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Psalm 51 and the Language of Transformation:
A Biblical Perspective on Holiness

A Paper presented to the Theology Symposium
Korea Nazarene University, Chonan, South Korea - May 22, 2001

Dennis Bratcher


The Holiness tradition has tended to treat the idea of Christian Holiness as a doctrine to be defended and proven. That has led to a tendency to develop methods of examining the idea of holiness in Scripture that sometimes do not really help us understand what Scripture actually says. Whether we really want to admit it or not, sometimes our doctrines are not the same thing as Scripture.

For example, one method of explaining the idea of holiness has been word studies, finding all of the biblical passages that use the word holy or sanctify. Often this is done without regard to the subtleties and nuances of meaning of those words in Hebrew or Greek, and often in disregard of their contextual meaning in Scripture. All the passages that contain these words are simply added together to construct a biblical perspective on holiness. Or, as a related method, any passage that contained the word “holy” or “sanctify” was assumed to be talking about this developed Christian doctrine no matter what the immediate context of the passage itself might be.

Of course, there are problems with such an approach. Not every time a certain word is used in Scripture is a certain doctrine or even a certain topic being addressed. The ranges of meaning of most words, especially more insubstantial words like “holy,” simply will not allow such an approach to determine meaning.

This simply suggests that as helpful as word studies might be on some level, they are inadequate for building doctrines, or even for expressing biblical theology. A better way to come to an understanding of what Scripture communicates on a particular topic is to pay careful attention to the theology expressed in a larger passage of Scripture than single words. Carefully examining a specific biblical passage in its own context to hear what it says on its own terms will likely give us a far better foundation upon which to build theological ideas.

The approach of this short study will be rhetorical and theological analysis. We will examine a passage of Scripture in terms of both the internal story world of the text as well as how that story unfolds against the background of the larger canon of Scripture. The goal will not be an exhaustive exegesis of the text. It will be an attempt to listen to the theological affirmations about God that emerge in the text and the response that the text intends to evoke as Scripture for a worshipping community.

Tradition and Community

When we talk about biblical perspectives on holiness, we usually end up talking about a "doctrine" of holiness. By definition, a doctrine is an agreed upon statement of belief in a community. It is composed of the commonly held ideas about an aspect of the Faith within a certain community or group within that Faith.

So, for example, the Church of the Nazarene as part of the larger church has a Doctrine of Holiness. Yet, the Church of the Nazarene did not originate that doctrine. It goes back to John Wesley who explained and shaped that doctrine in particular ways, and who grounded the doctrine in Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and verified it by Experience within the Church. That dimension of grounding the doctrine in both Scripture and Tradition suggests that the doctrine of holiness has roots much deeper than even John Wesley. He may have given a certain expression to the doctrine at a certain time and place in history. But he did not invent it. Wesley saw it as something that had long existed in the church and among the people of God. In fact, the idea of holiness as a practice of God’s people has a long history in the church, and can even be traced deeply into the Old Testament.

Here is a crucial point in this study. If the doctrine of holiness has any validity to it, if it is true at all, it has to go beyond the Church of the Nazarene. It has to go beyond the heritage of the Holiness Movement of the nineteenth century, or John Wesley in eighteenth century England, or the Eastern Church traditions of the seventeenth century that helped shape Wesley’s thinking. If the doctrine of holiness is to be something more than just a unique and narrow belief of a small group of people, it must have roots far beyond that group. In other words, it must be more than a doctrine! It must be a truth about how God works in the world.

If the doctrine of holiness is true in that larger sense, if it is more than just another doctrine, then what we are talking about in discussing the idea of Christian holiness is nothing less than how God deals with human beings. And if the doctrine of holiness is a true description of how God deals with human beings, then it is true no matter what language we might want to use for it, or how much we might want to think it is our own unique possession in the Christian Faith.

