Psalm 51 Commentary: The Bible tells us that sin is deceitful. And with its deception, it can harden us.
But every once in a while – or hopefully sooner than that – God breaks in on our lives and helps us recognize the gravity of our sin.
And that’s the attitude of David in Psalm 51. God has caused David to once again be sensitive to spiritual realities and to confess his sin openly and honestly to the Lord.
So, let’s turn our attention to Psalm 51.
Psalm 51 Commentary: Superscription
Now, in many cases it seems that the superscription to individual psalms is not all that helpful for the sake of interpreting the content of the rest of that psalm. But Psalm 51 is not like that at all. Because in Psalm 51, we are given one of the most informative superscriptions that appears before any psalm.
KJV Psalm 51:1
<[To/For] the [chief Musician/Choir Director/Music Director],
A Psalm of David,
[and we’re then told the circumstances surrounding the setting of this psalm…] when Nathan the prophet [came unto/confronted] him, after [he had gone in to/his affair with] Bathsheba.>
So, our minds hearken back to the story told in 2 Samuel 12 where David is confronted by the prophet Nathan about his adultery with Bathsheba and his subsequent murder of her husband.
Nathan – as you recall – sets David up with a story about a wealthy man who steals the one beloved sheep that a poor man had. And naturally, David gets stirred up by this story and declares the death sentence on this rich man. And then of course Nathan declares to David that he himself is that rich man.
By extension – then – David deserves the fate that he declared for that rich man from Nathan’s story. David deserves to die.
But David humbly confesses his sin. And Nathan declares that God has declared that David would not die.
So, there was forgiveness – great forgiveness from God for great transgression. And then the story in 2 Samuel moves on from there quickly.
But as we read through Psalm 51, it’s almost as if the psalmist doesn’t want to leave that scene. He wants to linger in that moment in which David was confronted by Nathan and then responded to God’s rebuke.
The way that 2 Samuel 12 portrays it, Nathan rebuked David – David repented – and then the story moves on. David’s repentance there is presented as very brief.
Psalm 51 though elaborates on David’s feelings. It gets into David’s mind as he laments his own awful sin to the Lord. It captures the moment of David being confronted by God through Nathan.
And so, for us, it’s an example of repentance – brought into focus. How does a person who loves God respond when he comes to realize the enormity of his sin?
This psalm will fill-out for us what it can look like to practice 1 John 1:9 – to confess our sins and find God to be faithful and just to forgive us all our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Psalm 51 Commentary: Verse 1
So, as we begin to study this psalm, we start with David’s initial plea for mercy from God.
[Have mercy upon/Be gracious to] me, O God, [according to/because of] thy [lovingkindness/loyal love]:
[according unto/because of] the [multitude/greatness] of thy [tender mercies/compassion] [blot out/wipe away] my [transgressions/rebellious acts].
So, David is asking for mercy. He’s asking for his transgressions to be blotted out.
What’s the basis for this? How can David feel justified in asking for God to have mercy on him?
Well, it’s certainly not the cleanness of David’s hands – or the purity of his life. That’s gone forever for David at this point.
No – David doesn’t come to God asking for mercy and forgiveness on the basis of his own character and actions. Instead, David appeals to God’s lovingkindness and tender mercies.
God’s lovingkindness is his loyal covenant love that guarantees that he will never let go of one with whom he enters into a covenant – a relationship that’s based on a promise.
David was in such a relationship with God. And, so are we – if we trust Jesus Christ. And for both David and for us, when we fall and fail morally – we appeal to God on the basis of the fact that he’s entered into a covenant with us and we with him.
And of course, God inaugurated that covenant when he put Jesus on the cross to pay for all of our sin. Jesus’ blood in the New Testament is called the blood of the covenant. It’s Christ’s blood that allows for us to enter this relationship with God that’s based on his promise of eternal life.
So, when we sin – we appeal to God’s covenant love for us. We appeal to his mercies – his compassion. And we certainly never mention our own merits – we have none. We rest on the merits of Jesus Christ.
Psalm 51 Commentary: Verse 2
Well, David continues to make request to God in verse 2.
2 Wash [me throughly from/away] mine [iniquity/wrongdoing],
and cleanse me [from/of] my sin.
And this cleansing and washing is exactly what’s promised to us New Testament believers in Jesus Christ as we confess our sin to God.
