Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise. (Psalm 51:10–12,17—NKJV)

Of the seven penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143), Psalm 51 is the fourth. Its occasion is David’s repentance of his sin with Bathsheba recounted for us in 2 Samuel 11–12. The psalm is jam-packed with petitions, prayer upon prayer, in fevered expressions of thorough-going sorrow for his sin.

In the first four verses he pleads for pardon. He fully accepts the depth of his sin rightly calling it rebellion (transgression of moral distinctions) for which he labors under heavy guilt, perversion (iniquity of moral twisting, both willful and flagrant) in which he is polluted in the sight of God, and missing God’s righteous standard (sin which evidences moral failure) by which he is ruined. Having found himself weighed upon the divine scales of justice, and being crushed under the just hammer of God’s law, he sees his sin and forsakes it while falling upon the mercy of God.

He cries out for God to act in his behalf by blotting out his transgression, washing him through and through from his perversion, and cleansing him from sin. He calls upon God’s covenant, loyal love, graciously extended to him as the basis of his request (verse 1).

After identifying what God pursues in the heart of His children, truth and wisdom (verses 5–6), David pours out his heart with raw honesty. His biggest need is for the sin guilt to be dealt with by the mighty hand of God. Just as is true with all mankind, the sin problem must be dealt with, and that only by God Himself. Genuine forgiveness can only be extended based upon the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Only at the cross are sins purged, washed away, and blotted out as Jesus Christ, Himself, bears the sin of many. It is a sovereign and gracious work of God (verses 7–9).

It is at this point in his musings that David begins to picture for us what the spirit of repentance looks like. Though one’s spirit cannot be seen, it certainly is evident. Man is made up of both material and immaterial elements. The body is the material in which we live until “absent from the body, present with the Lord.” The immaterial can be viewed from such perspectives as intellect, emotion, will, feeling, spirit, and heart. “Spirit” sees man through the prism of measurable vitality in purpose, will, affections. The original word relates to breath or wind. It is the energy exerted by sheer living. Exertion causes one to breathe heavily displaying effort, will, and purpose. Hence David’s word “spirit,” as in breath.

There are four points concerning his repentant spirit which he presents to God. 1) He asks that a steadfast (constant, firm, not yielding to temptation, standing upright) spirit be created by God within him. This must be a work of God. 2) He asks that God not remove His Holy Spirit from him, thus disqualifying him from his office of King in Israel. Though we cannot lose the Holy Spirit as New Testament saints, we certainly can lose our qualification to serve. Qualification can only come from God. We need God’s grace in order to be restored to service. 3) He asks to be upheld with a generous (free, willing to conform to God’s law) spirit. He knows this must also be a work of God upon his heart or he is doomed to fail again in self-effort. 4) He identifies that what God searches for in the life of His child is a broken spirit. When the law crushes the sin-guilty heart, the believer gains a broken spirit. Without this divine work there is no room for the steadfast, qualified, and conforming spirit to flourish within.

Are you pursuing repentance with God? Do you have a broken spirit making room for God’s spiritual craftsmanship in you? Trust and obey.