For the music director; a psalm of David, written when Nathan the prophet confronted him after David’s affair with Bathsheba.
51:1 Have mercy on me, O God, because of your loyal love!
Because of your great compassion, wipe away my rebellious acts!
Was not David, in his fall, like a tree in winter? The moisture of grace was within, yet nothing did outwardly appear.’ (Anthony Burgess)
‘The symptoms of spiritual decline are like those which attend the decay of bodily health. It generally commences with loss of appetite, and a disrelish for spiritual food, prayer, reading the Scriptures, and devotional books. Whenever you perceive these symptoms, be alarmed, for your spiritual health is in danger; apply immediately to the Great Physician for a cure.’ (Payson)
On the completeness of God’s forgiveness, see Psa 103:12n
Have mercy – A plea from one who knows that he does not deserve favour from God, and yet turns and asks for it. Kidner points out the parallel with the prodigal son, “Father,…I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
Blot out my transgressions – ‘There is more to forgiveness than a tender spirit. The accusing record of sin remains, and the pollution clings.’ (Kidner) The picture here is of the wiping away or covering up of the writing in a book. The NT, of course, explains how this is achieved, cf. Col 2:14.
‘I have spilled ink over a bill and blotted it till it can hardly be read, but this is quite another thing from having the debt blotted out, for that is not accomplished until payment is made. A man may blot his sins from his memory and quiet his mind with false hopes, but the peace that this brings him is widely different from that which comes from God’s forgiveness of sin through the satisfaction which Jesus made in his atonement. Our blotting is one thing; God’s blotting out is something far higher.’ (Spurgeon)
‘We have a strange illusion that mere time cancels sin. I have heard others, and I have heard myself, recounting cruelties and falsehoods committed in boyhood as if they were no concern of the present speaker’s, and even with laughter. But mere time does nothing either to the fact or to the guilt of a sin. The guilt is washed out not by time but by repentance and the blood of Christ.’ (C. S. Lewis)
51:2 Wash away my wrongdoing!
Cleanse me of my sin!
Here is a second metaphor for divine forgiveness: it is like the washing of soiled clothes.
51:3 For I am aware of my rebellious acts;
I am forever conscious of my sin.
My sin is always before me – Another aspect of David’s sin was that it stood as an accusing presence. He has ceased trying to excuse, deny, or justify his sin; he is facing it head-on. And that is a hopeful sign.
‘When that famous statesman Mirabeau died, all France bewailed his loss, and people for some hours could think or speak of little else. A waiter in one of the restaurants of the Palais Royal, after the manner of his race, saluted a customer with the usual remark, “Fine weather, Monsieur.” “Yes, my friend,” replied the other, “very fine. But Mirabeau is dead.” If one absorbing thought can thus take precedence of every other in the affairs of life, is it so very amazing that people aroused to care for the life to come should be altogether swallowed up with grief at the dread discovery that they are by reason of sin condemned of God? Whether the weather may be fine or foul, if the soul is under the wrath of God its woeful condition will make it careless of surroundings. If his former security be dead, and the fear of coming judgment is alive in the man’s heart, it is little wonder if eating and drinking can be forgotten, if sleep forsake his eyelids and even household joys become insipid. Let but the one emotion be great enough, and it will push out every other. The bitterness of spiritual grief will destroy both the honey of earthly bliss and the quassia of bodily pain.’ (Spurgeon)
‘Experiencing God’s forgiveness comes through confession and repentance. This psalm was David’s written confession to God after a particularly sinful episode in his life. David was truly sorry for his adultery with Bathsheba and for murdering her husband to cover it up. He knew that his actions had hurt many people. But because David repented of those sins, God mercifully forgave him. No sin is too great to be forgiven! Do you feel that you could never come close to God because you have done something terrible? God can and will forgive you of any sin. While God forgives us, however, he does not always erase the natural consequences of our sin-David’s life and family were never the same as a result of what he had done.’ (see 2 Sam 12:1-23) (HBA)
51:4 Against you—you above all—I have sinned;
I have done what is evil in your sight.
