RESTORATION THROUGH REPENTANCE
Psalm 6:1 For the director of music. With stringed instruments. According to sheminith. A psalm of David.
O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath.
2 Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint; O LORD, heal me, for my bones are in agony.
3 My soul is in anguish. How long, O LORD, how long?
4 Turn, O LORD, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love.
5 No-one remembers you when he is dead. Who praises you from his grave?
6 I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.
7 My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes.
8 Away from me, all you who do evil, for the LORD has heard my weeping.
9 The LORD has heard my cry for mercy; the LORD accepts my prayer.
10 All my enemies will be ashamed and dismayed; they will turn back in sudden disgrace.
God has made no promise that he will keep his own elect from any sin except one alone, that of totally rejecting the Lamb of God as their Lord and Saviour. That mortal sin – the sin which is unto death – is the one transgression which none of those millions who have been forgiven through the work of Christ will ever fall into. They cannot ultimately deny the Saviour who bought them even though at times they say wild words, and endure winter periods of alienation from God, and abandon themselves for long periods in a distant city and living prodigally, yet they will return to God, and that turning around and coming back in repentance to the Lord is the mark that God has begun a good work in them. They always eventually come back to the Lord. No sin of yours will ruin you as long as you repent; but nothing will save you if you don’t. If you are one of God’s own people you will always return from your sinfulness, and your Father will be there to welcome you home. You may commit unspeakably cruel and shameful actions (and you are without excuse for behaving like that), but you will come back to God through bitter grief, shame and penitence.
In the book of psalms there are seven prayers written by believers who have fallen into sin and who have come back to the Lord. We call them ‘penitential psalms’ and Psalm 6 is the first of these. Of course the world disdains repentance and penitence for sin. “How demeaning! How extreme!” the world tut-tuts. When non-Christian parents hear of their children becoming believers in Jesus Christ one sentiment they always express is that they hope they don’t become fanatical, and that is fair enough. One can understand that. I don’t want my children or grandchildren to become fanatical. But a popular concept of fanaticism is a person who takes sin seriously, and regularly expresses to God his sorrow for sinning in thought, and word, and deed. “That’s going too far!” says the world, but the man in the street knows nothing about the holy God and his righteousness. He knows nothing about how evil sin is and the pain of an alienated heavenly Father. Certainly he is ignorant of gospel repentance. It is ‘extremism.’
People without Jesus Christ carry around with them a vague sense of guilt for the mess they know they’ve made of their lives. Some of this guilt comes from an ignorance of what sin is; people feel guilty about what they shouldn’t be guilty about. For example, a battered wife can feel vague guilt thinking that she is being deservedly punished for being a bad wife. No! At the same time she fails to feel guilty about the sins she has committed against God and man. One function of the gospel pulpit is to educate an assembly in ethics, in other words, in telling people how God wants us to live, and explaining to a congregation what is right and wrong. What an extraordinary relief that can be, to be told in the name of God what sin is; ‘Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.’ Then it also tells them what they’re to do when they know they’ve sinned. They can make the most wonderful discovery anybody can ever stumble across, that through the name of Jesus Christ there is forgiveness with God that he might be feared. “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The hymnist says,
“If I ask him to receive me, will he say me nay?
Not till earth, and not till heaven pass away.” (John M. Neale, 1818-1866).
Christians who have fallen can do many useful blessed things after they’ve repented, but they can do nothing that God will bless until they have turned from their sin. In this psalm David is expressing his repentance for a sin that he has committed. He confesses his sin to God and then he is able to cry, “The LORD has heard my weeping. The LORD has heard my cry for mercy; the LORD accepts my prayer” (vv. 8&9). Hallelujah! What a Saviour! The absence of a sense of repentance for sin is surly one of the greatest losses in religion today. The publican in the temple looked to the ground and murmured, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Felix trembled under Paul’s preaching; men were cut to the heart when they heard Peter’s sermon; in times of awakening thousands have wept at their long rebellion against God. There is soul distress. That is not so today; our religion is dumbed down. A lighter vein is enough.
