Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 28


Notes on Psalm 51

Preached January 12, 1851

  Frederick W. Robertson

Written by David after a double crime: – Uriah put in the forefront of the, battle – the wife of the murdered man taken, etc.


A DARKER guilt you will scarcely find – kingly power abused – worst passions yielded to. Yet this psalm breathes from a spirit touched with the finest sensibilities of spiritual feeling.

Two sides of our mysterious twofold being here. Something in us near to hell: something strangely near to God. “Half beast – half devil?” No: rather half diabolical – half divine: half demon – half God. This man mixing with the world’s sins in such sort that we shudder. But he draws near the Majesty of God, and becomes softened, purified, melted.

It is good to observe this, that we rightly estimate: generously of fallen humanity, moderately of highest saintship.

In our best estate and in our purest moments there is a something of the devil in us which, if it could be known, would make men shrink from us. The germs of the worst crimes are in us all. In our deepest degradation there remains something sacred, undefiled, the pledge and gift of our better nature: a germ of indestructible life, like the grains of wheat among the cerements of a mummy surviving through three thousand years, which may be planted, and live, and grow again.

It is this truth of human feeling which makes the Psalms, more than any other portion of the Old Testament, the link of union between distant ages. The historical books need a rich store of knowledge before they can be a modern book of life, but the Psalms are the records of individual experience. Personal religion is the same in all ages. The deeps of our humanity remain unruffled by the storms of ages which change the surface. This psalm, written three thousand years ago, might have been written yesterday: describes the vicissitudes of spiritual life in an Englishman as truly as of a Jew. “Not of an age, but for all time.”


I. Scripture estimate of sin.

II. Spiritual restoration.


I. Scripture estimate of sin.

1. Personal accountability. “My sin” – strange, but true. It is hard to believe the sin we do our own. One lays the blame on circumstances; another on those who tempted; a third on Adam, Satan, or his own nature, as if it were not himself. “The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

In this psalm there is no such self-exculpation. Personal accountability is recognized throughout. No source of evil suggested or conceived but his own guilty will – no shifting of responsibility – no pleading of a passionate nature, or of royal exposure as peculiar. “I have sinned.” “I acknowledge my transgression: my sin is ever before me.”

One passage only seems at first to breathe a different tone: “In sin did my mother conceive me.” By some interpreted as referring to hereditary sin: alleged as a proof of the doctrine of transmitted guilt, as if David traced the cause of his act to his maternal character.

True as the doctrine is that physical and moral qualities are transmissible, you do not find that doctrine here. It is not in excuse, but in exaggeration of his fault that David speaks. He lays on himself the blame of a tainted nature, instead of that of a single fault: not a murder only, but of a murderous nature. “Conceived in sin.” From his first moments up till then, he saw sin – sin – sin: nothing but sin.

Learn the individual character of sin – its personal origin, and personal identity. There can be no transference of it. It is individual and incommunicable. My sin can not be your sin, nor yours mine.

Conscience, when it is healthy, ever speaks thus: “my transgression.” It was not the guilt of them that tempted you – they have theirs; but each as a separate agent, his own degree of guilt. Yours is your own; the violation of your own and not another’s sense of duty; solitary, awful, unshared, adhering to you alone of all the spirits of the universe.

Perilous to refer the evil in us to any source out of and beyond ourselves. In this way penitence becomes impossible: fictitious.

2. Estimated as hateful to God. “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight; that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.” The simple judgment of the conscience. But another estimate, born of the intellect, comes in collision with this religion and bewilders it. Look over life, and you will find it hard to believe that sin is against God; that it is not rather for Him.

Undeniable, that out of evil comes good – that evil is the resistance in battle, with which good is created and becomes possible. Physical evil, for example, hunger, an evil, is the parent of industry, human works, all that man has done: it beautifies life. The storm-fire burns up the forest, and slays man and beast, but purifies the air of contagion. Lately, the tragic death of eleven fishermen elicited the sympathy and charities of thousands.

Even moral evil is also generative of good. Peter’s cowardice enabled him to be a comforter: “when he was converted, to strengthen his brethren.” David’s crime was a vantage-ground, from which he rose through penitence nearer to God. Through it this psalm has blessed ages. But if the sin had not been done!

