Two men went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee prayed to himself, “I thank God, that I’m not like all these bad people. I do great things for you, God. You are lucky to have me. I’m glad we had this talk.” The tax collector, not daring to look up said, “Have mercy on me, the sinner!” Luke records this parable of Jesus concerning people who trusted in themselves and viewed others with contempt (Luke 18:9-14). We can learn a lot from a penitent prayer. One such prayer is highlighted in Psalm 51.
This psalm, possibly written after David had been rebuked by Nathan for his sin with Bathsheba, holds four things we should consider in our prayers. First, there was an appeal to God’s grace. “Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions” (Psa. 51:1). We must understand that the only way that the conscience can be cleansed is by an obedient surrender to the grace of God.
Second, he acknowledged his sins. “For I know my transgressions, And my sin is ever before me. Against You, You only, I have sinned And done what is evil in Your sight” (Psa. 51:3-4a). “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves. If we confess our sins He is faithful and righteous” (1 John 1:8-10).
Third, he asked for a cleansing. “Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psa. 51:7). The Pharisee made no such request. It was as if God was indebted to him. Here, the debtor is humbled and cries out to be clean. “If we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
Finally, the psalmist gave an affirmation of renewed service. “Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will be converted to You….Then my tongue will joyfully sing of Your righteousness” (Psa. 51:13-14). “Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first” (Rev. 2:5). As Christ said this to the churches in Asia, we also need to return to the fruitful works that are pleasing to God.
When Jesus finished His parable of the two men praying, He said, “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). We must humble ourselves in prayer and acknowledge our sins before Him. If we can do that the words of Psalm 32 can be our words. “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Psa. 32:1-2)!