To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.
6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem;
19 then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
This is the word of God, Psalm 51.
And this psalm, like most of the psalms, has a backstory. There is a real life experience from which David, the King of Israel, has prayed and written these words — and we know what that experience is because of the little superscript introduction right above verse 1. Many of the psalms have superscript introductions like this, and any time we see them it’s because the composer of the Book of Psalms thinks it’s important that we know where the psalm is coming from.
Ans so David’s prayer here in Psalm 51 is coming from somewhere in David’s life — but I need to warn you about it. So here we go: There is a danger in Psalm 51 that if you know where this psalm is coming from, it might actually distort the way you read it.
This is what the superscript says: To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.
And this superscript is referring to a backstory that comes from the Old Testament book of 2 Samuel, Chapter 11. And by the time this backstory takes place in 2 Samuel, David had been anointed king over Israel, against all odds. He was just a little kid brother watching sheep and God came through the prophet Samuel and chose him to be king over the nation of Israel. And then God made David a promise that from his lineage would come a king, the Messiah, who would reign on the throne as king forever. And after God made this promise to David he gave him victories everywhere he went. David was defeating his enemies at every turn, and when we come to 2 Samuel 11, the Bible tells us that while the rest of his army was out fighting battles against the Ammonites, David stayed back in Jerusalem and “It happened, late one afternoon.” That’s what the text says.
David was walking on the roof of his house and in the distance he saw a woman bathing, which is embarrassing. I’m embarrassed to even say that. And we’re not given too many details in the story, probably because it’s so shameful, but David basically asks about who the woman is; finds out her name is Bathsheba and that she is the wife of one of his best soldiers; and then David “took her” and she becomes pregnant; and after a failed attempt to deceive her husband into thinking that the child was his, David arranges for her husband to be stranded in the field of battle where he is killed by the enemy. Then David takes Bathsheba to be his own wife.
And we all know that David has done a terrible thing. The Bible is clear about that. It’s sick. The whole thing is gross and repulsive — David, God’s chosen king over his chosen people, is supposed to be the good guy but instead he’s become the villain.
But then when Nathan the prophet confronts David about his sin in 2 Samuel 12, David responds in repentance. David says, in 2 Samuel 12, verse 13, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And as the superscript of Psalm 51 tells us, David wrote this psalm in that repentance, after Nathan confronted him.
An Important Warning
And this is why the warning is important — there is a danger for us to know this backstory because it can cause us to hold this psalm as far away from us as we can, and to think that it really doesn’t apply to us.
And we can do that because we know that the sins we’ve done, whatever they are, there’s a good chance they’re not as bad as David’s — because this is bad — and so it feels like because we haven’t done what David has done, there’s a disconnect between us and this psalm.
We’re just kind of messed up by the whole thing. We don’t know where to be grossed out by what precipitated this psalm or where to be encouraged by the actual words that David prays. It’s confusing, and so confusing that it’s just easier for us to keep our distance from it. [We hold it out here.] And the warning is that we shouldn’t let the backstory of this psalm cause us to do that.
My Story with the Backstory
Another mistake we could make with Psalm 51 is how I used to read it as a kid in high school. This is sort of like my story with this backstory. I was raised in a Christian home and growing up I was taught enough Bible to know that Psalm 51 existed, and I knew that it came from a nasty situation. So I made this psalm like one of those Bible verses that you don’t really understand, but that you keep in the back of your pocket in case you think you might need it later. [You know what I’m talking about.]
And this psalm in my back pocket came in very handy for me, because any time I would do something really bad — like a high-handed sin that wrecked my conscience — I’d reach back in my pocket and I’d pull out this psalm, which eventually meant that I was reaching back into my pocket way too often. And I did it so much so that later on, as freshman in college when God changed my life by the gospel and I started living right, I took Psalm 51, locked it in a safe, and threw the keys away. I had such a one-dimensional category for this psalm that I hoped I would never need to pray it again.