Psalm 51 Commentary: Verse 3
And interestingly enough – David immediately in the next verse begins to do just that – to confess his sin to God.
3 For I [acknowledge/know/am aware of] my [transgressions/rebellious acts]:
and my sin is ever before me. [I am forever conscious of my sin…]
Now, sometime in July of 2015, the president of our country who was at that time a candidate for that office attended a family-values kind of forum in Iowa. And, while there he was asked whether he has ever asked God for forgiveness for his actions. This was his response:
“I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so,” he said. “I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.” (https://www.cnn.com/2015/07/18/politics/trump-has-never-sought-forgiveness/index.html)
And I by no means desire to disparage our president. I’m actually thankful – in a way – for his honesty in this situation – which is something that most politicians probably wouldn’t reveal in a forum that was set up by conservative Christians. They might do better at pretending at least that they’re really humble before the Lord.
But I do want to draw a contrast between the ruler of Israel that we’re talking about here in this psalm and the ruler of our nation – when it comes to dealing with sin.
For David – and for true believers in Christ – when we sin, it’s not a matter of just trying to do better. We certainly must never have the sense that we ought to leave God out of the situation. No – when we sin we need God more than ever!
Psalm 51 Commentary: Verse 4
And that’s because our sin is ultimately directed against God alone, as David acknowledges in verse 4.
4 Against thee, thee [only/above all], have I sinned,
and done [this/what is] evil in thy sight:
And so, here is the way to consider sin. It’s not just an offense against others – other men and women – your family or friends or enemies for that matter. No – your sin is ultimately against God alone. It’s a personal offense to him. He takes note of it. And he is not happy about it.
And because of David’s sin – against Bathsheba and against Uriah – being ultimately against no one but the Lord – David admits that God is right to speak judgement against him at the end of verse 4.
[that/so that/so] thou [mightest be/are] justified when thou [speakest/confront me],
and [be clear/be blameless/are right] when thou [judgest/condemn me].
Here then is another example of reacting to our sin. We need to acknowledge that whatever consequence God chooses for it is right.
David is not arguing that the punishment for David’s sin was too heavy or unjustified. He’s saying that God is totally justified as Nathan confronted him and condemned him.
I believe that David is probably also looking past the immediate situation of Nathan confronting him – and David has in mind even the subsequent punishment that God declared on David’s house – that his family would be torn apart and constantly at war with one another.
David looks at all of the consequences of his sin – and he humbly admits, “I deserve what I have coming to me. God is right. I am wrong.”
Psalm 51 Commentary: Verse 5
And what a contrast the holy, righteous, right God is to us weak frail humans who are – as verse 5 admits – sinners from conception!
5 Behold, I was [shapen in iniquity/brought forth in iniquity/guilty of sin from birth];
[and in sin did/a sinner the moment] my mother conceive[d] me.
And this is what the Apostle Paul teaches in Romans 5. We all sinned in Adam. We are all sinners from conception – and actually – however it works – sinners before conception! Sinners as soon as Adam sinned. Retroactive sinners. In Adam’s sin, we sinned.
And it’s not that David is justifying himself by admitting that he – and everyone, really – was a sinner before he was even born. But he is pointing to the utter hopelessness of humanity as we are naturally.
And if that’s all we had to work with – the fact that we’re hopeless sinners and there’s not a thing we can do about it – if that’s all we had – then the situation is totally bleak and we have absolutely no chance of ever relating to God in a positive way.
Psalm 51 Commentary: Verse 6
But, that’s why it gives great comfort that God hasn’t given up on us. In fact, God has desires for us to transcend where we start at birth. He wants us to be people of integrity and wisdom – according to verse 6.
6 [Behold/Look], thou desirest [truth/integrity] in the [inward parts/innermost being/inner man]:
and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom. [you want me to possess wisdom…]
And so, how gracious God is to not let us remain in our awful state of sinfulness. He’s working in those with whom he’s entered into a covenant so that we would grow to be people who – not only don’t sin externally – but that even our inner man would be full of truth and wisdom.
We praise him for this merciful desire that he has for us – and his working it out in our lives. His being in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure.
Psalm 51 Commentary: Verse 7
And that’s what David’s getting at in verse 7. He wants God to continue this work in him by purifying him.
