George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 2

Psalm 51

1. Structure

1 2.



A new creation


Prayer for a wayward people (possibly added by Hezekiah)

Of the seven Penitential Psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143), this is the most profound, the most moving. (See also Psalm 6, Par. 2.) This is the first of a group of fifteen psalms, each of which is attributed to David.

2. Historical reference

A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. The title and the history (2 Samuel 11 and 12) fit each other perfectly. Only a man of David’s intense spirituality could pour out his deep penitence and his high aspirations as in this psalm.

Blot out. Erase, as a debt from a book of records (cp. 69:28; 2 Kings 21:13; Isa. 44:22; Col. 2:14; contrast Psa. 109:14). An allusion to Num. 5:23. Exod. 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.
Transgression... iniquity... sin. David has no use for such milk-and-water self-apologetic words as “lapse”, “shortcoming”, or “misdemeanor”. He is prepared to call sin by its rightful names! Compare Psa. 32:1,2; Isa. 59:12.
Wash me is s.w. “wash” in Num. 19:19, concerning the use of the water of separation, made from the ashes of the red heifer (cp. v. 7 here).
I acknowledge my transgression. “I have sinned against the Lord” (cp. Psa. 32:5) is answered immediately by: “The Lord hath put away thy sin” (2 Sam. 12:13). Confession and forgiveness are “parent” and “child”: cp. Gen. 44:16,17 with 45:4,5; Isa. 6:5-7; Dan. 9:20; Luke 5:8-10; 7:38,48; 17:4; 18:13,14; 23:41-43.
Against thee, thee 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 bidden, when she might very reasonably have excused herself?) But what a sin against God! — see 2 Sam. 12:14. (Sexual sins are specially emphasized as sins against God in Gen. 20:6 and 39:9, because our bodies belong to God! — cp. 1 Cor. 6:15-20.) (Verse 4a is to be read in parentheses. The sense runs on from v. 3b to v. 4b.)

That thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest. 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 2 Sam. 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; Prov. 20:9) — a lesson well worth remembering.
In sin did my mother conceive me. The rabbis — shame on them! — make this a reference to Ruth and Boaz. Actually this verse simply asserts what has been true of every human being since Adam: the inescapable legacy of “sin” in one’s human nature (39:5b).
Purge me with hyssop. One of the clearest allusions to the leprosy laws in Leviticus (see Par. 4). David may have been literally afflicted with leprosy, as part of a God-given retribution (6:1-7; 38:3-11), but in this psalm 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 Exod. 12:22, and the sacrifice of the red heifer in Num. 19:6-10.)

Purge me is, literally: sin-offering me or de-sin me. It was the sacrificial blood on the hyssop that cleansed sin (cp. Heb. 9:19; Ezek. 36:25).

Wash me is s.w. Jer. 4:14; 2:22; Mal. 3:2.

And I shall be whiter than snow is echoed in Isa. 1:18: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” 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).
Make me to hear joy and gladness. David craves for fellowship. A king abhorred by his subjects!
Cast me not away from thy presence is, literally, from thy faces, referring 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.

Take not thy Holy Spirit from me, as it was taken from Saul (1 Sam. 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 (Acts 2:30). Isa. 63:10,11 is the only other Old Testament mention of the Holy Spirit.
Then will I teach transgressors thy way. Doubtless David did this eagerly in the years left to him. And even in this psalm 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?
Deliver me from blood-guiltiness. Like Cain again, David could “hear” the blood of his “brother” 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.
My tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness... and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise. Not in any sense “my righteousness”! Perhaps these words explain why Psalm 51 heads another long series of Davidic psalms.

3. References to the Leprosy law

Psalm 51

Lev. 13,14
Clean heart / body
Without the camp / thy presence before the Lord
13:46; 14:11
Holy Spirit / anointing
Sacrifices of righteousness
Unclean / the separation for her infirmity

4. The Messiah related to sin?

With such an emphatic Messianic element in almost every item in the Psalter, it would be surprising indeed if the same were not true here. But with such explicit confessions of sin (vv. 2,3,5,7,9), is it possible to read these words with reference to Jesus? Yes, it is, in the sense that he shared the weaknesses and temptations of human nature (“tempted in all points like we are... compassed with infirmity... learned obedience... ”: Heb. 4:15; 5:2,8, etc.), and in the sense that such words were prophecies of his bearing the burden of human sin. From this point of view, all the verses just listed are truly Messianic. (But what about v. 4? The greatest difficulty arises here.)

