For I know my transgressions; and my sin is ever before me. Against You, You only, I have sinned, and done evil in Your eyes; that You might be justified in Your speaking and be clear when You judge. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me. Psalm 51.3-5.
Yesterday I looked at the first two verses of this psalm and saw how King David, confronted by his twin crimes of murder and adultery, throws himself on God’s love and mercy and compassion. This morning I am looking at the extraordinary confession that follows that opening appeal.
In the first two verses, David used three different Hebrew words to describe the dreadful things that he had done — words that appear in English as “transgression,” “iniquity” and “sin”; and he now repeats those words in this morning’s verses. But what do they really mean and what is the difference between them?
A “transgression” is a pesha’ which properly means “an act of rebellion.” It is a breach of the covenant between God and his people. Under the covenant, God’s people must not, among other things, “murder” or “commit adultery” (Exodus 20.13-14), but David has done both as deliberate, self-assertive acts of defiance. He has flouted God’s covenant and thrown it in his face.
Iniquity is ‘avon. The word carries two ideas. One is that of bending or twisting; the other is deviating from a path. Both are appropriate descriptions of what David has done. He has become bent and twisted in his thinking and has left the path of godliness and purity.
The third word, “sin,” is a form of the word chata’ which, like its Greek equivalent hamartia, has the root idea of “missing the mark.” It is the failure to hit a target and, in relation to God, that target is his holiness and goodness and purity … holiness, goodness and purity that will one day be seen in Jesus. David’s conduct has certainly fallen a million miles short of what God requires of him … and he knows it.
“I know my transgressions,” he says, “and my sin is ever before me.” There is an emphatic “I” in the Hebrew. David has true self-knowledge. He is not trying to hide from himself the reality and horror of what he has done or to pretend that it wasn’t all as bad as it might seem. There is no self-deception.
But then comes what, at first reading, is an extraordinary statement: “Against You, You only, I have sinned, and done evil in Your eyes.” What? He hasn’t sinned against Bathsheba? He hasn’t sinned against Uriah? No, there is no denying that David has sinned against both Bathsheba and Uriah and there no attempt to deny it in what he says. The word “only” is a piece of hyperbole. It is there to reinforce the truth that, at the heart of every sin, transgression, or iniquity, there is an offence against God himself. It is David’s recognition that, in his acts of adultery and murder, he has actually usurped God’s authority over the lives of Bathsheba and Uriah … ridden rough-shod over whatever purposes God might have had for them, and dealt with them according to his own twisted will and perverted purposes. It is the point that C S Lewis powerfully makes when he says of Jesus: “He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offences. This makes sense only if he really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin” (Mere Christianity)
In the light of that truth, David next gives open recognition to the fact that, should God not have mercy on him but should choose to judge and condemn him, God will be absolutely in the right in so dealing with him. Indeed, he sees that it is not just the two major sins he has committed that are the issue when it comes to judgement and mercy and God. There is the problem of his sinful nature. This is what he means when he says, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” David is not saying anything against his mother, or the circumstances of his birth, or the act of making love: he is simply saying that he sprang from the long line of sinful humanity and that he, in common, with those before him, was born with a propensity for sin, a leaning and tendency towards what is wrong and impure and unholy.
And all this is, of course, as true of me as it is of David. With Peter, I have to confess, “I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5.8). As the Book of Common Prayer says: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” And I recognise afresh this morning that all my sins, whoever else they hurt … and even if they hurt no-one else but me, hurt God. All my sins are, in truth, sins against him. And that is why it is to him that I confess them and from him that I seek grace and mercy and forgiveness.
Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.