2 Samuel 12
The inward experience of a believer consists largely of growing discoveries of his own vileness and of God’s goodness, of his own excuseless failures and of God’s infinite forbearance, with a frequent alternation between gloom and joy, confession and thanksgiving. Consequently, the more he reads and meditates upon the Word, the more he sees how exactly suited it is to his case, and how accurately his own checkered history is described therein. The two leading themes of the Scriptures are sin and grace: throughout the Sacred Volume each of these is traced to its original source, each is delineated in its true character, each is followed out in its consequences and ends, each is illustrated and exemplified by numerous personal examples. Strange as it first sounds, yet it is true that, upon these two, sin and grace, do turn all the transactions between God and the souls of men.
The force of what has just been said receives clear and striking demonstration in the case of David. Sin in all its hideousness is seen at work within him, plunging him into the mire; but grace is also discovered in all its loveliness, delivering and cleansing him. The one serves as a dark background from which the other may shine forth the more gloriously. Nowhere do we behold so unmistakably the fearful nature and horrible works of sin than in the man after God’s own heart, so signally favored and so highly honored, yet failing so ignominiously and sinking so low. Yet nowhere do we behold so vividly the amazing grace of God as in working true repentance in this notorious transgressor, pardoning his iniquity, and restoring him to communion. King Saul was rejected for a far milder offense: ah, he was not in the covenant! O the awe-inspiring sovereignty of divine grace.
Not only has the Holy Spirit Faithfully recorded the awful details of David’s sin, He has also fully described the heart-affecting repentance of the contrite kind. In addition thereto, He has shown us how he sought and obtained the divine forgiveness. Each of these is recorded for our learning, and, we may add, for our comfort. The first shows us the fearful tendency of the flesh which still indwells the believer, with its proneness to produce the vilest fruit. The second makes known to us the lamentable work which we make for ourselves when we indulge our lusts, and the bitter cup we shall then be obliged to drink. The third informs us that grievous though our case be, yet it is not hopeless, and reveals the course which God requires us to follow. Having already considered the first two at some length, we will now turn to the third.
As it is in the Psalms that the Spirit has recorded the exercises of David’s broken heart, so it is therein we learn of how he obtained the divine pardon for his aggravated offences. We will begin by turning to one of the last of the "penitential" Psalms, which we believe was probably penned by David himself. "Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord" (130:1). There are various "depths" into which God suffers His people, at times, to fall: "depths" of trial and trouble over financial losses, family bereavements, personal illness. There are also "depths" of sin and guilt, into which they may plunge themselves, with the consequent "depths" of conviction and anguish, of darkness and despair—through the hidings of God’s face—and of Satanic opposition and despondency. It is these which are here more particularly in view.
The design of the Holy Spirit in Psalm 130 was to express and represent in the person and conduct of the Psalmist the case of a soul entangled in the meshes of Satan, overwhelmed by the conscious guilt of sin, but relieved by a discovery of the grace of God, with its deportment upon and participation of that grace. We quote the helpful paraphrase of John Owen in its opening verses: "O Lord, through my manifold sins and provocation I have brought myself into great distresses. Mine iniquities are always before me, and I am ready to be overwhelmed with them, as with a flood of waters; for they have brought me into depths, wherein I am ready to be swallowed up. But yet, although my distress be great and perplexing, I do not, I dare not, utterly despond and cast away all hopes of relief or recovery. Nor do I seek unto any other remedy, way, or means of relief, but I apply myself to Thee, Jehovah, to Thee alone. And in this my application unto Thee, the greatness and urgency of my troubles makes my soul urgent, earnest, and pressing in my supplication. Whilst I have no rest, I can give Thee no rest; oh, therefore, attend and hearken unto the voice of my crying!"
When the soul is in such a case—in "the depths" of distress and despondency—there is no relief for it but in God, fully unburdening the heart to Him. The soul cannot rest in such a state, and no deliverance is to be obtained from any creature helps. "Asshur shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses; neither will we say any more to the work of our hands, Ye are our gods: for in Thee the fatherless (the grief-stricken and helpless) findeth mercy (Hos. 14:3). In God alone is help to be found. The vain things which deluded Romanists have invented—prayers "to the Virgin," penances, confession to "priests," fastings, masses, pilgrimages, works of compensation—are all "cisterns which hold no water." Equally useless are the counsels of the world to sin-distressed souls—to try a change of scenery, diversion from work, music, cheerful society, pleasure, etc. There is no peace but in the God of peace.
