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Psalm 51 Biblical Commentary:
For the Chief Musician. A Psalm by David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.
There are two systems for numbering the Psalms. One follows the Hebrew version, which makes the superscriptions verse 1. The other (as here) follows the Septuagint (the LXX or Greek version of the Old Testament), which begins numbering after the superscription.
This is a penitential psalm (a psalm expressing sorrow for sin and asking forgiveness)––one of seven penitential psalms in the psalter (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143).
The story of David, Bathsheba, and Uriah is found in 2 Samuel 11-12.
PSALM 51:1-2. HAVE MERCY ON ME, GOD
1 Have mercy on me, God, according to your loving kindness.
According to the multitude of your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away my guilt, and cleanse me from my sin.
“Have mercy on (Hebrew: hanan––be gracious to) me, God (Hebrew: elohim), according to your loving kindness” (Hebrew: hesed) (v. 1a). The psalmist is asking God to be gracious to him––not because the psalmist deserves mercy, but because it is God’s nature to show mercy.
“God” (Hebrew: elohim) (v. 1a). By far the most common name for God in the Old Testament is Yahweh, which means “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14)––but elohim is the next most common.
El means god (note the small g), and can be used for any god. Elohim is plural, so it can apply to any gods. However, when used to refer to Yahweh, as in this verse, the usage is called “the intensive plural” or “the majestic plural,” acknowledging that all that constitutes deity is summed in Yahweh.
“According to the multitude of your tender mercies (Hebrew: raham), blot out my transgressions” (Hebrew: pesa) (v. 1b). Raham portrays the kind of mercy that a mother might offer her errant child.
In verses 1-2, the psalmist lists three kinds of sin:
- pesa (transgression, rebellion)
- ‘awon (iniquity, particularly evil sin)
- hatta’t (sin)
“Wash away my guilt (‘awon––iniquity, evil sin), and cleanse me from my sin“ (hatta’t) (v. 2). Spiritual cleanliness was a major emphasis of Torah law, which outlined behaviors that would make a person unclean (such as eating animals proscribed by the law (Leviticus 11) or coming into contact with certain bodily discharges or dead bodies (Leviticus 11:39; 15:18).
In this case, the psalmist is unclean because of his sin, so he prays that God will wash away his guilt and cleanse him from his sin.
But the Torah also prescribes remedies for various unclean states so that unclean people might become clean. The purpose of these laws was to establish Israelites as a holy people––separate from other people––set apart to be God’s people (Leviticus 20:26).
The sacrificial system provided a remedy for sin. In that system, the life of the animal was forfeit instead of the life of the person offering the sacrifice.
PSALM 51:3-4ab. AGAINST GOD HAVE I SINNED
3 For I know my transgressions.
My sin is constantly before me.
4 Against you, and you only, have I sinned,
and done that which is evil in your sight;
that you may be proved right when you speak,
and justified when you judge.
“For I know (Hebrew: yada) my transgressions (Hebrew: pesa). My sin is constantly before me” (v. 3). The verb yada means to know––but more. It means to know relationally or by experience, and is therefore an intimate kind of knowledge. It goes beyond head-knowledge to heart-knowledge. The psalmist knows his sin––knows its grievous nature––knows how it has disappointed God and has driven a wedge between him and God. His sin weighs heavily on him––is constantly before him.
For the meaning of pesa, see the comments on verse 1b above.
“Against you, and you only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight” (v. 4). If this psalm is David’s prayer for forgiveness after his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah, this verse has to be hyperbole (exaggeration to make a point). David’s sin wounded Bathsheba, killed Uriah, and brought about the death of her baby (2 Samuel 12:14ff). His sin compromised his moral leadership and damaged the nation. His sin injured many people.
But the point of this verse is that David’s sin was first and foremost a sin against God, who created David for a purpose and called him to be the king of Israel. In his behavior with Bathsheba and Uriah, David violated God’s law, rendering himself unfit for the calling to which he had been called. David had missed the mark, not by an inch, but by a mile. He was unrepentant until the prophet Nathan exposed the terrible nature of his sin, causing David to say, “I have sinned against Yahweh” (2 Samuel 12:13).
“that you may be proved right when you speak, and justified when you judge” (v. 4c). The NRSV is better here: “so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.”
The psalmist is acknowledging that his sin is sufficiently grievous that God is fully within his rights to prescribe any penalty that comes to his mind. He is in no position to complain.
