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May 5, 2019

Sermon Psalm 51 . . .“Bible songs:  Have mercy on me, O God”

“Bible songs:  Have mercy on me, O God”

Psalm 51

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.

Back in the late 1800’s, author Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote a book called, Crime and Punishment.  And in that book, he told the story of a man named Rodion Raskolnikov, a poor, 23 year-old, former law student, who lived in a tiny, rented room in St. Petersburg, Russia.  And he was so poor that he devised a plan to rob and kill an elderly pawnbroker.  After all, he told himself, she was old and cruel, and he badly needed the money.

So the very next night, he stole an axe, then went to her apartment.  Then he killed her and her half-sister too, and somehow managed to sneak back to the safety of his own apartment.  Then he hid what he stole, and fell asleep, exhausted.

The next morning, out of the blue, he was summoned to the police station--not about the murder, but about a debt he owed his landlady.  Then when he heard them talking about the murder, he fainted, making them wonder just who he was and how much he knew.  Afraid they’d come to search his apartment, he hid the stolen goods under a building block in an empty yard.

What follows then are days and weeks of mental and spiritual anguish.  Everyone, including his family, his doctor, and even a young police detective named Porfiry, notices that whenever the subject of the murders comes up, he either faints or becomes extremely uncomfortable.  Even worse, an old artist mutters to him under his breath, “murderer.”

Finally, when he can’t stand the guilt anymore, he confesses, first to a friend, then to the police.  He’s sentenced to eight years of hard labor in Siberia.

Crime and punishment.  The Bible talks a lot about it too.  Think, for example, of the words of Exodus chapter 21.  It says:  “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”  Or the words of Genesis chapter 9:  “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”

And in the words of Psalm 51, we find yet another example of crime and punishment.  But this time, of all places, it’s within the palace walls of the king.

Please turn in your Bible to page 601, as I read our text.  I’ll start where it says, “Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God,” Psalm 51:  “To the choirmaster.  A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.  Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your steadfast love; according to Your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.  Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!  For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.  Against You, You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You may be justified in Your words and blameless in Your judgment.”

Let me stop there for just a moment.

As you probably already know by now, there are many different kinds of psalms in the Bible.  There are psalms of praise, like Psalm 145:  “I will exalt You, my God the King; I will praise Your name forever and ever.”  There are psalms of thanksgiving, like Psalm 106:  “O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever.”  And there are psalms of lament, like Psalm 22:  “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”

And among those many kinds of psalms, there are also penitential psalms--seven of them to be exact--like Psalm 6:  “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled,” and Psalm 32:  “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.’”

But this psalm, Psalm 51, is different from the other penitential psalms, for here we know exactly who wrote it and why it was written.

It was of this psalm that a Bible commentator named Strigelius wrote:  “This psalm is the brightest gem in the whole book, and contains instruction so large, and doctrine so precious, that the tongue of angels could not do justice to the full development.”  And it was of this psalm that Luther wrote:  “A knowledge of this psalm is necessary and useful in many ways.  It contains instruction about...repentance, sin, grace, and justification, as well as the worship we ought to render to God.”  And he wrote:  “These are divine and heavenly doctrines.  Unless they are taught by the Holy Spirit, they cannot enter the heart of man.”

Let’s look again at the text:  “To the choirmaster.  A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”

If you know the story, and you most likely do, you know that it all began rather innocently.  As the Bible says in the book of II Samuel:  “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel.  And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah.  But David remained at Jerusalem.”

Now those few words tell us something.  They tell us that, by this time, David was, most likely, a little older.  Once upon a time, he was a slingshotting, swashbuckling, songwriting soldier, fighting Goliath, and dodging the wrath of King Saul.  But not anymore.  Now he’s a king with a kingdom to run, and a family to care for.  And as his soldiers marched off to war, he stayed in the safety and comfort of home.

Then what?  The Bible says:  “It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful.”

Apparently, David, the old warrior, the “man after God’s own heart,” the writer and singer of psalms, got a little tired of channel surfing one night, of watching talk shows and soap operas, that he went out for a little stroll on the veranda.

And lo and behold, what did he see?  You guessed it!  Not just any woman, but, as the Bible called her, “a very beautiful woman.”

And what did he do?  He could have looked the other way.  After all, he already had more wives and concubines than he could count.

But that’s not what he did.  Instead, as the Bible says, he not only asked about her, he sent for her.  And why not?  I mean, he was the king, after all.  And whatever the king wants, the king gets.  That’s why they call him the king!

But this wasn’t just any girl.  This was Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam.  Who’s Eliam?  One of David’s fiercest and most trusted fighting men.  And she was the wife of Uriah, not the Israelite, a man of his own nation, but Uriah the Hittite.

