The subheading that was attached to this Psalm reads, “A Psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.” Certainly the psalm shows the insights of a person of faith who has struggled deeply with their sin. This is another one of the penitential psalms, like Psalm 32 which we examined last week. It begins with petition and pleading but also moves to confidence in God’s provision and also encouragement to others. While it strongly reminds us of the failings we have as human beings, it also reminds us of the great hope we have for forgiveness and grace.
David’s adulterous encounter with Bathsheba, recounted in 2 Samuel 11-12, is an instructive, if frightening description of the rapidity with which falling prey to temptation can happen. Interestingly, it came at a time not of struggle and hardship in David’s life, but relative ease and security. He had survived being hunted by Saul, including several attempts on his life (I Samuel 17-29). He had made it through a skirmish between his house and the house of Saul just prior to taking on the kingship in 2 Samuel: 5. He had seen the Art successfully returned to Jerusalem and received God’s blessing and he had successfully led Israel in battle (2 Samuel: 6, 7, 8-10). It is then, that the incident occurs.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes the following about temptation:
In our members there is a slumbering inclination toward desire, which is both sudden and fierce. With irresistible power, desire seizes mastery of the flesh. All at once a secret, smoldering fire is kindled. The flesh burns and is in flames. It makes no difference whether it is a sexual desire, or ambition, or vanity, or desire for revenge, or love of fame and power, or greed for money …. At this moment God is quite unreal to us. He loses all reality, and only desire for the creature is real.
Perhaps the most powerful visual image in Psalm 51 is in verse 7, “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean, wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” Commenting on this verse, 19th Century English Preacher Charles Spurgeon wrote:
Yet what can be whiter than snow? Snow is not like a whited wall that is but white on the surface: it is white all through. And yet when God washes the believer, he makes him whiter than snow, for the snow soon becomes tainted, soon loses its purity; but we never shall if God shall wash us. There was no provision made for the cleansing of an adulterer under the law. David, therefore, had to look beyond all the sacrifices of the law to the cleansing power of the great coming sacrifice, and he so believed in it that with a brave faith–(I know no more brave expression in all Scripture than this)–he says, "Wash me, filthy as I am, and I shall be whiter than snow."