It has to be recognized that the verses of confession and contrition have to be read regarding Jesus with a different slant from what David meant when praying and writing about himself. But this is a normal characteristic of Messianic prophecy. Isaiah abounds with examples:

The “leprosy” expressions in Isaiah 53 have an obvious figurative meaning with reference to Jesus and the sin-disease, but they fit Hezekiah, the prototype, in a strictly literal fashion.
The opening verses of Isaiah 40 describe comfort for Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, of a very different character in Isaiah’s own day from that which John the Baptist imparted in his use of the words.
The great Last Days deliverance of Israel is described by Micah (7:15) as “according to the days of thy coming out of the land of Egypt”, but does anyone believe that Messiah will bring the identical plagues and perform again the very same miracles that Moses did?

There are in fact quite a number of psalms with Scripturally-attested Messianic application, in which “sin” and “iniquity” are associated with the subject. Some examples:

Psalm 40: Verses 6-8 are cited as prophetic of Christ in Hebrews 10:7-9. But verse 12 reads: “Mine iniquities have taken hold of me.”
Psalm 41: Verse 9 is applied to Christ in Mark 14:18 and John 13:18. But verse 4 reads: “I have sinned against thee.”
Psalm 69: Verses 4, 8, 9, 21, 22, and 25 all have New Testament Messianic citations. Yet verse 5 speaks of “my foolishness... my sins”.

So here are three undeniably Messianic psalms. Yet each contains phrases that seem at first glance decidedly inappropriate to a sinless Messiah. How should we deal with such “problems”? Some might argue that Psalm 69:1-4 and Psalm 69:6-36 are all Messianic (they most assuredly are!), but that Psalm 69:5 alone out of the whole psalm applies only to David. But is this really a satisfactory or satisfying way of hand-ling Scripture? Does it not in fact create more problems than it solves?

So, alternatively: might not Psalm 69:5 be seen, in Messianic terms, as yet another reference (along with 2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14; etc.) to Messiah’s inheritance of cursed human nature, as a son of Adam?

The fact of the matter is: This approach (i.e. of applying the terms “sin” and “iniquity” in such passages to the nature Christ bore) was regularly adopted by the earliest Christadelphian expositors. In the foundation work of the Christadelphian faith, John Thomas writes the following:

“Sin, I say, is a synonym for human nature. Hence, the flesh is invariably regarded as unclean. It is therefore written, ‘How can he be clean who is born of a woman?’ (Job. 25:4) ‘Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one.’ (14:4) ‘What is man that he should be clean? And he which is born of a woman that he should be righteous? Behold, God putteth no trust in his saints; yea, the heavens are not clean in his sight. How much more abominable and filthy is man, who drinketh iniquity like water?’ (15:14-16) This view of sin in the flesh is enlightening in the things concerning Jesus. The apostle says, ‘God made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin’ (2 Cor. 5:21), and this he explains in another place by saying, that ‘He sent his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh’ (Rom. 8:3) in the offering of his body once (Heb. 10:10,12,14). Sin could not have been condemned in the body of Jesus, if it had not existed there. His body was an unclean as the bodies of those for whom he died; for he was born of a woman, and ‘not one’ can bring a clean body out of a defiled body; for ‘that,’ says Jesus himself, ‘which is born of the flesh is flesh’ (John 3:6)... .

“Speaking of the conception and preparation of the Seed, the prophet as a typical person, says, ‘Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me’ (Psa. 51:5). This is nothing more than affirming that he was born of sinful flesh; and not of the pure and incorruptible angelic nature.” (Elpis Israel, pp. 127,128)

5. Other Messianic details

Hyssop is mentioned in the crucifixion narrative because of its link with this verse: John 19:29.

