You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. (Psalm 51.6)
Every time I open the Psalms lately, I’m reminded David, Moses, Asaph, the sons of Korah, and other contributors are high-ranking, extremely popular figures—political and religious leaders whose legends precede them. Yet concern for their world, nation, and people drives them to reveal their deepest passions, conflicts, feelings, and aspirations. They cop to weaknesses and attitudes we would never confide to our dearest friends. They model humility by deflecting adoration and honor they receive with rhapsodies of praise for their Creator. At the other extreme, they manifest humanity by complaining to God when things go wrong and, in more than a few instances, accusing God of not caring how lonely, confused, and defeated they feel.
Not only do the psalmists put their inner thoughts in writing; they publish them as hymns for all to sing! Imagine a president or pope composing a comparably self-revealing lyric and sending it to a record producer with a note: “Do all you can to make this a huge hit. The world needs to hear this and sing about it.” Are you kidding? But that’s what the Psalms come down to: songs of highest praise and deepest despair by extravagantly brave people who risk comfort and reputation so those singing along with them can profit from their experience.
Psalm 51 is a huge hit—then and now—that comes with a preface identifying its producer, composer, and date: “For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David committed adultery with Bathsheba.” We don’t need this info to gather the poem’s writer is messed up; the lyrics tell it all. Still, the archivist wants us to know where the song originates so we can personalize its profound remorse and desperation as we sing.
David writes Psalm 51 during the worst days of the worst scandal of a scandalously checkered career. He’s gone wild with lust for his neighbor’s wife, broken two commandments (“Do not commit adultery,” and “Do not covet another’s wife”) by sleeping with her, and contrived to conceal his error by having her husband killed after Bathsheba tells him she’s pregnant. The whole affair—from David’s naughty peek at Bathsheba taking a bath to his abuse of power to commit murder by proxy and hide his wrongdoing—becomes public knowledge when God sends Nathan to pronounce judgment on the king. The prophet confirms Bathsheba is carrying a son. But joy at this news lasts no longer than it takes for Nathan to inform David the infant’s life will be taken to pay for his crime.
In a matter of minutes, David goes from having it all to losing everything dear to him—happy young wife, new son, adoring public, moral integrity, and, most important, favor with God. If he were alive today, his advisors would counsel him to release a statement acknowledging his bad behavior (without accepting blame or guilt) and lay low until the scandal blew over. David’s too big for such a tiny gesture, however. His loss becomes our gain when he reaches for his pen. As we sing Psalm 51, we recognize where David’s at, because we’ve been there too, and the palpable agony of his contrition steels our resolve never to go there again. It’s for us he composes and publishes his classic poem of repentance.
All That Other Stuff
David pleads with God, “Have mercy on me!” (v1) He begs God to cleanse him. (v2) He admits his sin is ever before him (v3) and the severity of God’s judgment is just. (v4-5) What he says next is most revealing: “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” (v6) David got his public persona—the image he constructed to win Israel’s confidence and pride in his leadership—and true identity as God’s handpicked surrogate confused. Popular perception he could do no wrong boomeranged. He began to trust what he projected, rather than what he knew, himself to be. He had no reservations about lusting after another’s wife and the subsequent sins that dominoed into a public relations disaster because he's a king and that’s what kings do. When they spy something they want, they use every means to get it. In his heart of hearts, David knew this was a lie. He understood that true kings are servants. They honor their calling to live honestly before their people and remain faithful to their Maker.
All that other stuff—bravado and meeting expectations and embracing stereotypes—is theatrics we attempt to hide behind even though God sees, knows, and desires us to be truthful about who we are. David was aware of this all along. Yet, in an unexpected moment of weakness, he set it aside. As we sometimes say of ruinously disgraced public figures, he started believing his press. And though we may not be lionized in the media, we might as well confess we're no less prone to permit wonderful things said of our public personae to go to our heads, too. Because we do.
Mistaking Role for Reality
The David who loves God with his whole heart, his secret heart, is only happy if he’s aligned with God’s will and serving others. We know this from his story in 1 and 2 Samuel and even more so from his psalms. When everything God desires has his undivided attention, he’s cranking out anthems about God’s majesty and compassion. He’s mountain-high and untouchable. Let him get preoccupied with his role and it all goes to pieces. The genius behind “The Lord is My Shepherd” and “Let Everything Praise the Lord!” shrivels into a pathetic has-been moaning his latest version of “The Nobody-Loves-Me-Everybody-Hates-Me Blues.” David’s out of sorts because he’s out of touch with truth in his inward being. The king-sized heart he displays isn’t the secret heart where he and God connect—where there’s no reason for pretense, as there he’s free to be the humble shepherd boy tucked inside the monarch’s outsized demeanor.
“Teach me wisdom in my secret heart,” David prays. If he lived today, he’d ask, “Help me keep it real.” Seeing the horrible sorrow and shame David suffers by mistaking role for reality should be plenty to caution us against the same error. People we love or try to love, those who love us or we want to love us pigeonhole us into clichéd, disingenuous roles. (We do likewise with them, by the way.) Yet allowing roles we’re assigned to displace the reality of our inner beings positions us to break God’s laws and forget who we are. The secret heart is a holy place. In it reside the treasures of identity and presence of the Creator Who shaped us and calls us to faithfulness and service. Falling into stereotypical behaviors or living up to arbitrary expectations severs our connection with the secret heart. Psalm 51 provides all the proof we need that unwisely ignoring our inner beings' authenticity takes us down a miserable road that often goes from having it all to losing everything dear to us, including our moral integrity and God’s favor.
Dear God, we may never sing like David. Our finest poetry may not compare to his feeblest effort. Yet, like him, we can’t escape being forced into roles that don’t true to our inner beings. Teach us wisdom in our secret hearts. Help us keep it real. Amen.
As David begs God's forgiveness for the foolish sins that pile into his worst scandal, he wisely asks God to help him keep it real. Psalm 51 is a lesson for us.