PSALM 51:5-6. I WAS BROUGHT FORTH IN INIQUITY
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity.
In sin my mother conceived me.
6 Behold, you desire truth in the inward parts.
You teach me wisdom in the inmost place.
“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity. In sin my mother conceived me” (v. 5). This is one of the scriptures on which the doctrine of original sin is based. Some denominations use that term and others reject it. The various ramifications are complex and I don’t feel capable of explaining them, so I’ll ask you to sort out your understanding of this subject on your own.
“Behold, you desire truth (Hebrew: ’emet) in the inward parts (Hebrew: tuhowt).
You teach me wisdom (Hebrew: hokmah) in the inmost place” (Hebrew: be satam) (v. 6).
Truth (’emet) is that which is real or dependable––the opposite of false. A person who bases his/her life on this kind of reality will fare much better than someone who builds his/her life on falsehoods.
Wisdom (hokmah) is one of the great virtues of the Old Testament
- “Yahweh gives wisdom” and “lays up sound wisdom for the upright” (Proverbs 2:6-7).
- “Happy is the man who finds wisdom” (Proverbs 3:13).
- “By wisdom Yahweh founded the earth” (Proverbs 3:19).
- “Wisdom is supreme. Get wisdom” (Proverbs 4:7).
- “Wisdom is better than rubies” (Proverbs 8:11).
- “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10).
- “The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom” (Proverbs 10:31).
- “With humility comes wisdom” (Proverbs 11:1).
- “How much better it is to get wisdom than gold!” (Proverbs 16:16).
- “One who walks in wisdom is kept safe” (Proverbs 29:3).
- “Whoever loves wisdom brings joy to his father” (Proverbs 29:3).
- “A worthy woman…opens her mouth with wisdom. Faithful instruction is on her tongue” (Proverbs 31:10, 26).
God desires truth (’emet) “in the inward parts” (tuhowt)––in the depth of one’s being.
God teaches the psalmist wisdom “in the inmost place” (be satam––secretly or in a secret place).
In other words, God prizes truth and wisdom that wells up from deep within a Godly soul.
PSALM 51:7-9. PURIFY ME, AND I WILL BE CLEAN
7 Purify me with hyssop, and I will be clean.
Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness,
That the bones which you have broken may rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all of my iniquities.
“Purify me with hyssop, and I will be clean. Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” (v. 7). This is another example of poetic parallelism, where the second half of the verse repeats the thought of the first half.
Both parts of the verse call on God for cleansing, and express confidence in God ‘s ability to make the psalmist clean. For the importance of spiritual cleanliness, see the remarks on verse 2 above.
Hyssop was a plant capable of absorbing or transmitting moisture, but we can’t identify it with certainty. Israelites used hyssop to spread blood on their door frames as preparation for the Passover (Exodus 12:22). It was used for cleansing, as in this verse (see also Leviticus 14:4; Numbers 19:6). Bystanders used it to offer wine vinegar to Jesus as he was dying on the cross (John 19:19).
“whiter than snow” (v. 7b). White usually denotes ritual cleanliness in the Old Testament––compliance with Jewish law. In the New Testament it often denotes forgiven sins, salvation, and a positive relationship with God.
“Let me hear joy and gladness, that the bones which you have broken may rejoice” (v. 8). Once cleansed, the psalmist hopes to experience joy and gladness again. Perhaps he envisions being welcomed back into the community of faithful people.
Broken bones appears to be a metaphor for the punishment that God has imposed on the psalmist. Once he is cleansed, healing can begin––and rejoicing too.
“Hide your face from my sins” (v. 9a). The psalmist is asking that God will close his eyes to the psalmist’s sins so that he might no longer see them.
“and blot out all of my iniquities” (v. 9b). Better yet, the psalmist prays that God will purge the record of his iniquities so no one can see them.
PSALM 51:10-12. CREATE IN ME A CLEAN HEART
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a right spirit within me.
11 Don’t throw me from your presence,
and don’t take your holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation.
Uphold me with a willing spirit.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God (Hebrew: elohim). Renew a right spirit within me” (v. 10). The psalmist realizes that he needs something more than God blotting out his iniquities. He needs God to create in him a clean heart and to renew a right spirit within him. Otherwise, he will soon find himself once again weighted down with iniquities.
For the meaning of elohim, see the comments on verse 1a above.
