The Prayer of a Prodigal King: Psalm 51
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you.
Then I will teach your ways to rebels, and they will return to you.
One day, the Lord sent the prophet Nathan to David to expose his sin. David had slept with Bathsheba, and then as a way to cover it up, he had her husband killed. Nathan began by telling David a story about a rich man and a poor man. The rich man had many cattle and sheep, but the poor man had only one little ewe lamb. The lamb was like a beloved pet. It ate from the poor man's plate and drank from his cup. The man cuddled the lamb in his arms like a daughter. One day a traveling guest arrived at the home of the rich man. But instead of taking one of his own sheep or cattle, the rich man took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and killed it to make a meal for the guest. David was furious when Nathan finished his story. "As surely as the Lord lives, David vowed, 'Any man who would do such a thing deserves to die! He must repay four lambs to the poor man for the one he stole and for having no pity.' " Nathan replied, "You are the man!" (2 Sam 12:6-7)
David was rocked to the core. He was the rich man who had killed and stolen what wasn't his. God had given him so much, and yet he decided to take what didn't belong to him. "I have sinned against the Lord," David confesses to Nathan.
Psalm 51 is David's prayer to God after the prophet Nathan came to him. His prayer is a prayer of repentance and a plea for restoration. David is ready to come back to the Lord. In his prayer, David:
Asks God for mercy because of His unfailing love, and to blot out the stain of his sin because of His great compassion (v.1). David knows God's character and relies on it now. The prodigal also needs to know that God is merciful and full of unfailing love and compassion.
Asks God to wash him clean from his guilt and purify him from his sin (v.1-2). David knows God's power. A prodigal must come to the place where they know only God can forgive sin and remove the guilt.
Recognizes his rebellion, and says his sin is always before him (v.3). Recognition is an important step in repentance. And repentance is necessary for the prodigal.
Acknowledges that ultimately his sin is against God and God alone; that God saw the evil he did and had every right to bring it to his attention and to judge him. David respects the holiness of God. God's holiness and right to do what He does is something else the prodigal must acknowledge.
Says he was born a sinner from conception, and even in the womb, God desires honesty and teaches wisdom (v.5-6). God desiring and teaching when babies are in the womb is not something I've ever heard talked about, but it's an interesting thought, and one David believed was true. It would apply to our prodigals as well.
States that he will be clean and "whiter than snow," when God purifies and washes him from his sins (v.7). Whereas in v.1-2, David asks God to cleanse and purify him, in this verse, he is stating it as fact. It's a done deal for David and for any prodigal who returns to the Lord.
Asks to be given back his joy. God broke him, and now David wants to be able to rejoice again (v.8). David has no desire to stay in his miserable state any longer, and why should he since he has repented and God has forgiven him. Our prodigals can have this same hope for themselves. And we can have this hope for them too!
Still wants to make it clear that he doesn't want God to keep looking at his sins. He wants the stain of his guilt to be removed. Possibly the feelings hadn't entirely caught up to his restored position yet. Or maybe a moment of clarity came when he realized how he got into this situation in the first place. David never wants something like this to happen again. He asks for a pure heart to be created in him and a steadfast spirit to be renewed (v.9-10). These are two excellent things to ask for when coming out of a period of sinful behavior.
Once again asks for joy, this time for the joy of his salvation to be restored, and for a willing spirit, to sustain him because he is going to teach God's ways to other prodigals so they too would return to Him (v.12-13). A prodigal who has recently returned to the Lord needs to have a willing spirit to sustain him/her, and for the joy of his/her salvation to be restored. Why? Because, in addition to being saved by God's grace, we can only live the Christian life by His grace, and do the things He calls us to do. It's His grace that gives us willing spirits and restored joy of our salvation when we had lost it for a time.
For the first time in this prayer, asks for forgiveness specifically for killing Bathsheba's husband, Uriah. David plans to joyfully sing of God's forgiveness and asks for his lips to be unsealed so he can praise Him (v.14-15). Once forgiven, the prodigal would be wise to give praise to God for forgiving and restoring him/her. Praise can be a powerful weapon (2 Chron 20:22).
Offers his first teaching as a restored king: If your heart is not right with God, he doesn't want you going through the motions. In David's day, this meant God didn't want a burnt offering brought; He wanted repentance. God will never reject a broken spirit and repentant heart...not then and not now. Then and only then will God be pleased with the burnt offerings in David's day in addition to praise, obedience, and service in our day (v16-19). Many believers, even some prodigals who are living in sin but call themselves Christians, seem to have it backward. They have lost their first love for God, and they think that what they do or being a good person is more important than their relationship with Him. They believe they can make Scripture say what they want it to say because God wouldn't want them to be miserable. Or they are tolerant of everything in the name of love but at the expense of truth, as if love and truth can't go together.
I know for those who have prodigals in their lives, this blog might seem a bit irrelevant. But I want you to see it as hope for what God can do. He can do for your prodigal what He did for David. And I want you to understand what needs to happen. Oh, it won't look exactly the same, but it will give you some ways to pray.
God's Love: God sent Nathan to expose David's sin, and it was just what David needed. God knows what your prodigal needs, and because He loves your prodigal, He will convict them somehow. For David, God used Nathan; for your prodigal, God may use a different way. You might say, "David wasn't really a prodigal; he just lost his way for a bit, but he never turned his back on God." While that may be true, it doesn't mean David didn't have to repent of his sin or acknowledge that God was right in what He did. Many prodigals might claim to follow God, but their hearts are not right. David's heart wasn't right, and he still had to make the same choice we all have to make when we sin, including prodigals.
God's Faithfulness: God is faithful, and He will forgive anyone who comes to Him with a broken and contrite heart. There are no exceptions. Part of what is going on in a prodigal's life is they can't accept God's ways. They want to go their own way. Either they turn their back on God, convincing themselves that either they don't need Him or He must not exist, or prodigals make God in their own image so He will be the way they want Him to be. Either way, God will forgive them when they turn from their wrong thinking and sinful pride. I want to be careful not to sound like I have it all figured out and that all prodigals simply refuse to believe that God exists or is relevant. For some, it is a serious struggle, and one they don't take lightly. To them, I would say, God is not ignorant of your struggle, and He will reveal Himself to you if you honestly want to know if He exists or why He is relevant to your life. He knows your heart.
God's Power: God has a way of changing us by His power. Psalm 51 starts with David begging God for mercy, but by the end of the psalm, he is teaching other rebels God's ways. God's power is the hope we can have as we pray for our prodigals. There are not some prodigals that are beyond God's ability to change. No, the same God who spoke the universe into existence, is the One who can work in a heart that is willing.
David was called a man after God's own heart despite his failures. Consider that your prodigal may someday be used greatly by God and that He was created for such a time as this. Their story is not finished! They may indeed be used to teach other rebels God's ways and bring them back to God.