And that’s another wrong way to think about it. That’s another way we can keep our distance from this psalm, and that’s pretty much been the way I’ve considered it until about two years ago when I was reading a morning devotional in the Book of Common Prayer. The devotional that I was reading included a short prayer that was adapted from Psalm 51, and the Spirit moved in me so much by it that I decided to pray it again the next day, and then the next day and the next day, and I haven’t stopped praying it since. So everyday for the past couple years, every morning when I wake up, and sometimes throughout the day, I pray a little prayer taken from Psalm 51. It’s just four petitions taken from four verses. I pray it everyday for my own soul, and I’ve been so helped by it that the elders have given me this opportunity to preach four sermons for our church on these four petitions.
Praying Like a Human
The banner over these four petitions, over these sermons, is the correction I learned on how to think about this psalm as a whole. I used to think that praying Psalm 51 was for the desperate, guilt-ridden types who feel like they’ve done something horrible. But I’ve come to realize that praying Psalm 51 is actually for humans like all of us who know that they cannot make it without the mercy of God. And I really mean that. If not for the mercy of God, I would ruin my life. And there’s nothing truer that I could say about God and myself than that sentence. We are humans in need of mercy just like David was. That’s why we’re calling this series “Praying Like a Human.” This is a prayer for all of us, and today we’re starting with the first petition found in Psalm 51, verse 15.
So all that I’ve been saying so far is an introduction to the entire series, but now we’re going to focus in on Psalm 51:15. David prays there, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.” And before we dig in, let’s pray and ask for God’s help.
[God, you are worthy to be praised with my every thought and deed, O great God of highest heaven, glorify your name in me. Even in this hour, in and through us all, by your grace, in Jesus’s name, amen.]
So Psalm 51:15 is the first place we’re looking in this series, but it’s actually one of the closing petitions in the psalm as a whole. And the reason I want to start here is because this petition has to do with worship, and it gets at two of the most fundamental facts of life. So it’s kind of like an anchor for us when it comes to our praying, and there are three things in this verse that we need to see. There is first, God’s praise; second, there is our mouths; and third, there is the wonder of it all.
We’ll start with God’s praise.
#1. God’s Praise
When David prays, verse 15, “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise” he implies that this is not praise that he is creating, but it’s praise that he is joining. And there’s a big difference between the two. The praise of God is not something that is up to him, or to you and me, but it’s something that is happening regardless of us — and that’s because God is outside of us.
One of the best places we see this in the Bible is in Isaiah Chapter 6. In Isaiah 6, the prophet Isaiah tells us about this amazing vision he had of God. In this vision he sees the Lord “sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple” — and if you’re familiar with this portion of Scripture, you’ll remember that Isaiah doesn’t say that in this vision he saw God biting his nails, waiting for some human somewhere to praise him. Not even close.
Instead, in Isaiah’s vision God is seated on the throne, and above him stood the seraphim. And the seraphim are these terrifying angelic creatures and each of them has six wings, and with two of the wings they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And as they were flying they were calling out to one another, saying,
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And their voices were so loud that the foundations of the temple were shaking and the entire place was filling with smoke, and when Isaiah is seeing this vision he doesn’t think that God needs his worship. Instead, Isaiah says in Isaiah 6:5,
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
And Isaiah knows that what he has seen of God is true of God whether he saw it or not. God being praised is going to happen even if Isaiah is unaware of the praising and not part of it.
And David gets that in Psalm 51. God has praise that is happening whether or not our mouths are involved. That’s what it means for God to be outside of us! It means that we have not invented him and we do not create his praise. God depends on nothing for his being, instead all things are dependent upon him, and he has been praised long before we ever came onto the scene.
The God Outside of Us
This is a fact about God, and it leads to all kinds of really good implications, but there’s one I want highlight this morning, and it’s this. It’s that: God’s reality is not diminished by our inability to comprehend him.
