The Cry of a Fallen Leader
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The Cry of a Fallen Leader

Psalm 51:1–19  (ID: 2030)

King David knew what it meant to suffer a guilty conscience. Rather than provide relief, however, his efforts to conceal his sin only managed to intensify his burden. Peace of heart and mind became possible only after David cried out to God for forgiveness. Genuine repentance and godly sorrow don’t hide behind excuses, moral indignation, or repression, teaches Alistair Begg. Like David, we must confess our sins, repent, and trust in God’s unfailing love and great compassion.

Series Containing This Sermon

More Jars of Clay

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 22502

Sermon Transcript: Print

Before we turn to the Word of the Lord, let’s turn to the Lord of the Word in a moment of prayer:

Once again, with our Bibles open before us, gracious heavenly Father, we want to acknowledge, frankly, that our need of you is total, it’s not partial. We want also to recognize that in some mysterious way, when your Word is truly preached, your voice is really heard. And so we come to listen for your voice, to hear your Word, to understand it and by your enabling to obey it. Hear our prayers for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

The story goes like this: There were two men in a certain town; one of them was particularly rich, and the other one was very poor. The rich man had a considerable number of sheep and cattle, and the poor man had simply one little ewe lamb. He had bought it when it was tiny, and he had raised it. It had grown up both with him and with his children. It shared his food, it drank from his cup, and it even slept in his arms. Indeed, it was like a daughter to him.

A traveler comes into town and goes to the home of the rich man. The rich man, in seeking to provide for the physical needs of this individual, chooses not to go to his own herds and flocks but goes instead and intrudes on the flock of the poor man—a flock of one, as you will recall—and takes the ewe lamb from this gentleman and uses that as the means of preparing food for the traveler who arrived at his gate.

Now, there’s an obvious moral incongruity of that. Those of us who listen to it say, “That’s not right,” and that’s exactly what David said when he heard this story. When Nathan came to him and told him the story, David was filled with anger, and he declared, “The man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and [he] had no pity.”[1] The story was a moral outrage. It struck David. And then, in that instant, the dagger pierced the heart of the king. Because Nathan the prophet immediately then seized on the story that he had told. “This,” he says to David, “is a parable of your life, and particularly of your activities of late. Because,” he said, “you are the man that I’m describing in the story.”[2] And the awful actions of this leader were described in the words of Nathan.

Now, the background to that, of course, is another story with which many of us are familiar, but not all of us. David had, after a long climb to the top, made it through the struggles and challenges of political life, and he was finally there. He was in his midforties. He was in this vulnerable period of life where a man has by and large maxed out on what he’s going to do, both in terms of his career and in terms of his physical abilities. And while there may be those who buck the trend and are different from that, by and large the mean is true.

And so it is that a man is confronted by many things at this vulnerable point in his midforties. And that’s why many men, I believe, in their midforties, behind a veneer of stability, are some of the most unstable characters you could ever hope to meet. They face panic in the evenings. They face challenges in the days. They are as vulnerable as anyone you will ever meet. I say that both by observation, by reading, and by living my own life. There is a distinct pattern of existence that points to the peculiarity of these midpoint years in the lives of a man—a woman too, but we’re talking at the moment about a man.

By the time this chap, David, had reached this point in his career, he was at the top. He was the most significant person in the land. He was the commander-in-chief of the forces. He was the civil leader. There was no one greater than him. There was no one who could wield more power. He had the ability to do things that others couldn’t do. And so, although it was the time for kings and soldiers to go out to war, the biblical record tells us that he decided to stay home.[3] He gave himself a holiday. He took a vacation. He probably argued with himself: “After all, I’ve done a lot of things, and I’ve been a lot of places. Surely I can allow myself to stay home now, even if it’s only for a little while.” And so he stayed home, secure in his midforties and ready for his own midlife crisis.

