Stumbling Over David’s Confession: How to Understand “Against You, You Only, I Have Sinned”

David and Bathsheba

Bathsheba Bathing

The national media would have been blood-drunk. Sex always makes for a catchy headline, especially when politicians are involved. But this was a bonanza of epic proportions. A national leader gets caught with his pants down. Rumor is his paramour is a military wife. But the story gets even juicier. Turns out she’s pregnant, and her husband, who couldn’t possibly be the father, was all-too-conveniently killed on the battlefield recently. And, as icing on this scandalous cake, the nation’s leader makes the war widow his wife. When the scandal of David and Bethsheba leaked out, reporters would have descended upon the Jerusalem palace like locusts on a ripened field.

This story of lust and adultery, intrigue and murder, callousness and cover-up, captivates readers to this day. Perhaps that’s because it’s one of those ripped-from-the-headlines biblical stories. Perhaps it’s because the characters in the narrative make “better people” feel even better about themselves. And perhaps it’s because some of us see ourselves, and our own lurid personal narratives, reflected in this biblical story. For those of us in this latter category, a poetic outgrowth of David’s sin, and subsequent repentance, is especially meaningful. I refer to Psalm 51, which according to its heading, David penned after his affair with Bathsheba.

I have prayed this psalm more times than any other. Its confessions and laments and declarations of faith express perfectly the bitterness and sweetness of the life of repentance, of dying and rising. Yet within this psalm, one expression had always tripped me up. Indeed, when I prayed it, I seemed to utter a half-truth, at best. It comes near the beginning, where David says,

Against You, You only, I have sinned
And done what is evil in Your sight,
So that You are justified when You speak
And blameless when You judge.

“Against You, You only, I have sinned.” How could you say that, David? You sinned against God, to be sure, but also against Bathsheba, Uriah, your family, your military, indeed, your entire nation. How can you possibly limit the scope of your sin, and need for confession, to God alone?

Perhaps the answer to that question is found in a parallel situation, this one related to the holiness of God. In her liturgy, the church sings, “You alone are the Holy One,” (Gloria in Excelsis), echoing Revelation 15:4, “Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy.” God alone is intrinsically, eternally, essentially holy. Yet, God is not stingy with His holiness; He grants it to people, places, things, and times. They share in what is His. The Lord, the Lord alone, is holy. And all else that is holy is holy because it is of Him. To desecrate that holiness is to do harm to the one with whom the Lord has shared His holiness, but the desecration is truly and ultimately directed at God alone, since He is the sole source of sanctity.

Similarly, when I seduced Bathsheba, when I stole from and murdered Uriah, when I brought dishonor to my family, when I failed in my office–when I was David–I sinned against all these people. Their forgiveness I implore. At the same time, against God, God only, I have sinned and done what is evil in His sight. For it is His law I have broken, His office in which I have failed, His people against whom I have sinned. All is from Him, so all I have taken, I have taken from Him. All others against whom I have sinned, I have sinned because they are of Him.

Within this confession, there is also a hidden beauty, a secluded comfort that is perhaps only truly appreciated when it is a lived reality. There were, I suspect, people in Israel during David’s lifetime who never forgave him for his scandalous conduct, his lies, his lust, his bloodshed. He had sinned against them, to be sure, but even in his life of repentance, even as he sought their absolution, they withheld it, whatever their reasons might have been. Did their refusal to forgive mean that David was unforgiven? Did David’s absolution depend on people’s willingness to forgive? Absolutely not. For “against You, You only, have I sinned.” Just as confession is directed fully and ultimately to God alone, so absolution is received fully and ultimately from God alone, in Jesus Christ.

There is the hidden beauty in this seemingly limiting confession of King David. For David’s sin, another David would pay the price in blood. In Him, and in Him alone, would absolution for the world be earned and given. For that reason, this verse from Psalm 51 that used to trip me up, now is my greatest delight. For as much as it may hurt that others refuse to forgive, Christ does not. Against Him, Him only, have I sinned. And from Him, Him only, I receive absolution, full and free.

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4 thoughts on “Stumbling Over David’s Confession: How to Understand “Against You, You Only, I Have Sinned”

  1. Thanks for unlocking that seeming conundrum.

  2. Chad: This piece certainly meets me where I am. I too have prayed Psalm 51 many times and have referenced it many more times in discussions with friends and family, in bible classes, and between co-workers. It is truly at the heart of my journey and, I would guess, everyone’s journey through sanctification.

    I see David’s sin as my sin in so many dimensions since one can commit adultery simply by pursuing other gods and murder simply through defamation of your neighbor or calling someone a fool.

    Of all the things we are given both in the Law and the Gospel, our relationship with our Lord is the one most egregiously violated when we succumb to our temptations. Psalm 51 does, indeed, guide us back to Him and we then receive the forgiveness, cleansing and regeneration of which you speak.

    I think once we manage to see it all we arrive at David’s statement: “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Like David’s prayer for Jerusalem, we ask that He rebuild us and His forgiveness he does just that.

    Your article is outstanding and, again, you have my most sincere gratitude for it.

    • Thank you so much for the comment, David. One of the true beauties of this prayer is that it fits the life of any believer. It is both specific and universal, historical and transhistorical. Along with psalm 23, it remains the one whose words come to my lips quite often.

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