- THE SERIOUS SIN WHICH DAVID COMMITTED REQUIRED SERIOUS REPENTANCE.
We are not told in this psalm what the particular sin was that David had committed that was to lead to this cry of grief and sorrow. We are elsewhere told of a number of sins in his life, but there is one neglected one that had a devastating consequence in the king’s life. The themes and spirit of this psalm must have been on David’s lips after that grave sin, because they are on the lips of every returning Christian. Praying as the king d
oes here became the means of the reconciliation of God and of David’s future usefulness. Let me tell you of his fall; you find it referred to in the second book of Samuel chapter 24. A time came in David’s life when he became utterly obsessed with the strength of his army and the thought wouldn’t go away of taking a census and counting the number of fighting men that he had at his disposal in the armies of Israel and Judah. He had to know; he must know. He had to see the figures and lists of these men written down on a scroll and read out in his presence. It seemed so natural and desirable; “I mean, didn’t all kings count the number of their men before they went into battle? What’s wrong with this?” The more he thought about it the less controversial it seemed. Surely God would not take offence if he did that? Yet there were other men who were deeply troubled at David’s obsession, even his chief of staff, Joab, who never appears to be a particularly spiritually minded man. We are told that, “Joab replied to the king, ‘May the LORD your God multiply the troops a hundred times over, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it. But why does my lord the king want to do such a thing?’” (2 Sam. 24:3), but David disregarded the old soldier’s protests and went ahead.
Alas, its motivation and accomplishment brought about such calamity in David’s life, and he eventually came to see it, when the deed was done. The officials had taken months to go throughout the land from Dan to Beersheba, from village to village, family to family, “How many boys do you have? How old are they? Can they wield the sword, a spear, a slingshot?” and all the details recorded. No one was exempt. This must have raised suspicion and resentment everywhere at such a census; that it all had to do with increasing taxes and getting more men to enlist in the army was suspected by most of the tribes, and there was a bitterness in all the land. David speaks in this psalm of all his foes (v.7), and all those who do evil (v.8), and all his enemies (v.10). David had sowed a wind and was reaping a whirlwind of enmity. Taking this census on a purely political level was not a statesmanlike action. It was not David’s finest hour. He only got away with staying on the throne because of his age and stature. The conclusion was this; “After they had gone through the entire land, they came back to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days. Joab reported the number of the fighting men to the king: In Israel there were eight hundred thousand able-bodied men who could handle a sword, and in Judah five hundred thousand. David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men, and he said to the LORD, ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, O LORD, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing’” (2 Sam. 24:8-10). Notice a few things about this sin:
i] You understand that David had been king for many years when this preoccupation gripped him; “How many warriors do I have fighting for me in the army?” It is a warning to every older Christian here that David could have been the same age as you when he was conquered by this ungodly ache to know the strength of the army. There are some Christians who dream that after they’ve been following the Lord for many years they’ll no longer be sinning like they used to as young people, and they won’t need to be repenting as they once did. They’ll be too mature for that sort of thing. It is a dreadful delusion. It comes from an incipient perfectionism. Holy Scripture records numerous sins by older saints whose service to God in earlier years had been greatly blessed. I am thinking of men like Noah, Abraham, Moses and Samson. It is a sad reminder to us that we’re never going to attain some temptation-free plateau in this life. No second blessing; no baptism of the Spirit is going to take us there. Remaining sin and Satanic devices will have to be fought rigorously to the very end.