7 [Purge/Purify/Sprinkle] me with [hyssop/water], and I shall be [clean/pure]:
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Because if our sin is ultimately against God only – then if God cleanses us – we’re truly cleansed. It’s not as if we need someone else’s cleansing in addition to God. Or – as Jesus says in a slightly different context – if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed!
Psalm 51 Commentary: Verse 8
And of course, if God is really able and even willing to forgive us our sins that we’ve committed against him only – to almost pretend as if we’d never sinned – then he’s able also to restore our emotional and even physical status, according to verse 8.
8 [Make/Grant] me [to hear joy and gladness/the ultimate joy of being forgiven];
[that/may] the bones which thou hast [broken/crushed] [may rejoice/rejoice].
And it makes sense that if God breaks bones, then he’s also able to heal them. He’s the source of all joy – and so if he takes it from you, it’s gone. But, he’s also the one that can give it back to you. And that’s what David is pleading with the Lord to do for him. To give him back his joy.
And of course, some sins we commit in this life will never be lived down. If a man gets drunk and crashes his car, killing an entire family – that family is gone and there’s nothing that can be done to bring them back to life right now. The damage is permanent.
Psalm 51 Commentary: Verse 9
And yet, in terms of our relationship with God as a result of our sin, David is convinced that God is able to act as though we’ve never sinned, according to verse 9.
9 Hide thy face from my sins,
[and blot out/wipe away] all mine [iniquities/guilt].
So, David is anticipating that God will show a willingness to – as it were – pretend that David had never sinned.
Psalm 51 Commentary: Verse 10
But David isn’t looking to be restored by God so that he can go back to doing evil. David wants God to change him from the inside out.
10 Create [in/for] me a [clean/pure] heart, O God;
and renew a [right/steadfast/resolute] spirit within me.
And of course, the sins of murder and adultery would indicate that a person is very much in need of a clean heart and a spirit that is right and resolute – that isn’t looking for the next thing to lust after. And David’s asking for that – an internal change that would fortify him against doing evil of this nature ever again.
Psalm 51 Commentary: Verse 11
And as David contemplates the kind of spirit he wants God to give him – he also considers the Spirit that he insists that God not take away from him in verse 11.
11 Cast me not away from thy presence; [don’t reject me!…]
and take not thy holy spirit [from/away from] me.
Because David had seen the Lord take his Holy Spirit away from his predecessor – King Saul. And God did that because Saul didn’t obey Samuel the prophet. Instead, Saul sacrificed animals when he really should have waited for Samuel to come and do that.
And that’s why God took his Holy Spirit from Saul.
But then consider the evil that David had done. He committed adultery. He murdered someone indirectly. He lied and deceived.
Now, which do we tend to think is a worse crime – Saul’s or David’s?
I think we’d tend to say that David’s sins were far graver than were Saul’s. There are clear statements in Scripture that tell us that people who do those things – in the Old Testament – deserve death – and in the New Testament will not inherit eternal life. They will be damned.
On the other hand, what’s the penalty for killing an animal and burning it? I can’t think of any clear statements regarding that off the top of my head.
And yet, God stays with David and rejects Saul. And I think part of what contributes to that outcome is David’s heart that he expresses in this psalm.
Saul wanted God’s blessing so that he wouldn’t be humiliated in front of his people. David wants his relationship with God restored because he doesn’t want God to leave him.
Do you see the difference? David is concerned for a rupture in his relationship with God. Saul is concerned that people not think poorly of him.
And consequently – even though David is hounded by problems until the day he dies – the Lord never leaves him like he left Saul.
Psalm 51 Commentary: Verse 12
And David continues in this psalm begging for a restoration of joy and the granting to him of a desire to obey the Lord in verse 12.
12 [Restore unto me/Let me again experience] the joy of thy [salvation/deliverance];
and [uphold/sustain] me [with thy free spirit/with a willing spirit/by giving me the desire to obey].
So, David wants to be able to rejoice again in God’s delivering him from problems. And David also wants God to uphold or sustain him by God giving David a free spirit – or one that is free to obey the Lord.
Psalm 51 Commentary: Verse 13
Well, David tells us in verse 13 that he wants joy and a renewed desire to obey the Lord so that – here’s the reason – he can teach others.
13 Then will I teach [transgressors/rebels] thy [ways/merciful ways];
and sinners [shall be converted/will turn] unto thee.
