Exegetical Notes: Psalm 51:1-17

The biblical narrative for Psalm 51 can be found in 2 Samuel 11.

1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

David’s plea for God to deal graciously (have mercy on me) towards him is based solely on the love and mercy of God, not upon any favorable action or attribute of David himself.

This same attitude of humility before God can be seen in Luke 18:9-14:

“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed[a] thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

APP: We seek forgiveness because of God’s gracious character and love, not because it is deserved from self worth.

“steadfast love” – Heb. hesed – “lovingkindness” or “unfailing love”.

“blot out” – This phrase paints a picture of erasing human records.

2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!

“wash” – as in one washes clothes. Sin stains the soul, only grace can remove the stains of sin.

“cleanse me from my sin” -The three-fold request for forgiveness (blot out, wash, cleanse) highlights David’s desire to be completely pardoned for his wrong doing.

3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

Awareness and acknowledgement of personal sin is spiritual prerequisite to seeking forgiveness from Holy God.

Thoughout our history, man has attempted to normalize sin, thus, by the world’s standards, there is no need to seek forgiveness because they have altered the standard for acceptable behavior.

See Romans 1:18-ff.

See also: 1 John 1:9-10,  “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. ”

“know” – This word carries a sense of admissions or agreeing within one’s self. In similar sense, the prodigal son “came to himself” in Luke 15:17.

“my sin is ever before me” – David’s admission of his awareness of personal sin.

4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.

At first glance one may assume the the actual sins included in this narrative are more against Uriah and Bathsheba. However, David realizes that ultimately all sin is against God eventhough other individuals may be involved. David responded to Nathan’s confrontation by saying, “I have sinned against the Lord.” (2 Samuel 12:13).

“so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” – This phrase implies that God has pronounced David guilty of being a sinner. David concurs in the following verse.

“The expression blameless in thy judgment can sometimes be translated as “you are fair when you say that I am guilty” or “you judge me fairly when you condemn me.” Robert G. Bratcher and William David Reyburn, A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Psalms, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1991), 469.

5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

We tend to think of sin only in terms of action. When this thought is pushed to it’s end, good actions equate to sinlessness. Bad actions equal sin. However, this verse teaches us that sin is more than doing, it is being. David notes that he was sinful, even in conception, before he committed any action. The fact that we are sinful results in sinful aciton. Paul said that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Therefore, even actions that many may deem as “good”, if they are produced withouth faith, they remain sinful.

What the psalmist is saying is that he (and so, by implication, everyone) is a sinner; sin is ingrained in human nature and permeates all of human activity. In some languages it may be better to follow the example of tev or of gecl: “Wrong and guilt have characterized my life ever since my mother gave birth to me.” Robert G. Bratcher and William David Reyburn, A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Psalms, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1991), 470.

6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

A more literal translation: “Behold, you are pleased with faithfulness from the inside of man.”

In David’s plea for forgiveness, he acknowledges that he has acted unfaithfully toward God, and this has originated from the inside out.

James 1:14-15 – “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. ”

“you teach me wisdom in the secret heart” – An ambiguous, odd phrase to translate. It may very well be a plea for God to move in his life in such a way that David internalizes God’s ways. David wishes to see the world and sin as God sees it.

7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

“Purge me” – literally, “un-sin me”

“with hyssop” – a small bush plant used to sprinkle water or blood in ceremonial acts of purifications. It must be noted that David is seeking internal purification, not ceremonial cleansing.

“I shall be clean” -David recognizes that spiritual cleanliness results in God’s action, not his own. Man cannot self-atone for sin. It must be accomplished by God Himslef. Romans 3:26 reminds us that through Christ’s death, God remains just for punishing sin and the justifier for accomplishing atonement.

“whiter than snow” – This phrase emphasizes the purity of the cleansing of God.

8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.

“let the bones you have broken” – Godly conviction of sin should lead us to repentance.

“joy”, “gladness”, “rejoice” – as believers we can rest in God’s cleansing of sin and also celebrate His graciousness towards us. These words also provide implications for those who struggle with long-term guilt over sins which have sincerely been confessed. We can confidently continue in our Christian life knowing that all sin is forgiven through the death of Jesus.

9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

“Hide your face from my sins” – as in…”no longer notice my sin”.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

Verse 10 highlights a plea, not only for forgiveness, but for renewed spiritual vitality. David desires a refreshed focus on God. The word translated as “right” also carries a sense of “firmness” or a spirit “aimed” in the right direction.

11 Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.

“Cast me not away” – “the psalmist prays that God will not abandon him because he has sinned. God’s presence is the same as his holy Spirit, that is, his power, which is called holy because it is God’s and accomplishes his will. From your presence must sometimes simply be translated “from you.” In many languages the term holy Spirit can here be translated as “your spirit.” God’s breath—spirit is the source of all human life and vitality; in the creation of humankind (Gen 2:7) God breathed life-giving breath into a clay model and it became a living being; in Psalm 104:29–30 it is the breath—spirit of God which gives life to all animals; when he holds it back, they die. So God’s breath—spirit is the source of life, not only of physical existence but, in a higher sense, of meaningful life, life in fellowship with and dependent upon God, life that is dedicated to him. Robert G. Bratcher and William David Reyburn, A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Psalms, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1991), 473.

In short, David desires to feel the presence of God in his life, because God is what ultimately gives life meaning.

God has promised to “never leave nor forsake” his own. To use this verse as an argument against eternal security would stretch the text beyond it’s intended meaning and run contrary to the teaching of Jesus in John 6.

12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.

APP: Even in the midst of seeking spiritual restoration, God’s saving work on our behalf should be a foundation stone of joy in our lives.

In short, David prays for a heart that would desire to be faithful to God. Note the words of the Robert Robinson hymn – Come Thou Fount…

“O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.”

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

Instead of acting unfaithfullly, David desires for his life to be a lighthouse to encourage others to turn to God for forgiveness.

14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.

Ambiguous meaning. 2 options:
1) a plea for forgiveness of the sin of murder. “Purify me from the blood I have shed.”
2) a phrase that should be understood as “forgive me from deadly sin” – Rom. 6:23.

15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.

Forgiven sin should promote praise.

16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.

External acts of devotion, while void of integrity mean little to the God who looks on the heart.

17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Those who approach God with humble repentance will gladly be accepted by God.

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