Old Testament Religion - Psalm 51:12

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield

Psa. 51:12: "Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation."

"and David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the Lord. And Nathan said unto David, The Lord also hath put away thy sin." It may almost seem that David escaped from his crime too easily. We may read the narrative and fail to observe the signs of that deep contrition which such hideous wickedness when once recognized surely must engender. There is the story of the sin drawn in all its shocking details. Then Nathan comes in with his beautiful apologue of the ewelamb, and its pungent application. And then we read simply: "And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against The Lord. And Nathan said unto David, The Lord also hath put away thy sin." After that comes only the story of how the child of sin was smitten, and how David besought the Lord for its life and finally acquiesced in the Divine judgment. One is apt to feel that David was more concerned to escape the consequences of his sin than to yield to the Lord the sacrifices of a broken and a contrite heart. Does it not seem cold to us and external, David's simple acknowledgment of his sin, and the Lord's immediate remission of it? We feel the lack of the manifestations of a deeply repentant spirit, and are almost ready, we say, to wonder if David did not escape too easily from the evil he had wrought.

It is merely the simplicity of the narrative which is deceiving us in this. The single-hearted writer expects us to read into the bare words of David's confession, "I have sinned against the Lord," all the spiritual exercises which those words are fitted to suggest and out of which they should have grown. And if we find it a little difficult to do so, we have only to turn to David's penitential Psalms, to learn the depths of repentance which wrung this great and sensitive soul. One of them —perhaps the most penetrating portrayal of a truly penitent soul ever cast into human speech—is assigned by its title to just this crisis in his life; and I see no good reason why this assignment need be questioned. The whole body of them sound the depths of the sinful soul's self-torment and longing for recovery as can be found nowhere else in literature; and taken in sequence present a complete portrayal of the course of repentance in the heart, from its inception in the rueful review of the past and the remorseful biting back of the awakened heart, through its culmination in a true return to God in humble love and trusting confidence, to its issue in the establishment of a new relation of obedience to God and a new richness of grateful service to Him.

Let us take just these four, Psalms 6, 38, 51,32. In Psa. 6 sounds the note of remorse—it is the torment of a soul's perception of its sin that is here prominently brought to our most poignant observation. In Psa. 38, the note of hope—not indeed absent even from Psa. 6—becomes dominant and the sorrow and hatred of sin is coloured by a pervasive tone of relief. In Psa. 51, while there is no lessening of the accent of repentance there is along with the deep sense of the guilt and pollution of sin which is expressed also a note of triumph over the sin, which aspires to a clean heart and a steadfast spirit and a happy service of God in purity of life. While in Psa. 32, the sense of forgiveness, the experience of joy in the Lord, and the exercises of holy and joyful service overlie all else. Here we trace David's penitent soul through all its experiences; his remorseful contemplation of his own sin, his passionate reaching out to the salvation of God, the gradual return of his experience of the joy of that salvation, his final issuing into the full glory of its complete realization.

In some respects the most remarkable of this remarkable body of pictures of the inner experiences of a penitent soul, is that of Psa. 51. It draws away the veil for us and permits us to look in upon the spirit in the most characteristic act of repentance, just at the turning point, as it deserts its sin and turns to God. Here is revealed to us a sense of sin so poignant, a perception of the grace of God so soaring, an apprehension of the completeness of the revolution required in sinful man that he may become in any worthy sense a servant of God so profound, that one wonders in reading it what is left for a specifically Christian experience to add to this experience of a saint of God under the Old Testament dispensation in turning from sin to God. The wonderful depth of the religious experience and the remarkable richness of religious conception embodied in this Psalm have indeed proved a snare to the critics. "David could not have had these ideas," says Prof. T. C. Cheyne, brusquely; and, indeed, the David that Prof. Cheyne has constructed out of his imaginary reconstruction of the course of religious development in Israel, could not well have had these ideas. These are distinctively Christian ideas that the Psalm sets forth, and they could not have grown up of themselves in a purely natural heart. And therein lies one of the values of the Psalm to us; it reveals to us the essentially Christian type of the religion of Israel; it opens to our observation the contents of the mind and heart of a Spirit-led child of God in the ages agone, and makes us to know the truly Christian character of his experiences in his struggle with sin and his aspirations towards God, and thus also to know the supernatural leading of God's people through all ages.

For consider for a moment the conception of God which throbs through all the passionate language of this Psalm. A God of righteousness who will not look upon sin with allowance; nay, who directs all things, even the emergence of acts of sin in His world, so that He may not only be just, but also "may be justified when He speaks and clear when He judges." A God of holiness whose Spirit cannot abide in our impure hearts. A God of unbounded power, who governs the whole course of events in accordance with His own counsels. But above all, a gracious God, full of lovingkindness, abundant in compassion, whose delight is in salvation. There is nothing here which goes beyond the great revelation of Ex. 34:6, "a God full of compassion and gracious, abundant in lovingkindness and truth; keeping lovingkindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin." Indeed the language of the Psalm is obviously modeled on this of Exodus. But here it is not given from the lips of Jehovah, proclaiming His character, but returned to us from the heart of the repentant sinner, recounting the nature of the God with whom he has to do.

