The Agora
Bible Commentary

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Psalm 51

Psa 51:1

SUPERSCRIPTION: "A PSALM OF DAVID. WHEN THE PROPHET NATHAN CAME TO HIM AFTER DAVID HAD COMMITTED ADULTERY WITH BATHSHEBA": One of the penitential psalms (Psa 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143). These psalms prob ref to David's sins with Bathsheba and Uriah, and the aftermath. Prob order of these psalms:

  1. Psa 6: where David is weak, weary, and vexed by his disease.
  2. Psa 38: where he sees his sickness as a divine punishment, and more seriously prays to God.
  3. Psa 51: the sincerest and most abject confession and repentance.
  4. Psa 32: finally, "Blessed is the man whose sins are covered."
MERCY: Essentially a divine attribute, expressed is in the forgiveness of sins extended to men who have nothing to offer except their repentance: Isa 54:8; Psa 145:8.

BLOT OUT: Cp v 9. Erase, as a debt from a book of records (cp Psa 69:28; 2Ki 21:13; Isa 44:22; Col 2:14; ct Psa 109:14). An allusion to Num 5:23. Exo 32:32,33 has similar features. It is noteworthy that the Law legislates for the unfaithful wife but has no corresponding ruling for the promiscuous husband. The sins of God's people: "Covered" (Psa 32:1), "Removed" (Psa 103:12), "Cast behind God's back" (Isa 38:17), "Blotted out" (Psa 51:1; Isa 44:22), "Washed away" (Psa 51:2,7), "Remembered no more" (Jer 31:34), "Sought for but not found" (Jer 50:20), "Cast into the depths of the sea" (Mic 7:19).

Psa 51:2

The sins of God's people: "Covered" (Psa 32:1), "Removed" (Psa 103:12), "Cast behind God's back" (Isa 38:17), "Blotted out" (Psa 51:1; Isa 44:22), "Washed away" (Psa 51:2,7), "Remembered no more" (Jer 31:34), "Sought for but not found" (Jer 50:20), "Cast into the depths of the sea" (Mic 7:19).

WASH: Sw "wash" in Num 19:19, re the use of the water of separation, made from the ashes of the red heifer (cp v 7 here).

Psa 51:3

I KNOW MY TRANSGRESSIONS: "I have sinned against the Lord" (cp Psa 32:5) is answered immed by: "The Lord has put away your sin" (2Sa 12:13). Confession and forgiveness are "parent" and "child": cp Gen 44:16,17 with Gen 45:4,5; Isa 6:5-7; Dan 9:20; Luk 5:8-10; 7:38,48; 17:4; 18:13,14; 23:41-43.

AND MY SIN IS ALWAYS BEFORE ME: Psa 38:17. Here David uses the word for the daily sacrifice, as if to say: 'I think on my sin every day, and every day I feel the need for sacrifice.' (But, in his case and in his day, what sacrifice was proper? There was none.)

Psa 51:4

AGAINST YOU, YOU ONLY, HAVE I SINNED: But how could David say this, with adultery and murder involved? However, when these words were written, Uriah was already dead; and a case may be made for seeing Bathsheba as unprotesting and even willing. (Why was she, for example, exposing herself in the courtyard of her house, when she must have known that she might be open to the gaze of roving eyes? And why did she come so readily when invited, when she might very reasonably have excused herself?) But what a sin against God! -- see 2Sa 12:14. (Sexual sins are esp emphasized as sins against God in Gen 20:6; 39:9, because our bodies belong to God! -- cp 1Co 6:15-20.) (V 4a is to be read in parentheses. The sense runs on from v 3b to v 4b.) Ct 2Sa 11:6-27: At first David's only concern was in how to cover his tracks. But later he realizes that everything he has ever done has been done in the sight of God.

SO THAT YOU ARE PROVED RIGHT WHEN YOU SPEAK AND JUSTIFIED WHEN YOU JUDGE: The LXX and Paul in Rom 3:4 read "when thou art judged", so this must be the correct reading. Again, the reference is back to 2Sa 12:14 -- the sin of godly David provoked the ungodly to a good deal of mockery against the name of Jehovah. Moral purity belongs only to God, and not to even the most righteous of ordinary men (Job 15:14; 25:4; Pro 20:9) -- a lesson well worth remembering.

