The background to Psalm 51 is well-known. David had committed adultery and, as a result, murder, when he had Bathsheba’s husband killed. After some time, the Lord sent Nathan the prophet to confront the king with his sins. Nathan used a parable to show the evil that David had done. When David heard the parable, he was outraged at the evil of the main character in the parable (2 Sam 12:1-7). Nathan then told David that he was the evil man in the parable. At that, David confessed his sins (2 Sam 12:13). As a result, he would write Psalm 51.
We don’t know exactly how much time passed between David’s committing adultery and murder and the time he confessed to these sins. It must have been at least several months because Bathsheba gave birth to their child during this interval. I have often wondered about David’s thinking during this period. How did he justify his actions? It is clear that he did, because he didn’t immediately recognize himself as the evil man in Nathan’s parable. He was blind to the sins he had committed.
Perhaps he told himself that he was a better husband than Uriah, and that Bathsheba deserved all the benefits he gave her that Uriah couldn’t. Perhaps he thought that God had blessed him with another beautiful wife because God had appointed him king over His people. Perhaps he said that Uriah was a soldier who was going to die in combat, anyway. Perhaps he said that the newborn son would follow in his footsteps as king and do great things for the nation so that the good would far outweigh any bad David might have done. The Bible doesn’t tell us how David thought; we just know that he was neither willing nor able to acknowledge his sin until Nathan confronted him with God’s word and rebuked him. He was, in fact, able to deny that it was sin at all.
But when God’s word came, David became honest with God. Yes, he had sinned.
In Ps 51:6, David speaks of that honesty. Whereas before he had lied to himself, now he writes: “You desire truth in the inward parts. And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom.”
The word of God spoken by Nathan caused David to see the truth. God wanted David to be honest with Him. He wanted David, who had been living a lie, to stop whatever rationalizations he was making for what he had done to Bathsheba and Uriah. The word of God had that effect. David’s words in Psalm 51 show his contrition as he admitted the truth that that word revealed.
It is not difficult to find a NT counterpart to what happens to David in 2 Samuel 12. John writes in 1 John that the word of God reveals our sins to us as we walk in the light of that divine wisdom. We can do one of two things. If–like David before Nathan confronted him–we say that we have not sinned, “we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). That certainly was the case with David for a period of months.
The other option is to do what David did after Nathan came to him. We can be honest with the Lord. John writes, “If we confess our sins,” he will forgive us of those sins and have fellowship with Christ (1 John 1:9).
How easy it is for us to excuse our sins and rationalize them away. What we did was not that bad. It is not like we committed adultery or murder or anything like that. Or maybe we did, but there was a good reason for doing so. Our husband or wife doesn’t understand us. Whatever the sin we commit, we might tell ourselves that what we did was deserved because of the way we were treated by others. They needed to be taught a lesson, and God is using us to do it. That actually puts the responsibility for our sin at the feet of God Himself!
Of course, when we do these things–just as in David’s case–the truth is not at work in our hearts, or “inward parts.” We are lying to ourselves and God.
Psalm 51 and 1 John 1:9 teach the same principle. Wisdom is found in speaking the truth to ourselves and the Lord when we sin. May we ask the Lord to keep us from lying to ourselves and to instead be honest with Him. Let His Word show us the way things really are.