And what a just and profound sense of sin is revealed to us here. The synonymy of the subject is almost exhausted in the effort to complete the self-accusation. "My transgression, my iniquity, my sin;" I have been in rebellion against God, I have distorted my life, I have missed the mark; I have, to express it all, done what is evil in Thy sight—in the sight of Thee, the Standard of Holiness, the hypostatized Law of Conduct. And these acts are but the expression of an inner nature of corruption, inherited from those who have gone before me; it was in iniquity that I was born, in sin that my mother conceived me. Shall a pure thing come from an impure? Nay, my overt acts of sin are thought of not in themselves but as manifestations of what is behind and within; thrown up into these manifestations in act, in Thine own ordinance, for no other cause than that Thy righteous condemnation on me may be justified and thy judgment be made clear. For it is not cleanness of act merely that Thou dost desire, but truth in the inward parts and wisdom in the hidden parts. Obviously the Psalmist is conceiving sin here as not confined to acts but consisting essentially of a great ocean of sin within us, whose waves merely break in sinful acts. No wonder the commentators remark that here we have original sin "more distinctly expressed than in any other passage in the Old Testament." Nothing is left to be added by the later revelation in the way of poignancy of conception—though much is, of course, left to be added in developed statement.

Accordingly, the conception of the radicalness of the operation required for the Psalmist's deliverance from sin, is equally developed. No surface remedy will suffice to eradicate a sin which is thus inborn, ingrained in nature itself. Hence the

passionate cry: Create—it requires nothing less than a creative act—create me a clean heart— the heart is the totality of the inner life;—and make new within me a constant spirit—a spirit which will no more decline from Thee. Nothing less than this will suffice—a total rebegetting as the New Testament would put it; an entire making over again can alone suffice to make such an one as the Psalmist knows himself to be—not by virtue of his sins of act which are only the manifestation of what he is by nature, but by virtue of his fundamental character—acceptable to Him who desires truth in the inward part; nay, nothing less than this can secure to him that steadfastness of spirit which will save his overt acts from shame.

Nor does the Psalmist expect to be able, unaided, to live in the power of his new life. One of the remarkable features of the doctrinal system of the Psalm is the clear recognition it gives of the necessity, for the cleansing of the life, of the constant presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. "Take not thy holy Spirit from me and uphold me with a spirit of willingness." Thine to lead, mine to follow. Not autonomy but obedience, the ideal of the religious life. The operations of the Holy Spirit in the sphere of the moral life, the ethical activities of the Spirit, His sanctifying work, are but little adverted to in the Old Testament, and when alluded to, it is chiefly in promises for the Messianic period. Here, David not merely prays for them in his own case, but announces them as part of the experience of the past and present. His chance of standing, he says in effect, hangs on the continued presence of the Holy Spirit of God in him; in the upholding within him thereby of a spirit of willingness.

Thus we perceive that in its conception of God, of sin, of salvation alike, this Psalm stands out as attaining the high-water mark of Old Testament revelation. It was by a hard pathway that David came to know God and himself so intimately. But he came thus to know both his own heart and the God of grace with a fullness and profundity of apprehension that it will be hard to parallel elsewhere. And it was no merely external knowledge that he acquired thus. It was the knowledge of experience. David knew sin because he had touched the unclean thing and sounded the depths of iniquity. He knew himself because he had gone his own way and had learned through what thickets and morasses that pathway led, and what was its end. And he knew God, because he had tasted and seen that the Lord is gracious. Yes, David had tasted and seen God's preciousness. David had experience of salvation. He knew what salvation was, and He knew its joy. But never had he known the joy of salvation as he knew it after he had lost it. And it is just here that the special poignancy of David's repentance comes in: it was not the repentance of a sinner merely, it was the repentance of a sinning saint.

It is only the saint who knows what sin is; for only the saint knows it in contrast with salvation, experienced and understood. And it is only the sinning saint who knows what salvation is: for it is only the joy that is lost and then found again that is fully understood. The depths of David's knowledge, the poignancy of his conceptions—of God, and sin, and salvation—carrying him far beyond the natural plane of his time and the development of the religious consciousness of Israel, may be accounted for, it would seem, by these facts. He who had known the salvation of God and basked in its joy, came to know through his dreadful sin what sin is, and its terrible entail; and through this horrible experience, to know what the joy of salvation is— the joy which he had lost and only through the goodness of God could hope to have restored. In the biting pain of his remorse, it all becomes clear to him. His sinful nature is revealed to him; and the goodness of God; his need of the Spirit; the joy of acceptance with God; the delight of abiding with Him in His house. Hence his profound disgust at himself; his passion ate longing for that purity without which he could not see God. And hence his culminating prayer: "Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation."

Excerpt from Faith and Life by B. B. Warfield

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