So, as this awful sinner teaches other transgressors of God’s merciful ways, these sinners – David hopes – will turn to this merciful Lord.
The goodness of God leads us to repentance.
Psalm 51 Commentary: Verse 14
And, verses 12 and 13 are the first in a series of verses in which David asks God for something – in order that some other thing might happen. We see this in verse 14 as well.
14 [Deliver/Rescue] me from [bloodguiltiness/the guilt of murder],
thou God [of my salvation/who delivers me]:
[and/Then] my tongue shall [sing aloud/sing joyfully/shout for joy] [of/because of] thy [righteousness/deliverance].
So, David wants deliverance from the guilt he experienced as a result of murdering Uriah. And if God does this for him, he declares that he would sing of God’s deliverance.
Psalm 51 Commentary: Verse 15
And then David follows up that promise with an additional request that God would give him the words for this song that he plans to sing.
15 O Lord, [open thou my lips/give me the words];
and my mouth shall [shew forth thy praise/declare your praise/praise you].
And we need to remember that praise is elsewhere – in both Old and New Testaments – as a sacrifice. That’s what David is saying that he will do when God is merciful to him – he will offer the sacrifice of praise to the Lord.
Psalm 51 Commentary: Verse 16
And David is convinced that in his case, God’s desire for a sacrifice of animals – which he does require in the Old Testament – pales in comparison to the sacrifice that God truly desires.
16 [For/Certainly] thou [desirest/delight/want] not sacrifice; [else/otherwise] would I [give/offer] it:
thou [delightest/are pleased/desire] not [in/with/a] burnt offering.
Well, if God doesn’t want the sacrifice of animals in response to David’s grave sin, then what does he want?
We already saw that David plans to offer praise to the Lord.
Psalm 51 Commentary: Verse 17
But he also mentions additional aspects of the praise that God requires in verse 17.
17 The sacrifices [of/desired by] God are a [broken/humble] spirit:
a [broken/humble] and a [contrite/repentant] heart, O God, thou wilt not [despise/reject].
So, when we sin – God doesn’t want us to ramp-up our external religious devotion. He’s not wanting us to offer animals. No amount of verbal witness to lost people will cause God to be impressed with you after you sin.
What God really wants is for you in your inner being to bow to him. He wants you and me with spirits that are not high and proud. He wants us in our hearts to be lowly and repentant.
Psalm 51 Commentary: Verses 18-19
And then the last two verses of this psalm turn from David’s own personal issues to a broader concern for all of God’s people.
18 Do good [in thy good pleasure/by your favor/because you favor Zion] unto Zion:
[build/fortify] thou the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then shalt thou [be pleased with/delight in/accept] [the sacrifices of righteousness/righteous sacrifices/the proper sacrifices],
with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: [which we were told earlier that God really wasn’t all that interested in…]
then shall they [offer/sacrifice] [bullocks/young bulls/bulls] upon thine altar.
And some have noted that these last two verses were perhaps inserted here by Jews after the Babylonian exile – the timeframe recorded in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
These people of God had experienced the chastening of God for seventy years – much like David experienced God’s chastening for his sin with Bathsheba.
The post-exilic Jews knew that they had been justly punished by God for awful sin. So did David.
And so, I think it’s an intriguing idea to imagine that some of the Israelites who were going to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild her walls and reinstitute her sacrifices – they look at David’s psalm of repentance to the Lord – and they publish it in the book of Psalms. But under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – they append two verses that express their complete identification with David’s feelings toward God and – at the same time – toward their own sin.
They are sick of their sin. They are desiring God. They are seeking him to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls and to reestablish the sacrificial system – even the one that David said doesn’t take the place of one’s inner man being broken and contrite.
So, that’s likely how the post-exilic Jews were using this psalm of David – to express their own remorse for sin and their strong desire for God to once again bless them.
And so, I think it’s appropriate for us to examine our lives to see if there’s any way in which David’s words and the spirit that they express match something in our lives at this moment.
Have you had a Bathsheba incident? Have you sinned against both man and ultimately God in a notoriously scandalous way?
Even if that’s not the case – have any of us been guilty of adopting an attitude contrary to David’s concerning our sin? Do we want to leave God out of the picture? Do we just try to do better?
So, let’s now just take some time to examine our hearts and to communicate with God privately along the lines of how David did in Psalm 51.