Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Psalm 51.10-13
Day four of my look at Psalm 51, and this morning I find David moving beyond a cry for restoration and pleading for inner renewal. The first word of verse 10 is bara’ which is the word for what God did when he brought the heavens and earth into being in Genesis 1.1. So what David is asking for here is no mere patching up of his old heart, his old nature; he wants to be a new creation. He wants what God made possible in Christ a thousand years later: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5.17). Eugene Peterson catches the force of David’s prayer when, in The Message, he paraphrases the first verse of this morning’s reading thus: “God, make a fresh start in me, shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.”
A subsequent verse of the passage before me today makes it clear, of course, that David is already “saved”, as I might put it, for he doesn’t ask to discover the joy of salvation; he asks to have it restored. So his plea for the creation in him of a new heart is really a plea for holiness, a plea for a nature that is free from the inclination to sin and rebellion that he has had from birth. Hence the request that God will renew a “right” spirit within him. The Hebrew word kun means “firm, stable, established, upright”. David wants to be rock-solid and straight-standing in his inner being — unmoved even by the sight of a dozen Bathshebas!
David’s thoughts of his own spirit and of holiness lead him, of course, to think of God’s own Holy Spirit. He is, perhaps, remembering the day that Samuel anointed him and “the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon” him (1 Samuel 6.13). It was the sign that God was with him in a unique way to bless him and to make him a good king who would be able to serve God’s people in God’s own way. Once, Saul, David’s predecessor, had been filled with that self-same Spirit but, on the very day that the Spirit had filled David, “the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul” because of his sin and disobedience (1 Samuel 6.14). “Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king,” Samuel had told Saul (1 Samuel 15.23). So, “Please, please, don’t let that happen to me,” cries David — “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.”
And as David thinks of what once was, he realises that he has lost something unbelievably precious — the joy of being at one with the Lord. His sin has taken it away from him and left only a wearisome sadness in its place. So now he pleads with God to give that joy back to him. “Cause the joy of your salvation to return”, is the literal translation of the Hebrew. “And uphold me with a willing spirit.” But what does that mean? And whose spirit is being referred to — David’s spirit or God’s Spirit? There is no “a” in the Hebrew so it could be either; but my view, given that David’s plea is to be “upheld” by this spirit, is that it is God’s Holy Spirit that he has in mind. David wants God’s Spirit to sustain him, revive him, keep him close to the source of his restored joy. And that Spirit of God is a “willing” Spirit. The word nediybah has at its root the idea not just of willingness but of wide and open generosity, sheer big-heartedness. God’s Spirit is full of God’s overflowing grace and beneficence and will be eager to keep David upright and true.
And what will be the outcome of all this inner renewal and spiritual revival? “I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” In other words, “I will be able to point others to my pathway of repentance and restoration and help them to travel on it too.” How mightily God has responded to that hope that was born in David’s heart … for this psalm has become the great penitential prayer of not only millions of Jews down through the ages but of millions of Christians too. It is my most-used penitential prayer, and I for one will, therefore, be ever grateful for these words of David that give me, time and time again, a way to get back to the Lord.