So David, the king of Israel, has done a terrible thing. And knows it. So when the prophet Nathan confronts him about it, David repents. David turned away from his sin and gave his entire self to the mercy of God.
That’s what is happening in Psalm 51. When we read Psalm 51 we’re reading what it sounds like when someone jumps into the ocean of God’s grace, and therefore, that’s why I think that Psalm 51 is not just for failures consumed with guilt, but it’s for every kind of human — because every kind of human, no matter where you’re from or how badly you’ve messed up — every human is as desperate for God’s mercy as David is here, and our only hope is the hope that he talks about.
So I believe Psalm 51 helps us. And there are four petitions in particular — four different verses in this psalm — that I’ve found to be helpful at a practical, everyday level. If you wanted to memorize the entire psalm and pray it everyday, I think that would be great, but when it comes to an everyday basis, I’ve been using more of a Cliff’s Notes version of Psalm 51, and I wear it around my neck.
I used to keep this psalm in my back pocket, and then I locked it away in a safe, but now, because it’s true and helpful, I wake up to and return to these four petitions every single day.
Getting to the Heart
Last week we looked at the first petition found in verse 15: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.”
And so on Wednesday, when we were having our little 9:30 staff meeting at Open Book downtown, we had been emailing with Nancy Ann Yeager, the Director of Operations at Minnehaha, and in that same time we received news about the explosion. And just so you know, when we received that news, we did not break into a hymn. Nobody connected to the school was singing at 10:15 on Wednesday morning. It was frazzling and heartbreaking.
But then later on Wednesday night, Minnehaha hosted a prayer service at the Lower campus, and there were hundreds of people there. There were hundreds of people connected to the school, and they did the strangest, most Christian thing you could do the midst of sorrow. They sang.
“It is well with my soul” they sang. “Bless the Lord” they sang. “On the Christ the solid rock I stand” they sang. God opened the lips of his people and they declared his praise.
And I was there and I was praying: “God, make us always praise you like this! Make us stubborn in praise like this! Make us like the prophet Habakkuk who said, Whatever it is that happens to me, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation!” (Hab. 3:18).
That was last week’s sermon, and feels so relevant that I almost just want to do it again. But I won’t. Because today we’re going to focus in on verse 10, the second petition in our prayer, because this is relevant for us too. David prays there in verse 10:
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
And just like the entire psalm has a backstory, this individual verse has a backstory of its own. It looks pretty basic. It’s just a simple prayer. But, there’s some heavy of theological freight behind what David is asking God to do, and if we’re going to make sense out of this verse, we need to know where this is coming from — and it all has to do with the heart.
There are two things that the Bible tells us about the heart that we need to know in order to understand this petition in Psalm 51, verse 10. And so the plan for the sermon is to first look at these two things about the heart and then work our way back to this petition in Psalm 51, and in this petition I think we learn three things very practical things.
So the sermon is going to be two points and then three points, which is kind of odd. But think about it as first we’re laying the foundation, and then there’s the application. So let’s get started with two things the Bible tells us about the heart:
- Your Heart Is What God Mainly Cares About
- Your Heart Is Messed Up
Let me explain.
Foundation #1: Your Heart Is What God Mainly Cares About
And when I say “heart” I think you all know what I mean. I’m talking about the center of our person. It’s both the bull’s eye of who we are and it’s the control panel to our system. The heart is the metaphysical organ that pumps life into everything else that we think and do (that’s why we call it the “heart” — or sometimes we call it the soul, or sometimes even our “gut.” The King James Version from hundreds of years ago sometimes translates it “bowels.” I think “heart” works.)
But what’s amazing about what we mean when we say “heart” or “soul” or “gut” is that we’re talking about a fact that humans have known since the very beginning of humanity. The idea of the “heart” — the idea that humans have this unseen causer in them, this inner self, this energy at the center of who they are — this is an ancient idea that goes back thousands and thousands of years ago, and you see it all over the place in the Bible.
The Truest Part of Ourselves
One way the word “heart” is used is just to talk about the center of anything. So we could say the “heart of the ocean” or the “heart of the problem” and so forth. But when it comes to humans, in the Bible the heart is referring to someone’s inner, center self which is the most basic and fundamental part of who they are.
And that’s why the heart is important. It’s the truest part of ourselves, which is why the Bible uses language like “from the heart” and “take it to heart” and “with all your heart.” The Greatest Commandment is for us to love God with all our heart (Deut. 6:5). And we understand what that means. God is talking about the best, most truest part of you.
The heart is the unseen center of who you are — it’s your truest part — and it’s also what influences what you do. The ancient Proverbs talked about it this way. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” Your heart is the source from which everything else flows. Jesus taught the same thing. Jesus said, in Matthew 12:34 that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” So what we’re saying and doing out here comes from somewhere in here.
