Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be made clean. Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow. Thou shalt make me to hear joy and gladness; the bones that be humbled, they shall rejoice. Turn thy face away from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence and take not thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and with thy governing Spirit, establish me.
The first part of David’s great prayer of repentance found him standing in the depth and darkness of his sins. He had put the nature of his sins into the light of God’s sight in all its deadliness and cried to God for the mercy and compassion that God had promised in his covenant to Moses when he had revealed his glory to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Now, in verses 7-12, he looks up from this depth to contemplate the hope of God’s grace. Only from this depth of true repentance can we begin to see the greatness of what the merciful God will do to restore us. Having poured out his sin into the light of God’s gaze, David now begins to trace the steps of God’s mercy. These verses form another great picture of David’s deep knowledge of God. In the midst of his own terrible failure and helplessness, he remembers the ways of God and shows his understanding and expectation of what to hope for in God’s progressive work, work that restores a human being destroyed by the ravages of his own sin. This part of the prayer develops the path of what I John 1:9 says of God’s faithful and just work that forgives us our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. Verses 7-12 reveal how God brings us back into life from our sins.
This part of the prayer answers a crucial spiritual question: What should happen after we recognize sin? We repent of its wrong, confess it to the Church in the mystery of confession, and determine, by God’s help and grace, not to repeat it again. As a pastor and as a recovering sinner, I know the urgency of this question. For Psalm 18 perceptively asks the hard issue. “As for transgressions, who will understand them?” True repentance wants to understand our sin as fully as we can, and pastoral care needs to understand transgression to minister healing. So what comes next?
Our great need is not merely to be taken off the list of the guilty. Our need is to be in every possible way made right, whole, and fruitful in our relationships to God, with ourselves, and others. The path that David anticipates that God will lead him through is one of the great insights of how God truly restores the sinner and gives the Church and the individual a sense of the way of restoration, what I John 1:9 calls “forgiveness and cleansing.”
David traces the path of forgiveness in four acts of releasing or removing the effect of sin, then two personal changes that God makes in his view of David, and then three acts of restoring the damaged sinner to spiritual life and health. We should note that in the Hebrew text which we have today, and the Greek text that the Orthodox Church uses in its liturgical life, the verbs describing God’s restorative acts are set in different moods of those verbs. The Hebrew is less precise as the nature of Hebrew verbs often is. But the sense is that the verbs are imperatives of request, asking God to do something. On the other hand, the Greek verbal mood is the indicative of expectation, of what David hopes that God will do.
In both perspectives, the work of God is clearly seen, not just as a vague forgetting of the sin, but actually healing the sinner in removing the damage and restoring him to life and to health. This vision of God’s forgiveness and cleansing gives us a clear understanding not only of what God does when he forgives and cleanses us from sin, but what we must seek God to do for us before we can truly be restored. The forgiveness of God is far more than merely letting bygones be bygones. God’s forgiveness is a truly transforming healing to abundant life, to being fully alive.
The first phrase, then: “Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be made clean.” This first act in David’s hope invokes the Old Testament priestly practice, in Exodus and Leviticus, of using the hairy leaves of hyssop as a liquid-retaining sprinkler, and shaking either blood or water on a person or an object to indicate that God will do his cleansing work on it. While this sprinkling reveals God’s merciful and real intention that creates a new possibility and hope, the sprinkling does not necessarily complete what God will do. In a sense, this may represent an aspect of holy baptism, where God decisively and truly acts in uniting the person being baptized to Christ the Savior through the Holy Spirit. The great intention of God’s mercy rests on that person. In fact, there is a new identity. But a life is now to be lived, and God’s baptismal grace will continue to be needed and applied and worked out to bring the person to theosis.
Which leads us to the next phrase: “Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow.” This next phrase is not just poetic repetition. It is a progression in God’s cleansing work. This wash, as one teacher put it, is not a polite rinse, but a thorough scrub which presupposes the object of washing is in a thoroughly disheveled state. The intensity of this rough scrub, if you will, is seen in verse two: “Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity.” This needed work of God is most important for us to understand, both for ourselves and for those times when we are responsible to serve in the restoration of someone who has been ensnared in sin, such as is described in Galatians 6.
The reason it is important for us to understand this part of God’s work is that we can make serious mistakes, either in humbly submitting to God’s work in our own lives or by embracing a shallow forgive-and-forget mentality towards someone who deeply is needing healing from deep and persistent sin. [9:49] It is important to remember that this thorough washing is primarily God’s work. God alone is wise and good enough to determine ultimately the extent how long and how aggressive the washing needs to be, and yet, at times, there is a human involvement in this as well.
David’s life is an example. The faithful and courageous Prophet Nathan confronted David with his sin in a skillfully penetrating way. As a result, David did see his sin, and he freely confessed it, but Nathan’s word to David reflects God’s severe mercy of thorough washing. For he said, “The Lord has put away your sin. You shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you shall die.” This is a very hard word. This raises the issue of forgiveness and consequences. If the child’s death is merely a consequence, was David really forgiven? What justice is there for the innocent baby to die? It is just here that we need to remember the thorough washing, the rough scrubbing. We must leave it to God in his love, wisdom, and righteousness to care for the baby. And truly, the judge of all the earth does right.