It does not matter whether we call it the doctrine of holiness or whether we even use the words holy or sanctification at all. If it has validity as a way to express how God deals with human beings with roots in the earliest days of the people of God, then it is simply an expression of how God works with people. If the doctrine of holiness is true, it has always been true. That is why we can examine the Old Testament with the doctrine of holiness in mind, not to prove the doctrine of holiness, but to ask how God worked with humanity there.

We can ask the question directly.  Is there a doctrine of holiness in the Old Testament? If we mean the precise way that John Wesley or the American Holiness Movement or any particular denomination has expressed that doctrine, no, it is not. But if we mean that way in which God works with human beings that the doctrine of holiness attempts to express today, then of course it is there!

So a biblical perspective on holiness assumes that if a doctrine of holiness is true, then it will be part of the biblical witness to God throughout Scripture. Apart from technical theological terms, the doctrine of holiness concerns the inner transformation that occurs in the life of people in which they are reoriented to God away from the self-centerededness that drives them to commit sinful acts. It is a genuine transformation that occurs with all people no matter what terms they use to describe it. If that is true, then we can assume that it occurred with Israelites long before we could even talk about being Christian. It is simply how God deals with humanity. And if Scripture is the revelation of the nature of God, then we will find that experience described in Scripture since Scripture is the testimony of how God has worked in history with his people.

In this study I propose an exercise in biblical theology from an exegetical base. We will briefly examine a passage of Scripture from the Old Testament, Psalm 51. We will need to be careful that we do not read this psalm through our categories of systematic theology. The goal here is to listen to the text in order to hear how the writer of this psalm articulates relationship with God. If we listen to the text on that level, we may gain some insight into how God deals with human beings no matter what we want to call the experience.

The Superscription: Theological Setting

As with many of the psalms, Psalm 51 has a superscription, an introduction that apparently gives information about the context of the psalm. In some translations it is the first verse and in others it is a heading above that verse.

To the Leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

Yet, as we read through this Psalm, it is interesting that there is nothing in it that directly relates to the life of David. The Psalm talks about sin and forgiveness and proper worship, but it does not relate any of those to David. Were it not for the superscription, we would have nothing in the psalm to link it with David.

From historical study and comparison with other writings of the time, biblical scholars have concluded that the superscriptions are not actually a part of the psalms. Instead, they were added later time to give directions for how the psalm should be read or used in worship. Although in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament the superscriptions are counted as part of the psalm, in most modern translations the superscriptions are not numbered with the verses of the Psalms.

This suggests that we should not use a historical approach to understand the psalm as if we were reading a biography of David. Psalm 51 likely has its roots in Israel’s worship. From the actual content of the psalm it probably was originally a general confessional Psalm, offered by worshippers as a penitential admission of sin. That would account for the nonspecific content of the Psalm, similar to most of the other laments and penitential psalms in the Psalter. The psalm was simply a prayer of confession to God that could be prayed by anyone in Israel.

But as it stands in the canon of Scripture, this psalm is more than just a prayer of confession. It provides a theological perspective that transcends Israel’s focus on priestly forgiveness of sins. It is this dimension of the psalm as theological affirmation that is of interest to us here.

So, we cannot read this psalm as simple historical recounting. But neither can we leave this Psalm in Israel’s past and treat it as a relic of ancient worship. The superscription to the Psalm transforms the psalm into something much more viable for Israel’s ongoing life as God’s people. The superscription does not make the psalm an account of David’s history, nor does it tell us that David wrote this psalm. Yet, it does provide the context for how the community of faith that used this psalm in worship understood its message.

The superscription historicizes the psalm. It gives it a setting in a particular time and circumstance, not as history but as theology. It tells people long after the time of David how they were to read and use this particular psalm in the context of Israel’s ongoing worship. In so doing, it redirects the psalm from being a general psalm of repentance to a confession of Israel’s faith in God’s work among people in daily life under God.

