King David wrote Psalm 51 during his blackest hour of self-awareness after committing adultery with Bathsheba and murdering her husband, Uriah. In this fourth “penitential psalm,” we find David in sincere repentance and confession of sin (Psalm 51:3–5). Believing God abounds in mercy, David makes this earnest plea: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7, ESV).
Hyssop was a small shrub used in the ceremonial cleansing of lepers under the Old Testament law. It was dipped in the sacrificial blood of an animal and sprinkled seven times on the person needing purification (Leviticus 14:6–7). David referred to hyssop symbolically in Psalm 51 to communicate his longing to be purified of sin. God’s forgiveness would make him “whiter than snow,” spiritually speaking.
David acknowledged that he had been deeply stained by sin, comparing himself to a filthy garment needing to be washed thoroughly. Only the most potent remedy could cleanse him. David even tracked his iniquity back to its source, the corruption of original sin: “For I was born a sinner—yes, from the moment my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5, NLT).
David’s prayer then turned to restoration and renewal. It was as though David could hear the forthcoming cry of God’s heart through the prophet Isaiah: “Wash yourselves and be clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways” (Isaiah 1:16, NLT). So David pleaded with the Lord, “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow,” foreshadowing Isaiah’s words, “Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, I will make them as white as wool” (Isaiah 1:16–18, NLT).
David’s prayer to be washed and made whiter than snow prefigured “the greater, more perfect” appropriation of God’s grace, forgiveness, and salvation made available through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ: “So Christ has now become the High Priest over all the good things that have come. He has entered that greater, more perfect Tabernacle in heaven, which was not made by human hands and is not part of this created world. With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever. Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins” (Hebrews 9:11–14, NLT).
We may consider our transgressions to be worse than David’s, but there are no sins that the blood of Jesus Christ cannot cleanse. Saul of Taurus, the persecutor of Christians who became the great apostle Paul, was told by Ananias at his conversion, “Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins by calling on His name” (Acts 22:16, HCSB). The apostle John affirmed, “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. . . . If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7–9).
Like every Christian, we have flaws and must repent and draw near to the Lord in our blackest moments of failure, asking Christ “who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood” (Revelation 1:5) to forgive us and wash our guilt-stained souls whiter than snow (Hebrews 10:19–23).
The book of Revelation describes a group of redeemed people as those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). It is through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross—the shedding of His blood—that we are redeemed and rescued from the kingdom of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of God (Colossians 1:13, 20; Ephesians 1:7). David, Paul, and John will undoubtedly be among the “thousands upon thousands” worshipping around the throne dressed in robes washed whiter than snow. Together with them, we will join in the thundering chorus, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise! . . . To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Revelation 5:11–13).