So you are just when you confront me;
you are right when you condemn me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned (NIV) – Cf. 2 Sam 12:13. A Hebraism, where the expression ‘this, not that’ means, ‘this, even more than that. ‘But sin is also, and always, treason. This is ‘a typically biblical way of going to the heart of the matter. Sin can be against oneself (1 Cor 6:18) and against one’s neighbour; but the flouting of God is always the length and breadth of it, as Joseph saw long before.’ (Gen 39:9) (Kidner)
This is not, then, to deny that David has wronged Uriah grievously in the matter of his adultery with Bathsheba. But it is to acknowledge the profound truth that behind every harm that we inflict on another person there is an even greater sin against God. As Mays remarks, ‘apart from God’s relation to all human acts, there would be no sin. Sin is essentially a theological category. It is God and God alone whose way and will as criteria for human acts reveal them as sin. The parallel measure (v. 4b) points clearly toward such an understanding; it is a kind of definition of sin as “that which is evil in thy sight.” It is the divine oversight of human life that makes talk about sin meaningful and necessary. When there is no reckoning with the oversight of God, the vocabulary of sin becomes meaningless and atrophies.’
‘There is a godly sorrow which leads a man to life; and this sorrow is wrought in a man by the Spirit of God, and in the heart of the godly; that he mourns for sin because it has displeased God, who is so dear and so sweet a Father to him. And suppose he had neither a heaven to lose, nor a hell to gain, yet he is sad and sorrowful in heart because he has grieved God.’ (John Welch, 1576-1622, quoted by Spurgeon, The Treasury of David)
So that… – quoted in Rom 3:4. Note David’s complete acceptance of God’s judgement on him, cf. Lk 23:41.
51:5 Look, I was guilty of sin from birth,
a sinner the moment my mother conceived me.
Blocher (Original Sin, p27) gives as the literal meaning: ‘Indeed, in [or, with] iniquity was I born, and in [with] sin was my mother warm of me.’ We can reject Augustine’s view that the procreative act is sinful per se. As Luther and many others have observed, David is confessing his own, not his mother’s, sin. He regards his sin as life-long and deep-rooted (hence the need for purification in the inmost parts, Psa 51:7). And this from ‘the man according to the Lord’s heart’!
A more literal translation might be: ‘And in sin my mother conceived me’ (NASB). Fee and Stuart (How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth) advise against interpreting this too literally. It is, after all, poetry, and is employing the heightened use of language that is characteristic of poetry: ‘The writer is hardly trying to establish the doctrine that conception is sinful, or that all conceptions are sinful, or that his mother was a sinner by getting pregnant, or that original sin applies to unborn children, or any such notion. The psalmist has employed hyperbole—purposeful exaggeration—in order to express strongly and vividly that he is a sinner, with a long history of such.’ However, we think that these respected writers go a little too far when they claim that this is ‘poetry, not theology’ (my emphasis). Surely, it is theology expressed in the form of poetry! We think, accordingly, that a doctrine of original sin is at least implied here.
Nevertheless, it is not nature as created by God, but as corrupted by the Fall, that is deeply and inherently sinful. Scripture continues to marvel at God’s handiwork in the way that the human being is constituted (Psa 139:14; Eccle 7:29).
‘David’s remark in Ps 51:5 is not a comment on either his mother’s morality or the act which conceived him, but a profound awareness of the depth of his own sinfulness, i.e. there had never been a time when he was ‘innocent’.’ (Chris Wright, NBC on Leviticus) For David, and for us, sin is not a freak event. We sin because it is our character to do so; we sin because we are sinners.
‘There is no hint here that David was born out of wedlock or that he had committed a particular sin as he was being born. His confession is that he is a sinner not only in act or deed, as his affair with Bathsheba painfully pointed out, but also by virtue of his nature. Original sin was present even before he was born and ever did even one act. David confesses that he had a sinful nature that must be confronted by God’s righteousness and holiness.’ (HSB)
Kidner notes that David’s awareness of his sin reaches a climax in this verse. His sins are his own (the fivefold my in vv1-3); they are inexcusable, v4, they are utterly ingrained, v5.
