Last, the Westminster divines propound that Scripture takes into account the circumstances of time and place:
4. From circumstances of time, and place: if on the Lord’s day, or other times of divine worship; or immediately before or after these, or other helps to prevent or remedy such miscarriages: if in public, or in the presence of others, who are thereby likely to be provoked or defiled.
At a time when David was supposed to be protecting God’s people during the vulnerable time of battle (2 Sam. 11:1), he committed this sin. Of course, the initial sin was private, but it later became public and known to all Israel.
When we filter David’s actions through the grid of WLC 151, it becomes clear why the Lord was emphatically displeased (2 Sam. 11:27). All things considered, David’s sins were about as heinous as anything we could conjure up. In particular, the parties offended are astounding. It’s hard to think of other contextual sins that could affect so many people. This is why it has perplexed so many that David exclaims in Psalm 51: “Against you, you only, have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4). Martin Luther acknowledged: “This verse is differently expounded by different persons, and it has ever been considered, that this one little point is the greatest difficulty that is met with in the whole Psalm.” How are we to understand, then, David’s claim that he sinned against God only? When we consider the text in depth alongside Scripture’s theology of sin and guilt, I believe the explanations are fairly straightforward.
A Class Alone
The word “only” or “alone” is translated from the Hebrew word bad. It denotes an item that is in a class all by itself—no other is beside it or in addition to it. It does not necessarily, however, describe an item to the exclusion of other items. For example, we might say that Michael Jordan is all alone, in a category all by himself, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility that other basketball players can be classified as great. We’re merely saying that Jordan exists in a domain of greatness all by himself. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the word bad is used to designate God as being in a class by Himself. For instance, Deuteronomy 4:35 states, “To you it was shown, that you might know that the Lord is God; there is no other besides him.” Moses is not claiming that God alone exists to the exclusion of others’ existing, only that God alone is in a way that no other being is. He is in a class all by Himself.
Further, the Bible elsewhere uses language of sinning against others (Gen. 42:22; 1 Sam. 19:4–5; 2 Chron. 6:22; Matt. 18:21; 1 Cor. 8:12; James 4:11). We can even sin against our own bodies (1 Cor. 6:18). We also see that Jesus commends Zacchaeus for restoring the resources fourfold to those whom he defrauded (Luke 19:8–9). We could provide many more examples of Scripture’s referring to sins against fellow human beings. With this in mind, David clearly is not making a theological case that transgressions are committed against God to the exclusion of all others. What does he mean, then?
A Heightened Confession
Far from downplaying his sin, David actually highlights the heinousness of his sin. David knew that he appeared as a sinner in the holy courtroom of God. So even though David’s vertical sin consisted of deep horizontal offenses, his sin was ultimately against the Lawgiver. As A.A. Hodge asserted, “The sinner in every transgression of virtue is conscious that he is guilty of disobedience to the supreme Lawgiver.” David, then, wasn’t minimizing the effects of his sin. Quite the contrary. He was in fact labeling his actions with the worst possible category of offense because he was labeling the offended as the holiest possible—God Himself. Every sin committed against neighbor is a sin against God, but every sin against God is not necessarily a sin against neighbor. Thus, David broadens and heightens his sin. If he is to find acquittal, all the human courts in the world could not declare him guiltless; rather, God would ultimately be the One who offers forgiveness. G.C. Berkouwer suggests: “In this confession there is no disclaimer of David’s guilt over against Bathsheba and Uriah, and no minimizing of sins, but rather, in this guilt as over against his fellow man, he confesses his guilt before God. There is no delimiting of sin here, but rather an acknowledgement of guilt in the much wider context of its relation to God.”
Therefore, David’s sin was ultimately against God, which was infinitely worse than any sin merely committed against man. Jonathan Edwards argued: “Nothing is more agreeable to the common sense of mankind, than that sins committed against any one, must be proportionably heinous to the dignity of the being offended and abused. . . . This was the aggravation of David’s sin, in comparison of which he esteemed all others as nothing, because they were infinitely exceeded by it. Psalm 51:4. ‘Against thee, thee only have I sinned.’” David’s sin against God far exceeded his sin against any other in its gravity and scope. Thus, by acknowledging that his sin against Bathsheba, Uriah, and Israel was a sin against God, he was recognizing that his sin was far deeper and wider than it appeared to any human eye. Yes, he committed adultery and murder, but this was so heinous because it was cosmic treason against a holy God.
Interestingly, David in Psalm 51 isn’t the only place in the Bible where we read that God is the ultimate one offended in instances when sins are committed against others. When Joseph is being seduced by Potiphar’s wife, he objects on the grounds that Potiphar has been faithful to him by making him lord over all of his house and possessions (Gen. 39:8). Then he exclaims, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:9). Of course, if Joseph would have slept with her, he would have sinned against Potiphar. But Joseph, like David after him, understood that every sin is against God—to sin against neighbor is so heinous fundamentally because it is a sin against God. Charles Spurgeon helpfully clarifies:
The Psalmist’s sense of sin toward others rather tended to increase the force of his feeling of sin against God. All his wrong-doing centred, culminated, and came to a climax, at the foot of the divine throne. To injure our fellow men is sin, mainly because in so doing we violate the law of God. The penitent’s heart was so filled with a sense of the wrong done to the Lord himself, that all other confession was swallowed up in a broken-hearted acknowledgment of offence against him.
Sin is a vertical, Godward category. When we sin, God is the offended party, for, as Spurgeon noted, “the virus of sin lies in its opposition toward God.” When we wrong others, God is ultimately the One sinned against. This is why repentance is primarily Godward as well, although horizontal “repentance,” as in the case of Zacchaeus, should many times accompany and demonstrate our vertical repentance, as John the Baptist called for us to bear fruit that is in keeping with repentance (Matt. 3:8). Yet it remains true that sinning against others is first and primarily a sin against the One who gave the law. Sin incurs a debt, and God is the One who ultimately requires an accounting for that debt. It is to Him alone—as the One who is in a category all by Himself—that we owe our debt. If all others forgive us but God does not, we are condemned. If God forgives but no other does, we enjoy a forgiveness deeper than we can imagine.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on October 28, 2020.