Now in his very lowest state the Psalmist sought help from the Lord, nor was his appeal in vain. And this is what we need to lay hold of when in similar circumstances; it is recorded to this very end. Dear Christian reader, however deplorable may be your condition, however dire your need, however desperate your situation, however intolerable the load on your conscience, your case is not hopeless. David cried, and was heard; he sought mercy, and obtained it; and the divine promise to you and me is "let us therefore come boldly unto the Throne of Grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:16). David was not the only one who cried unto God out of "the depths." Think of the prophet Jonah: following a course of self-will, deliberately fleeing from God’s commandment, then cast into the sea and swallowed by the whale: yet of him too we read, "I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and He heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and Thou heardest my voice" (2:2).
It was his hope in the plenitude of divine grace that moved David to seek unto the Lord. "If Thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in His word do I hope" (Ps. 130:3-5). In the third verse he owns that he could not stand before the thrice Holy One on the ground of his own righteousness, and that if God were to "mark iniquities," that is, impute them unto condemnation, then his case was indeed hopeless. In the 4th verse he humbly reminds God that there was forgiveness with Him, that He might be revered and adored—not trifled with and mocked, for divine pardon is not a license for future self-indulgence. In the fifth verse he hopefully waits for some "token for good" (Ps. 86:17), some "answer of peace" (Gen. 41:16) from the Lord.
But it is in Psalm 51 that we find David most definitely and most earnestly suing for God’s pardon. The same intensity of feeling expressed in the use of so many words for sin, is revealed also in his reiterated synonyms for pardon. This petition comes from his lips again and again, not because he thought to be heard for his much speaking, but because of the earnestness of his longing. Such repetitions are signs of the persistence of faith, while those which last, like the prayers of Baal’s priests "from morning till the time of evening sacrifice," indicate only the supplicant’s doubts. The "vain repetition" against which the Lord warned, is not a matter of repeating the same form of request, but of mechanically multiplying the same—like the Romanist with his "pater noster’s"—and supposing there is virtue and merit in so doing.
David prayed that his sins might be "blotted out" (v. 1), which petition conceives of them as being recorded against him. He prayed that he might be "washed" (v. 2) from them, in which they are felt to be foul stains, which require for their removal hard scrubbing and beating—for such is, according to some of the commentators, the force of the Hebrew verb. He prayed that he might be "cleansed" (v. 7), which was the technical word for the priestly cleansing of the leper, declaring him clear of the taint. There is a touching appropriateness in this last reference, for not only lepers, but those who had become defiled by contact with a dead body, were thus purified (Num. 19); and on whom did the taint of this corruption cleave as on the murderer of Uriah? The prayer in the original is even more remarkable, For the verb is formed from the word for "sin," and if our language permitted it, would be rendered "Thou shalt un-sin me."
"Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me" (Ps. 51:10). His sin had made manifest his weakness and sensuality, but his remorse and anguish evidenced that above and beyond all other desires was his abiding longing after God. The petitions of this Psalm clearly demonstrate that, despite his weakness and Satan’s victory over him, yet the root of the divine matter was in David. In asking God to create in him a clean heart, David was humbly placing himself on a level with the unregenerate: he realized too his own utter inability to quicken or renew himself—God alone can create either a new heart or a new earth. In asking for a right spirit, he was owning that God takes account of the state of our souls as well as the quality of our actions: a "right spirit" is a loving, trustful obedient, steadfast one, that none but God can either impart or maintain.
In the midst of his abased confessions and earnest cries for pardon, there comes with wondrous force and beauty the bold request for restoration to full communion: "Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation" (v. 12). How that request evidenced a more than ordinary confidence in the rich mercy of God, which would efface all the consequences of his sin! But note well the position occupied by this petition: it followed his request for pardon and purity—apart from those, "joy" would be nought but vain presumption or insane enthusiasm. "And uphold me with Thy free Spirit" (v. 12). First, he had prayed, "Take not Thy Holy Spirit from me" (v. 11)—an obvious reference to the awful judgment which fell upon his predecessor, Saul; here, assured that the previous petition is granted, and conscious of his own weakness and inability to stand, he asks to be supported by that One who alone can impart and maintain holiness.