I am reminding you that David was not out of the devil’s reach when his hair turned grey. All his earlier triumphs were no barrier to the devil attacking him again. If Satan can get an old believer to fall into sin he has achieved a signal triumph. I would think that the enemy of our souls never gives up bringing trials and temptations into our lives. Some farmers in old age are preoccupied with counting their sheep and pigs, and others with counting their money; you visit some women in an old people’s home and they’re talking to you about their savings, and they worry that the staff working in the home or their family and friends are stealing it from them, and they weep because they don’t have enough money. Covetousness is raising its ugly head in old age! Then there are people of power and they love to count the number of men they have under their control. So their pride and self-confidence are being fed. Soon they are trusting in the arm of the flesh. It is not long before they are glorying in their own riches and power. Their confidence is not that ‘A mighty fortress is their God.’ Youth is dangerous because of passions; old age is dangerous by the surgings of pride. The higher the rank, the more the success, the greater the former blessings known, the more influential the position held then the greater is the need to be on guard, and watch and pray. So David was an old believer when this sin arose, but I am not targeting any age group in this sermon today.
ii] Again, David was a successful king when he fell into this sin. We are being told to expect increasingly tough times for our nation in 2009. We are living in days of recession; shops and businesses are closing; increasing numbers of people are being made redundant. We know that such times of adversity bring their own difficulties into the Christian life, but the perils of prosperity are far greater. Think of Solomon. Think of the rich fool. Think of the young ruler. Success can lead to estrangement from God. What need is there to cry mightily to God for help and protection if you have numbers and organization and money and staff? It was at the height of David’s reputation that he itched to find out how big was his army. It suggested that David was believing that his success was due to his battalions and not to the Lord of hosts.
iii] Again, when David numbered the army it encouraged people to think that they were entering upon a time of permanent rest – live as they liked. With a million men they were now secure and safe, and so the figures could be cleverly leaked to Babylon and Assyria and Egypt informing them all of the strength of Israel’s army with the unspoken threat, “Back off or you’ll get a bloodied nose.” It was all about spin! The people of Israel would be saying, “Wow! We are some nation! We’ve got one million, three hundred thousand soldiers. What an army. Don’t mess with us! We are rich and increased in might, an impregnable power.” But Israel’s hope was in the Lord alone, the maker of heaven and earth, not in her armaments and personnel. If Israel were resting in her army there would be a treacherous rest followed by a rude awakening.
iv] Again, to take a census like this suggested these men belonged to David, that they were his people, David’s own inheritance and David’s strength. No, they were the army of the Lord, and his inheritance, to be numbered only when Jehovah gave the commandment. The Lord’s passion for his covenant people is such that only he can compass them by number. God chooses the time when he orders a headcount, for example at the beginning and the end of law-giving. He was in charge of that operation. It is always God who puts, chooses, sets that
holy compass, the 7,000 stiff-kneed ones, the 144,000, the twelve. The numbers signify a great purpose, power, the handiwork of Jehovah the Lord of battles.
We live in a democracy; currently we vote for government at five different levels, town, county, principality, country and continent. We pay for those politicians at all those levels, and so we are used to seeing electoral rolls, and watching the votes being counted, and the returning officer announcing the results and then seeing where the power lies. The choice of the most powerful man in the world ultimately hung on the votes of a few thousand people in Florida. We are obsessed with numbers, percentages and swings in the polls. Biblical numbers, 7 days, 12 tribes, 10 plagues, 40 days, or 40 years, all signify an encapsulation of the matter being considered in a bigger context, that of creation, fall and redemption, of the kingdom of God. For example, we are asked to consider the oasis in Elim in Exodus chapter 15 and verse 27 which had “70 palm trees and 12 springs.” What is the significance of that? It is a redemptive code meaning that all that was necessary to meet the needs of the people had been supplied.
So, when David sought to affirm and ground his kingship and power in a distorted use of number, he aspired to seat himself on the throne of God, to grasp the prerogative of the one and only King. Further it was the fighting men alone who were counted, as if their numbers lent some guarantee to the defense of a king who claimed to serve the Lord of hosts. Man’s attraction to numbers has seldom impressed God. He looks on the heart, on obedience, on growth in understanding and wisdom, never on numerical growth. If we really trust him he brings it to pass; we need no bigness, no statistics to prove that he is with us. The professing church today is very different. Its key phrase is ‘Church Growth.’ We seem obsessed with idolatrous confident numeration of the work of God the Holy Spirit. Living by faith is never in what human pride puffs up, mega this and mega that. That all testifies to mini-faith.