Psa 51:5

SINFUL AT BIRTH: The rabbis -- shame on them! -- make this a ref to Ruth and Boaz. Actually this v simply asserts what has been true of every human being since Adam: the inescapable legacy of "sin" in one's human nature (Psa 39:5b). See Lesson, Psalms, "Messianic" sin?

Alternatively, is David putting himself in the place of the unnamed child, indeed "conceived" in the adulterous sin of David and Bathsheba?

CONCEIVED: Heb "yacham" = to be hot, fig to conceive (cp sw Gen 30:38,39,41; 31:10).

Psa 51:6

INNER PARTS... INMOST PLACE: V 10. The "New Creature/Creation" is not one who is greatly concerned with superficialities. The law of God is instead written in his heart (Jer 31:33; Heb 8:10; 9:14). Ct the Pharisees, who made clean their outward appearance, but within were full of all manner of filthiness (Mat 23:25-28; Luk 11:39,40).

YOU TEACH ME WISDOM: Man can only learn true wisdom through an act of God. And how? Through the Holy Scriptures (2Ti 3:15), the word of God (1Th 2:13). But not only so: God works also by opening the hearts of believers (Act 16:14; Mat 16:17; Luk 24:31; ct Joh 12:39,40; 2Th 2:11).

Psa 51:7

CLEANSE ME WITH HYSSOP: One of the clearest allusions to the leprosy laws in Lev. David may have been lit afflicted with leprosy, as part of a God-given retribution (Psa 6:1-7; 38:3-11), but in this Psa the emphasis is clearly on leprosy as the sin-disease. (Hyssop is elsewhere associated with the sprinkling of the blood of the Passover lamb in Exo 12:22, and the sacrifice of the red heifer in Num 19:6-10.)

CLEANSE ME: Lit: "sin-offering me" or "de-sin me". It was the sacrificial blood on the hyssop that cleansed sin (cp Heb 9:19; Eze 36:25).

HYSSOP: (NT) Mentioned in the crucifixion narrative because of its link with this verse: Joh 19:29.

WASH ME: Sw Jer 4:14; 2:22; Mal 3:2.

AND I WILL BE WHITER THAN SNOW: Echoed in Isa 1:18. With God there are no half-way measures! A man who is cleansed is cleansed throughout and thoroughly -- "And he shall be clean"! (Lev 14:20).

(NT) A description of Christ in glory at the Transfiguration: Mat 17:2; Mar 9:3; Luk 9:29.

Psa 51:8

LET ME HEAR JOY AND GLADNESS: David craves fellowship. A king abhorred by his subjects!

JOY AND GLADNESS... THE BONES YOU HAVE CRUSHED: "Broken bones" should prob be seen as figurative and considered as simply parallel to "broken spirit" and "broken heart" of v 16. Through his whole being -- to the very fibers -- David has felt the crushing weight of sin.

If we sin -- do we feel anything at all, just a twinge of guilt perhaps, and pass it off as nothing? Or even just no guilt at all, but an "Oh well, it happens" attitude? When we sin before God -- do we feel that our bones have been broken? Do we have sleepless nights? Do we feel in agony? A broken bone takes several weeks to heal. Are we in repentance for several minutes, let alone several weeks? Let us break the bones of our sinfulness today, and replace them with a spirit that is holy.

(NT) This second phrase was not true literally of Jesus: Joh 19:31-36. But the joy and gladness is as literal as can be, even in such a symbolic book as the Apocalypse (Rev 5:8-14).

Psa 51:9

FACE (of God): In Psalms, always ref God's presence in ark/tabernacle/temple: see VL, Psalms, God's face.

BLOT OUT: Cp v 1n.