So, we need to hear the psalm as a theological affirmation of how Israel had come to understand God and the process of repentance, prayer, and transformation as part of worship. The psalm is clearly a prayer, as are most of the psalms in the Psalter. Yet, the superscription tells us that this is not the kind of psalm a person would pray everyday. This is not a morning prayer in which a person would routinely say, "Lord forgive me for anything I have done that is wrong."

Here is the importance of the superscription for this psalm. It tells us at what point in life God’s people are to pray this psalm as a confessional prayer. The superscription tells us that this is the Psalm we should pray when we are David the king, the anointed one of God; when we have seen Bathsheba on the rooftop; when we have taken her even though she is someone else’s wife; then when we have killed her husband Uriah the Hittite, and now stand before Nathan the prophet confronted by the magnitude of our sin (2 Sam 11-12).

As theology, this psalm is about that very particular crisis point in a person’s life when they are confronted not only with what they have done, but with who they are that has allowed them to do it. The superscription defines this crisis as the only proper context in which to pray this prayer, where this prayer and only this prayer is appropriate.

So, while this psalm is not directly about David, it will be helpful for us to follow the directions of the community of Faith and hear the Psalm against the background of David’s life. Ancient Israel shaped and defined the psalm in that context by the superscription, so we can more easily hear the theological affirmation against that background. Yet, because this story is not simple history, we cannot shake our heads at David’s sin and be glad that we have not done anything so hideous. By listening to the Psalm contextualized to David, and yet knowing that it is confessional theology, we can realize that the psalm is about us, that it is about you and me as people of God. This psalm illustrates that kind of crisis point to which most of us come at one time or another in our lives, that time in which we are confronted with who we really are. It is on this level that we can read the psalm as biblical theology, as instruction for us today.

Psalm 51

The actual psalm begins in the first two verses with an open confessional approach to God.

1. Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions; 2. wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

This is the first response to recognition of sin. In David’s life, this is the first response to the scathing prophetic accusation of "you are the man" (2 Sam 12:7). Notice that the confession is first a confession about God. We can only come before God from that kind of circumstance in life as we acknowledge the mercy and grace of God, acknowledge that everything that is to follow depends not on ourselves and our abilities, but on God and his grace. The psalmist comes before God with a sense of commitment to him and a profound sense of contrition. The prayer uses all the typical ritual language common to priestly sacrifice: blot out, wash, cleanse. It is an appeal from a legal context in which law has been violated and the sinner seeks forgiveness.

Yet, we also need to understand that this plea for mercy is against an Old Testament background in which there was no atonement available for this sin. Sin that was done intentionally and purposefully was not part of the sacrificial system, only sin that was done unintentionally (Lev 4). To break covenant with God as David has done has legally placed him outside the covenant and beyond the normal atonement rituals. So even with the language of temple worship and ritual here, the psalmist would understand that it is not the priest nor the rituals that can forgive here, but only God.

To begin with this confession means that the psalmist understands that he is a sinner before God. There is no false piety, no excuses made for the sin. He understands that the only way out of that sin is by a gracious and a forgiving God. "Have mercy on me" is the initial cry that strips away any pretense to self-righteousness or personal merit. This plea acknowledges that this is a matter of grace. This is all in God’s hands, not ours.

In the next three verses, the psalmist moves into even more direct petition.

3. For I know my transgressions, my sin is ever before me.

Again, the Psalmist is willing to acknowledge his sin. Many of these Psalms were prayed in the temple before the community, so this may even be a public confession. I am not suggesting that we always have to confess all of our sins before everyone. Yet, when we have done the things that David has done, it is not a private matter. When we have abused our position of responsibility before God, committed adultery with Bathsheba, murdered Uriah the Hittite, and been confronted with Nathan the prophet, we cannot simply offer a private prayer of repentance and hope that no one finds out. That kind of public sin before God and the community requires a willingness to come before God and the community and take responsibility for what we have done.

Transformation must always begin with an honest confession of who we are before God. In fact there is some sense here that this sin is now defining who the psalmist is. It is there in front of him so that when people look at him, they see the sin.

