David made some strong claims for himself in 2 Samuel 22:21-25:
21 “The LORD has dealt with me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me.
22 For I have kept the ways of the LORD;
I have not done evil by turning from my God.
23 All his laws are before me;
I have not turned away from his decrees.
24 I have been blameless before him
and have kept myself from sin.
25 The LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
according to my cleanness in his sight. (NIV)
All of us who have ever read it know our own hearts and question whether we could make such a claim. Perhaps, since the Bible calls David the man after God’s own heart, we’re inclined to give him a pass, but even so it takes some explaining.
This particular chapter in 2 Samuel is a variation of Psalm 18. Its placement in 2 Samuel raises a question of when it was written. It appears right before a chapter headed, “These are the last words of David,” but it is headed, “David sang to the Lord the words of this song when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.” Why mention Saul if the psalm was one of the last things David wrote?
I have commentaries on both Psalms and 2 Samuel. Both commentators say it must be an early work, not a late work. They do not give the mention of Saul in the heading as their reason, but rather the claim, “The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to my cleanness in his sight.” They say David could not have written those words after his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband.
The more I think of it, the less I agree with that reasoning. Was David in some way more righteous before he committed that sin? When he fled from Saul, he lied to the priest Ahimilech, with the result that Saul ordered the execution of all the priests at Nob.
Later, he allied himself with the Philistine king Achish, and then systematically double-crossed him. When the Philistines went to their final war against Saul, David wanted to join them. Achish was nervous about that and sent him home. Clearly David would have betrayed either Saul or Achish—or both—if he’d had the chance.
He was a treacherous man long before he saw Bathsheba and lusted after her. So how at any time of his life could he so blithely claim righteousness and clean hands in the sight of God? The answer is found in the New Testament. David never heard Paul’s teaching on grace, but he sought with all his heart to be close to God. In that closeness, God gave him some New Testament assurances.
Paul tells us that if we confess our sin, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. He tells us that the law and the prophets testify of a righteousness from God apart from the law. He tells us that the sinless Christ became sin so that unrighteous mankind could become righteousness itself. He says that we are saved by grace through faith, and that saving faith is a gift of God, not anything we contribute.
Treacherous David knew how to repent. God forgave him and cleansed him from his unrighteousness. In lifelong gratitude for what God had done for him and lifelong love for who God was and is, David was indeed a man after God’s own heart, and so God let him know that heart. David sought God, and God let himself be found.
David said that God rewarded him according to his righteousness and his cleanness in God’s sight. He could say that not because he was self-righteous, but because he knew God had made him clean and God had declared him righteous. When we seek God and accept cleansing from him, that means our hands are clean.
When God forbids judgment to us, that includes judging ourselves. We know what bad things we have done. We know what good things we have neglected to do. That knowledge grieves us so much that when we confess our sins, we cannot forgive ourselves.
And therefore we cannot believe that God forgives us. Shocking! But how else can we explain how an Old Testament sinner could confess his righteousness and the cleanness of his hands, and we can’t? It has never occurred to most Christians that inability to confess the righteousness and cleansing God has given is a sin, a lack of faith and trust. He has forgiven us for that, too.
So let’s start telling God and ourselves the truth right now. Repeat after me: The LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to my cleanness in his sight.