A Broken and Contrite Heart

Psalm 51 as God's self-revelation.

February 27, 2014Filed under theology#devotionsMarkdown source

I have made it my goal to write short posts reflecting on my devotional reading every day. These posts are composed off the cuff, in 30 minutes or less. The following is one such post. Before writing this post, I read: Acts 15–17 and Psalm 51.


Most often when reading through the Psalms in the past, I have taken them primarily as a model for my own interactions with God—not least when coming to Psalms like Psalm 51. Here, David’s extended prayer of repentance and supplication to God has long seemed a good model for my own prayers of like kind, and so it is—but there is more to see in this passage than a model for us. While the question, Is there something to imitate (or something not* to imitate) in this passage?* is a good one, there is always another fruitful question to ask of any text in the Bible: What does this tell us about the person and nature of God himself?

It can often be easy to let this question fall aside, and not only in the Psalms. The temptation to miss this central issue in Scripture is no less strong when working through narratives like those in Acts. In both cases, however, we must remind ourselves that the scriptures are not merely the record of man’s response to God: they are God’s revelation of himself to man. That distinction will prevent us from running off in all sorts of unhelpful directions.

From Psalm 51, I learned today not only what a contrite response to God looks like, but many things about the character of God himself. First and foremost, in inspiring the editor of the Psalms to place this particular song of repentance in the Bible at all, God emphasizes to us the need for real repentance. This theme is doubly clear given the organization of the Psalms. David says here just as Asaph had said in Psalm 50: God does not delight in burnt offerings in and of themselves, but he does delight in hearts that worship God (cf. Psalm 50:8–12, 51:16–17). In fact, the two Psalms together make it abundantly clear that God detests sacrifices offered without the right heart—a theme that appears time and again not only in the Psalms but also throughout the Prophets. God is not the sort of being who is appeased by getting fragrant smoke or the scent of barbecue in his nostrils.1 He is instead the kind of being who is pleased by genuine repentance—turning from evil to righteousness, and by righteousness we must mean dependence on him.

The Psalm also draws forth several more salient points about the character of God in the structure of the prayer. If God calls us to imitate this prayer, as indeed he does, then it is because it speaks rightly and reflects right thought about him. So we can take away from it that:

  • he has mercy on people according to his steadfast love, and out of that mercy he “blots out” our transgressions (Ps. 51:1,9)
  • he washes people of iniquity and cleanses us from our sin—not only forgiving our sin, but also removing it from us (Ps. 51:2,7)
  • he is the one against whom all sin finally is committed—even our sins against others are also sins against him (Ps. 51:4)
  • he is (and ought to be seen as) fully justified in his words2 and blameless in his judgment—that is, that the way he rules and judges are completely right, and no one can have cause to find fault with them (Ps. 51:4)
  • he delights in truth in the depths of our souls, and by implication hates hypocrisy (Ps. 51:6)
  • he is the source of wisdom (Ps. 51:6)
  • he is the source of any joy and gladness we have, especially when we confront our own sin (Ps. 51:8,12)
  • he is the one who can and does give us clean hearts and right spirits where we have fouled our own hearts and broken our spirits (Ps. 51:10)
  • he may be far from us and may take his Spirit from us, but he desires that we be near to him and filled with his Spirit (Ps. 51:11)
  • he upholds us (Ps. 51:12)
  • he delivers us from guilt (Ps. 51:14)
  • his goodness ought to be proclaimed to others and he ought to be praised (Ps. 51:13,14–15)
  • he does not despise broken-heartedness or contrition—as did, say, the Greek philosophers (Ps. 51:17)

Finally, the end of the Psalm highlights that personal repentance has corporate consequences, and so reminds us that God’s work in our lives is not about us alone. He is at work in his people. His work in restoring David impacted Zion/Jerusalem. David’s prayer did not stop with his own being set in right relation with God, but extended to the people of God being in right relation with God as well. The king ought to have such a concern for his people—and here we have a pointer to the greater king who not only had such a concern but who achieved it himself once and for all.

Glory to God, and thanksgiving to him for his self-revelation.


  1. To be sure, the Old Testament sacrificial system did please God—he instituted it!—and it culminated in the sacrifice of God the Son on our behalf. But as the author Hebrews makes clear: the burnt offerings of the Old Testament were never sufficient to save, and were always meant to point to something greater than themselves. They were present to teach the Israelites (and us) the necessity of God’s salvation, and to point to the greater sacrifice to come.

  2. Probably including his law and his decrees about life.