And yet, we know in the depths of our innermost being that only he can heal us. Only God can create ‘a clean heart and a steadfast spirit within me.’
Psalm 51 is one of the seven penitential psalms, and maybe the most famous. It is an impassioned plea for God’s mercy, and more. As a sinner, it is a prayer that I go to often, to help me stay aware of my need of God’s loving forgiveness and mercy. The psalm is divided into two parts and today’s verse is from the first part of the psalm.
David speaks for all of us here in Psalm 51. We are all sinners. We all have an inner, intimate awareness of sin, of its enticements, of our failures to turn away from those enticements, and of the guilt that burns in us when we have failed. David articulates our need to return to God here, and our faith in his mercy. He is brutally honest in his self reflection, as we need to learn to be. He reminds us that when we sin, no matter what the sin, it is God himself that we have ultimately sinned against. Everything we do is done in his sight; nothing escapes him. Yet, we know in the depths of our innermost being that only he can heal us. Only God can create “a clean heart and a steadfast spirit within me.” (verse 10)
What is the innermost being that David refers to here? It is our souls. This is the eternal part, the part that is made in the image and likeness of God. This is the part that is directly related to the free will and the conscience. It is the eternal part of us that is affected by our choices to sin against, or to do what is right, in accordance with the eternal law of God. It is here, then, that the weight and darkness of our sins settle. It is here that we experience the lonely and empty chasm that we create between us and God when we sin. It is here where we feel the fear of the loss of God’s presence and our soul cries out, like David’s, “Do not cast me away from your presence and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.”
It is here that the corresponding sting of guilt causes us to see our sins for what they are, and it is here where the desire to repent arises. David prays in verse 7: “Purify me with hyssop and I shall be clean.” He is speaking here about his innermost being, his soul. It is here, in this “hidden part” that God will, “make me know wisdom,” his wisdom. The psalm, then, is a prayer for the removal of the personal and social disorders that sin has brought to us and to those we have sinned against. When we come to believe, as David did, that only God’s love overcomes our sins, and makes us new again, we, like David, can joyfully say, “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise” (verse15) And our sacrifice to him will be “A broken and contrite heart” which we know, in faith, he “will not spurn.” (verse 17)
Lord, fallen and sorrowful, we come before you humble and contrite. Your mercy is our only salvation. Cleanse us with your loving mercy. Teach us your wisdom in the hidden place of our innermost being and renew in us a steadfast courage to more readily resist the temptations that may come. We pray in Your name, Jesus. Amen!
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