In Psalm 51:4 David says “Against you only have I sinned.” We usually meet those words when reading them as part of a confession and at first glance they seem like a helpful articulation of repentance. Then we notice the description of the Psalm as written in response to David’s sin in relation to Bathsheba.
David had stayed home when his army went out to battle, he had forsaken his role as defender of Israel and leader of the nation. Whilst at home, he sees a woman bathing or washing, likes the look of her, finds out who she is and who her husband is and sends for her. She is brought to him and he sleeps with her. Often we talk about David’s adultery with Bathsheba but when we notice that:
- She is bathing not to display her beauty for others but to purify herself in line with The Law’s requirements.
- He is the powerful king whom it is very difficult to say no to.
- She is described passively throughout the account
Then things seem a lot more sinister. David adds to his sin by having her husband Uriah murdered on the front line.
At second glance, I find the idea that David sees his sin against God alone as a little more toubling. What about Bathsheba and Uriah? What about Uriah’s family. What about those he drew into his sin and the people of Israel who he let down? Is David’s declaration that his sin is against God alone denying justice to them?
Here are a few thoughts on the matter. First of all, I want to suggest that the Psalm functions poetically. It is not that David denies his offense against others but rather that his focus at this stage is entirely on God. This is right because God is the highest authority and he calls us to love him with our whole hearts. It is in fact David’s failure to show whole-hearted love for God and to act selfishly and idolatrously that has led to harm to others.
Secondly, so often we are tempted to focus on seeking forgiveness one or two people. We prioritise and we divide those whom we have hurt. This is not true repentance and we can end up playing people off against each other. Going to the one who sees all and knows all prevents this.
Thirdly, going to God reminds us that if we have not completely confessed to the one who holds thre authority and ability to judge hearts means our sin remains undealt with.
Going to God first and using that poetic language “against you alone” should then push us to seek restitution with others. Remember how Zacchaeus after meeting Jesus goes out and seeks to put things right with all those he has exploited.
Practically this means
- We cannot use the excuse that we have repented to God as an excuse to not make things right with others.
- We should beware the temptation to offer a general apology (if I have…) without a willingness to properly repent and make restitution.
- We should be wary of those who say “let me know how I have hurt…” this fails to acknowledge that getting the victim to repeat things means that they relive their experience. It also means they are likely to be reluctant to come forward. It is better with the help of someone who will hold us to account to work through the issue and recognise for ourselves the wrong we have done.
You can watch our #AfternoonTea discussion on this subject here and it also includes a review of Rachael Denhollander’s book “What is a Girl Worth?”