Our Sunday morning worship liturgy lately has included reading extensive portions from the Psalms, especially in relation to confession of sin. One thing that has started to stick out to me is how different the confessions of sin that David makes are from the confessions that I make.
The thing that sticks out to me about David's confessions is that we do not see any mention of the actual sin. Instead, we see admission on David's part that he is thoroughly corrupted by sin. In fact, none of the Psalms referred to as the Penitential Psalms have any confession of specific sins committed. Take this example from Psalm 38.
Psalm 38:5-8 My wounds stink and fester
because of my foolishness,
I am utterly bowed down and prostrate;
all the day I go about mourning.
For my sides are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.
I am feeble and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
While it's quite likely that David had specific sins in mind, he doesn't focus on them specifically in his confession. Instead, he speaks broadly about the affect that his sins have on his spirit, and feels that there is no soundness left in him at all.
The clearest example we have that David is confessing something much deeper than specific sins is Psalm 51. This Psalm was written after David was confronted by Nathan the prophet regarding David's adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband to cover it up.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Like the other Psalms, there is no mention of the specific sin that prompted the confession. There is, however, a very clear indication that David considers himself to be thoroughly corrupted by sin, and that this was true from the time of his conception..
Compare this to way I tend to confess my sins (and I'm sure I'm not alone here). My confessions run along the lines of “I screwed up again, God. Why did I do that again?” These confessions show that I have an idea of myself as basically good but I occasionally screw up. But that's not the picture of the human condition that we have in David's confessions.
But of course his confessions don't stop there. In addition to being confessions of his own corrupt nature, they are also confessions of God's glory and grace, and the recognition that only God has the ability to cleanse us. In fact, there is much more time devoted to God in these confessions than there is to the human condition.
Psalm 51:1-2 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
Psalm 51:7-12 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
Psalm 102:18-22 Let this be recorded for a generation to come,
so that a people yet to be created may praise the LORD:
that he looked down from his holy height;
from heaven the LORD looked at the earth,
to hear the groans of the prisoners,
to set free those who were doomed to die,
that they may declare in Zion the name of the LORD,
and in Jerusalem his praise,
when peoples gather together,
and kingdoms, to worship the LORD.
Psalm 130 Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!
O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleas for mercy!
If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
that you may be feared.
wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities.
Psalm 32:1-5 Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah
Again, contrast this to your own confessions. Are they full of praise to God? Do they recognize that we have no hope apart from God? That there is nothing we can do about our sin? That apart from God we are completely corrupt and sinful?
And how much time do you devote in your confessions of sins to recognizing and extolling the supreme greatness and goodness of God compared to how much time you spend saying “I screwed up. I screwed up. I screwed up.”? This latter approach is a very man-centered approach that carries with it the idea that there is something we could have done to not screw up.
We, even as Christians, are not basically good people who do bad stuff sometimes. We are bad people who can only do good when God in his grace enables us to do so. Realizing this will free us up to look outside ourselves to God rather than looking inside ourselves in a vain attempt to fix what's wrong.