She was exceptionally beautiful, she was particularly vulnerable, and she was, after their tryst, unfortunately pregnant. What he might have figured as being a one-night stand—because after all, he was a prominent person with a reputation to maintain. He surely wouldn’t want the court reporters to be going around spreading news of what had taken place. He must be discrete in all of his dealings, and hopefully he would be able to avail himself of the opportunity and be gone, as it were, under the cover of darkness or the early hours of the dawn. And it all went so horribly wrong.

And so this leader, this most powerful of individuals, this commander-in-chief, was confronted by a moral dilemma—actually, by an immoral dilemma. Because this lady was married to one of his army officers, a man by the name of Uriah. So what was he to do? Well, his instinctive reaction was to cover it up. And so that’s what he decided. He would recall Uriah from the campaign, from the border-securing task which he had, and he would get him to come back, and he would encourage him to sleep at home. And he would make sure that he was out on campaign when the baby was born, and then he would have the opportunity to falsify the date of the birth certificate, and then finally, when his army officer came back, it would all fit in and go away, and it would all be fine.

Didn’t work. This first plan was a dreadful miscalculation. Because as it turned out, Uriah was more noble than the leader. Because when he called Uriah back and he invited him into the palace—he said, “Hey, how’re you doing? How’s it going?”—Uriah must have said to himself, “I don’t know what this is about.” And when he followed it up by saying, “Why don’t you go home and spend a few nights with your family, and particularly with your wife? Why don’t you go home and wash your feet?”[4] Uriah must have walked out of the palace, and whether he smelled a rat or not, I don’t know. He must have said to himself, “This is one strange deal. I’m out there fighting, I get called back into the palace, he has this conversation with me, and then he says, ‘Go home and sleep with your wife.’ I wonder why he’s so concerned that I would go home and sleep with my wife?”

So he doesn’t go home and sleep with his wife. He goes home and sleeps with the servants, beside the servants.[5] The king wines him and dines him on three successive evenings, presumably says, “Now, on you go.” And he goes down, and he says, “I can’t go and enjoy the privileges of marital bliss while my friends and my colleagues are out facing the peril of their lives on the forefront of battle.”[6] This was a noble guy: “I’m not gonna be in here schmoozing and snoozing while my guys are out on the field getting chopped up with lances and with swords.”

So plan A hits the dumper. Plan B he has to go to. So he instructs his general, Joab, to engineer events in such a way that this army officer, Uriah, will be killed in battle. “Put him up somewhere at the front,” he says, “and wait for the right opportunity, and make sure he takes it in the throat,”[7] so to speak. “And then we’ll have a funeral, and after the funeral I’ll marry the grieving widow. And then, when the grieving widow gives birth to this child that I will have already adopted, I will make this child a prince in the royal line, which will be a nice memorial to the national hero—namely, Uriah.” And that’s exactly what he did. Cynical, sordid, dirty, filthy, horrible plot, immediately put into action. And in doing so, he certainly broke three of the commandments. He managed not to break the eleventh commandment, which reads, “Thou shalt not be found out.”

Everything in his power—and powerful he was—was unleashed in order to ensure that the dirty business would never actually make it into print, would never actually become the conversation of the common man. He must have said to himself as the dust began to settle, “That was an unfortunate business.” He may even have said, “You know, that was an improper relationship. But,” he said to himself, “it’s time to move on. After all, there is a country to care for. There are matters to be addressed. There are political issues, and there are matters of national security to be dealt with. Surely I’m not supposed to belabor this and stay here.” That was his great miscalculation.

And the reason it was such a great miscalculation and such a tactical error was because of this: sin cannot be sealed away in the past. Sin does not go away like the Delete button releasing a file on your laptop computer. Sin and guilt are not eradicated simply as a result of saying “Oh well, I don’t want to think about that anymore. Oh well, that’s in the past. Oh well, that’s okay.” No it’s not! Even if the courts don’t punish it, even if public scandal doesn’t expose it, even if by hypocrisy we manage to conceal it—singing our hymns, attending our services, preaching our sermons, going about our business—even if by hypocrisy we manage to conceal it, eventually the rotting carcass will smell so bad that everyone will know. There is no way to avoid it. That, of course, is the good news and the bad news.

