If you watch professional golf it is only a matter of time before you will hear a spectator call out, just as the ball is driven from the tee, “You are the man!” It’s even possible you’ve said the same words to friends or acquaintances for other reasons. But regardless of when and where it has been said, I think we can all agree the phrase “You are the man!” offers some degree of admiration to another individual for their accomplishments. However, I don’t think this interpretation of that phrase has always been the norm.
A while ago, I was reading II Samuel 12 and encountered the story of the prophet Nathan confronting David. As you might recall, after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband Uriah, Nathan told the story of a rich man who took a poor man’s lamb and killed it for his own dinner. Not surprisingly, David’s reaction upon hearing of this injustice was an angry declaration that the man must die, to which Nathan responded simply by saying, You are the man! In the mouth of Nathan this phrase was not one of adulation, rather it was one of accusation.
David then, in response to Nathan’s confrontation about his sin wrote the penitential Psalm 51, which is, I think, one of the best examples of why scripture says God called David “a man after my own heart.” (Acts 13:22) I trust a brief walk through David’s prayer in Psalm 51 will help explain why this is the case.
Psalm 51:1-2 – A Plea for Mercy
David, after being confronted with his sin, does not begin his prayer by casting blame elsewhere as did Adam, Eve, and many of us since the dawn of time, rather, he accepted the fact of his sin and appealed directly to God’s mercy.
Psalm 51:3-6 – The Nature of Sin
Furthermore, David did not delude himself by thinking his actions were momentary lapses, instead he confirmed his fallen nature and his constant propensity to sin. He realized that even though his sin affects others, sin is ultimately a transgression against God alone.
Psalm 51:7-9 – God’s Cleansing Mercy
David then acknowledged that only by God’s free act of mercy would his sin ever be cleansed. He appealed to the image of hyssop as the cleansing tool, which, if you remember, was part of the first passover in Egypt. The Israelites dipped Hyssop into the blood of a sacrificed lamb and then painted their doorways so as to protect themselves from the angel of God’s judgement. (Ex. 12:22)
Psalm 51:10-12 – Recreating the Sinful Heart
But David also knew that being merely cleansed of his sins was not enough: he needed a new clean pure heart to replace his old one that was full of rotting sin.
Psalm 51:13-15 – Proclaiming God’s Goodness
As a result of God’s cleansing and recreating work in David’s heart, he then asked to be a mouthpiece for God so he could teach sinners God’s ways, sing God’s righteousness, and declare God’s praise.
Psalm 51:16-17 – The Joy of God
But David realized he could not please God with his words, offerings, or sacrifice, but only by having a broken spirit and a contrite heart.
Psalm 51:18-19 – Acceptable Sacrifices
After David’s heart was broken and recreated by God, his final prayer was that God would accept and enjoy the sacrifices David would then make in the future.
A few decades ago I spent nearly a year in Psalm 51, an act I suppose some may think excessive, but I was unable to move past David’s words. I saw in his words what it meant to be truly penitent regarding sin and thus I continually read it in the hope that I would be able to pray the same prayer. But sadly, there was (is ?) a part of me, however reluctant, wanting to hold onto my sin. And though I don’t consciously say it, I often think if I make the right choices and spend enough time serving God then he will overlook my sinful attachments. But that is not how God works: God accepts sacrifices as a thank offering, not as an appeal to gain his mercy, but after one’s confession of sin and after God has renewed the sinner’s heart.
But this thought is not new to Psalm 51. In Psalm 49 and 50 God testified against the righteous people gathered before his throne because they relied too heavily on sacrifices and told them he preferred trust and obedience over sacrifice. Psalm 51 continues the thoughts begun in Psalm 42 and provides, through David’s plea for forgiveness, an example of how we need to presently live as we wait to be taken by our groom, Christ, to live eternally in Zion, the city of God. Psalm 51 is his way of saying to us, much like Nathan did to David, “you are the man,” leaving us with a decision for this life: will we try to purchase God’s grace with our sacrifices or will we respond as David did, with a broken and contrite heart?