And many of us probably know that, but it’s important to talk about because we can still tend to think that way a lot of times. It happens at a cultural level all over the place, and it happens in our everyday lives every time we try to shrink God down to a size that we can fit into our heads. Now, few people would claim to be doing this, but it’s what’s happening any time you ever hear someone start a sentence, “I can’t imagine a God who …” [Sam mentioned this last week.]
When we are thinking of God on the terms of what we can imagine, it will not go well. And what’s really sad about it is that if we continue to think of God on our terms, eventually we’re going to walk away from him because he will not play by our rules. And we might think that walking away from him is brave and adventurous, but really, it means you’re just walking away from your own misunderstanding. And that’s the sad part: People can think they’re walking away from God when really they’re walking away from their misunderstanding of God because he will not fit into their box.
And it happens more today than in centuries past because of the mainstream way that many people in our society think about religion and the world in general. One way to talk about this is that there are two different frameworks for how to think about the world. There is a moral framework and then there is a psychological framework.
When it comes to the moral framework, that’s where there are clear lines. There is such a thing as right and wrong. There is absolute truth. Reality is reality regardless of me. And then when it comes to the psychological framework, that’s where reality and meaning is only what’s computed in our own heads. In this framework, everything orbits around the self, and reality becomes what I make or experience.
In the moral framework, when it comes to religion, it is completely acceptable that God rub me the wrong way and that there’s things I don’t understand, because he’s outside of me. He’s God. He is who he is. He’s holy, and I stand before him.
But in the psychological framework, when it comes to God, he must exist all for me, and therefore I will only want the parts of him that I find therapeutic. (And you can hear this way of thinking in some Christian music when the lyrics are more about self-therapy than the worship of God). This psychological framework is out there, and we can slip into it.
But in the world of Psalm 51, the real world, the world of the Bible, we’re given the moral framework. Which means, right now, even if we were not here, even if we had not said a single word this morning, even if none of us existed, the seraphim would still be singing “holy, holy, holy.” And that’s because God is God. He does not need us to be who he is. He is worthy of praise, and he will be praised with or without you and me.
That is foundational in David’s prayer. He asks to declare God’s praise, not start the praise from scratch. He wants to proclaim what already is. That is God’s praise. That’s the first thing we need to see, and then it leads us to the second thing going on in this petition in Psalm 51, and that is our mouths.
#2. Our Mouths
Now David is obviously talking about his own mouth when he prays this in verse 15, but when we pray this after him, we’re talking about our mouths. We’re praying, like David did, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.”
Which means that although we know that God’s praise exists outside of us and apart from us, it is praise that we want to get in on. We want to be part of this! But why is that?
Why does David pray that his mouth declare God’s praise? Why should we pray that our mouths declare God’s praise? Why do we want to be part of this?
That’s a big question, and there’s more than one answer, but I’m only going to mention one answer this morning, and it’s that God’s praise is the reason we have mouths to begin with.
Why God Gave Us Mouths
We pray for God to open our lips so that our mouths declare his praise because we know that’s why God has given us mouths. The Psalms talk a lot about the mouth and it always goes one of two ways. Either our mouths speak lies and are full of violence, or they speak truth and praise God — and a repeated prayer throughout the Psalms as a whole is that our mouths be full of praise.
Psalm 34:1 — I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
Psalm 71:8 — My mouth is filled with your praise, and with your glory all the day.
Psalm 145:21 — My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever.
Praise is what this is for. And of course, there are other good things that we do with our mouths, but there’s nothing greater than praising God. God’s praise is the ultimate purpose. And we can be confident this is true because we know that God’s praise is really the ultimate purpose for anything. God’s glory and praise is ultimately the reason why everything exists. And that’s very practically the case for our mouths because our mouths can literally praise God.
We can literally declare God’s praise. We can sing and shout and speak true things about God. Over our sin, we can declare his grace. Over our weakness, we can declare his strength. Over the craziness of our circumstances and the sorrow of our sufferings and the darkness of our doubts, our mouths can declare the truth of God — because the truth of God comes from outside of us. Which means, that even if you are not there psychologically; even if your emotions don’t line up; even when it feels like everything in your life is falling apart, your mouth can remind you about the truth of God.