“Don’t throw (Hebrew: salak––throw or cast out) me from your presence” (v. 11a). To be cast out from God’s presence is to live a solitary life with no Godly help or safety net. For anyone who appreciates access to God, being cast out would be a serious punishment––like being expelled from school or fired from a job, or rejected by a potential lover, or divorced––but worse.
“and don’t take your holy Spirit from me” (v. 11b). David was well acquainted with King Saul, of whom it was said, “Now the Spirit of Yahweh departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from Yahweh troubled him” (1 Samuel 16:14). David might have had that in mind when he wrote this verse.
The term “holy spirit” is found in the Old Testament only here and in Isaiah 63:10-11. The idea of the Holy Spirit as God’s Spirit present in all believers is more a New Testament than an Old Testament concept––although Isaiah 63:11 speaks of God putting his holy Spirit in Israel’s midst.
“Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (v. 12a). A person needs no restoration of joy unless joy is missing in his life. Knowing the depth of his guilt, David feels no joy.
“Uphold me with a willing spirit” (v. 12b). Is the psalmist asking that God will have a willing spirit to uphold him––or is he asking God to give him a willing spirit. Most of the commentaries agree that it is the latter. A willing spirit, in synch with God’s will, is the best guard against succumbing repeatedly to temptation.
PSALM 51:13. I WILL TEACH SINNERS YOUR WAYS
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways.
Sinners shall be converted to you.
“Then I will teach transgressors your ways. Sinners shall be converted to you” (v. 13). The natural response to receiving a blessing is to tell others about it. That’s what the psalmist is promising here.
Or is he bargaining with God? You do this, and I’ll do that. I hope not.
PSALM 51:14-17. DELIVER ME FROM MY GUILT
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation.
My tongue shall sing aloud of your righteousness.
15 Lord, open my lips.
My mouth shall declare your praise.
16 For you don’t delight in sacrifice, or else I would give it.
You have no pleasure in burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit.
A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
“Deliver me from bloodguiltiness (Hebrew: dam), O God, the God of my salvation” (v. 14a). The Hebrew word dam means blood, but is often used, as here, to imply violence.
David’s guilt stemmed from his murder of Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba, whom David had taken as a lover. Bathsheba became pregnant while Uriah, one of David’s most trusted soldiers, was in the field. In an attempt to make Uriah believe that Uriah was the father, David called him in from the field, expecting that Uriah would go home to sleep with his wife. However, Uriah refused to do that, because he wouldn’t feet right about doing that while his men were sleeping in the field. So David sent General Joab a letter, saying: “Send Uriah to the forefront of the hottest battle, and retreat from him, that he may be struck, and die” (2 Samuel 11:15). Joab did as ordered, and Uriah was killed. It was one of the most despicable acts imaginable.
“My tongue shall sing aloud of your righteousness” (v. 14b). In verse 13, David promised to “teach transgressors your ways.” Now he promises to sing of God’s righteousness. David was an accomplished musician (1 Samuel 16:23), and his many psalms became the heart of the Jewish songbook.
“Lord, open my lips. My mouth shall declare your praise” (v. 15). This is David’s third promise––to praise God. But first he needs God to open his lips. It is hard to sing praises while burdened with guilt. David needs to experience the reality of God’s forgiveness. Once that happens, his praise will come spontaneously.
“For you don’t delight in sacrifice, or else I would give it. You have no pleasure in burnt offering” (v. 16). This does not repudiate the God-given sacrificial system, but instead acknowledges that sacrifices satisfy God only when offered in the right spirit.
This thought is echoed in the prophets (Isaiah 1:11; Jeremiah 6:20; Hosea 6:6: Amos 5:21-24).
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (v. 17). This verse defines what God really wants––a broken spirit that acknowledges the seriousness of sin, a contrite heart that seeks forgiveness.
PSALM 51:18-19. HEADER
18 Do well in your good pleasure to Zion.
Build the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of righteousness,
in burnt offerings and in whole burnt offerings.
Then they will offer bulls on your altar.
Many scholars regard these verses as being added after the Exile, when Jews returned to a ruined Jerusalem where they found it necessary to rebuild the walls. They ask God to restore Jerusalem so the people can offer sacrifices in which God can find delight.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 1-72 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Craigie, Peter C., Word Biblical Commentary, Psalms 1-50, Vol. 19 (Dallas: Word Books, 1983)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 1-72, Vol. 14a (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 42-89, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2013)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
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Copyright 2017, Richard Niell Donovan