Even though David’s sin was perhaps more notorious than most people’s, the sinful nature, as expressed in this verse, is present within each of us. Therefore, we are all in the same condition as David, and are as much sinners as he was. Let us not try to minimise this fact: ‘No man that seeth himself to be a sinner really, can count himself a small or little sinner. Nor can it ever be, till there be a little God to offend, a little guilt to contract, a little law to break, and a little wrath to incur. All which are impossible to be, blasphemy to wish, and madness to expect.’ (Robert Traill)
‘The Psalmist went to God and said, ‘Lord, it’s not the things that I’ve done recently – it’s not that alone that bothers me. In fact, it isn’t what I’ve done that bothers me at all. It’s the way that I am! It’s the shape: it’s all wrong. I was shapen in iniquity. I was wrong right from the womb. The whole mould was wrong. The programme was wrong. The trouble is me: my shape.’ ‘I abhor myself,’ said Job.’ (Job 42:6) (McLeod, A Faith to Live By)
‘The Shorter Catechism defines original sin like this: ‘the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of our whole nature’ (Answer 18). In virtually any reference to Calvinism by an academic or a man of letters you will find great scorn poured upon this idea of total depravity. Yet surely it is the teaching of the Bible that our whole nature (humanness as found in every human being and all the humanness found in every human being) is affected by sin and corruption. Some philosophical theologians tell us that sin is a defect, the absence of a quality, the absence of good. But the Bible does not portray sin as a mere defect. It is a corruption, a putrefaction, a cancer in the life of a human being. It is a rampant, productive, energetic, multiplying, self-propagating entity. It is fierce. It is fire. It is living. It is a force, a tremendously powerful force. And our century has experienced its force in a degree beyond precedent in human history. We have seen it in the horrors of the Pogroms and of the Holocaust. We have seen what human beings (not savages, but literate, artistic, creative, intellectual, sensitive human beings; good fathers, devoted husbands, loyal friends) are capable of. We have no right to stand by and say that we do not belong with them, that they are wholly different from us and that we could never have done these things. What God is showing us in these terrible tabloids is what our nature is capable of (the nature of each one of us) given the requisite conditions.’ (McLeod, A Faith to Live By)
51:6 Look, you desire integrity in the inner man;
you want me to possess wisdom.
You desire truth in the inner parts – ‘Reality, sincerity, true holiness, heart fidelity, these are the demands of God. He cares not for the pretence of purity, he looks to the mind, heart, and soul. Always has the Holy one of Israel estimated men by their inner nature, and not by their outward professions; to him the inward is as visible as the outward, and he rightly judges that the essential character of an action lies in the motive of him who works it.’ (Spurgeon)
The inner parts…the inmost place – ‘Sanctification is an intrinsic thing; it lies chiefly in the heart. It is called ‘the adorning the hidden man of the heart.’ 1 Pet 3:4. The dew wets the leaf, the sap is hid in the root; so the religion of some consists only in externals, but sanctification is deeply rooted in the soul.’ (Thomas Watson)
‘Let us labour for sincerity. ‘Whoso walketh uprightly, shall be saved.’ Pr 28:18. The sincere Christian may fall short of some degrees of grace, but he never falls short of the kingdom. God will pass by many failings where the heart is right. Nu 23:21. True gold, though it be light, has grains of alloy. ‘Thou desires truth in the inward parts.’ Ps 51:6. Sincerity is the sauce which seasons all our actions, and makes them savoury; it is an ingredient in every grace; it is called ‘unfeigned faith,’ and ‘love in sincerity.’ 2 Tim 1:5 Eph 6:24. Coin will not go current that wants the king’s stamp; and grace is not current if it be not stamped with sincerity. Glorious duties soured with hypocrisy are rejected, when great infirmities sweetened with sincerity are accepted. If any thing in the world will bring us to heaven, it is sincerity. Sincerity signifies plainness of heart. ‘In whose spirit there is no guile,’ Ps 32:2. The plainer the diamond is, the richer. Sincerity is when we serve God with our heart; when we do not worship him only, but love him. Cain brought his sacrifice, but not his heart. God’s delight is a sacrifice flaming upon the altar of the heart. A sincere Christian, though he has a double principle in him, flesh and spirit, has not a double heart, his heart is for God. Sincerity is when we aim purely at God in all we do. The glory of God is more worth than the salvation of all men’s souls. Though a sincere Christian comes short in duty, he takes a right aim. As the herb, heliotropium, turns about according to the motion of the sun, so a godly man’s actions all move towards the glory of God.’ (Thomas Watson)
51:7 Sprinkle me with water and I will be pure;
wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
Cleanse me with hyssop – may refer to the cleansing of the leper, Lev 14:6f, or to that of a person who had come into contact with a dead body, Nu 19:16-19.
