Between the covers of an ordinary Bible one can find many strangely beautiful things, but none stranger than Psalm 51. The beauty lies in the fragile portrait of an anxious mind: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.… Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” The strangeness comes from its attribution: “A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.”

As with so many things in the Bible, we have grown accustomed to reading about David’s sin, and think nothing of it. But if we can see it in historical perspective, it is extraordinary—perhaps even a sort of evidence for the Bible’s inspiration. For if merely human processes were at work, David’s sin would most likely lie buried forever in the dust of history.

David had seen a woman, taken her, then done away with her husband. Kings did such things. Nobody in the palace or the army said a word in protest, though events of this kind cannot be kept totally secret. Only powerless Nathan had come, confronting David. David could easily have laughed him off, or put him to death. Instead, he said, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Here, at his worst moment, we find David’s greatest. Though he answered to no man on Earth, he answered to God. David’s horror of his own, internal darkness led to Psalm 51. People love this poem because they have lived it, at one level or another.

But how did we come to know about it? How is it we read this most personal, heartfelt prayer?

It was published.

Eventually it was placed in Israel’s national hymnbook, which we know as the Book of ...

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