But we must see this death as part of God’s restorative goodness. Yet the death of the child was not the end of David’s scrubbing. When David’s son, Amnon, raped his sister Tamar, when David’s son, Absalom, treacherously rebelled against his father and forced him to flee for his life, when Shimei of the house of Saul, cursed and threw stones and dirt on David as he was fleeing Jerusalem, when Absalom was killed against David’s orders by his own chief commander, all these were part of David’s washing to make him, ultimately, “whiter than snow.”
Of course, we need to be humble toward the sinner and not presumptuously take on the role of God in imposing hardships and punishments. Even more, we need a spirit of humility and submission so powerfully modeled by David himself in his hard washings, and not to fall into self-pity, to resentment, and even further into rebellion against God when we struggle with God’s cleansing work. God’s cleansing and refining work of his people is not intended as mere punishment, the infliction of pain for justice’s sake. Above all, God’s thorough washing is not the sign of a partial or a grudging forgiveness. Rather, it is the good, wise, and gracious work of God in making forgiveness real and transformative. In other words, God’s priority is releasing us from our sins, not helping us live on, still imprisoned, burdened, and infected by them.
The third phrase, “Thou shalt make me to hear joy and gladness,” [reminds] us of words used both by Isaiah and Jeremiah, prophets who spoke of hearing joy and gladness as the result of God’s merciful work with his sinful people. This hearing is the glad word of the Gospel. The word of hope that both John the Forerunner and the Lord spoke at the beginning of the Lord’s public ministry: “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” A better day, a new intimacy with God who is our life is coming and will soon be before us. The one named “Jesus” has come and his name means he will save his people from their sins.
This good news, this Gospel must be kept central, clear, and compelling in the life of the Church. For without the Gospel, the joy and the gladness as our orientation will either sink into despair and hopelessness, or we will wander from the face of God in arrogant complacency and self-sufficiency. If our sin is a deep denial of the Gospel’s proclamation of God’s redeeming us from our very real sins, the hearing of faith once again restores the joy and the gladness of the Gospel, even as we feel the pain and the hardship of this fallen world and of our own need for God’s rough scrubbings.
And that brings us to the fourth phrase: “The bones that be humbled, they shall rejoice.” David’s reference to these bones that are humbled takes us to the height of the joy and gladness of the Gospel. David was fully aware that he had engaged the members of his body as weapons of unrighteousness. As Paul would later put it in Romans 6, “The sins of David’s body reflected the deep sins of his soul.” He was a man deeply submerged in the death of his sins.
In the ancient world, where bodies were buried quickly, and even today in the Middle East, where bodies are still buried within hours of death, the process of physical decay is well-recognized. The ultimate dissolution of the body until only the bones remain [gave] rise to the use of boxes called “ossuaries,” containers where the bones of the dead are removed from the grave and kept in these containers. To say the very least, when a person’s bones are in an ossuary, that person is as far removed from life and is in the depth of the humiliation of death as we could ever imagine.
This sobering fate of bones forms one of the greatest expressions of hope to be found in the Old Testament, in the prophecy of Ezekiel 37 in his famous vision of the valley of the dry bones. The story unfolds: “And the Lord led me around the bones. And behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley. And behold, they were very dry.” It is a stark picture with two emphatic realities, indicated by the word “behold.” The valley was full of death, seen in the many bones. And the death was marked by a horrible finality, signified by the description of them: “They were very dry.” The last vestiges of life in the moisture of the marrow had vanished long ago. This is absolute death.
And in the midst of this horror, the Lord poses a question to Ezekiel. “Son of man, can these bones live?” That question is the crossroads of the life of faith. Is there any way imaginable that life could ever rise out of such absolutely final death? Ezekiel, surely trembling both with horror and with reverence, can only answer, “O Lord, you know.”
We have all been born into the death of human sinful corruption. And every one of us has confirmed and extended that corruption and death by the choices that we ourselves have made. And at certain crisis points of our lives, we stand in our own valley of dry bones and feel the finality of the death, the impossibility of coming out from this, the dull despair that this is the end for us. And the Lord comes to us and he asks, “Son of man, can these bones—yes, even your bones—can they live?” And faith can only say, “O Lord, you know.”
And the Lord does know. And he became flesh and bone and declared, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever believes in me shall never die.” And he asks then, “Do you believe this?” David’s confession of faith, in the resurrection to life even of his sin-laden body is one of the Old Testament’s greatest visions of faith in the coming Messiah and Savior. It is significant that Ezekiel’s vision is read in the Matins service of Great and Holy Saturday in the Orthodox Church, to celebrate in St. Irenaeus’ words, “The Creator is shown to be the only God who accomplishes these things and as himself the good Father, benevolently conferring life upon those who have not life in themselves.”