A college fresher went to the dorm laundry room with his dirty clothes bundled into an old sweatshirt. But he was so embarrassed by how dirty his clothes were that he never opened the bundle. He merely pushed it into a washing machine and when the machine stopped pushed the bundle into a drier and finally took the still-unopened bundle back to his room. He discovered, of course, that the clothes had got wet and then dry, but not clean.
God says, “Don’t keep your clothes in a safe little bundle. I want to do a thorough cleansing in your life – all the dirty laundry of your life.” Ps 51:7 1 Jn 1:9.
‘When we are first convicted of sin, we resolve to do better. But, as soon as we have scraped away one layer of sin (thinking, “it was only a superficial failure on my part”), we discover another layer underneath. Until David traced his sin right back to the beginning of his life, he was living in a state of spiritual denial. But, when he realized the truth about himself, he admitted that the rot had set in from the start, even when he was in his mother’s womb. Then, he cried out to God, “Cleanse me” (Psalm 51.7) or “Scrub me clean.”
There were times, in my childhood, when I got so dirty that my mother would scrub me clean with a loofah. How often I felt the power of her arm as she scrubbed the dirt out of my skin. While I was relatively content with a superficial wash, she was determined to get out all the dirt, even if it killed her – or me.
David’s language – “cleanse me…wash me” – is an appeal for that kind of vigorous and rigorous cleansing. His sin was deep dyed. There were layers of deceptiveness, sin, and bondage in his heart. Only God could cleanse and free him.
This is what Jesus was talking about. His contemporaries knew their Bibles. They were in constant attendance at religious services. But they were still bound by sin and could not free their lives from its dominion. They were slaves to sin, not sons of God. So, Jesus said to them, “Your fundamental problem is that you do not know God as your Father.’ (Sinclair Ferguson)
51:8 Grant me the ultimate joy of being forgiven!
May the bones you crushed rejoice!
Let me hear – David seems to picture his own return to godly society, greeted by the sounds of joyful welcome.
Let the bones…rejoice – The basic meaning here is ‘dance’ (cf. NEB).
‘How ready are we to run into extremes, either to despond or to grow wanton! Because God is a Father, do not think you may take liberty to sin, if you do, he may act as if he were no Father, and throw hell into your conscience. When David presumed upon God’s paternal affection, and began to wax wanton under mercy, God made him pay dear for it by withdrawing the sense of his love; and, though he had the heart of a Father, yet he had the look of an enemy. David prayed, ‘Make me to hear joy and gladness.’ Ps 51:8. He lay several months in desertion, and it is thought never recovered his full joy to the day of his death. O keep alive holy fear! With childlike confidence, preserve an humble reverence. The Lord is a Father, therefore love to serve him, he is the mighty God, therefore fear to offend him.’ (Thomas Watson)
51:9 Hide your face from my sins!
Wipe away all my guilt!
On the completeness of God’s forgiveness, see Ps 103:12n
51:10 Create for me a pure heart, O God!
Renew a resolute spirit within me!
Create in me a pure heart – David knows that he needs a virtual miracle of grace, and he believes that it is possible.
51:11 Do not reject me!
Do not take your Holy Spirit away from me!
Holy Spirit – This is one of only three times in the OT when God’s Spirit is called ‘Holy’. (cf. Isa 63:10f)
This verse demonstrates a characteristic fear in Old Testament times; even David in his unique situation did not have the assurance of God’s abiding presence that would later characterize the New Testament age.