Just take up the Bible and read! Speak the praise of God in the word of God. Declare it with your mouth, over and over and over again until your heart catches up. Our mouths can declare God’s praise like that. That’s what they are for.
Two Fundamental Facts
So there is God’s praise and there is our mouths, and these are two fundamental facts about life: God is outside of us and his praise exists apart from us; and God has given us mouths and we want to get in on his praise.
The real miracle, though, is not that these two things are true, but it’s that God will actually let us praise him. The miracle is that God would actually receive our praise. Don’t forget the backstory here in Psalm 51. After what David has done, how dare he ask God to open his lips so that his mouth declare God’s praise? After what he’s done, how can he ask for this?
And it’s not just David. We have our own backstories, don’t we? Behind every time we pray this petition for ourselves we have our own sin and failures. There are all the ways that we have fallen short of God’s glory. How is it even be possible for our mouths to declare God’s praise? That’s the wonder of it all. [So this is the last point.]
#3. The Wonder of It All
The whole reason it’s possible for our mouths to declare God’s praise goes back to the very first petition of Psalm 51. It’s in verse 1 and it goes right for the heart of God’s character. David prays there, in the very first thing he says, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.”
This is why this psalm is here to begin with. This is the reason why there are any psalms, or any prayers. It is because God is a God of mercy. He is a God of “steadfast love.” That’s what David prays first. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love” — and “steadfast love” is a phrase loaded with meaning in the Old Testament. Any time we read about God’s “steadfast love” it’s not talking about a generic kind of benevolence in God, but it’s talking about the particular love that God has promised everyone who trusts him. It’s his covenantal love. It is the love with which God has bound himself in relation to his people. Which means, it’s a love that is not determined by us. We don’t earn this love. We could never deserve this love. God’s steadfast love is a love that tells us how great he is, not how great we are.
And that’s why we can trust God in this love. It’s not up to our lovability. Do you think, after what David has done, that he can come to God on the basis of his lovability? Absolutely not. And none of us can. If we are going to come to God, we must come to him on the basis of his steadfast love.
Our Hope in the Cross
And God’s steadfast love that we read about in the Old Testament is what is definitively shown to us in Jesus Christ when he died in our place on the cross. The apostle Paul says in Romans 5:8 that God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Jesus died for us.
That was the moment that David, and every Old Testament saint, was looking forward to. God is a God of steadfast love and in his steadfast love he forgives sin. David prays in Psalm 32, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”
But how, David? How are our transgressions forgiven and our sins covered?
It’s because Jesus took those transgressions and those sins upon himself and he absorbed the wrath that we deserved in our place. Jesus died for us.
And just as David looked forward to this in faith, we look back to this in faith. The cross of Jesus is God’s mercy. The cross of Jesus is God’s steadfast love. And it’s the only thing that can bring together God’s praise and our mouths.
The cross of Jesus is the reality that is behind Psalm 51:15 every time we pray it. “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise.”
God, your praise is happening already, and it will keep happening with or without me. The seraphim around your heavenly throne, and the myriads of angels in your presence, and all your people all over this world, and even all of creation, are together, right now, singing your praise.
You are worthy of praise and you will be praised. And you’ve given me this mouth. You given me words. Though I’m a man of unclean lips and I don’t have any right in myself to recite your wonders, you are a God of steadfast love and mercy and you have made that clear to me because Jesus died for me. And so because of him, will you let me get in on the praise? Because of Jesus, will you open my lips so that my mouth will declare your praise? That’s what it’s all about. That’s why I’m here. That’s why any of this is here. It is for your glory, God! It’s for your praise, God! That is the great purpose of the universe! Swallow me up into that great purpose! Let me join that chorus! I want to be part of that praise! O Lord, open my lips so that my mouth will declare your praise!
That’s what we mean when we pray Psalm 51, verse 15. And that’s why I think it’s helpful.