It was an oddly busy weekday night at our local café when I met up with a close friend. I hadn’t seen him in years. Sitting across the small square table, his face was full of shame as he said, “I had an affair.” Only in his darkest valley he had discovered unimaginable grace. He came to repentance and a deeper understanding of the gospel. However, this didn’t undo the disaster his choices had created. He now had a wife who hated him and children whose childhood would be defined by his decisions. King David found himself in a similar place in Psalm 51. Sin has far-reaching consequences.
Sin’s Far-Reaching Consequences
Our sin doesn’t affect us alone. It has far-reaching consequences upon others in our lives
You can read the backdrop to this psalm in 2 Samuel 11-12. Confronted with his great sinfulness, David penned one of the most endearing and beloved passages in the psalter; pouring out his heart of repentance, seeking personal forgiveness and purity. It is the heart-wrenching cry of an individual broken over his sin. And we can relate to that. Many a sinner has taken up this cry as their own.
The Mystery of Psalm 51
But the final verses of this chapter are notoriously mysterious. David writes, “Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar” (Psalm 51:18-19).
Most people don’t know what to do with these verses. And understandably so! Firstly, their corporate emphasis doesn’t seem to fit with the tone of the rest of the psalm, in which David pours out his individual confession.
The final verses of Psalm 51 are notoriously mysterious
Secondly, Psalm 51:19 seems to contradict Psalm 51:16. For in the latter David says God doesn’t delight in sacrifices and burnt offerings. Finally, it talks about the building up of the walls of Jerusalem. But at that point in history Jerusalem already had high walls. To many, these contrasts seem irreconcilable. Thus many commentators suggest these verses were added later by a different author.
Blinded by Western Spectacles?
But I wonder if this interpretation doesn’t result from reading Psalm 51 through culturally-biased lenses. As they say, when you are wearing rose coloured glasses, everything looks rosy. Similarly, we read the Bible through our own culture-tinted spectacles. And since, historically, much of biblical studies has come from the West, many interpretations are tainted by that cultural bias.
Since much of biblical studies has historically come from the West, many interpretations are tainted by that cultural bias
For example, one great value in Western cultures is individualism. Individualism asserts that everyone has their own voice and can stand up for themselves. Each individual is responsible for his or her actions. So it would make sense to a Westerner that when David sinned, he would write a psalm of individual confession and repentance. Thus the first person singular pronoun (me/my) is used 29 times in Psalm 51:1-17. But, reading through those spectacles, the corporate nature of Psalm 51:18-19 doesn’t seem to fit.
The Communal Consequences of Sin
Most non-Western cultures place a higher value on the community, what many African cultures call Ubuntu. Reading Psalm 51:18-19 with a more communalistic perspective, they don’t seem out of place at all. Instead, these verses give us a depth of insight into the wide-ranging effects of our sin. The consequences of sin are not only felt at the level of the individual.
The consequences of sin are not only felt at the level of the individual.
David recognises that there are corporate consequences to his sin. Sin impacts the community.
A Prayer to Bless The Nation
David is the king, the leader of Israel. Thus he represents Israel. Consider the history of Israel and Judah beyond David. Whenever there was a godly king, the nation was godly and God blessed them. But when there was an evil king, the nation was evil and God punished them.
So here at the end of Psalm 51 David pleads with God not to pour out the corporate consequences of the king’s sin upon the nation. “Don’t let my sin lead to punishment upon the community!” Instead, David pleads for God to prosper the nation.
David pleads with God not to pour out the corporate consequences of the king’s sin upon the nation.
Israel’s prosperity was a sign of covenant blessing and acceptance by God. Building high the walls represents God’s protection of Jerusalem against their enemies. It is a covenant blessing. While living in sin, sacrifices are merely religious legalism, but as the nation follows David in contriteness and repentance (Psalm 51:13) they begin to offer right sacrifices as a reflection of faith-filled hearts.
Those are the sacrifices pleasing to God. “Don’t treat my sins as they deserve,” he pleads. “Don’t punish the whole nation for my sin, but instead be gracious to us! Prosper and protect us.”
Most non-Western cultures place a higher value on the community, what many African cultures call Ubuntu.
Thus these verses fit well with the tone of this psalm. Furthermore, they provide a deeper understanding of the collateral damage caused by sin. Our sin doesn’t affect us alone. It has far-reaching consequences upon others in our lives.
“His Mercy Is More”
Yet David also reminds us that the collateral damage caused by our sin is not greater than the mercy of God. Even when our sin feels like an atomic bomb, God can protect. He can heal. He can and does bring good from the most devastating circumstances.
David faced some heart-wrenching consequences for his sin: the death of his son; ongoing family tensions; and civil war. But through the ensuing marriage God provided a son: Solomon. He would be the next king and ultimately in the line of Christ. Like black threads woven into a beautiful fabric, God incorporates our sin into accomplishing his good purposes.
The collateral damage caused by our sin is not greater than the mercy of God
So, like David, my friend now pleads regularly that God would protect his daughters from the consequences of his devastating and sinful choices. And we don’t pray without hope, for the God we pray to is in the business of redemption. He is far bigger than all the consequences of our sin.