But David goes even further in faith and hope by gathering these four gracious acts of God and the two personal petitions for God’s own view of David to change. And the first one is this: “Turn thy face away from my sins.” From the beginning of this journey of sad hope, David had recognized that though his sin had wronged many people, his first crisis was his relationship to God that he had devastated. The face of God is a frequent and important phrase throughout Scripture. It speaks of the personhood of God. Indeed, the term “face” is the ancient concept of what it means to be a person. To be face-to-face with God is the one thing in all of life that must be supreme.
Earlier in his life, in John 1:1 declares, is the eternal relationship of the Word of God with God the Father in that beautiful phrase “and the Word was with God.” The Word is pros: was towards God. In other words, the Son has been eternally face-to-face with the Father.
It is that face-to-face fullness of life in God that God intended to give to man in his creation, and it is this face-to-face relationship that the Gospel mission of the Son accomplishes. As II Corinthians 4:6 proclaims, “For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ ” St. Gregory of Nyssa reflects this in his words found in his writings on the inscriptions of the psalms: “For not to be in you is not to be at all.”
The other phrase here of personal relationship with God is “Blot out all mine iniquities.” This last phrase is a recapitulation of what David has already asked from God, and it’s seen in the light of all that is involved for all his iniquities to be blotted out. The greatness of this phrase is that it has been prepared with a massive recognition of what David is asking for. No one but the one great and good God could either desire or be able to do what David needs and asks. At the end of the psalm, we will see David’s recognition of what his full restoration to the image and likeness of God will require, and, the Lord willing, we’ll come to that at a later time.
But we move on to David’s higher ascent into the glory of what God’s gracious mercy and compassion will give him, in three restorative works for David that make it possible for him to truly live again with God as truly human. First: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” This phrase really sings with the original sense of the Hebrew word for “create”: “bara’.” For what David is asking is truly revolutionary, and it is astonishing in the audacity of faith.
Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase of this verse, captures it beautifully, “O God, make a fresh start in me. Shape a genesis week from the chaos of my life.” David is not merely asking to be let go from guilt or pardoned without any change in him. David is asking that in his sin he might experience God coming down and making him new and beautiful, a veritable new creation out of the chaotic rubble of what David had done to himself by his sin. David is not just asking for extensive repairs. He is trusting God to accomplish by the power of the new creation of resurrection, life: something more wondrous, yes, more glorious from the scraps of his life than he had ever known in the past.
Not only is David asking for a new creation, in the next phrase he asks for a new relationship. “Cast me not away from thy presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” David had wandered from his life in God as the prodigal son had flagrantly walked out of his father’s house, only to find that behind the seductions and the delusions of this world, out of the empty promises that the flesh holds forth, there is no life, only death. Again, remember Irenaeus’ wisdom: “For not to be in you is not to be at all.” Truly, the Holy Spirit is the giver of life. For his trinitarian gift of koinonia, communion, of uniting is the living vine of life, the life given by the risen Christ. To be in peace and fullness with the Holy Spirit is eternal life. This is the crucial foundation we forget and we betray in our sin, and which we must seek God’s mercy to restore.
And then the third of these beautiful phrases: “Restore to me the joy of thy salvation and with thy governing spirit establish me.” The last renewing work of God’s mercy is another profound insight into the nature of what it means to be human. This is the relationship of joy and the inner stability of the governance of the Holy Spirit. Depending on one’s personality, we tend either to see freedom from governance as the ultimate happiness—no responsibility, no deadlines, no self-imposed limitations or perhaps no limitations at all—as the essence of happiness. Or, if we tend to be strongly inclined to order, we may delight in setting up our agendas, our lists, our goals, and our procedures, to live the well-ordered life. The problem with either of these tendencies is that neither will produce joy without a better governor who is wiser, kinder, and more satisfying than we could ever be.
David’s particular governance problem was his failure to find, in God’s mercy, the appropriate governance of his passions, that in a moment when his guard was down, failed him miserably. David discovered he needed a better governance than he could provide himself, and in that discovery, he had wrecked his life. He had wrecked Bathsheba’s life. He had ended their baby’s life. And by his murder, he had ended the life of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband.
The good governance of the Holy Spirit is the only governance that can direct our passions and our desires into the stability of life that is full, is peaceful and lasting. This is the sense in the New Testament when St. Paul refers to himself as the “bondservant of the Lord.” For he knows that in that servitude only, will he find freedom. In other words, the [fruits] of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, and self-control—are the only truly personal, life-giving, and nurturing energies that are sufficient to satisfy and to guide the person made in God’s image and likeness. Learning, with the Spirit’s guidance, good governance is the key to true joy and wisdom for life.
Well, we have learned much from our father David from his prayer thus far. And the great and enduring good that came from David’s repentance will be our subject next time. Until then, let us together continue in the spirit of the prayer life of the psalter, crying to our God: “Let my prayer arise as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.”