‘If you would have assurance, cherish the Holy Spirit of God. When David would have assurance, he prayed, ‘Take not away thy Spirit from me.’ Ps 51:11. He knew that it was the Spirit only that could make him hear the voice of joy. The Spirit is the Comforter, that seals up assurance. 2 Cor 1:22. Therefore make much of the Spirit, do not grieve it.’ (Thomas Watson)
51:12 Let me again experience the joy of your deliverance!
Sustain me by giving me the desire to obey!
51:13 Then I will teach rebels your merciful ways,
and sinners will turn to you.
51:14 Rescue me from the guilt of murder, O God, the God who delivers me!
Then my tongue will shout for joy because of your deliverance.
51:15 O Lord, give me the words!
Then my mouth will praise you.
51:16 Certainly you do not want a sacrifice, or else I would offer it;
you do not desire a burnt sacrifice.
You do not delight in sacrifice – Cf. 1 Sam 15:14-22, Jer 7:21-23, Hos 6:6, Mic 6:6-8 and Zec 7:4-7 for similar disavowals of sacrifice. The point of all of these is not that the offering of sacrifices was wrong in itself (for they were commanded in the law), but that they were useless unless accompanied by a penitent and believing heart (v17). Then, as v19 points out, the sacrifices that are offered will be good and acceptable.
As Fee and Stuart explain: ‘Taken out of context, this may seem to suggest that the sacrificial system has no real importance under the former covenant. But how, then, does this fit with what is said at the end: “Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous, in burnt offerings offered whole; then bulls will be offered on your altar” (v. 19)? The answer is, of course, that in the full context of the psalm, David is acknowledging that sacrifices without genuine contrition and repentance mean simply to go through the motions. What God delights in is the contrite heart that accompanies the sacrifices.’ (How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth, 218)
Stephen Holmes, similarly: ‘Psalmists (Ps. 51:16–17) and prophets (e.g., Is. 1:11–13; Amos 5:21–27) unite in denying that God is pleased by sacrifice. If we read these passages carefully, however, it is not that God has changed his mind about sacrifice. Rather, the prophets object to an assumption that a mechanical performance of the sacrifices will please God, even if divorced from obedience to his commands and concern for justice and righteousness.’ (The Wondrous Cross: The Atonement and Penal Substitution in the Bible and History)
51:17 The sacrifices God desires are a humble spirit—
O God, a humble and repentant heart you will not reject.
A broken and contrite heart…you will not despise – An example of litotes – a figure of speech consisting of an understatement, especially of a weak negative expression in place of a strong affirmative. For example:-
“He is no fool” = “He is very clever.” Cf. Ps 51:17; Isa 42:3; Rom 1:16; 2 Tim 1:12.
‘God is more delighted with such a heart, than with all the sacrifices in the world; one groan, one tear, flowing from faith, and the spirit of adoption, are more to him, than the cattle upon a thousand hills.’ (Flavel) Cf. Isa 66:1,2.
51:18 Because you favor Zion, do what is good for her!
Fortify the walls of Jerusalem!
The last two verses of the psalm are outward-looking, and turn from personal to national prayer.
Fortify the walls of Jerusalem! – Since the walls of Jerusalem did not need to be rebuilt until after the exile – long after David’s time – the last two verses are thought by some to be later additions.
‘Let us pray for others as well as for ourselves…Spiders work only for themselves, but bees for the good of others. The more excellent anything is, the more it operates for the good of others. Springs refresh others with their crystal streams; the sun enlightens others with its golden beams: the more a Christian is ennobled with grace, the more he besieges heaven with his prayers for others. If we are members of the mystic body, we cannot but have a sympathy with others in their wants; and this sympathy would lead us to pray for them. David had a public spirit in prayer. ‘Do good, O Lord, unto those that be good.’ Ps 125:4. Though he begins the Psalm with prayer for himself, ‘Have mercy upon me, O God,’ yet he ends the Psalm with prayer for others. ‘Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion.’ Ps 51:1,18.’ (Thomas Watson)
51:19 Then you will accept the proper sacrifices, burnt sacrifices and whole offerings;
then bulls will be sacrificed on your altar.