Verse 4 moves to a deeper level of this confession.

4. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.

The sin of David had been a social sin. It had been against Bathsheba and against Uriah the Hittite. It had been against the entire kingdom over which David ruled, against the community for which David was responsible. This is not a private sin. It is a very public one. And yet when the psalmist comes before God, he says that it is against God alone that he has sinned.

Sometimes we think that our sins are more like social mistakes, violations of social responsibility for which we should apologize to one another. We do things that hurt other people and then we apologize to them. Sometimes we are more concerned with what people think of us, more concerned with saving face, than we are concerned with the fact that we have sinned against God. Of course, we should apologize when we have hurt people as an expression of our repentance and our love for them. Yet theologically, this Psalm says that finally all sin is sin against God.

That is really the heart of the problem. Of course, it is Uriah that is dead. The consequences of sin have worked out in the context of the community and created tremendous disruption. But finally the Psalmist knows that he has to deal with God first. It is not enough to begin with the human relationships that have been destroyed. That has to come out of how he allows God to shape his life. He must begin with this confession: "it is against you, and you only, that I have sinned."

The psalmist admits that there are consequences that will work out from his sin: "you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment." Contrary to some of our modern ideas about the judgment of God, in most of the Old Testament the "judgment" of God refers to those historical consequences that come from our actions. The Old Testament view, especially from the prophetic traditions, is that our sinful actions create their own consequences that will destroy us unless God intervenes. As we read about the rest of David’s life, it is easy to follow those consequences as they tear apart David’s family. Yet, there is a willingness here to come before God, even knowing that consequences will come, yet trying to do something to address this problem of sin.

If we are not careful, we will badly misunderstand verse five.

5. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

This verse has traditionally been interpreted as teaching a specific doctrine of original sin, what is known in systematic theology as the genetic theory of the transmission of original sin. It began with those who used the assumptions of Greek Neo-Platonic philosophy and read this verse from the perspective of philosophical dualism. In this view, all physical matter is inherently evil and therefore sin is located in the physical body. Beginning with that perspective, this verse seems to confirm that human beings are sinful simply because they are born physically, that all human beings are guilty of sin simply because they exist as physical creatures. From that premise, it was easy for some to conclude that as long as human beings exist in a physical world they will always be sinful in every thought and action.

But this is not a doctrine of original sin. There may be other places in Scripture in which "original sin" is in view, but not here. This is not about newborn babies being guilty of sin. To adopt that view is to destroy human responsibility that is at the heart of this Psalm!

Verse five is simply a way to say that at this moment, as the Psalmist stands before God in confession, maybe for the first time in his life, he is willing to say, "I really am this bad." At this moment of honesty the psalmist has come before God and finally admits, "I have never been much better than who I am at this moment."

We human beings don’t like that kind of honesty about ourselves. We are very good at deceiving ourselves. We will do almost anything we have to do to avoid confronting who we really are. We like to think that we are righteous. If we put this confession against the background of David’s life, perhaps it will give us a perspective to see how crucial this confession really is for us.

David was a very young boy tending sheep for his father. The biblical text in 1 Samuel tells us that God choose this young shepherd boy to be king of Israel because he was "a man after his own heart" (1 Sam 13:14). And we can follow his story as God protected and helped him throughout his life. He killed Goliath the giant because God was with him. He assembled a band of men and became a hero leading raids against the Philistines. The books of Samuel record victory after victory that God helped David and his men achieve. He became king of Israel, the anointed one of God. David was God’s man for the hour, and because of his faithfulness God promised that his descendants would always rule over Israel (2 Sam 7).

Now if you were David, how would you be able to say that you have been a sinner since birth? All the external evidence says differently. It would be very easy for David to deny what he really is by appealing to his past greatness and uprightness. We as human beings are very good at looking at ourselves and seeing our successes, seeing our righteousness, seeing how good we are. And so we say, "I’m not really so bad." It is easy to pray the prayer of the Pharisee as he stood on the temple steps: "I thank God that I am not like other sinful men!" (Luke 18:10 ff).

