The Penitential Psalm, 5

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Isaiah 1:18, Psalm 51:7

“Come now, and let us reason together,” says the Lord, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isaiah 1:18 NKJV)

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Psalm 51:7 NKJV)

Both verses are in the Bible; therefore they are both equally inspired by the Holy Spirit. So, what’s better? To be as white as snow? Or to be whiter than snow?  That’s actually a trick question, because these verses aren’t saying the same thing so they don’t mean the same thing. Look at them carefully; read every word:

• Isaiah’s verse is a prophetic Word of the Lord to an entire nation; Psalm 51 is a king’s desperate prayer to the Lord.
• Isaiah 1:18 is a promise; Psalm 51:7 a plea.
• Some 300 years separated these two verses.
• In Isaiah, an objective work of God is being described whereby He pardons and justifies the sinner; David is describing a subjective experience; a longing for a deep, inward work of grace that will restore him.
• We are looking at a settled, divine order: first white as snow, then whiter than snow.
• The first verse is righteousness imputed and the second is righteousness imparted.

Let’s consider each of these wonderful verses and discover why each work, though different, is perfect.

White as snow

Reading the Bible, it becomes clear that hidden among all the stories, prophecies, history, songs, and psalms, is a single, all-important necessity: man is sinful and he must be cleansed from his sin. Furthermore, closer investigation reveals that the work of Christ on the Cross is how this cleansing happens. The Lord, speaking through his prophet Isaiah, makes a stunning and convincing plea to the people of Judah.

God is the authority

The prophecy begins with the Lord wanting to settle the issue of Judah’s sin “out of court,” so to speak. Unless their sin problem is solved, Judah’s fate would be decided, their destiny sealed and nobody would be able to help them. God, because He loved His people, wanted to speak to them without wearing His legal robes; it’s as though He wanted to meet his people on neutral ground, to settle the issue, before sentence is passed. God’s charge against His people is certain and their position indefensible. This is God’s final offer.

So, you get the picture. With all the authority of Heaven’s Judge, God put forth a generous, once-in-a-lifetime offer to avoid sure and certain judgment. This offer was not one the people of Judah should have taken lightly. It’s not a command; it was an offer that required a decision.

What God offered a sinful nature, He continues to offer the sinner today. Every human being born will end up in Hell unless he comes to the Lord, reasons with Him, and accepts His offer of redemption. There is no other way. The sinner’s position is indefensible.

An appeal to reason

What’s really interesting about God’s offer is this phrase:

…let us reason together…

Something unusual jumps off the page when we read this. God makes an appeal to the sinner’s reason, not his feelings or emotions. This seems to go against the modern method of preaching—of appealing to a listener’s fear of death and hell, for example, as the basis of making a decision to accept the Gospel. Of course, God can use any means to save a soul, but God wants to save the whole man, not just his emotions. Salvation is a big deal, and some thought and consideration—reason—should go into making the decision. Many centuries after the Lord wanted to reason with Judah, Jesus taught the necessity of “counting the cost” before following Him. While God wants all sinners saved, salvation isn’t for everybody because there are some who just don’t want to pay the price for following Jesus. There’s a cost to count and price to pay, and for too many, they’re too high.

It’s not education God is talking about here, it’s reason; God wants to reason with the sinner—to engage the sinner.

Double-dipped sinners

Now, remember, this call went out to an entire nation, not to an individual. We as Christians routinely take this call and apply it to individuals, but it’s helpful to remember its context. Judah was in bad shape, spiritually, and this spiritual apostasy was working itself out in all the various declines of Judah: moral, political, ethical, military, economic, etc. It’s good to remember this context because we may learn a lot about a nation’s rise and fall by looking at Israel and Judah. Nothing really changes, and what brought Israel and Judah to ruin is precisely what’s causing America’s now-rapid decline today. We can look around and we can complain about rising prices, government debt and corruption, we can bemoan the collapse of our culture and we can stop going to movies and we can picket abortion clinics and we may get involved in the reformation of our broken political and legal processes, but in the end, American’s real problem is the exact same as that of Israel and Judah: apostasy. Spiritually, America is, if not dead, then certainly on life support. We are being “governed,” (after a fashion) by people who do not understand the spiritual heritage of their own nation. It was Dr. J. Gresham Machen, an influential Presbyterian theologian of the early 20th century, famously said:

America is coasting downhill on a godly heritage and God pity America when we hit the bottom of the hill.

