Confession in prayer to God equates to admission of guilt to a superior. When one admits guilt, he or she declares liability, and eligibility for whatever punishments accrue to the crime. Confession, while it may result in punishment, often results in restoration of relationships and the lifting of the burden of guilt from one’s soul. In twelve-step programs, one must confess to others how he or she has wronged them as part of the process of recovery. This concept applies also in confessional prayers, for as David states in Psalm 51, our sin, whomever it may hurt, is an offense against God.
Psalm 51, as described in its title, contains King David’s confession of sin after his adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent ordering of her husband’s death. The writing of the Psalm would have followed the Prophet Nathan’s confrontation of the king in 2 Samuel 12. While the title is not part of the original text, and several verses within the psalm cause doubt as to whether it was written in David’s lifetime, most of it fits extremely well the state of mind elsewhere ascribed to David after he realized the extent of his sin.
Among the intriguing aspects of this prayer is its chiastic structure. That fancy phrase merely indicates that several words appear in an abccba fashion. “Blot out” appears in verses 1 and 9; “wash” and “purify” appear in verses 2 and 7. This pattern indicates David’s passionate interest in God’s forgiving him. He prays for God to wash him and make him clean. In the middle of the chiasm, David confesses his sin. He states that he has sinned against God alone. While David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed to cover up the affair, he states here that in its most basic level, his offense was against God. He knows his sin; he admits that he deserves whatever judgment God will levy against him.
Verses 5 and 6 have engendered considerable discussion as to whether they suggest the concept of innate sin, that David was guilty of sin before he was born. According to Jonathan Magonet in his book, “A Rabbi Reads the Psalms,” this concept is not part of Jewish biblical interpretation. He states that a translation more in accordance with good Hebrew usage and thought would be something like “If I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me [more a hypothetical statement], behold, you desire truth in the inward being; teach me wisdom in my secret heart [what God requires in any case].” Magonet states, “No excuse based on his birth is acceptable. What God desires is honesty and integrity” (p. 116).
The latter verses of the Psalm reveal the end state of the Psalmist’s quest: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and sustain in me a willing spirit” (51:7-12).
David renews his request for ritual and actual cleaning. He wants deliverance from the consequences of bloodshed and the potential of revenge (51:14). He entwines his petitions with promises to God of his behavior once God restores their previous good relationship. He will teach other sinners God’s ways. He will confess in song what God has done for him. He will declare God’s praise.
David’s prayer reveals his awareness that God does not need him to sacrifice an animal on the altar to atone for his sin; God wants him to bring a broken and contrite heart. The closing verses disclose that ritual sacrifices remained part of acceptable worship to God, but only when accompanied with a clean heart. Faith, humility (turning of the heart or repentance), and confession precede ritual and God’s granting of forgiveness on the road to salvation.
A desperate man who knows his guilt prays this prayer in Psalm 51. He has defied the commands of a just God. He has acted as if there were no God. Now with a heart broken by his guilt, amplified by the prophet Nathan’s exposure of his sin and perhaps also by the death of the first child born to him and Bathsheba, David prays for restoration. He trusts in God’s love and mercy but he knows also God’s desire for justice.
We too sin. Like David, we may feel as if our bones are crushed by the weight of our guilt and the burden of the aftermath that resulted directly from our actions. The consequences of our sins, or even of those who sin against, may continue to shadow us. Forgiveness does not always end consequences. David would continue to suffer the rest of his life as one son raped a daughter and two others rebelled against him. We too may pray,
“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.”