David could have done that very easily. Except that now he is at a point in life when the evidence of his sin is too obvious to ignore. He has taken Bathsheba. He has killed Uriah the Hittite. And now Nathan the prophet has come and confronted David. He cannot hide any longer from the truth. He must face who he is. We might speculate that if he had done it sooner, Uriah might still be alive!

This is the tragedy of the story of David. As we read through the book of Samuel about the life of David, we are not prepared for what happens with Bathsheba. Everything that we have read about David up to that point says that this is truly a righteous person, that he truly is a man after God’s own heart. He is God’s man of the hour, because God himself chose him to be King.

And yet at that crucial moment, after God had enabled him to become King of Israel and had given him rest from his enemies, he committed the worst and most brutal kind of sins. He took his power as king, the power that was given to him by God to shepherd his people, and used God’s gift to abuse others. We just do not expect that in the David story. It comes as a shock to us to learn that God’s man is even capable of thinking such things, let alone actually doing them.

Here is where we need to start hearing the power of this psalm as theology. Because, after all, this psalm is not just about David. It is about us. The tragedy here is our tragedy. This psalm is a challenge to that tendency we have of ignoring or refusing to see who we really are. It is a warning against seeing ourselves as so righteous before God and so good that we are not willing to admit the immense potential that we have to sin. Of course, our immediate reaction is, "Not me. I would never do that." But that is the point here. We are David here!

This is a dangerous position to be in because it overestimates who we are as human beings and underestimates the magnitude of the disruption, pain, and sin that we can bring into the world. This should not have happened to David. He was too good. And yet one day, as he was simply out for a walk in the sunshine, who David really is comes to the surface. And sooner or later, who we really are will come to the surface as well.

Verse five tells us that perhaps for the first time the psalmist comes to the point of being able to see himself and admit that maybe he never really was as good as he thought. And so finally he is brought face to face with himself. And what he sees is ugly. At that time in life when we are confronted with who we really are, we are finally able to see what we are beyond all of our pretense to righteousness. Beneath all the external veneer of goodness, deep down in the heart where our will and intentions and motives hide, we really are that bad.

Do you realize that coming to that point is the only way that any newness can truly begin? As long as we have the attitude that we are OK, there is no room for God to work transformation in our lives. It is only when we come to that kind of honesty before God, as we admit to God and ourselves who we really are that God can begin working newness in our life. The first step toward light is to recognize the darkness.

The psalmist continues in verses six through nine and begins to unfold what needs to happen.

6. You desire truth in the inward being, therefore, teach me wisdom in my secret heart. 7. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

This echoes the passage in Isaiah 1: "though your sins be as scarlet they shall be white as snow." This is an understanding of God’s forgiveness, an understanding that when we come to a recognition of sin there is a forgiveness in God’s grace.

The symbols and the metaphors here are all the metaphors of priestly ritual. The priest used hyssop symbolically to cleanse a person from their sin. In priestly perspective, sin was seen as a contamination that made a person unclean before God, much as a garment could be stained and in need of cleansing. The act of washing was a ritual that symbolized God removing the contamination of sin. To be "white as snow" was a metaphor of forgiveness, the removal of the stain and contamination of sin.

Within the context of Old Testament worship, this symbolism and ritual are ways of affirming that God does forgive sin. In this context, it becomes an affirmation about the nature of God’s grace. It is important for us to realize not only the magnitude of our sin, but also the magnitude of God’s grace and the forgiveness that he brings into a person’s life. There is the implication here that no sin, even the sin of murder, is beyond the ability and desire of God to forgive. The Psalmist here is willing to come before God and acknowledge the magnitude of his sin, and yet trust in the magnitude of God’s grace.

Yet, the Psalm does not end there. If it did, we could be content with asking for forgiveness for the sins that we commit even though we are God’s people, even though we have been chosen to lead God’s people. If the psalm ended here, we could concede that perhaps human beings really do sin like this all the time, and need to pray this prayer every morning.