So we are told of this sinful attitude of David and the bad effect it had on the whole country, and thus the opening verse of this 24th chapter of the second book of Samuel begins, “Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel.” He had blessed them, but instead of thanking him they had become proud. David’s census, initially resisted, had made the whole nation smug. This was one of the more notorious sins of David recorded for us in the Scriptures.
- DAVID’S REPENTANCE WAS A LONG TIME COMING.
It was not the first time for David to commit a notorious sin. He had infamously taken the wife of Uriah, a woman named Bathsheba, while her husband was away fighting for his nation. David had planned the death of Uriah that he might marry his wife. She had become pregnant, and once Uriah was dead David could marry her just before the baby was born. What sort of woman would marry her husband’s murderer? With regards to David’s sin with Bathsheba and also the sin I’ve been talking to you about of assessing the strength of his army there was a long delay in both cases before David repented. It was in fact about nine months defying God in both cases. Only then did the fruits of a repentant spirit appear with David uttering those same words, “I have sinned” (2 Sam. 12:13, and 2 Sam. 24:10).
What does it tell us? It is not easy to say from your heart, “I have sinned.” In fact true repentance is a gift from the Lord. Remorse and shame are easy, but repentance and confessing our sins is the fruit of the work of Christ’s mercy in our lives. Did Adam and Eve repent immediately they’d defied God and taken the forbidden fruit? No. They took their guilt into the bushes and hid away from God. To be humbled God needed to speak a word to them; “Adam, where are you?” Even then Adam covered up and blameshifted because of his sense of guilt. God asked him, “Who told you that you were naked?” Until now his conscience had approved of everything that he had done. God had been glorified in Adam’s entire life, but now that divine monitor said, “Rebel! What have you done?”
For months you could look at King David, as commander in chief Joab scrutinized him. He knew all of David’s crimes, and he watched David’s rigid insistence that nothing at all had happened and all the routines of palace life and government should go on the same as before. What would you think if you were him? “David has stirred up animosity all over the country by this ego-reinforcing census he has had taken, while he remains unmoved and guiltless by what he’s done? Can he be a true believer? Has he ever truly cried to God for mercy for his own sins? Is David any different from King Saul from whom the Lord withdrew permanently? How dangerous to be a king. I am glad the Lord did not make me a king or I might lose my own soul.” Those would have been some of your thoughts as you watched David during those nine months. If you were Joab you would be thinking back a few years to an identical response when he’d arranged Uriah’s murder. You would be saying to yourself, “Is there a pattern here of total selfishness in this man?”
If that is the case you would have no confidence in believing that David was a true believer. Do genuine believers take other men’s wives, murder their husbands and show no signs of repentance? Do true followers of the Lord stir up a nation in order to boost their own egos? Only God knew David’s heart. Only God knew of his future repentance. If you fast forwarded the history of the church a thousand years to Peter’s cursing and denial of Christ and you looked at Peter that night as he stood by the fire in the darkness then you would wonder whether he was any different from Judas who had betrayed Jesus. To our gaze at that moment both Peter and Judas seemed the same, deniers of their Lord. We have no reason to believe that either one was a believer. Before there is adequate repentance we don’t know whether or not men who have behaved like David, or Peter, or Judas are truly regenerate and indwelt by the Spirit of God.
- DAVID FINALLY REPENTED.
You see how this psalm begins? You see these two words, “O LORD!” That is, “O Jehovah!” David cries. For nine months David was ignoring God. It had been “O Bathsheba,” or, “O what a huge army I’ve got,” but now with a broken and contrite heart once again he who wrote “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want” has rediscovered the Lord as the biggest thing in his life. To lose the smile of God, to lose the fellowship of God is the greatest loss that David can endure. There is nothing more important than God. “O LORD!” he cries. Sometimes when we are at our weakest – recovering from an operation in the intensive Care ward – that is all we can pray. “O Lord.”
