Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out all my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
~ Psalm 51:1-2 ~
Have mercy on me. The phrase “have mercy on” is repeated a couple dozen times in Scripture, from Exodus to Romans. Most often, I think it is associated with the Psalms and Gospels. In these places, the speaker is asking for mercy from God, that God might not abandon them, or destroy them, or even asking for God’s sustaining power and healing. But the first place that I could find where this phrase is mentioned says, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion in whom I will have compassion.” (Ex. 33:19) How humbling it is to remember that we are at the mercy of our God.
Whether we wake or sleep, whether we eat or drink, whether we breathe or die, everything we do is at the mercy of God. But why here does David ask for mercy from God? In this particular instance, he asks for mercy after committing adultery with Bathsheba and then for committing murder after killing her husband, Uriah. But David does not stop there. He asks for forgiveness for all his transgressions. He knows that his guilt is always before the Lord (v. 3) and that it was only against the Lord that he sinned, not Bathsheba, Uriah, Nathan, or anyone else (v. 4). God is the lawmaker and the judge, so He is right when He lays down justice; we deserve it (v. 4). From the time Adam and Eve rebelled in the Garden to when you sinned perhaps this moment, our guilt is laid before God only and openly. He has had every right to condemn us where we stand.
David furthers this confession when he speaks about how long he has been sinful (v. 5) and how he even sins despite the fact that the Lord has taught him the way of righteousness (v. 6). David pleads with the Lord that he might be made clean; not that he would be rejected by the Lord, but that he would be restored the joy of salvation and given a “willing spirit” to do what has been commanded of him (v. 7-13). And this is what God requires of us: not a sacrifice of things but in a sacrifice of heart (v.16). David could have done that and been done with his guilt. But this is not what God truly wants from his people, and this is a point of this psalm.
God wants a broken and contrite heart from us. He wants a humble heart that does not put ourselves first but rather puts God and His commands first in our hearts, minds, and lives. God wants for us to come before Him humbled and asking for His mercy, and we know that the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective (Jas. 5:16). God shows mercy on whom He will have mercy. And what does God want? He wants a broken and contrite heart that knows it needs mercy. This is our sacrifice to God. God loved us so much that He sent His Son to die for our sins (Jhn. 3:16). If we did not sin, then why would He have to die? But He did die and rise again because we did sin, because we needed saving. So when we do sin, why should we flaunt God’s sacrifice as if we did not need it? We do need it, therefore we ask God for mercy on us in our helpless state that He might forgive us (Matt. 6:12, Rom. 5:1-11).
David opens this psalm by immediately asking for mercy. And he does not ask it according to what David has done. It is not according to David’s righteousness that he asks for, or even tries to say that he deserves mercy. No, he says “according to your unfailing love”, according to God’s love, that his transgressions and sins be blotted out. Thanks be to God and His grace that we are saved! This is the final point of this psalm: that we cannot save ourselves. And how wonderful it is that our salvation does not depend on us and what we can do! How inadequate our actions would be! But God instead showers His love on us and sees us as blameless in His Son (Eph. 2:1-10, 1 Pet. 1:3-6, 2:10). He knows we fall short and that we are justified freely by His grace. Therefore we ask God for mercy and praise Him for His grace, everlasting kindness, and that He chose to have mercy on us – even us!
Blessings to you and yours,