Reflections on Psalm 51:11

More often than not I come away from preaching thinking of how I could have been clearer or helped provide a better understanding of the text. Sometimes this isn’t always possible due to the fact you can’t preach with great clarity every week (because of my own limitations), and because of time – most of the detail has to be filtered and edited to avoid two-hour sermons and boredom.

But on Sunday 15 August I drove home thinking of Psalm 51:11 wishing I was a bit clearer, or had more time to develop my thoughts.

Here’s the verse: ‘Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me’.

Set in the middle of David’s cry for mercy and for change after his great sin with Bathsheba, this is an approximation of what I said on Sunday.

‘[speaking of new heavens and earth] Sin will not be present because God will be present with his people. That’s what makes David cry out v11 because he knows that sin and God cannot co-exist – and he doesn’t want God to leave him.

So v11 isn’t a verse to suggest you can lose your salvation – it’s a verse that speaks of great anguish and sorrow because of personal sin and failure. It is raw and serious because David wants restoration – wants change. He’s desperate for it.

I also mentioned that maybe David had in the back of his mind what happened to King Saul. That is a possibility,[1] but I think there is a better reason for his fears.

Explaining Psalm 51:11

First of all, let me reiterate that I do not think we should read back into this, the idea of losing our salvation. We have to read this within the Biblical-Theological context of the passage. Those under the New Covenant cannot lose the Holy Spirit who is a seal and a deposit, guaranteeing our inheritance (Ephesians 1:13-14).

Secondly, the reference to the Holy Spirit shouldn’t make us divide up God in any way. David was likely using this as a way to describe God’s presence with him – perhaps most obviously in the Tabernacle or through God speaking to him as a prophet and God’s anointed king.

With these two caveats out of the way, let me offer my reasons why David would fear losing God’s presence and why the Jews reading it later, would understand his fears.

The background to his fears come about because of two covenants and the Fall.

The Background of Genesis 3

David was a good theologian. He knew that God would not tolerate sin. And 2 Samuel 11 was David’s Fall. He would have known the story of Adam and how Adam sinned and was banished and exiled from God’s presence – and knew that this was a possibility again as God’s representative sinned. In fact, the parallels with Genesis 3 and 2 Samuel 11 are eerily similar.

Just as Eve ‘saw’ the fruit was ‘good’ (Genesis 3:6), so David ‘saw’ Bathsheba was ‘very beautiful’. The word ‘good’ and ‘beautiful’ are the same in Hebrew – but we also get closer thematically when Genesis 3:6 says the fruit ‘was a delight to the eyes’. No doubt, Bathsheba was a delight to David’s eyes too. After all – he saw Bathsheba as ‘very beautiful’. 2 Samuel 11 is David’s Fall and with it, he feared exile and banishment like Adam and Eve.

The Background of the Mosaic Covenant

However, more pressing on David’s mind would be two covenants. The first was what we call the Mosaic Covenant, which as God’s representative and king – David had to keep. As king he was not supposed take too many wives (he already had quite a few at this point!) and he was supposed to read the Law daily so he might revere the LORD and not turn from the right or the left in the matters of the Law (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

David also knows that the consequence of sinning against the LORD under the Mosaic covenant could lead to exile. God would drive the king and his people from the land into the hands of an oppressive nation (Deut 28:36). Their sin will lead to exile again. David knew this, which is why he prayed for the prosperity and protection for Jerusalem in v18 – and so cried out to God for forgiveness and mercy.

These were his fears as he wrote this prayer and v11.

The Background of the Davidic Covenant

But perhaps most pressing in his mind was God’s promises to him in 2 Samuel 7:8-16. That God would give him a great name, a great peace, a great kingdom and dynasty – even as God would build his house and know David’s sons as His sons. This would be an everlasting kingdom, and even though there would be punishment for disobedience – God would not take his love away from David, like he did Saul (2 Sam 7:14-15).

These promises were what David would have been clinging on to as he cried out to God for mercy. He knew there could be consequences. In fact, the consequences for sin were great. And David’s worst fears were realised through the sins of one of his descendants.

Reading Psalm 51:11 Through 2 Kings 24

The people of Israel would have understood this, especially whilst in exile years later. Sin does eventually lead to God’s presence leaving his people. God had already warned Solomon of this in 1 Kings 9:6-9, but it was due to the sins of Manasseh that finally led to banishment.

The writer of the book of Kings says in 2 Kings 24:3-4, leading up to Judah’s eventual exile:

Surely these things happened to Judah according to the Lord’s command, in order to remove them from his presence because of the sins of Manasseh and all he had done, including the shedding of innocent blood. For he had filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the Lord was not willing to forgive.’

He adds again in v20 of the same chapter, ‘It was because of the Lord’s anger that all this happened to Jerusalem and Judah, and in the end he thrust them from his presence.’

God’s presence leaving His people was a reality, even though his promises to David still held and would ultimately be fulfilled in Christ.

Concluding Thoughts

The consequences for sin are great. This is the lesson we need to learn. Not to guilt us and make us feel we could lose our salvation. But to show us just how great sin is and never to take it lightly or flirt with it. But also, within the context of Psalm 51, to show us that we can always fall on God’s mercy and appeal to God’s great love (Psalm 51:1).

Many of us see sin and find it ‘very beautiful’. The problem is we can’t choose both God and sin in our lives – they cannot co-exist. The good news is that God’s mercy will always be enough for those who cry out to him with ‘contrite hearts’ begging for forgiveness and change.

Because God’s mercy is bigger than our greatest sin. Never forget that. And don’t let v11 ruin the assurance of Psalm 51 – use it to come back to him and ‘restore the joy’ of ‘salvation’ you can have in the LORD (v12).

[1] Though perhaps unlikely considering 2 Samuel 7:15.

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