The Heart Leads by Love
Jesus also said in Matthew 6:21, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
And this brings even more focus for us, because not only is the heart our truest self at the center of who we are that influences what we do, but that influence mainly has to do with desire. What we treasure, Jesus says — our values, our desires, our loves — that is where the heart is. That’s what the heart is all about.
The heart is what loves — and because the heart is our center, our truest self — the Bible teaches that humans are fundamentally lovers, not thinkers. Saint Augustine taught that. Jonathan Edwards taught that. Most of church history has taught that. Humans are beings who essentially love and desire. Our hearts set the course of our lives because our hearts are what do the loving and desiring.
Every action that we do is connected back to our hearts esteeming that action (or what it intends) as valuable. Ultimately, we will only do what we want to do.
Which means that even if you do something that you didn’t want to do, the only way you eventually do it is by your heart convincing you that it’s valuable. That’s the only way I ever finished my Hebrew homework in seminary (the second time I took the class). Our hearts are what drive us. So no wonder why our hearts are what God mainly cares about.
And you can get really philosophical here, or we can just keep it practical — because I think most people understand this. Most people understand that the heart is in control, and that the heart being in control is not necessarily a good thing. That’s why people says things like “The heart wants what it wants.” That’s usually meant to be a justification for someone doing something that doesn’t make any sense. The heart determines what we do, and that can be a problem.
Which leads us to the second thing the Bible tells us about the heart.
Foundation #2: Your Heart Is Messed Up
This is one of the clearest truths in the Bible. After sin entered the world in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 3, and things started to go really bad, the worst of it was described in Genesis 6:5, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
So human wickedness was rampant, and it came from the intentions of the heart. Then many years later the prophet Jeremiah had a lot to say about the heart, and what he said might be the most intense. Jeremiah said in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” That’s in the Bible.
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
And that one biblical truth deconstructs an entire generation of self-esteem psychology, and it dismantles the foundations of gender dysphoria, and it pretty much ruins most pop music.
“Believe It Not”
Because according to Jeremiah, according to the Bible, the human heart is in such terrible shape that it cannot be trusted. The heart left to itself is not something that we should follow.
I still remember in college when I first started reading the Puritan John Owen on this truth, and his diagnosis on the heart just wrecked me. His words just got burned into my memory (I think I’ve told you this before). He says:
Be acquainted with thine own heart, though it be deep, search it; though it be dark, inquire unto it; though it give all sins other names than what are their due, believe it not.
Ours hearts are that messed up. Which is a problem because God cares about the heart. 1 Samuel 16:7 says, “… [T]he Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
God cares about your truest self, the self that he sees better than anyone else. He cares about what you desire and what you love, not about how you look or how you’re perceived. God is not impressed by our posing.
The Heart Farthest from God
In fact, the heart farthest away from God is the one that poses — the one that pretends to be something on the outside that it’s not. And they’ve always been out there. In Matthew 15, Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah and condemned the Pharisees when he said,
You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me…” (Matthew 15:7–9)
And God rejects that. God says in Psalm 101:4, “A perverse heart shall be far from me; I will know nothing of evil.” Proverbs 16:5 says, “Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished.”
And David understood this in Psalm 51. He admits straight up in verse 12 that God doesn’t care about outward religious posing, but God delights in a “broken and contrite heart.” God delights in “truth in the inward being” (verse 6).
And all this does is compound our problems — because 1) our hearts are our truest selves and they’re what God mainly cares about; but 2) our hearts are desperately sick — they’re messed up.
Which means we’re in an impossible situation. We’re stuck.
This is what we need to know about the heart when we come to Psalm 51. Our hearts are what God mainly cares about, and our hearts are terribly broken. And therefore, the absolute only thing we could do about our hearts is exactly what David does in verse 10. He asks God for a new one.
That’s what is happening in Psalm 51, verse 10.
Back from the Backstory
So now we’ve worked our way back to Psalm 51, and what David is saying here now makes a lot of sense to us.
Because of what we know about the heart, we understand why he prays, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
This verse, this petition, is a last-ditch solution for humanity’s greatest problem. And there are just three points of application that I want to highlight. And I’m going to put them very practically, because this psalm helps us at that practical level. So this is just straight application. In Psalm 51, verse 10, three things we learn:
- Pray for God to create, not just to readjust.
- Pray for God to fix me first.
- Pray to God and no one else.
Okay, let’s look at the first one here. This is the first thing we learn.
1. Pray for God to create, not just to readjust.
The first verb in verse 10 is the verb “create” — which also happens to be the very first verb of the entire Bible. It all started in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” That’s the same word used in Psalm 51 and it has the same meaning. The word refers to the divine of act of making something exist that did not exist. The creation of God in Genesis is often called creation ex nihilo — which means “creation out of nothing.” It means that before God spoke and did the action of creating, there was absolutely nothing there.