Yet, Verse ten takes us in a totally different direction.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and a new and right spirit within me.

We need to understand the change between verse nine and verse ten. It is a radical change. To this point the psalmist has been talking about forgiveness, with all the liturgical and ritual language of washing and cleansing. This is the correct priestly language of what should happen when God forgives.

Yet, verse ten moves away from the language of the temple and the rituals, and so moves away from the language of forgiveness. Notice there are different terms used there. "Create in me a clean heart, O God. And put a new and a steadfast spirit within me." Something is different there. There is talk of newness, of new creation. This is not the language of cleansing the old, but of creating something new. And there is also the language of stability here, of a steadfastness that comes from within. This is not just the language of forgiveness, but of something more than forgiveness.

Part of the problem with forgiveness is that it can only deal with the results of sin. Like Paul’s argument about the law in Romans, the problem with any legal or ritualized conception of relationship with God is that law and atonement rituals can only deal with violation. Forgiveness can only apply after the violation has occurred. Of course, that is necessary, especially in the context of sins such as these. We must not minimize the nature of sin and the dimension of God’s grace that makes forgiveness possible.

Yet, if we are not careful, as important as that emphasis on forgiveness might be at some stage, it is easy to focus on the remedy for the sinful acts without ever asking what might cause the sinful acts. Forgiveness can all too easily become trapped in a cycle of sin and forgiveness, so that we become more preoccupied with responding to sin than we are with being faithful to God in the first place. The Neo-Platonists assumed that sin was part of being human, that it was grounded in physical existence. But there is no such biblical perspective. Biblically, sin is a matter of the heart and described in terms of unfaithfulness and disobedience. That suggests that a solution must involve the heart.

How many times will God forgive? It is an easy question to ask, especially if we are talking about ourselves. We easily want to claim the broadest dimension of God’s grace, and affirm that his grace is unending. But when we ask this question about ourselves, we need to realize that we are really asking the wrong question. It is not a matter of how many times will God forgive. That is unending. The more important question is: why should we keep on sinning so that God has to forgive?

Here is the significance of the shift from the language of forgiveness to the language of new creation between verses nine and ten. The first nine verses clearly portray the honesty of someone who has come face to face, not only with what they have done, but also with who they are. The psalmist has admitted that his very existence is defined by sin.

The cry here from the heart of the Psalmist is a cry for transformation, realizing that there has to be a better way than just forgiveness. There must be something more than going through the cycle of sin and forgiveness, better than risking again becoming in practice what he has always been in his heart. There must be a better way, as Paul so eloquently echoes in Romans 7. I want to suggest that verse ten is that better way.

The language here is the language of creation:

Create in me a clean heart, O God.
And put a new and a steadfast spirit within me.

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word translated "create" is only used with God as subject. Only God can bring the newness that the word "create" suggests. Here there is no idea of washing the old heart and trying to remove the contamination of sin. In verse 10, the psalmist abandons the priestly language of forgiveness and begins using the language of transformation. The psalmist is no longer simply praying for continued forgiveness, but for a radical change in who he is.

There is recognition here that the problem is not really the failure in sinning, but a problem of the heart that caused the sin. In Hebrew, the "heart" is a metaphor for the seat of the intellect, the center of will and decision-making. The "spirit" is also a metaphor for the entire person in terms of the motives and intentions that lie behind actions. To pray for a newly created heart and for a new spirit is a confession that the heart, the will of the person, is the source of the problem. It is an admission that the hidden motives and intentions of the psalmist are so perverted and unstable that nothing short of a new creation and a steadfastness from God will bring any significant change in who he is. And he has already confessed that he needs to change.

It is also significant that the prayer is for a "steadfast" spirit. This Hebrew word means to establish as firm and solid. It is the same word used in the promise to David (2 Sam 7:16) that God would "establish" his descendants as kings of Israel. In this context, David had the external trappings of strength and permanence for his kingdom. Now, there is the realization that the external appearance of stability is not much without an inner steadfastness and stability that will allow faithfulness in actions.