Now, contemplating this, we begin to perceive that evil is God’s instrument. “If evil be in the city, the Lord hath done it.” Then the contemplative intellectualist looks over this scene of things, and complacently approves of evil as God’s contrivance as much as good is – a temporary necessity, worthy of His wisdom to create. And then, can He truly hate that which He has made? Can His agent be his enemy? Is it not short-sightedness to be angry with it? Not the antagonist of God surely, but His creature and faithful servant this evil. Sin can not be “against God.”

Thus arises a horrible contradiction between the instincts of the conscience and the judgment of the understanding. Judas must have been, says the intellect, God’s agent as much as Paul. “Why doth He yet find fault? for who had resisted His will? Do not evil men perform His will? Why should I blame sin in another or myself, seeing it is necessary? Why not say at once, crime and virtue are the same?”

Thoughts such as these, at some time or another, I doubt not haunt and perplex us all. Conscience is overborne by the intellect. Some time during every life the impossibility of reconciling these two verdicts is felt, and the perplexity confuses action. Men sin with a secret peradventure behind. “Perhaps evil is not so bad, after all – perhaps good – who knows?”

Remember, therefore, in matters practical, conscience, not intellect, is our guide. Unsophisticated conscience ever speaks this language of the Bible.

We can not help believing that our sentiments towards right and wrong are a reflection of God’s. That we call just and true, we can not but think is just and true in His sight. That which seems base and vile to us, we are compelled to think is so to Him – and this in proportion as we act up to duty. In that proportion we feel that His sentiments coincide with ours.

In such moments when the God within us speaks most peremptorily and distinctly, we feel that the language of this psalm is true, and that no other language expresses the truth. Sin is not for God – can not be, but “against God.” An opposition to His will, a contradiction to His nature, not a coincidence with it. He abhors it – will banish it, and annihilate it.

In these days, when French sentimentalism, theological dreams, and political speculations are unsettling the old landmarks with fearful rapidity, if we do not hold fast, and that simply, and firmly, that first principle, that right is right, and wrong wrong, all our moral judgments will become confused, and the penitence of the noblest hearts an absurdity. For what can be more absurd than knowingly to reproach ourselves for that which God intended?

3. Sin estimated as separation from God. Two views of sin: The first reckoning it evil, because consequences of pain are annexed; the second evil, because a contradiction of our own nature and God’s will.

In this psalm the first is ignored; the second, implied throughout. “Take not thy Holy Spirit from me;” “Have mercy upon me,” does not mean, Save me from torture. You can not read the psalm and think so. It is not the trembling of a craven spirit in anticipation of torture, but the agonies of a noble one in the horror of being evil.

If the first view were true, then – if God were by an act of will to reverse the consequences, and annex pain to goodness and joy to crime – to lie and injure would become duty as much as before they were sins. But penalties do not change good into evil. Good is forever good; evil forever evil. God Himself could not alter that by a command. Eternal hell could not make truth wrong, nor everlasting pleasure ennoble sensuality.

Do you fancy that men like David, shuddering in sight of evil, dreaded a material hell? I venture to say, into true penitence the idea of punishment never enters. If it did, it would be almost a relief; but oh! those moments in which a selfish act has appeared more hideous than any pain which the fancy of a Dante could devise! when the idea of the strife of self-will in battle with the loving will of God prolonged forever has painted itself to the imagination as the real infinite hell! when self-concentration and the extinction of love in the soul has been felt as the real damnation of the devil-nature!

And recollect how sparingly Christianity appeals to the prudential motives. Use them it does, because they are motives, but rarely. Retribution is a truth; and Christianity, true to nature, warns of retribution. But, except to rouse men sunk in forgetfulness, or faltering with truth, it almost never appeals to it: and never, with the hope of eliciting from such motives as the hope of heaven or the fear of hell, high goodness.

To do good for reward, the Son of Man declares to be the sinner’s religion. “If ye lend to them who lend to you, what thank have ye?” and He distinctly proclaims that alone to be spiritually good, “the righteousness of God,” which “does good, hoping for nothing in return;” adding, as the only motive, “that ye may be the children of (i. e. , resemble) your Father which is in heaven: for He maketh His sun to shine on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”


II. Restoration.

First step, sacrifice of a broken spirit.

Observe the accurate and even Christian perception of the real meaning of sacrifice by the ancient spiritually-minded Jews.

Sacrifice has its origin in two feelings: one human, one divine or inspired.

True feeling: something to be given to God: surrendered: that God must be worshipped with our best.