God did not stumble upon a few different parts of the universe that he then reassembled as the world. There was once absolutely nothing outside of God. There was only God in his triune fellowship. There was no created thing. But then God spoke and created the universe. Which means that now everything that exists, everything in the universe, goes back to that one decisive moment when God acted.
And in the same way that God created the world out of nothing, David is asking God to create in him a clean heart. David knows that’s the kind of power that it’s going to take. That’s David’s only chance. And so at this level, David’s prayer here is one of the most humble prayers we could ever pray because it’s the honest admission of our condition. We understand that our hearts are so sinful, so broken, so warped, that we need for God to do more than just readjust the heart that’s there, we need for God to create it new. We need for God to speak and to create in us the hearts that we’re supposed to have.
And that’s what he does. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul makes this connection between God’s work in creation and God’s work in salvation. In 2 Corinthians 4, verse 6, he says:
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness” [talking about creation], [that God] has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
So the same kind of work that God did in creation, he’s doing that work in our hearts. Just like God created the universe, we need him to create our hearts, not just move things around. That’s the first thing we learn.
2. Pray for God to fix me first.
The focus here is simply that David is praying for God to do something in him. He says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
And that might sound pretty basic, but that kind of praying is not easy. Chances are, this is not our default mode as we encounter difficult circumstances throughout the day.
Let’s just be honest: Most of the time when things don’t go the way we’d like them to, we don’t stop and ask God to work in us. We would rather God change the circumstances. We would rather God change the things we’re dealing with than change the person who is dealing with them.
And this happens all the time. Everybody has that friend (maybe you are that friend?) that seems to bounce around from job to job, and every job that they leave always has something wrong with it. And so they keep moving around and doing this thing over and over because every situation they end up in has problems, and at some point you just think: Whoa, hold on a minute. Have you ever stopped to consider that maybe the problem isn’t just your situation, but maybe the problem is you?
That’s something we’ve all got to consider, and I can go ahead and save you some time. The answer is Yes. Part of the problem is you. Part of the problem is all of us. That’s why we should pray for God to fix us first. Before we want God to make all the corrections out there, we need God to make all the corrections in here — “God, create in me a clean heart! Do the work in me first.”
True story here: For pretty much everything that you encounter on an average, everyday basis, your greatest need is not a change of your situation, it’s a change of you. David is praying that way.
Now the third and final thing to point out.
#3. Pray to God and no one else.
So how many of you remember the book, Where the Red Fern Grows?
It’s about a boy who really wants these dogs, and he finally gets them, and then it gets sad. Well, last week the kids and I started watching the 1972 movie version of the book (we didn’t finish, but we started), and there’s one part in movie when the boy is talking to his grandpa — (this part is not actually in the book; I looked it up; but was in the movie ) — but the boy is talking to his grandpa about how badly he wants these dogs and how he’s been praying for them, and his grandpa tells him that if we really wants God to do something then he needs to meet God halfway. Grandpa says that “God helps those who help themselves.”
And I don’t want to overstate this, but that is toxic. That is not true. And if we think that way, if we think that’s how prayer works, then it means we’re not really praying to God, but we’re praying to ourselves with God on the side.
It might seem like we’re praying, but really we’re just consulting our own wills and trying to cut a deal with God. We’re praying but thinking that Okay, I’ll do this, and God, you do that.
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying we don’t do things. Of course we do. God works through means. He works through us. But understanding that God works through means is very different from trying to meet God halfway.
God doesn’t do halfway. That’s not how it goes.
God’s doesn’t meet us halfway, he must come the whole way — and the entire message of the Bible is making that point. That’s what the gospel is. The gospel is God coming to us, all the way — because it was the only way.
We were dead in our trespasses and sin. We were without hope. But God — Ephesians 2:4 — being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he has loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses [and unable to meet God anywhere] God made us alive together with Christ. He spoke and called us from death to life.
And so we when we pray, we’re praying to him and no one else. He is the one who has made us alive. He is the one who created us new. And he is the one who has to do it. This is what Saint Augustine was getting at when he prayed to God,
My entire hope is exclusively in your very great mercy. Grant what you command, and command what you will. (Confessions, 202).
That’s how David is praying in Psalm 51, verse 10. That’s what it means to pray as a human.
God, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise. Let me get in on that praise. Let me join the chorus of your praise today, whatever it is that comes. And then there’s this heart, God. There’s this heart, and you know all about it because you see everything in it. And what I need so badly, before I even take my next breath, I need you to create in me a clean heart, O God. I need you to change me from the inside-out.
My biggest problem is not my circumstances. My biggest problem is not the situations that you’re going to call me to today. My biggest problem is my heart, and God I need you to do in me what only you can do. I need you to change me. I need you to work in me. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.