The Psalmist cannot make that happen by himself. The rituals of the temple cannot make that change. The sacrifices and the water may symbolize God’s forgiveness. But forgiveness is not the same as creation. Something has to happen beyond the forgiveness. Something has to happen inside the psalmist on the level of the heart, that deals with who he is. So he cries out: "Create in me a new heart. Transform me and make me new. Put a new steadfast spirit within me."

As we move to verse 11, we have to be careful that we do not misread it. Again, it is easy here to assume our modern systematic and doctrinal formulations, and read them into this text.

11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.

This is not about grieving the Holy Spirit, as if there is danger that God will not be willing to extend grace, that the sin is so hideous that God will reject the prayer. In fact, this is not about the Holy Sprit in a Christian sense at all. That understanding of God will have to await God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ when an understanding of the Trinity could be formulated.

Here, as in all of the Old Testament, the "spirit" or "breath" of God is simply a metaphorical way to talk about the active and dynamic presence of God in the world to effect change and growth. It is this "breath" of God that moved on the primeval waters at the beginning of creation (Gen 1). It is this "breath" of God that dried up the waters of the Great Flood (Gen. 6). It is this "breath" of God that filled Ezekiel’s dry bones with new life (Ezek. 37). The prayer of the psalmist here is for the dynamic and creative presence of God that will bring the change for which he cries. This is the only avenue to restoration and future stability for which the psalmist prays in verse 12:

12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

The final transformation of the psalmist is in view in verse 13.

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

The one who was once nothing but a sinner, who had to face himself in light of where his sin had led him, can now envision turning to concern for other sinners. The psalmist is willing to share with others in teaching what he has himself learned about God. The new heart for which the psalmist prays is not just to make him better. It is really a gift to the world. It is out of that newly created heart and the steadfast spirit given by God that his vision can turn from a preoccupation with his own unrighteousness and the need for personal forgiveness to seeing the need of others to experience the same transformation. That newly created heart is a heart that beats for others, because it is a God created heart.

Verses sixteen and seventeen are a summary of the theology of the psalm.

16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.

In typical prophetic language adopted here, the idea that God requires sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins is rejected. It is not all worship that is rejected, only worship as an end in itself or as a means to righteousness. Theologically, this simply repeats what the psalm has already said. Finally, what God wants from us is not sacrifice and repentance, but transformation.

In our Christian context, this may be harder to formulate since we have so easily adopted the language of sacrifice to talk about Jesus. But in that Christian context, we can say that God does not really want us to claim the sacrifice of Jesus for forgiveness for sins as the goal of the Christian life. That may have its place just as the priestly language of sacrifice had its place in this psalm. But finally, there is something more to relationship with God than simply being forgiven of sin.

If the psalmist wants something more than forgiveness, then God wants something more for him as well. This passage says that God grows as tired of our sacrifices and our repentance as we grow tired of offering them.

What is the solution? Verse 17 is a powerful conclusion in this psalm to Israel’s understanding of God and God’s call to his people.

17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

What God seeks in us is a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, a willingness to abandon who we are in ourselves for what we can become in God. What God wants is a person to come to a sense of brokenness in their life, just as the psalmist has done here. It is not just that we realize who we are as sinner, but that we are so grieved at who we are that we will cry out before God. "Make me new! I don’t like who I am and I don’t like what I have done. God, what I need is for you to do something new in my life that gives me a new heart, that so fills me with your presence that I can live a different way and be a different person." That prayer can only come at the point of brokenness, when we come face to face with who we are, and do not like what we see.

This is a brokenness that realizes that we cannot be the center of our world, even if we are King of Israel. It is a brokenness that knows if we are ever going to be different, if we are ever going to move beyond the level of constantly seeking forgiveness, we are going to have to give ourselves to God, to allow him to remake us on his terms.