To quote John Lennon from the Imagine album, there’s “one thing you can’t hide is when you’re crippled inside.”[8] And if you remember that song—and I don’t have it on the tip of my tongue, which I know will surprise you—but he actually uses lines like “You can go to church” and “shine your shoes.” You can do this and you can do that; and you can jazz it up any way you choose, he says, but one thing you can’t hide is when you’re crippled inside.

The only safe thing that can be done with guilt is to have it washed away.

You see, you don’t have to be a Christian to understand that. Pagans understand that. Boys at school understand that. Girls understand that. As they lie in their beds and they bury their heads in the pillow, they know, “Man alive! I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with this! I’m like Lady Macbeth: ‘I’ve tried all the perfumes of Arabia, and I cannot get rid of these spots.’[9] What am I supposed to do? Is there anyone to whom I can go? Is there any place that I can turn? Is there anything that I can say?”

Only One Place to Go

Well, the only safe thing that can be done with guilt is to have it washed away. And there is only one to whom we may go to have it washed away. There is only one in the whole world who has, if you like, the spiritual detergent necessary to remove the stains of sin and guilt. There is only one who has the detergent. Oh, there are others who can make your life a little more palatable. There are others who will suggest to you the ability to assimilate various religious principles and make yourself something of a better person—maybe a better dad, or a more useful mom, or a more upright kid, or a better employer, or whatever it is. There are lots of places you can go for that. You can enhance your life in that way going no further than the US Airways magazine. They have it all in there and more besides. But you can’t have the stains of sin dealt with. You can’t have the guilt washed away.

To whom, then, can this fallen leader go? Well, to the one whom he addresses in the psalm. He says, “I’m coming to you, and my cry,” he says, “is ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion.’” Who is this God? Well, he is the God who has revealed himself as a God of unfailing love, and he is the God who has shown himself to be great in his compassion. And it is to this one that we may go with the request “Blot out my transgressions.”

You see, because when a man or a woman is made aware of their guilt, when I become aware of my wrong, I know within myself that I’m gonna have to deal with God. I may try and suppress the notion, I may try and deny the idea, but I know by my very nature, as being made in a moral being, that there is one to whom I am accountable. And God knows that I know, and I know that he knows, and I know that this God—no matter what my anthropology teacher told me, no matter what the sociologist tells me, no matter what a postmodern community tries to instill in me—I know that this God is not some cosmic force, I know that he is not an impersonal being, I know that he is not simply an energy; I know that he is a moral being, and I know that he is “the Judge of all the earth” who will “do right.”[10]

And on account of that, there is a fundamental question which confronts me: How, then, can I be sure that if I go to this God, he will accept me? How can I be certain that if I dare to come to him with all the terrible stuff that lurks inside of me, with all my mess and all my filthiness, how can I be sure that he’s not gonna slap me in the face and tell me, “Hey, hit the road, Jack”? The answer is because of who he is: because of “your unfailing love; according to your great compassion.”

David only had a few books of the Old Testament, but he understood who God was. We have not only the books that he had but all the books that follow, ultimately forming up in the person of the Lord Jesus and ultimately bringing us to the cross of the Lord Jesus. Where do we see this unfailing love? Where is this great compassion declared? Where is this cleansing detergent to be discovered? It’s to be discovered on a Roman gibbet. For the grace of God reveals one who loves us so much so as to make Calvary possible and who hates sin so much so as to make Calvary necessary. And we have never understood neither sin nor the death of the Lord Jesus Christ until we have faced this fact: that there, when he hanged upon that cross, he was bearing in his own body our sins.[11]