Now we’re not exactly sure what happened next, but we can take a pretty good guess.  Just as soon as he sent for her, she came.  And after a couple of gin and tonics and some friendly conversation, one thing led to another.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  And before anyone knew what happened, off she snuck into the night.

One month passed, then another, then one more.  That’s when she knew she couldn’t hide it anymore.  So she sent word to the palace, to the king himself.  It was just a note with two simple words.  In Hebrew, it read, “anoki harah,” “I’m pregnant,” signed, “B.”

Uh oh.  Trouble.  But no big deal.  We’re talking David here.  He’s handled all kinds of trouble before.  What’s a little unplanned pregnancy?

And after a moment’s thought, he knew exactly what to do!  Call Uriah home from battle.  A little time away, a little “R and R,” would do any soldier good.  Besides, it’s the least a king could do for one of his most trusted fighting men!

But things didn’t go quite as well as David planned.  Instead, the plot thickened and the story sickened.  And faster than you can say, “How could you?” Uriah was dead, and David, magnanimous king that he was, took Bathsheba home to be his wife.

Now he would have gotten away with it.  No one would have been the wiser.  But while he knew he could hide so many things from others, he couldn’t hide anything from God!

So one day, Nathan, the prophet, asked for a moment’s time.  “Of course!” David said.  “Good to see you!  You’ve been well?  It’s been a long time.”

And with a sad and solemn look in his eyes, Nathan said, “Let me tell you a story, about two men--one rich and the other poor.  Now the rich man had many flocks and herds, but the poor man had just one little ewe lamb, that lived with him and grew up with him and his children.  It drank from his cup and slept in his arms.

“And one day, a traveler came to visit that rich man.  But the rich man refused to take one from his own flock to feed him.  Instead, he took the poor man’s lamb and killed it and prepared it for the man who had come to visit him.”

And what did David say?  He said:  “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

And in that moment, Nathan took a deep breath, looked him in the eye, and said:  “You are the man!  Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, I delivered you out of the hand of Saul.  I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives and would have given you so much more.  But now because you struck down Uriah the Hittite and took his wife to be your wife, the sword will never depart from your house, and the child who is born to you will die.”

It was the deepest, darkest, and most dreadful moment of his life.

So he wrote a psalm, the deepest and most powerful psalm he ever wrote.  As it says in verse 1:  “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your steadfast love; according to Your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.  Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!  For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.  Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You may be justified in Your words and blameless in Your judgment.”

Notice what David does here, or rather what he doesn’t do.  He doesn’t make excuses.  He doesn’t play the “blame game.”  And never once does he say, “Boys will be boys!”

Instead, he said in verse 3:  “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”  Verse 10:  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”  Verse 11:  “Cast me not away from Your presence, and take not Your Holy Spirit from me.”  And verse 15:  “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise.”

There’s quite a lot this story of David and Bathsheba and this psalm can teach us.  I’ll leave you with this.

While you sit so quietly in your pew, all might seem perfectly fine on the outside.  You’ve got it together and life is okay.  But there are sins and secrets hiding inside, things you regret, things you’re ashamed of, things you don’t ever want to talk about.  And while none of us knows what they are, God does.  

And let me tell you, it doesn’t matter how many worship services you attend or good deeds you do, your “goodness” can never be good enough.  You’re a sinner who needs a Savior.

But if God can help David, a murdering adulterer, find grace, He can help you find it too.

To put it another way, how far can we go in sin before God will not forgive us?  The answer is, no one knows, because no one has ever gone that far.

A few years back, two women, Laura Barnett and Sandra Spannan, dressed in white, stood outside a storefront in downtown Manhattan, and asked people to unburden their souls.  And stenciled on the glass behind them were the words:  “Air your dirty laundry.  100% confidential.  Anonymous.  Free!”

And as people passed by, she offered them a clipboard with a blank sheet of paper.  And hundreds took that clipboard--executives and street people, couriers and secretaries, shoppers and joggers.  And each, in turn, wrote down their sins and secrets, then handed it back.  Then Laura and Sandra taped those sheets of paper onto the glass for all to see.

One wrote:  “I’m dating a married man and getting financial compensation for the guilt.  I’m 25 years old and he’s a millionaire.”  Another wrote:  “I have AIDS.”  And another wrote:  “I just started an affair.”

You can post all your sins and secrets on a glass in downtown Manhattan, but it won’t do you a bit of good.  But you can post them, no matter how dark or dreadful, on Calvary’s cross.  And there you’ll find forgiveness.

As Paul once wrote to the Colossians:  “But you, who were dead in your trespasses, God made alive, canceling the record of debt, nailing it to the cross.”


Have mercy on us, O God, according to Your steadfast love.  Wash us thoroughly, and cleanse us from our sin.  Open our lips, and our mouths will declare Your praise, for Jesus’ sake.  Amen

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