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Reflections on Repentance: Reading Psalm 51 with Charles Spurgeon

Ethan Collins October 27, 2021

“A broken heart can never long be divided from the broken Savior.” [1]

There are some passages in the Scriptures that demand special solemnity. The confession of David in Psalm 51 is so deeply personal that reading it can feel like eavesdropping.  One must either join in contrition or stop reading.  The weightiness of David’s confession is partly due to the egregiousness of the sin and partly due to the position of the sinner.  Not only was the affair with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah a grotesque abuse of power, but David was God’s anointed king over His people!  He was supposed to be a man “after God’s own heart.”  It is tragic to see one fall from such heights to such depths. This passage provides a unique look behind the curtain into the broken heart of mighty David, king, a man of God, conqueror, psalmist, adulterer, murderer.

Commentators tread lightly around Psalm 51 to maintain reverence.  This was true of Spurgeon, a great pontificator of the Scriptures.  See here his thoughts on the Psalm:

I postponed expounding it week after week, feeling more and more my inability for the work.  Often I sat down to it, and rose up again without having penned a line.  It is a bush burning with fire yet not consumed, and out of it a voice seemed to cry to me, “Draw not nigh hither, put off thy shoes from off thy feet.”  The Psalm is very human, its cries and sobs are of the one born of woman; but it is freighted with an inspiration all divine, as if the Great Father were putting words into his child’s mouth.  Such a Psalm may be wept over, absorbed into the soul, and exhaled again in devotion; but, commented on—ah! Where is he who having attempted it can do other than blush at his defeat? [2]

Spurgeon’s humility is, of course, appropriate.  Nevertheless, this passage is ripe with lessons—particularly about repentance.  This article, guided by Psalm 51 and drawing from Spurgeon’s own thoughts, will briefly consider the nature and necessity of Christian repentance and the kindness of God that makes it possible.

The Nature of Repentance – “Sweet Sorrow”

Few confessions express contrition as candidly as David’s in this Psalm.  For many, the fear of consequences poses as pious regret—a particularly cunning wolf in sheep’s clothing.  The despair may be genuine, but the source is all too human.  Often it is only after being caught that the smirk falls from our faces.  It is easy to underestimate man’s proclivity for self-deception.  David only beheld his wickedness after the prophet Nathan spat in his blind eyes.  The truly repentant heart is broken, there is no room for self-preservation.  Indeed, “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”[3]

Though it is fitting to feel brokenness over our sin, we do not grieve as those who do not have hope.  It is not for the strange pleasure of self-abasement that we reject our sinful tendencies.  We repent toward restoration.  We sorrow in sin so that we may rejoice in righteousness. Because Christ suffered for sinners, our repentance is an act of faith in the power of God to make us whole again.  Praise be to God who will not despise our contrition but lifts those who fall before Him.[4]  With this hope in mind, Spurgeon considers repentance ironically delightful:

I want you to indulge yourselves in this most rare… delight of sorrow at the feet of Jesus,-not sorrow for unpardoned sin, but sorrow for pardoned sin, sorrow for that which is done with, sorrow for that which is forgiven, sorrow for that which will never condemn you, for it was laid on Christ long ago, and is put away for ever. It is this sweet sorrow that I want you to indulge. Up with the sluices, then, brethren and sisters, and let these sacred streams of sorrow flow forth. [5]

The Necessity of Repentance – “A Broken Heart”

Why is repentance necessary?  What is it about a broken heart that God seeks?  Spurgeon notes that only a broken heart is humble before God:

A broken heart cannot keep secrets. Now is all revealed, now its essence goes forth. Far too much of our praying, and of our worship, is like closed up boxes; you cannot tell what is in them. But it is not so with broken hearts; when broken hearts sing, they do sing. When broken hearts groan, they do groan. Broken hearts never play at repenting, nor play at believing…with broken hearts, the hymn is a real hymn, the prayer is a real prayer, the hearing of sermons is earnest work, and the preaching of them is the hardest work of all. Oh, what a mercy it would be if some of you were broken all to pieces! There are many flowers that will never yield their perfume till they are bruised.[6]

Consider again how God undermines the arrogant ignorance of man.  God does not desire His servants at their best with hearts and minds filled with strength and skill.  No, it is the broken heart that God accepts as His fragrant sacrifice.  He exalts the humble and humbles the proud.  Men desire full hearts, but God requires emptiness.  He who inhales his own air will asphyxiate.  God alone can administer the breath of life. 

The Kindness of God – “Shall It Not Lead You to Repentance?”

The call to a broken heart does not come from a vengeful and unforgiving God. No, it reveals God’s kindness and compassion for those who truly repent over their sin.

While I regarded God as a tyrant, I thought sin a trifle; but when I knew him to be my Father, then I mourned that I could ever have kicked against him. When I thought that God was hard, I found it easy to sin; but when I found God so kind, so good, so overflowing with compassion, I smote upon my breast to think that I could have rebelled against one who loved me so, and sought my good. Will you not now think of the goodness of God, brothers and sisters, and shall it not lead you to repentance? Shall we not feel within our hearts a burning indignation against sin, because it is committed against so holy, so good, so glorious a being as the infinitely blessed God?[7]

How magnificently this illustrates God’s total transcendence to the trifles of man!  How remarkable is His tender lovingkindness, that the Ruler of the Cosmos might kneel to the least of these—even to the point of solidarity.  Jesus Himself said, “I am gentle and lowly in heart.”[8]


Regrettably, David is not alone in his sin. We have all, in some way, succumbed to violence and lust. Despite being crowned with glory and honor, we have all rebelled against the One of whom our beauty is but an image. And yet, in the gospel, God draws His broken creation to healing reconciliation. What option is there but contrition when we meditate upon the immeasurable goodness of the God we have rejected? What can we do but repent when we consider all that our King has done for us?

What! Were we, whom God has made to be conformed to the image of his firstborn Son, ever seen to be drunken, and staggering through the streets, defiled with unchastity, or polluted with gluttony, or guilty of covetousness, or cursed with pride? What! We whom the Lord has loved with an everlasting love, and without whom Christ himself will not be content to reign in heaven, groveling in iniquity? Oh, I think these questions must have helped to make sin seem contemptible and loathsome! I point at it the finger of scorn.

O dear children of God, scorn your sins, lament your sins, weep over your sins! Indulge that feeling, and God will accept it when it is mixed with faith in his dear Son; for “the sacrifices of God”-that is, all sorts of sacrifices put together, sin-offerings, burnt offerings, peace-offerings, scape-goats, and all together-” the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit.” One broken spirit is worth them all. “A broken and a contrite heart,”-though there be but one such,-“O God, thou wilt not despise.”[9]

[1] MTP, V. 41, 305.

[2] Treasury of David, Vol. 2, p. v (from the preface)

[3] Psalm 51:17 ESV

[4] 1 James 1:9

[5] MTP, V. 41, 302-303.

[6] MTP, V. 41, 304.

[7] MTP, V. 41, 304.

[8] Matthew 11:29

[9] Ibid., 309.