Paul, when he describes the circumstances to the Colossians in Colossians 2, he says that he took our sins in himself, and that he bore them, and that he took all of my stain, and he nailed it to the cross, granting to us forgiveness[12]—all of our indebtedness, all of our rebellion, all of our mess, all of our filthiness nailed up on the cross, paid for. That’s why the message of the gospel is for sinners. God saves sinners. So the one thing you’re trying to deny that you are is the thing that you need to admit so you may become what you’re not. And churches are set up to tell you that you are what you know you’re not, thereby condemning you to the worst hell: of hypocrisy, and of deceit, and of the notion that somehow or another, if I just try a little harder and assimilate a little more religion into my life, that somehow or another I will tip the scales in the balance of the benefit of God to me. You know that isn’t true! That’s immoral. That’s unjust. Sin must be punished! There’s only one place. There’s only one to whom we may go: the one who offers to us forgiveness.

I have no right to claim forgiveness, and yet I must come and accept it. Forgiveness is something God gives as a free gift. But we don’t receive it automatically. It doesn’t come like one of those Visa card things in the mail. The jolly things come in four and five at a time, telling us we have thousands of dollars of credit. We may only have fifty-five dollars in the bank account, but they tell us we have thousands of dollars of credit. Don’t you believe it for a minute! Put it right in the bin—in the bin, every one. Tear it in half, put it in the bin—every single one of them. I don’t care if you got frequent flyer miles with it. Get it in the bin! It’s an illusion. It is an illusion. It’s a 22-percent illusion, or an 18½-percent illusion.

So people think, “Well, somehow or another, as I go on my merry way, one day I’ll go in my mailbox, I’ll take out the mail, and it will say, ‘Hey, dear Fred, just want you to know you’re forgiven. I thought you should know that. Now, cheer up and get on with your life.’” Uh-uh. No. Forgiveness is a free gift of God, but we come and we ask for it. And we ask in confidence that we may receive it, not because we deserve it but because of the nature of the God who loves to give it.

Have you ever come to God and asked him for forgiveness? Oh, I don’t mean in some generic way. I don’t mean the sort of “Oh dear, what a mess! Here I am again for the forty-seventh time,” with no sense of confession or cleansing. But have you ever come to God with all of it and said, “Lord God, there’s clearly no one else to whom I can go.”

Only One Thing to Say

Secondly, there’s only one thing that I can say. There’s only one thing I can say. That is verse 3: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.”

Now, when a man or a woman is prepared to say, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me,” I’ll tell you what they’re not doing. Number one, they’re not making excuses for it. They’re not making excuses for it. When I know myself to be found out, when I know myself to be busted, when I know myself to be clearly in the wrong, I have to get down before God and say, “You know what? I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. I’m not here to excuse it away. I’m not here to blame it on capitalism, or socialism, or hormones, or diet, or my grandmother’s influence on my life, or whatever else it is. O God, I am totally in the wrong.” So you can know that genuine repentance and godly sorrow does not attach itself to a litany of excuses.

Nor does the genuinely repentant person try and hide behind some form of pseudomoral indignation that goes like this: “Well, you know, a lot of people have been doing a lot of bad things lately. Indeed, I heard that Mr. So-and-So over here, he did something really bad. I think it was about thirty years ago, but he was a really bad guy. And there’ve been a few more, as well, that I’ve encountered. They’ve been doing some bad things. So, hey, who’s to say? What’s the deal?”

Let me tell you: when the Spirit of God convicts the heart of a man about the awfulness of his sin, he’s gonna go run and find a place all on his own to cry out to Almighty God. He’s not interested about the sins of his wife, his cousin, his brother, his sister, the guy up the stair, his boss, or anything else. He says, “O God, I know my transgressions, and my sins are ever before me. They jump up at me. I see them in my rearview mirror. I see them when I look at my face in the morning. I can’t run, and I can’t hide. I’m here to say one thing. I’m saying no to excuse, I’m saying no to indignation, and I’m saying no to repression.” In other words, “I’m not gonna try and squeeze down into some corner of my subconscious this event, or this episode, or this pattern of my life, because I know that it’ll jump up and hit me again. It’ll come out in some way.” And it will.