However, you see his plea, “Do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath” (v.1). What has brought about the change in David’s life? What has ended the nine months’ silence? The rebuke of God has done it; the discipline of God. In other words, for this long period God has been at work in David’s life and they have been long months of misery when the defiant king steadfastly refused to confess he had done anything wrong. This entire psalm expresses the misery of a
man who has been suffering from a sense of guilt which in the end overwhelmed him and almost killed him. “Please do not rebuke me any longer in your anger towards me. Please stop disciplining me in your wrath.” You understand? David is having a wretched time as a believer; he is not a happy Old Testament Christian, and the problem is not merely that David has erected a wall and is sitting behind it away from God in a personal pity-party, and that is all. It is not that he needs to change his attitude to God. No. God was actively rebuking David. I mean admonishing him, plainly and coldly bringing to David what he had done, and not stopping. God was angry with him. God was disciplining him. God was showing his wrath towards him. It was not the case that God was simply smiling away on and on at David every time David had a big fall. It is not certainly that God is ‘non-judgmental.’ Our psalm tells us that when we sin a great sin and don’t show any repentance that it’s not just our family and friends are cross with us but that Almighty God is angry with us. He is rebuking us; he is chastening us in his wrath, and we feel it. God intends us to feel worn out from groaning, and to flood the bed with our weeping, and drench the settee with tears. This grief would not end for David while he was refusing to repent. His bones were in agony, and his soul was in anguish (vv. 2&3), and it was God who had done all this; he had made David faint, and he had given him constant pain – few things cause such agony as broken bones. David had no peace; he had proudly gone ahead and taken a census to discover just how big his own army was, and then peace went out and anguish came in. David describes his condition so personally. Listen to his confession; “I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes” (vv. 6&7). That is the result of David defying God. It doesn’t sound a lot of fun does it? The way of the transgressor is hard. David is worn out; David is groaning; David makes the bed wet with his tears as he weeps from dusk until dawn. Even David’s eyesight is affected from his constant crying.
This is the rebuke and discipline of God. I am saying that God did all that to David. David’s proud heart defied God, and God broke his heart. God brings such misery in order to end our rebellion and self-centredness. God appreciates broken hearts in sinners; “Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted,” and until that happens God rebukes us in his anger and disciplines us in his wrath. Our bones are in agony, our souls are in anguish and we are crying to God, “How long can I bear this? O LORD, how long?” (v.3). There can be no real conversion without some awareness that you are a sinner and that you need to turn from your sin to Jesus Christ the Saviour. When God comes near – when Jesus Christ pours out his Holy Spirit in power – people invariably experience an awareness that God is holiness and their own worthlessness. This was certainly true of the initial outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Jesus’ followers were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke of God’s wonders to people from many countries who were visiting Jerusalem. A big crowd gathered. Some of the listeners were curious. Others mocked. The apostle Peter then spoke to the crowd. He explained that the Holy Spirit’s outpouring had been foretold by God’s prophets. He told the people that although they helped crucify Jesus, God had raised him from the dead. God had given him the highest place in heaven as Lord and Messiah. They were all facing an open-ended encounter with a God whose Son they had murdered, and “when the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37)
People being cut to the heart is what happened on Pentecost, and that’s what happened when David defied God. When the Lord comes in power and addresses people who have been at odds with him, they are cut to the heart. It’s not a pleasant feeling. In fact, it may be the most painful and terrifying feeling a person can have, apart from actually being banished to hell. When you are cut to the heart, ‘God’ and ‘hell’ are no longer just church words or swear words but overpowering realities. When you are cut to the heart, you find God to be so pure and splendid that his nearness terrifies you and makes you wish you could get away from him or hide behind some bushes somewhere he can’t spot you, but you are also terrified of going away from him forever. You can’t bear God being so close, but you can’t bear him being a distant God, either. When you are cut to the heart, you can’t live with God, and you can’t live without him. His holiness shows your sin. His light shows your darkness. You feel repelled by him, yet you are drawn to him crying “O LORD!” You may not know where to turn or what to do next. God is bringing you to repentance. God is rebuking you, and chastening you, and disciplining you. In other words, God is not ignoring you. Can there be anything worse than being ignored by the Lord?
