Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Against You Only?

Image source.

Psalm 51 is one of those well-known and beloved psalms within Christian culture. It is David's prayer of confession after that big scandal with Bathsheba. It contains the line "Create in me a clean heart, O God." You know, that psalm.

But something seemed a little strange when I read the psalm this week. Verse 4 says, "Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight." Ummm, really? David's sin was against only God?

Let's review what David did (this account can be found in 2 Samuel 11-12):
  • While walking on his roof, he noticed Bathsheba and someone told him she was the wife of Uriah, one of David's soldiers. 
  • He summoned Bathsheba and she had to have sex with him because he's the king.
  • When David found out Bathsheba was pregnant, he called Uriah home from battle and tried to get them to sleep together so no one would know the baby was his. But Uriah refused to go home, out of loyalty to the rest of the army.
  • David sent Uriah back to the front lines with a letter instructing the army commander to assign Uriah to the most dangerous area of fighting and then leave him there alone.
  • Uriah was killed in battle.
  • David married Bathsheba and acted like nothing wrong had happened. She had a baby.
  • Nathan the prophet turned up and told David he was a horrible person (not exactly in those words). David confessed that he had sinned.
  • As punishment, God made the baby sick. And then the baby died.
  • Yeah so basically the whole thing was a mess.

In this story, who is hurt by David's sin? Bathsheba. Uriah. Bathsheba's baby. Possibly more people? Uriah's family? Other soldiers in David's army?

It seems a bit odd for David to pray, "Against you, you only, have I sinned." What about the part where he ruined Bathsheba's family?

And actually, this entire psalm is sort of in that same vein- begging God for forgiveness and cleansing from sin, but not mentioning anything about how his sin has affected other people, and how maybe he should do something to try and make up for what he's done.

It's almost as if David wants to be forgiven from his huge sins because David can't bear the fact that he is the kind of person who would do those things, and he believes God doesn't accept the kind of people who do those things. It's all about David and David's relationship with God.

But I think there's more to the story than that.

Certainly praying for forgiveness from God is a part of what David needs to do. But if that was the entire thing, then there would be issues.

And that's one of the issues I have with evangelical Christianity- the idea that sin is an individual thing, and sin is bad because it separates the sinner from God... and that's it. It's like we need to follow all these rules about what is and is not a sin because God said to, not because we're thinking of the real-world damage that sin does.

And this view makes the gospel incredibly narrow too. It says "the gospel" is nothing more than "I am a sinner but because of Jesus' death and resurrection, God will still accept me." And I believe that's true but that's just a tiny tiny part of the gospel. The gospel is for the whole world! Jesus came to bring God's kingdom to this earth, to bring justice, hope, peace, love. And sin is bad because it screws that up.

The gospel is so much bigger than my individual sin and my personal spiritual connection to God.

Okay let's get back to David. In Psalm 51, was David assuming this limited, over-spiritualized view that was only about individual sin? Did he think the fact that he murdered a guy and stole his wife only mattered because it made David a sinner and David couldn't stand being a sinner?

No, I don't think so. And here's why:
After Nathan had gone home, the Lord struck the child that Uriah's wife had borne to David, and he became ill. David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground. The elders of his household stood besides him to get him up from the ground, but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them.

On the seventh day the child died. David's attendants were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they thought, "While the child was still living, he wouldn't listen to us when we spoke to him. How can we now tell him the child is dead? He may do something desperate."

David noticed that his attendants were whispering among themselves, and he realized the child was dead. "Is the child dead?" he asked.

"Yes," they replied, "he is dead."

Then David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he went to his own house, and at his request they served him food, and he ate.

His attendants asked him, "Why are you acting this way? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept, but now that the child is dead, you get up and eat!"

He answered, "While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, 'Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.' But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me."

- 2 Samuel 12:15-23

Here's David, laying on the ground and pleading with God for days, pleading that God would save his baby's life. And not because David would be so sad if the baby died (he wasn't) but because the baby had become sick as punishment for David's sin, and David knew it and didn't want his son to suffer for his sin. (I have some concerns about God killing the innocent baby to punish David, but we won't talk about that right now.)

