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Why did David ask God to 'create in me a clean heart' in Psalm 51:10?

Psalm 51 is a song of repentance in which David lays himself bare and humbles himself before God, confesses his sin, and asks for forgiveness. In part, he prays, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me" (Psalm 51:10).

Second Samuel 11 records David's most notable and infamous sin, which was not a single act, but rather a chain of bad choices. David had stayed home from battle and was lounging on his roof one day where he saw a woman named Bathsheba bathing. Filled with lust and covetousness, David summoned Bathsheba to him and slept with her, and she conceived a son. David called Bathsheba's husband Uriah back from the war in an attempt to pass the child off as Uriah's, but he failed to get Uriah to spend the night with his wife. Rather than confess, David sent Uriah back to war, but this time with instructions to the commander to place him on the frontlines, where he would die. David married Bathsheba and everything seemed right again. "But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD" (2 Samuel 11:27). God would not allow his sin to be hidden and used the prophet Nathan to reveal David's sin to him in 2 Samuel 12. It was at this time that David wrote Psalm 51.

Psalm 51 is a great example of repentance. David acknowledges his sin (51:3, 14) and the fact that he ultimately sinned against God (51:4).

"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 judgment.
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" (Psalm 51:1–6).

He knows that God does not just desire a sacrifice, but rather a change of David's heart, and here is the plea that he makes to God: "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me" (Psalm 51:10). David recognized that his heart is unclean. His heart lusted after a woman and abused his authority to sleep with her. His heart devised plans to cover it up, ultimately leading to murder. He knows that his heart was the source of these evil actions, not Bathsheba's beauty or Uriah's uncooperativeness. David is unable to cleanse his own heart and renew his sinful spirit, so he calls upon God in his repentance to change him.

The same is true for us. We cannot cleanse our own hearts and make our own spirits right; only God can (Romans 3:23; 5:6–11; 6:23). When we acknowledge our sinful state and turn to God in faith, He gives us new hearts (Ezekiel 36:26). All who have put their faith in Jesus Christ become new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). We are reconciled to God through Jesus' death and resurrection. "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is a gift of God's grace received through faith (Ephesians 2:1–10). All who have trusted in Christ have been fully forgiven of their sin and are secure in Him forever, and yet we still stumble in sin. Even then, God is faithful. First John 1:9 encourages, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

David's plea in Psalm 51 for God to "create in me a clean heart" "and renew a right spirit within me" is an example for us of how to approach God in humble repentance and seek from Him the heart transformation that only He can do (Philippians 2:12–13).

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