Ere passing on to consider the gracious answer which David received, perhaps this is the best place to consider the question, Was he justified in asking God for forgiveness? or to put it in a form which may better satisfy the critical, Are we warranted in supplicating God for the pardon of our sins? for there are those today who insist that we occupy a different and superior relation to God than David did. It will no doubt surprise some of our readers that we raise such a question. One would naturally think it was so evident that we ought to pray for forgiveness, that none would question it; that such a prayer is so well founded upon Scripture itself, is so agreeable to our condition as erring believers, and is so honoring to God that we should take the place of penitent suppliants, acknowledging our offenses and seeking His pardoning mercy, that no further proof is required. But alas, so great is the confusion in Christendom today, and so much error abounds, that we feel obliged to devote one or two paragraphs unto the elucidation of this point.
There is a group, more or less influential, who argue that it is dishonoring to the blood of Christ for any Christian to ask God to pardon his sins, quoting "Having forgiven you all trespasses" (Col. 2:13). These people confuse the impetration of the Atonement with its application, or in less technical terms, what Christ purchased for His people, with the Holy Spirit’s making good the same to them in the court of their conscience. Let it be clearly pointed out that, in asking God for forgiveness, we do not pray as though the blood of Christ had never been shed, or as though our tears and prayers could make any compensation to divine justice. Nevertheless, renewed sins call for renewed repentance: true, we do not then need another Redeemer, but we do need a fresh exercise of divine mercy toward us (Heb. 4:16), and a fresh application to our conscience of the cleansing blood (1 John 1:7, 9).
The saints of old prayed for pardon: "For Thy name’s sake, O Lord, pardon mine iniquity; for it is great" (Ps. 25:11). The Lord Jesus taught His disciples to pray "Forgive us our debts" (Matthew 6:12), and that prayer is assuredly for Christians today, for it is addressed to "Our Father!" In praying for forgiveness we ask God to be gracious to us for Christ’s sake; we ask Him not to lay such sins to our charge—"enter not into judgment with Thy servant" (Ps. 143:2); we ask Him for a gracious manifestation to us of His mercy to our conscience—"Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice" (Ps. 51:8); we ask Him for the comforting proofs of His forgiveness, that we may again have "the joy of His salvation."
Now it is in Psalm 32 that we learn of the answer which "The God of all grace" (1 Peter 5:10) granted unto His erring but penitent child. In his introductory remarks thereon Spurgeon said, "Probably his deep repentance over his great sin was followed by such blissful peace that he was led to pour out his spirit in the soft music of this choice song." The word "Maschil" at its head, signifies "Teaching": "The experience of one believer affords rich instruction to others, it reveals the footsteps of the flock, and so comforts and directs the weak." At the close of Psalm 51 David had prayed, "O Lord, open Thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Thy praise" (v. 15): here the prayer has been heard, and this is the beginning of the fulfillment of his vow.
"Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile" (Ps. 32:1,2). In the former Psalm David had begun with the plaintive cry for mercy; here he opens with a burst of praise, celebrating the happiness of the pardoned penitent. There we heard the sobs of a man in the agonies of contrition and abasement; here we have an account of their blessed issue. There we had the multiplied synonyms for sin and for the forgiveness which was desired; here is the many-sided preciousness of forgiveness possessed, which runs over in various yet equivalent phrases. The one is a psalm of wailing; the other, to use its own words, a "song of deliverance."
The joy of conscious pardon sounds out in the opening "blessed is the man," and the exuberance of his spirit rings forth in the melodious variations of the one thought of forgiveness in the opening words. How gratefully he draws on the treasures of his recent experience, which he sets forth as the "taking away" of sin—the removal of an intolerable load from his heart; as the "covering" of sin—the hiding of its hideousness from the all-seeing Eye by the blood of Christ; as the "imputing not" of sin—a debt discharged. How blessed the realization that his own forgiveness would encourage other penitent souls—"For this shall every one that is godly pray unto Thee" (v. 6). Finally, how precious the deep assurance which enables the restored one to say, "Thou art my hiding place; Thou shalt preserve me from trouble; Thou shalt compass me about with songs of deliverance" (v. 7)!
Here, then, is hope for the greatest backslider, if he will but humble himself before the God of all grace. True sorrow for sin is followed by the pardon of sin: "If we confess our sins. He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). "Is it possible that such a backslider from God can be recovered, and admitted afterwards to comfortable communion with Him? Doubtless it is: ‘for with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him there is plenteous redemption,’ and He will never cast out one humble penitent believer, whatever his former crimes have been, nor suffer Satan to pluck any of His sheep out of His hand. Let then those who are fallen return to the Lord without delay, and seek forgiveness through the Redeemer’s atoning blood" (Thomas Scott).