Beckett: Wash Me, Cleanse Me, Purge Me with Hyssop

Psalm 51:1-12
Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your steadfast love; according to Your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You may be justified in Your words and blameless in Your judgement.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, You delight in truth in the inward being, and You teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that You have broken rejoice.
Hide Your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from Your presence and take not Your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and uphold me with a willing spirit.

This is one of my most favourite psalms because it teaches the Christian how to repent. Following the pattern of this psalm, the sinner pleads for God’s mercy because his sins are ever before him, relying and trusting in God’s mercy to cleanse him of these sins. This psalm is extremely deep, and I cannot unpack every detail in this psalm in the space provided. So, one of the patterns I will focus on in this psalm is the language David uses with purity and being cleansed.

In his confession, he uses cleansing language six times: Verse 2, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” Verse 7, “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” And verse 10, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

Today, hyssop is a type of plant consisting of minty leaves that is used in cooking and medicine. In Israel, hyssop was used in their purification rituals (and they may have used it for cooking and medicine as well). Looking back in time, this purging with hyssop could allude to the purification ritual involved in cleansing lepers (Leviticus 14:1-9) or that ritual when one came into contact with a dead body (Numbers 19:16-19). Looking forward in time, this washing and cleansing highly alludes to baptismal language the apostles used.

Before we get there, however, more on repentance: David repeatedly admits his sins and transgressions. He cannot help but notice them. He even admits the original sin inherent in human beings since birth (v. 5). David recognises that only God’s mercy can wash him, cleanse him, purge him, and create in him a new heart and renew a right spirit.

When we think of the Old Testament, many of us mistakenly think of it as being only Law. Yes, the OT is where we receive the Law, but there is also abundant grace. David not only relies on God’s grace, but we even see the people of Israel rely on His grace.

One of these times is when the people of Israel repented of their sins and the sins of their fathers when they returned from exile. “And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers” (Nehemiah 9:2). They confessed their sins and worshipped God for a whole quarter of the day (v. 3)!

During this time of confession, the priests recalled God’s gracious acts toward His people in their history, as well as their sins, and then they relied on God’s grace, “But You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake [the children of Abraham and our fathers]. Even when they had made for themselves a golden calf… and had committed great blasphemies, You in Your great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness” (vv. 17-19).

The fulfilment of this repentance that comes with cleansing is fulfilled in Baptism. In his letter to the churches at Corinth, Paul reminds them of the kinds of unrepentant sinners who will not inherit God’s kingdom. Then he tells them, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Paul best explains what Baptism does to the sinner in Romans 6. If you’re uncertain of what Baptism does, go read that passage.

It is in Baptism that David’s hope is fulfilled. It is not a purging with hyssop, but something far better—with water and God’s very Word therein. Without the Word, water does nothing. It is through the Word in Baptism in which God cleanses us in His Holy Trinity (Matthew 28:19) and creates in us a new heart and renews a right spirit within us—that is, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

It is in Baptism that God makes us whiter than snow and cleanses us from all our sins since the moment of birth.

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