we sin against the LORD. Let us plead His mercy. Let us plead for restoration and let us seek forgiveness for sake of Christ and His church. Amen.

—JJ Lim


[1]Most commentators suppose that David composed this Psalm when he obtained forgiveness from God after his adultery with Bathsheba, and the death of Uriah, to which that sin led. The correctness of this view can scarcely be called in question” (Hengstenberg’s Commentary on the Psalms, [T&T Clark, 1869], 508).