Human: added to this, mixed up with it, is the fancy that this sacrifice pleases God because of the loss or pain which it inflicts. Then men attribute to God their own revengeful feelings; think that the philosophy of sacrifice consists in the necessity of punishing: call it justice to let the blow fall somewhere – no matter where: blood must flow. Hence heathen sacrifices were offered to appease the Deity, to buy off His, wrath – the purer the offering the better: – to glut His fury. Instances illustrating the feeling: Iphigenia; Zaleucus; two eyes given to the law: barbarian rude notions of justness mixed up with a father’s instincts. Polycrates and Amasis; seal sacrificed to avert the anger of heaven – supposed to be jealous of mortal prosperity. These notions were mixed with Judaism: nay, are mixed up now with Christian conceptions of Christ’s sacrifice.

Jewish sacrifices therefore presented two thoughts – to, the spiritual, true notions; to the unspiritual, false; and expressed these feelings for each. But men like David felt that what lay beneath all sacrifice as its ground and meaning was surrender to God’s will – that a man’s best is himself – and to sacrifice this is the true sacrifice. By degrees they came to see that the sacrifice was but a form – typical; and that it might be superseded.

Compare this psalm with Psalm 50.

They were taught this chiefly through sin and suffering. Conscience, truly wounded, could not be appeased by these sacrifices which were offered year by year continually. The selfish coward, who saw in sin nothing terrible but the penalty, could be satisfied of course. Believing that the animal bore his punishment, he had nothing more to dread. But they who felt sin to be estrangement from God, who were not thinking of punishment, what relief could be given to them by being told that the penalty of their sins was borne by another being? They felt that only by surrender to God could conscience be at rest.

Learn then – God does not wish pain, but goodness; not suffering, but you – yourself – your heart.

Even in the sacrifice of Christ, God wished only this. It was precious not because it was pain, but because the pain, the blood, the death were the last and highest evidence of entire surrender. Satisfaction? Yes, the blood of Christ satisfied. Why? Because God can glut His vengeance in innocent blood more sweetly than in guilty? Because, like the barbarian Zaleucus, so long as the whole penalty is paid, He cares not by whom? Or was it because for the first time He saw human nature a copy of the Divine nature – the will of Man the Son perfectly coincident with the will of God the Father – the love of duty for the first time exhibited by man – obedience entire, “unto death, even the death of the cross?” Was not that the sacrifice which He saw in His beloved Son wherewith He was well pleased? Was not that the sacrifice of Him who, through the Eternal Spirit, offered Himself without spot to God: the sacrifice once offered which hath perfected forever them that are sanctified?

2. Last step, spirit of liberty. “Thy free spirit” – literally, princely. But the translation is right. A princely is a free spirit – unconstrained. Hence St. James calls it “the royal law of liberty.”

Two classes of motives may guide to acts, of seeming goodness: 1. Prudential; 2. Generous.

The agent of the temperance society appeals to prudential motives when he demonstrates the evils of intoxication; enlists the aid of anatomy; contrasts the domestic happiness and circumstantial comfort of the temperate home with that of the intemperate. An appeal to the desire of happiness and fear of misery. A motive, doubtless, and of unquestionable potency. All I say is, that from this class of motives comes nothing of the highest stamp.

Prudential motives will move me: but compare the rush of population from east to west for gold with a similar rush in the time of the Crusades. A dream – a fancy; but an appeal to generous and unselfish emotions – to enthusiasm which has in it no reflex consideration of personal greed: in the one case, simply a transfer of population, with vices and habits unchanged, in the other, a sacrifice of home, country, all.

Tell men that salvation is personal happiness, and damnation personal misery, and that goodness consists in seeking the one and avoiding the other, and you will get religionists: but poor, stunted, dwarfish – asking, with painful self-consciousness, Am I saved? Am I lost? Prudential considerations about a distant happiness, conflicting with passionate impulses to secure a near and present one: men moving in shackles – “letting I dare not wait upon I would.”

Tell men that God is love: that right is right, and wrong wrong: let them cease to admire philanthropy, and begin to love men: cease to pant for heaven, and begin to love God: then the spirit of liberty begins.

When fear has done its work – whose office is not to create holiness but to arrest conscience – and self-abasement has set in in earnest, then the free Spirit of God begins to breathe upon the soul like a gale from a healthier climate, refreshing it with a more generous and a purer love. Prudence is no longer left in painful and hopeless struggle with desire: love bursts the shackles of the soul, and we are free.