Talking of brokenness is hard for us, because it is scary to risk becoming something other than what we are. We have grown comfortable with ourselves, even though we know in our better moments that we are like the psalmist here. We would much rather have the joy of our religion. We would rather have all the blessings that go with being a Christian. I suspect that for many of us we would much rather be trapped in the cycle of sin and forgiveness, hoping that who we really are is never exposed, than we would to become broken enough to have a new heart. Yet if we do not, we will never learn to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength, nor will we ever learn to love our neighbor as ourselves.

As Christians, especially as evangelical Christians, we often like to talk about Jesus dying on the cross for us, taking our place. Let me suggest to you that Jesus did not die on the cross so that you would not have to die. He died on that cross to show you the way. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, wrote in The Cost of Discipleship: "When Jesus bids a man come, he bids him come and die." That is the power of the Gospel passages that call us to take up our cross and follow him.

We cannot get away from the idea of the cross. That cross is the kind of brokenness to which we are called when we take in our hands the symbols of his broken body and the cup of his suffering. When we celebrate Eucharist, we are not celebrating the fact that we do not have to die. We are celebrating the fact that he has shown us how to become broken. If we are not willing to come before God with that kind of brokenness, a willingness to cry out to God from a broken spirit for renewal, then we have not understood the Gospel. And we have not experienced the creative power of God that he can bring into our lives.

There is a place in this psalm for praise and rejoicing, and even for worship and sacrifice. Verse fifteen is about praise.

15. Oh Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.

And the conclusion of the psalm is about acceptable sacrifice.

18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, 19 then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Yet like Easter Sunday following Good Friday, that praise can only come after the brokenness and death that has allowed new creation. There is no newness in Christian living that does not come out of brokenness and ending. This is perhaps the most important insight into our own humanity from this psalm. If we are not willing to come to that point of brokenness with the psalmist there will be no new heart. The only solution for our struggle with sin is to come to the point where we are willing to face who we are honestly, to come to that crisis point in our life where we are willing to be recreated by God.

That does not mean that everything will then be perfect. It does not mean there will be no more struggles in our lives. David would spend the rest of his life dealing with the unfolding consequences of his sin. But it means that we can have a new heart that is steadfast and oriented to God. It means that we can have the very presence of God recreating us and transforming us from what we are into what we can be by grace. It means we can have the living breath of God within us giving us new life and enabling us to do what we cannot do on our own. That is the most important thing we learn about God from this psalm.


This psalm does not contain the traditional terms for sanctification and holiness. Some have argued for a “second blessing” from this psalm focusing on the time and circumstance of God’s work. But that kind of doctrinal formulation is just not here. Yet, what this psalm presents is a perspective on human beings and God that focuses on the transformation of our sinful humanity by a creative act of God. However we define holiness and sanctification doctrinally or systematically, I think that truth must lie at its center. We as Wesleyans really do believe that God can so transform human beings that they can become “children of God,” that they can live a life of holiness in perfect love toward God and others. And this passage teaches us that this transformation comes through the avenue of brokenness that deals honestly with who we really are.

Notice that the psalm does not conclude with a precise formula for what happens, when it happens, or how we make it happen. I think this has been one of the mistakes of some of the holiness traditions, of trying to reduce the work of God with people to a formula. There is none of that here. There is no shorter way to holiness. There is only that time in life when we are confronted with ourselves, that time in which our spirit and self-will are broken by the sight of ourselves and who we really are. And we respond by crying out to God for newness from the midst of our brokenness. That cry is a cry of profound faith that is willing to place who we are in God’s hands and let him shape us however he wants to shape us.

When we come to that point of crisis with the psalmist, and pray this prayer for a new heart from a broken spirit, we will never be the same. That’s what a new heart means. It is a transformation by God of the very essence of who we are. He gives us a newly created heart first to love God. And then he will work in our lives to bring newness in all of our life and to others. This psalm is a call to new creation that we call holiness.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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