If a man or a woman is going to find peace of heart and mind, then there is only one to whom they may go. There is only one thing that they can say, and that is, verse 4, “Against you and you only have I sinned. My offense is against you, O God. I’ve done evil in your sight.” You say, “Well, wait a minute. Didn’t he sin against Bathsheba? Didn’t he sin against Uriah?” Yes, but in the final analysis, you and I’ll never come to terms with sin or with guilt until we have personal dealings with God about it. There’s only one to whom we can go.

You see, real guilt is not just a psychological hang-up. There is false guilt. Some people feel guilty all the time. They make themselves feel guilty, and they’ve nothing to be guilty about. You’re with them, and they’re going, “Oh! I’m very sorry I did that. Oh! I’m sorry I did that,” and so on. Say, “Hey, lighten up, please! You know, relax! You don’t have to do this to yourself. No one’s condemning you. These things are not even wrong.” That’s a false form of guilt. They need help with that.

But real guilt… You can’t psychologize real guilt away. There isn’t a psychiatrist in Johns Hopkins University can get rid of real guilt for you—even if he tells you that sin is a Christian neurosis, even if he externalizes it for you, even if he tells you that it’s over there, it’s not in here. That’s no help to you! And if you’ve been there, you know! Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying psychiatrists can’t help you. I’m saying that they cannot remove guilt. There’s only one person has the detergent. Not enough to have a psychologist help me. It’s not sufficient that the person I’ve hurt forgives me. It’s not enough to feel bad. It’s not enough even to be angry with myself.

This is some people’s expression of repentance. This is how it goes: They sinned. They really like doing it. They didn’t feel remotely bad about what they’d done. Somebody blew the whistle on them, and it really ticked them off. So they got angry with themselves about the fact that they’d done it—not because it wasn’t fun doing it but because doing it got me found out, and now that I’m found out, I’m really ticked off! Therefore, I’m angry. Therefore, I’ve got to be sorry. I guess I’m sorry. But I can’t wait for the first free weekend I have to do it again!

That is not repentance. That doesn’t even come close to confession, and that yields zero forgiveness. There is no forgiveness!

Every kid knows that: “Oh, Mommy, Mommy, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean… I wasn’t going to do it again. I’m not… I promise, I’m not!” Their voices go high, they go low. Soon as they get up to their bedroom, go, “Got her! Beautiful! Man was that a good little job I did down there in the kitchen. Got her hook, line, and sinker. She believed me! She thought I was sorry. I’m not sorry! I can’t wait till she leaves. Soon as she leaves, I’m gonna do it again!” Every kid knows that. What’s a man? A grown-up kid. So what changed along the journey? Nothing! He just got more duplicitous—if there’s even such a word.

We will never come to terms with sin or with guilt until we have personal dealings with God about it.

The only day that you and I can come to terms with guilt is when my mind is no longer filled with thoughts of how it affects me, how it affects others, but when I start to feel seriously burdened by how my sin affects God. ’Cause only God has the detergent. There’s only one thing I can say.

Only One Solution

And lastly, there’s only one solution to be found, and that is a heart transplant. Verse 10: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a [right] spirit within me. Do[n’t] cast me [off] from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.” David was probably thinking about what happened to Saul at the end of his days, what a mess he was in—says, “Lord, you’re gonna have to change my heart and my spirit, the center of my will, the core of who I am. Change my heart, O God. My need is crucial. I can see that the solution is radical. I’m glad that the surgeon is gentle.” Crucial need, radical solution, gentle surgeon.

Some of us have lost loved ones because the only solution that was left to them was a brand-new heart, and it wasn’t possible to effect that change. And so they were gone. And some of us wander in and out of our days, and the only solution that is there for us is a brand-new heart. It’s not that we haven’t been told. It’s not that the surgeon hasn’t come and made the diagnosis and offered the cure. It’s not that we misunderstand the radical nature of the solution. It is simply that we do not want it to happen. If you’re here this morning and you remain unforgiven—you’re sitting around with a bucket full of guilt—I want you to know there is one to whom you can go, there is something that you can say, and there’s a solution to be found.

