The first time I led a church in prayer I was twelve years old. It was such an important event, I wrote the prayer down verbatim in the front of my Bible, and read it verbatim when I rose to lead the prayer.
Perhaps you have had a similar experience. To lead a church in prayer is an important task that deserves preparation – not for show, but because the leader addresses God on behalf of the church and when he is finished, the church agrees with the prayer through a chorus of “Amen.”
But Psalm 51 is a private prayer. Why write down a private prayer?
Because it too is important. The heading tells us it is the prayer David prayed after being confronted for his sins of adultery and murder (the Bathsheba story). He wants to be sure to express his penitence, to make God know how truly sorry he is, and why. Known as a “penitential psalm,” it is the fourth of seven such prayers in the book of Psalms (see also Psalms 6, 32, 38, 102, 130, and 143) and can be divided into five parts:
Verses 1 & 2 express total dependence on God. Only God can wash away (blot out) sin and the only reason He does it is because of His grace (unfailing love). In verses 3-5 David confesses his sin. It is his sin. There are no excuses but he does not confess to sinning against Bathsheba or Uriah. In the end, the sins are against God. Sin is the world in which David lives and he takes full responsibility. In verses 6-14 he throws himself on God’s mercy and asks God to forgive him. It is a pleading underscored by imperatives (cleanse, wash, let, hide, create, renew, don’t cast, don’t take, restore, grant, save). These are not commands, but pointed cries. Because he knows who God is, David is confident God will answer (verses 15-17). David knows the way home and he knows God will receive him.
Finally, David asks for further blessing – though not for himself, but for the city (and people) of God. He knows his sin has far reaching consequences. He prays for those whose lives have been or will be touched by his sin.
I wonder if David knew his prayer would be preserved? The next time you think about dashing off a quick one, remember David’s preparation. Serious conversations deserve serious consideration.