If God had ignored David he would have gone to hell as an unrepentant sinner, but God wouldn’t let him. God came and cut him to the heart. A poet who repented of his sins and became a Christian put it this way. He said the God of love shot all his golden arrows at him, but none of those arrows ever pierced the heart. Finally, God put himself in the bow and fired, and the arrow of God’s own self shot straight into the heart. What a picture of how God works! God makes himself the arrow and hits the target which no other arrow could reach. God has been so good to you, blessing and keeping you for so many years, giving you all the good and perfect gifts you’ve ever had, but none of those things, no matter how important, could save you. You’d sinned badly, and you wouldn’t repent but one day God fired himself into your heart in the person of the Holy Spirit. He came and he convicted you of sin and righteousness and judgment, and your heart broke and your life was changed. Only then can you hate your sin, fear God’s wrath, plead for mercy, repent of your sin and trust in Jesus as your Savior and Ruler, and experience the eternal life of God. Now is the time to do this.
Soon our lives will be over and we will be buried alongside all the other corpses. Which of them will recount the great deeds of God’s salvation as they lie in the grave? Who will preach the gospel of the mighty works of Christ from his coffin as he rots in the ground? When you walk through the graveyard do you hear muffled voices from six feet under the ground and they are singing, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me”? No. That is what David is saying in verse five, “Who praises you from the grave?” No one at all. Another year has come and you are nearer that grave, and still you are a stranger to repentance. But let me close by telling you of the king who repented a second time.
- DAVID CAME TO AN ASSURANCE THAT HE HAD RECEIVED GOD’S MERCY.
“The LORD has heard my cry for mercy; the LORD accepts my prayer,” cries David (v.9). Tears endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning, and so it was for David. The God who broke his heart healed his heart. The God to whom David cried, “How long, O Lord?” said, “Not a minute longer!” The work of repentance was true and complete, and God turned, as David was crying to him and the Lord delivered him.
It was not because David was worthy or was a especially holy man, but because of God’s unfailing love (v.4). David did not cry in vain; the Lord heard and the Lord accepted David again. He restored to him the joy of his salvation, and David could turn to those who hoped to use his folly to end his reign, who were rejoicing at David’s plight and thought that this was the end of the King, that he had no future and no hope. David could address them and cry, “Away from me, all you who do evil for the Lord has heard my weeping” (v.8). Then David could call upon all who would hear him and say to them, “All my enemies will be ashamed and dismayed; they will turn back in sudden disgrace.” (v.10). They had all thought that David was doomed to disgrace but through his repentance he had received mercy and deliverance.
The Bible speaks of a day of reckoning, the day of the Lord, when we must face God in all his power and purity. When God confronts us, who will be sinless and holy enough to deserve his approval? None of us. Who is strong enough to resist his power? Nobody. If God comes and we have not yet repented or found forgiveness, we are guilty and condemned. What hope is there for us? The prophet Joel writes, “The day of the Lord is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it? ‘Even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, and with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart.’ “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing” (Joel 2:11-14).
God’s judgment is terrible but his mercy is great. If we go through life ignoring the coming judgment, the Lord will not spare us. We will be punished forever in the fire of hell. But if God’s rebukes shake us up, stop us in our tracks, and turn us around, we may taste his mercy and love.
No matter how bad you’ve been, no matter how far you’ve gone down the path to hell, it’s not too late for you. “‘Even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, and with fasting and weeping and mourning.’” To all who repent and turn to God with fasting and faith in the Savior, God promises in the book of Joel, “I will pour out my Spirit . . . And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Joel 2:28,32). Believe God’s warning, and accept his promise. Admit your sinfulness. Set your heart on his promise of salvation through Jesus and new life through his Holy Spirit. Return to him in true repentance. Confess your sin to him. No more business as usual. The Lord who saved Paul by his amazing grace can save you too. As Paul wrote after Jesus saved him, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:16).
4th January 2009 GEOFF THOMAS