God created us to be in full relationship with Him. But time and again, we build walls between us and our Heavenly Father. We disobey the rules God gave us, conveniently forgetting that when we sin, we’re not only hurting someone else—we’re hurting God. A sin against another is a sin against God.
No sacrifice or good work on our part can possibly compensate for this transgression. But there is hope, for the Bible tells us God loves us from a well so deep its bounds are infinite. And when we sin, and we not only acknowledge that sin but genuinely repent and seek to do right, God forgives us. He washes us clean, and we get to start again. In return, God tells us, we are to do the same with others when they wrong us: forgive them in honor of the great gift our Father bestows upon us.
The concept of forgiveness is infused throughout the Bible, and particularly in the psalms, where David and the other psalmists cry out for forgiveness—and teach us important lessons in the process.
Here, then, are six psalms that teach us about forgiveness.
Key verse: Psalm 32:5, “Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.’ And you forgave the guilt of my sin.”
Sin is defined as disobeying God’s commands. When we lie to another human, or covet what they have, we’re breaking God’s command to not lie or covet or whatever other command we are breaking. Not only is that wronging another human, but more importantly, it is wronging God.
When we sin, the first step is understanding that our wrongdoing doesn’t only impact ourselves or the other person involved—it hurts God.
And by hurting God, it creates a boundary between us and our Creator. Understanding this helps us acknowledge the wrong of our sin and opens our eyes to the larger impact of disobedience.
That’s why the first step in forgiveness is admitting we have sinned. Acknowledging this freely is important because it forces us to own our misbehavior.
Psalm 32 addresses this. It begins by noting how blessed someone is who has been forgiven—and how miserable the psalmist was when he “kept silent” (v. 3) and didn’t acknowledge his sin. But then, as he notes in our key verse, “I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.’ And you forgave the guilt of my sin” (v. 5).
In essence, the psalmist confessed his wrongdoing to the Lord, and suddenly his burden was lifted. By owning his sin—genuinely acknowledging and repenting—he received forgiveness. God restored his joy and again became his refuge, his “hiding place” (v. 7).
That is what this psalm teaches us. When we confess our sin to the Lord and don’t try to pretend it didn’t happen or run from Him, and when we turn our lives back toward God’s path, then God gives us a tremendous gift in return: the freedom of forgiveness.
And when someone else wrongs us, we need to remember that gift we receive from God and strive to forgive them in return.
Key verses: Psalm 40:2-3, “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.”
Just as we have been forgiven for our sins, we are told to forgive others. After Jesus taught the disciples the Lord’s Prayer, He emphasized the importance of forgiveness, noting, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15). And later, before sharing the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Jesus was asked His disciple, Peter, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22).
When God forgives us, we get a fresh start—a new beginning. That is what the psalmist, David, seems to be addressing in Psalm 40, which is both a psalm of praise and lament. Here, David remembers a time before when he was in the depths of anguish and crushed by sin, waiting for God to deliver Him. But then God raised him from “the slimy pit,” set his feet on solid ground, and put a new song in his mouth (v. 2-3).
This new song is one of joy and relief—he got to leave his sin behind when he was forgiven by God and enter once more into a restored relationship with the Lord. We, too, get a new song when God forgives us, and likewise, we are also to forgive those who sin against us, granting them this new song, too.
Key verse: Psalm 103:12, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”
At its core, this psalm is a love psalm, expressing deep love, gratitude, and appreciation for God, who is like a compassionate father ruling over the earth (v. 13), good and merciful, always taking care of us from His fathomless well of love. God is so great and loves us so much, the psalmist says, that His love is “as high as the heavens are above the earth” (v. 11). And because of that love, our Father God forgives our offenses completely, indeed removing them from us “as far as the east is from the west,” a vast and perhaps impossible distance to measure.
When God forgives us, it’s done—finished. His forgiveness is certain. Our transgressions have been removed far, far away. And, as Jesus tells us, we are to do the same for others in return (Mark 11:25).
Key verse: Psalm 25:11, “For the sake of your name, Lord, forgive my iniquity, though it is great.”
Sometimes, the wrongs we do seem too big or too bad for God to ever forgive. This psalm, thought to be written by David, first praises God for His great faithfulness, mercy, and love and expresses David’s intentions to walk in God’s path and obey His commands. Then, he implores the Lord to grant him forgiveness for his iniquity, or wickedness, “though it is great.”
David knows God doesn’t have to do this, but he also knows that apart from God, he is nothing. He has no chance against the evils or the world or the enemies that stand in his way. His hope is in God and God alone (v. 21). And he knows there is nothing too big or too bad for God, who is always good (v. 7) and who is his only source of refuge and rescue (v. 20).
It’s the same with us. Anything we do that is against God’s command is a sin—and it’s not just a sin against others or ourselves. It’s a sin against God. Our only option when forced to face our sin is to confess it to the Father, acknowledge that we sinned against Him, and strive to get back in obedience and right relationship with Him. Though our sins might be great, God is a good, loving Father. In that, this psalm teaches, we can take comfort.
Key verses: Psalm 51:6-7, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.”
This psalm is thought to have written by King David after his affair with the beautiful Bathsheba, when he not only slept with the wife of his friend Uriah but impregnated her, then arranged to have Uriah killed in battle to cover up David’s wrongdoing. But soon, Nathan the prophet confronted David about his grave sin.
Immediately, David acknowledged his guilt and began the process of repentance. In Psalm 51, David takes ownership of his sinful choices and begs God for forgiveness and mercy. “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin,” he implores God in verse 2, noting he is fully aware of his wrongdoing and cannot escape the bitter consequences.
In verse 4, he acknowledges that his sin is bigger than harming Bathsheba or Uriah. Indeed, any disobedience is a direct violation of God’s commands and is, therefore, a sin against God. He begs God for a pure heart, begs God not to cast him away, and then, in our key verse, acknowledges there is nothing he can do to make up for the wrong he has done. No sacrifice will compensate. He must genuinely repent and rely upon the mercy of God—and God alone—to achieve forgiveness.
This psalm teaches us that when we sin, we hurt God. But when we call upon Him for forgiveness and genuinely seek to turn our lives around in obedience to Him, God grants us mercy out of the depths of His great love for us. Likewise, when someone else wrongs us, we would do well to remember the sin was more than against us—it was against God. If they repent and have the security that God forgives them, we need to do the same. All sins are against God, and God forgives all when we come to Him, as David writes, with a “broken and contrite heart” (v. 7).
Key verses: Psalm 130:3-4, “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.”
When we do wrong and seek forgiveness from God, we’re ultimately making our way back into alignment with Him. But then we must stand before God with respect and reverence, worshipping Him and praising Him. To do that, knowing our sin has left an ugly stain of shame upon us, can be difficult and upsetting. We want to stand before God blameless and pure, not stained with sin.
This psalm reminds us that when God forgives us, He offers love in return. We have a place with Him still. Instead of fleeing from Him, frightened and ashamed, we can stand before God humbly knowing His great mercy enables a new start.
These psalms can be a great source for understanding how to open our hearts to what we have done wrong and navigate our way back to the Lord. For thankfully, we serve a good Father who wants us back in His arms, in right relationship with Him, forever.
- NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible. Copyright © 2019 by Zondervan.
- Essential Bible Companion to the Psalms. Copyright © 2010 by Brian Webster and David Beach.
- Halley’s Bible Handbook with the New International Version, Copyright © 2000 by Halley’s Bible Handbook, Inc.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Kieferpix
Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.