Actually, that summarizes my whole thing. You know, I’ve got nothing else to do and nothing else to say and nowhere else to go except to say, “Excuse me! There’s one to whom you can go, there’s one thing you can say, and there’s a solution to be found.” Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying, “Hey, thanks for coming this morning to Parkside Church. So glad you’re here. We are very interested that you would have a wonderful family life, that you would be very honest in your business, and that you would be an outstanding member of the community. We believe if you could assimilate some of the information and opportunities that we have at Parkside Church, that you will become the aforementioned outstanding father, civil businessman, and general righteous member of the community. So please plug into as much of it as can, and we’ll see you at the finish tape.” If for a moment you think that’s what’s being said here, either I’m not speaking or you’re not listening.

Mormonism will take care of your family life. Hinduism will give you a religion to live by. Confucius will give you a lot of blessed thoughts that you can stick on your shaving mirror and carry around in your wallet or in your Day-Timer. There are many ways to become a member of the community. There are many ways to become a good dad. There are many ways to assimilate religious principles. But all of that, on its own or put together, does not equal a religious conversion. For a religious conversion takes place only at one place, can only be effected by one person, and only in response to the saying of one thing: “I have sinned. I have transgressed. I’m in a total mess.” And when that heart is then cleansed and made new, when the heart transplant takes place, then civil, religious, familial, personal duties follow in line. That’s the message.

You say, “Well, I’m glad I’m not in this. I’m not a leader, and I didn’t do any of this stuff. Thanks for mentioning it. I think perhaps it’s got some direct applications to our culture, and I’ll try and apply them when the video tapes come out tomorrow.” Look at verse 5: “Surely I was sinful at birth, [and] sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”

You see, guilt is not a fungus to be scraped away. Guilt is a defect in our character. There’s no little island of innocence in our personalities from which we can launch a counterattack. The core is corrupt. It’s twisted. It’s stained. We’re a write-off, for those of you who are involved as insurance assessors or in body shop work. The car gets hauled on its sorry way into one of those places, the insurance assessor comes, the expert looks at it, you’re on the receiving end of the telephone call, and the guy comes on the phone, he goes, “It’s a write-off.” What does that mean? It means you’re gonna have to have a brand-new one, because this thing will never go again. That’s the description.

It’s not that we came into worship this morning, and we need a new fender, or we need a couple of new headlights, or “Do you fancy a couple of spiritual fog lamps?” or, you know, “Would you like to have intermittent Christian windscreen wipers?” or something like that, or, you know, “Do you want a Christian sunroof?” or, you know, “Hey, I’m a pretty nice guy, and I just wondered if you could kind of fit me out with a sort of package you have? What sort of packages do you have here? I’m interested in what you have to offer me.”

Well, you know, I think we got a tremendous amount to offer you, but before we would offer you any of the other stuff, there’s only one thing to offer, and that is an introduction to the only one to whom we can go, a description of the only thing that we can realistically say, and a reminder that there is only one possible solution to the predicament that we face.

Father, how we love you, and how we thank you for your Word. And we pray now that we might know your grace and your mercy and your peace, which comes from the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, triune God, resting upon and remaining with those who believe, today and forevermore. Amen.

[1] 2 Samuel 12:5–6 (NIV 1984).

[2] 2 Samuel 12:7 (paraphrased).

[3] See 2 Samuel 11:1.

[4] 2 Samuel 11:8 (paraphrased).

[5] See 2 Samuel 11:9.

[6] 2 Samuel 11:11 (paraphrased).

[7] 2 Samuel 11:14–15 (paraphrased).

[8] John Lennon, “Crippled Inside” (1971).

[9] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 5.1. Paraphrased.

[10] Genesis 18:25 (NIV 1984).

[11] See 1 Peter 2:24.

[12] See Colossians 2:13–14.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.