Whiter than snow is a description of Christ in glory at the Transfiguration: Matt. 17:2; Mark 9:3; Luke 9:29.
Joy and gladness... the bones which thou hast broken. This second phrase was not true literally of Jesus: John 19:31-36. But the joy and gladness is as literal as can be, even in such a symbolic book as the Apocalypse (5:8-14).
Take not thy Holy Spirit from me. Nor was it taken away, in spite of many misapplications of Psa. 22:1.
A free spirit. This means a willing mind, unfettered by the natural inclinations of an inherited Adamic nature.
Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee. The prospect of a great surge of gospel preaching after the resurrection.
Blood-guiltiness is, literally, bloods, i.e. murder. David meant it about Uriah (2 Sam. 11:17; 12:9 — cp. Num. 35:19-31). Regarding Jesus, it means the murder of himself.

6. Messiah’s men

In the great promise made to David about Messiah, there is this ominous warning:

“If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men” (2 Sam. 7:14).

How could this refer to Christ? Bewildered commentators have tried to dodge the problem by manipulating the translation. Instead, let them consider the inspired interpretation in Psalm 89:30-32, where the words are seen to belong to those in Christ:

“If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments; if they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes.”

The believer who has never felt the need for Psalm 51 is not really in Christ, whatever he may think. Of course it is not necessary to be in the same situation as David to experience a similar contrition; but a sense of unworthiness and real shame there must be, or the conscience is calloused. At first David hid his sin, hoping to save the good name of Yahweh. But when all was in the open, then so too was his repentance, even to the extent of letting all the nation know his inmost soul. And as many in the nation, then and later, learned from David, so also we may learn in the present day. The psalm has much to teach.

No self-excuse need be attempted — not even the almost-reasonable one of v. 5!
One may appeal (and confidently) for mercies which are not at all deserved (v. 11).
Salvation from one’s own inbred evils is not to be achieved by personal effort. It is an act of God (vv. 10,12). Hence the imperatives: Wash me... purge me... restore me... create in me... It is asking for a miracle — in short, for “a new creation” (Eph. 2:10).
No massive atonement for heaven’s forgiveness is called for (v. 16). In fact, it is impossible.
In return for the goodness of God, we must render thanksgiving and praise (vv. 14,15). These are important.
Never forget the time when sin weighed heaviest on the soul (v. 17). Let it be a life-long bitter (but beneficial) memory.
The psalm is dominated by the pronouns “I... me... my”. Normally, to be self-centered is a sin. But in such a situation as this, not to be self-centered might well mean a “repentance” that is superficial, facile, and dishonest (v. 3).

7. Other details

Mercy is essentially a divine attribute, and the chief field of its expression is in the forgiveness of sins extended to men who have nothing to offer except their repentance: Isa. 54:8; Psa. 145:8.
And my sin is ever 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.)
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight. Contrast 2 Sam. 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.
Inward part... the hidden part. Verse 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). Contrast the Pharisees, who made clean their outward appearance, but within were full of all manner of filthiness (Matt. 23:25-28; Luke 11:39,40).

Make me to know wisdom. Man can only learn true wisdom through an act of God. And how? Through the Holy Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:15), the word of God (1 Thes. 2:13). But not only so: God works also by opening the hearts of believers (Acts 16:14; Matt. 16:17; Luke 24:31; contrast John 12:39,40; 2 Thes. 2:11).
Make me hear joy and gladness. The prodigal is coming home! What a paradox that although he pleads: “Make me as one of thy hired servants”, he still says “Father”, and that makes all the difference. Hence such joy and gladness.

The bones which thou hast broken. “Broken bones” should probably 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.
A clean heart: here, and 73:1.

Clean hands: 24:4; Job 17:9.

Clean feet: John 13:10.
Thy does not belong here. It is David’s free willing-hearted spirit (“Uphold my free spirit”), but at the same time certainly given him by God. RV mg. has “willing spirit” (cp. Exod. 35:5; Isa. 13:2; 32:5,8).
Then will I teach transgressors thy ways: Mark 5:19; Luke 22:32.
O Lord. Hebrew Adonai — as though he is unworthy to use the Covenant Name.

My mouth shall shew forth thy praise. “And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God” (Luke 17:13-19).
Thou desirest not sacrifice. See references at Psalm 50, Par. 4. Also Psa. 40:6: “Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire.”

Not sacrifice. The Law of Moses made no provision for sacrifice to cover murder or adultery.
A broken spirit. Isa. 66:2.
If these are actually David’s words, the meaning is: ‘Let not my sin influence the people, or cause Thy promises to fail.’
Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices. That is, after v. 17; cp. Hos. 14:2.
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