Psa 51:10

A PURE HEART: "It is the great lesson of the Law of Moses -- over and over and over. Natural man is filthy. God is absolutely pure and holy. Outer cleanness is important: inner cleanness is vital and essential. Cleansing can come only from God, but He requires a mighty effort on man's part -- as man's part. He will clean some; He will not clean others. The difference lies wholly in what they do, and how they submit, and -- above all -- in how clearly they perceive their natural filthiness, and how strongly they desire to be clean. Cleanness of heart, cleanness of thought, cleanness of motive, cleanness of life -- how beautiful and desirable they are! How unclean is the flesh and all its ways! We are washed in the Word (Eph 5:26), and in the blood of the Lamb (Rev 7:14). Let us ever strive for absolute cleanness -- holiness, spiritual purity and beauty -- and never be satisfied with anything less" (GVG).

Psa 51:11

DO NOT CAST ME FROM YOUR PRESENCE: Lit, "from thy faces", ref to the Cherubim of God's glory. Do not send me away from the place of your Glory, as you did Cain (Gen 4:14). It very nearly happened that David was separated from the place of God's glory during the rebellion of Absalom.

OR TAKE YOUR HOLY SPIRIT FROM ME: As it was taken from Saul (1Sa 16:13,14), so that his reign went completely to pieces. And David too came very near to that, through Absalom's rebellion. But always, thanks to this prayer, he never ceased to be an inspired prophet of the Lord (Act 2:30). Isa 63:10,11 is the only other OT mention of the Holy Spirit.

(NT) Nor was it taken away, in spite of many misapplications of Psa 22:1.

Psa 51:12

A WILLING SPIRIT: "Free spirit" in AV. A willing mind, unfettered by the natural inclinations of an inherited Adamic nature.

Psa 51:13

THEN I WILL TEACH TRANSGRESSORS YOUR WAYS: 'Forgive me; restore me... and THEN I will teach!' Doubtless David did this eagerly in the years left to him. And even in this Psa he has never ceased the good work; what more important lesson can any sinner learn than the amazing renewing power of the forgiveness of God?

(NT) The prospect of a great surge of gospel preaching after the resurrection.

Psa 51:14

SAVE ME FROM BLOODGUILT: Like Cain again, David could "hear" the blood of his "brother" (Uriah: 2Sa 11:17; 12:9) crying from the ground (Gen 4:10; Heb 12:24; Rev 6:10). But, unlike Cain, he took the necessary steps in order to find true forgiveness.

(NT) Re Christ, it means: save me from those who murder ME!

BLOODGUILT: "Do not give fair names to foul sins; call them what you will, they will smell no sweeter. What God sees them to be, that you should labour to feel them to be; and with all openness of heart acknowledge their real character. Observe, that David was evidently oppressed with the heinousness of his sin. It is easy to use words, but it is difficult to feel their meaning. This psalm is the photograph of a contrite spirit. Let us seek after the like brokenness of heart; for however excellent our words may be, if our heart is not conscious of the death-deservingness of sin, we cannot expect to find forgiveness" (CHS).

MY TONGUE WILL SING OF YOUR RIGHTEOUSNESS: Not in any sense "my righteousness"! Perhaps these words explain why Psa 51 heads another long series of Davidic psalms.

Psa 51:15

See Luke 17:13-19.

Psa 51:16

YOU DO NOT DELIGHT IN SACRIFICE: See refs at Psa 50:13,14. Also see Psa 40:6. Also, the Law of Moses made no provision for sacrifice to cover murder or adultery.

Psa 51:17

THE SACRIFICES OF GOD ARE A BROKEN SPIRIT: "Every natural disappointment can and should be a thankful stepping-stone to greater peace with God, for by contrast to all things and persons human it emphasizes the unassailable dependability of that peace. What we grieve over as a loss, or disappointment, or deprivation, may be a great emancipation and deliverance and opportunity, a fresh turn of our lives in a higher and more satisfying direction. God's ways of teaching and correcting us are strange and wise and beautiful. The sweetest, deepest scent is from the crushed flower. Natural disappointment and sorrow can be the golden portal to spiritual joy. Joy that is born of sorrow is a far fuller and stronger-rooted joy. Above all things, never let yourself be sorry for yourself. This is sick, fatal, dead-end folly. That is a reproach on God's love" (GVG).

Five broken things in the Bible and the results achieved by them:

Psa 51:19

THEN: That is, after the proper spirit is shown (as in v 17).


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