Well, some Christians think we have hit the bottom of the hill. Sin is rampant and nobody seems to even notice. Judah’s sin was so bad, the Lord called its sins “scarlet.” The Hebrew word means “twice-dipped.” In other words, the stain of their sins had soaked in so deeply, it couldn’t be removed by normal means. A double-dyed garment is permanently dyed. Nothing can change the color back. Spiritually, Judah had hit rock bottom and there was almost no hope for it.

All sinners, by the way, are “double-dipped,” because they are both sinners by birth and by choice. That’s why all sinners need to heed this call of God! He is the only one capable of removing the double-dipped stain of sin. There is no human agent or agency that can do that. There is a permanence to the stain of sin that only God can get out.

Whiter Than Snow

This has become a common saying; so common we don’t realize how profound it is. It’s virtually impossible to dye a crimson red garment pure white. So how is it possible to dye our crimson red sin-stained souls whiter than snow? Only the God who turned back time can do that!

Snow looks white, but it really isn’t. It’s polluted. Just as sin taints everything it touches, as a snowflake is formed and falls to earth, it picks up pollution and particulates before it comes to rest in you driveway. There is no such thing as “pure driven snow.” Snow is not pure. David realized this, and that’s why he wanted to be “whiter than snow.”

In 1846, Sir John Franklin embarked on a doomed quest for the Northwest Passage. By 1848, he was dead and the ships that made up his expedition, the Terror and Erebus, were ice-locked near King Edward Island. The survivors attempted to walk due south to the nearest fur trading outpost. Unfortunately, every one of them died on the trip. Hunger and cold did them in. Some of these men, we are told, went blind before they died due to the glare of the Arctic snow. They didn’t have sunglasses. Really, it was the snow that killed them. There are many such arctic graves; many explorers buried under all that snow.

It has been calculated that a light snowfall over a small area carries some 343 tons of solids made up of: 100 tons of dissolved solids, 224 tons of suspended particulate, 25 tons of salt and 1 ton of ammonia. All of that “stuff” in our snow. So, it’s anything but pure, even though it may look painfully, blindingly white. Unfortunately, there are a lot of Christians just like that snow. They look pure and white, but like the snowflake that forms around a dust particle and gets more contaminated the longer it exists, these snowflake believers are badly contaminated by their sins.

The cry of David’s heart was to be cleaner than all that snow; he wanted a deep, thorough cleansing. This is the kind of purity God desires all believers long for. But no man can produce that kind of purity in his own life. Like Franklin’s men who were blinded by the snow glare before they died, so we are blinded by the glare of the sin our lives. We’re deceived by how good we appear! We look good, especially when we compare ourselves to others. We think we’re “pure as the driven snow” because we work hard at being holy. But that hard work doesn’t; the stain of sin runs way, way too deep. God demands purity, but it’s a purity only He can produce in our lives.

Pursuit of purity

In Matthew 5:8, Jesus said this:

Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.

Some view this verse as a promise yet to be fulfilled, when we enter Heaven we will finally be pure and we shall see God. There may be an element of truth to this interpretation, but Jesus is also making a matter-of-fact statement to His followers. If you plan on seeing God some day, you must be pure in heart; you must have confessed your sins. Those who would possess a pure heart are those who pursue purity daily, in everything they do. They are constantly purifying their minds with the Word of God, always confessing their sins, and asking God for strength to remain strong in the face of world full of temptations. C.S. Lewis once quipped,

It is safe for Jesus to say that the pure in heart shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to.

Just so. But the pursuit of purity is vitally important not only to our afterlife, but also to the quality of our Christian lives in the here and now. Did you know that if aren’t involved in the pursuit of purity, your prayers will go unanswered?

If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me. (Psalm 66:18 NKJV)

Of course, God will still love you and He will still meet your needs, but your prayer life will be frustrating; a hit-and-miss thing. God’s ways will seem peculiar to you and His will elusive—all because you are holding sin in your heart. Consider how The Living Bible renders Psalm 66:18,

He would not have listened if I had not confessed my sins. (TLB)

Passionate King David understood the value of confession as it related to a pure heart. May the Lord give to each one of us the longing and desire to have the kind of pure heart David described as being “whiter than snow.”

 

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