David wasn't completely self-absorbed and feeling terrible for himself and his status as a sinner. He knew that his sin had caused terrible things to happen to other people, innocent people. We read about how much he prayed for the baby to be healed, and I imagine that David also did whatever he could to help Bathsheba and anyone else affected by the whole mess.

But it's not enough. You can't undo murder.

Nothing can make it right. Nothing can fully make up for David's sin. And that's how we find him in Psalm 51- just him and God after he finds himself completely powerless to fix things in any meaningful way.

"Against you, you only, have I sinned." It's hyperbole- David definitely knew that his sin had affected (killed!) other people. But just as he couldn't fix what he did to other people, he couldn't fix his own standing before God. So in this psalm he pleads for God's forgiveness, for cleansing, for God to "blot out my transgressions" and "create in me a pure heart."

Every sin is a sin against God- but let's not forget how our sin hurts other people. Prayers of confession like Psalm 51 are super-important, but there are many other concerns we must have after we sin- concerns about reconciliation with those we have wronged, concerns about how to make it up to them, if possible.

I believe David knew that. Let's make sure we don't forget.


This post is part of a link-up on the topic of Psalm 51. To read other people's posts, click here: Create In Me.


  1. I am so glad you linked up today! And, I am also glad you voiced frustration with the language in this Psalm. That is one of my hopes- that people feel comfortable expressing their honest feelings! I have always had a little not in my stomach from that "against you and you only" line, too.

    You raised some great points. I love that you didn't look at this Psalm in isolation- context is so important for understanding the Bible. As you point out, this Psalm is not the only thing David does to express his remorse.

    I also think you make a great point about our over-focus on individual sin. This psalm was written privately, based on David's experience. But (kind of like ancient blogging perhaps?) it was written in order to be read publicly, as a chance for a community to confess together. (That helps a lot with another tricky part- asking God not to take away His presence. In ancient Israel, this would have been the community praying for God to not take His blessing away from them due to their sin.)

    So glad you linked up today!

  2. My heart was pounding nearly out of my chest as I read your words here. I could feel your wrestling with scripture, imagine your hand to the pages of your bible flipping forward and back while jotting down your discoveries. I love how you did not allow yourself to be isolated, but you courageously dug deep. So often we find one or two lines of scripture, slap them on our lives, use them as justification not to love others and use them as a way not to confess our sins to one another.
    The line "Against you, only you have I sinned" did not resonate with me in the way in which it did with you and this is so beautiful. I got what he was saying because I too have committed adultery and laid myself toward the Lord crying this same cry. It wasn't that I failed to know and grieve and go to the others I had wronged, because I had. It was the revelation along the way that yes, I had hurt others in ways that send me into a weep today, but the fact that I had sinned against a holy and loving God. It was and continues to be a both/and for me.
    I am so glad you took part in this linkup today....so glad!

  3. Great revelations in here! So much to ponder and consider. I really like the way you dug through each aspect of the situation and brought it life. It gives the story a whole new feel. That is one of the great things about studying like this, the different perspectives and angles at which we all see things. I think through each other we find much more of the whole picture than we do alone. For me that line acknowledges the Breath of God, the Spirit within all of us. I am reminded of Matthew 25:40, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." {NIV84} I think we would all be better off if we treated each and every person we met with that verse in mind.~

  4. Lovely thoughts. I also was bothered by that phrase "you only," but sort of took it in the same way--as hyperbole. Or, in the way that David has an understanding of just how great that sin is and how it affects the relationship with God. I think most of the time, we get it backwards. I think we see the effects of our sin on people and our life and are sorry or repent or deal with that aspect, mending what we can. But with God, perhaps because we didn't see the cost being paid and sometimes don't fully get God's holiness, we sort of just...forget. Or don't take it as seriously, or pray those kinds of prayers on our face, grieved over our sin. Maybe it goes both ways--we sometimes don't worry as much about the people we hurt, and sometimes don't worry so much about how our sin against people offends God. Overall, I think we don't take it as seriously as David. Loved your post!