From Learning to Love the Psalms
According to its title, David wrote Psalm 51 in response to his sin with Bathsheba and the word of judgment that God sent to him through Nathan the prophet. David had indeed sinned grievously, not only by committing adultery with Bathsheba, but also by arranging the murder of her husband, Uriah, to cover up his sin. For these sins, Nathan had pronounced the Lord’s judgment: because David had had Uriah killed with the sword, the sword would never depart from the house of David; because he had taken the wife of Uriah from him, someone from David’s own household would take his wives from him; because David deserved to die for his sin, the Lord would take away his sin, but still the son conceived of the adulterous relationship with Bathsheba would die (2 Samuel 12:7-14). David was personally forgiven, but the consequences for his life and dynasty were very grave.
Psalm 51 does not, however, explore the various results of David’s actions for the kingdom. The focus of the psalm is on David’s immediate relationship with God. He cries, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,” (v. 4). David is not here denying that he had sinned against others, but he recognizes that in comparison with his offense against God, these other sins do not matter at this point. He must first express his remorse and repentance to God. For this reason, the psalm has the character of very intimate communication between David’s soul and God.
Historically, the church has identified seven psalms that have this very personal sense of grief for sin and called them, “the penitential psalms.” They are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. Each of the books of the Psalter has at least one penitential psalm except Book Three. Psalm 51 is perhaps the most familiar and intense of the penitential songs. It expresses a profound sense of the seriousness of sin as well as an eager desire for forgiveness.
Psalm 51 is also closely related to the other psalms in its immediate context in the Psalter. After the confident assertion of Psalm 48:8 about Jerusalem, “which God will establish forever,” the following psalms seem to offer warnings to Jerusalem not to be presumptuous about her status. Psalm 49 warns the rich against presuming that their riches will give them life. Psalm 50 warns God’s people against the dangers of formalism in their worship and warns the wicked of the dangers of flouting God’s law. Psalm 51 reflects the terrible character of personal sin. Psalms 52–54 continue to warn of the judgment that comes on sin. So Psalms 49–54 have several threads that connect them to one another, threads that come together in Psalm 52:7: “See the man who would not make God his refuge, but trusted in the abundance of his riches and sought refuge in his own destruction!” The warnings against the dangers of sin and wealth in these psalms are joined to warnings on worship, which stress that outward sacrifice is only pleasing to God as it comes from a devoted heart. The connections of Psalm 51 with the others that surround it remind us that personal sin is connected with the well-being of the nation as the people of God. The personal and communal always remain intertwined.
At the center of Psalm 51, we find its two key concerns: “Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” (vv. 9-10). The first half of the psalm pleads for the renewal of the sinner. These two parts together show how we should react to our sin.
David’s concern for the removal of his sin has two elements. First, we can see his unflinching recognition of the reality of his sin, (vv. 3-6) epitomized in his words, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me,” (v. 3). The first step in the path of repentance is to recognize our sin. If we ignore our sins or excuse them as something other than sin, we have not even begun to repent. We must know the holy law of God, acknowledge its validity, and then see how we have violated it.
David confesses that his sin is not something new or surprising. He knows that he has been a sinner from the beginning of his life: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me,” (v. 5). This little verse is powerful. It shows that unborn children are fully human as moral beings. It also points to the doctrine of original sin – that all humans are born guilty and corrupted because of Adam’s sin. David confesses the depths and breath of his sin.
Seeing sin clearly, David next earnestly entreats the Lord for mercy. Prayer precedes (vv. 1-2) and succeeds (vv. 7-9) his confession. David does not despair because of his sin but surrounds it with prayers for forgiveness. Notice especially the verbs of these prayers: “have mercy,” “blot out,” “wash,” “cleanse,” “purge,” “wash,” “hide your face,” and “blot out.” He pleads for a complete and radical removal of the guilt that his sin has brought upon him.
Then, in the second half of the psalm, he prays for renewal. This renewal is so much a new beginning that it can be compared to creation (v. 10). Only God by his Holy Spirit can accomplish this renewal (v. 11), and only God can so change the sinner that he rejoiced in God and remains faithful to him (v. 12). David promises that when he is renewed, he will not be silent about what God has done for him. Rather, he will teach others the path of righteousness (v. 13) and will sing of the ways of God (vv. 14-15).
The last verses of the psalm (vv. 16-19) relate to the offering of sacrifice, and like other psalms that surround Psalm 51, they seem initially to be ambiguous about the value of sacrifice. In verse 16, David seems to say that sacrifice is not important: “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.” But then, in the last verses of the psalm, the offering of sacrifices is a mark of the blessedness and prosperity of God’s people: “Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar,” (vv. 18-19). Clearly, what is critical to God is that the sacrifices be righteous, and that righteousness is not simply that they be offered externally in conformity to the law. In order for the sacrifices to be righteous, they must be offered by sinners who repent. Inner sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise,” (v. 17).
While the law required formal sacrifice, God clearly indicated that it was not an end in itself. As he said in Psalm 50, “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?” (vv. 12-13). No, God does not need the food of sacrifices, nor do the sacrifices actually take away sin. As Hebrews says, “But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins,” (Hebrews 10-:3-4). The sacrifices (like the death of David’s young son) point beyond themselves to the need of a substitute who can truly blot out the sin of sinners and send the Holy Spirit to forgive and renew. Here, in the language of Old Testament sacrifice, we are pointed again to the work of Christ on the cross as the only real hope of sinners.
Only Jesus offers the sacrifice of himself and takes away sin. Only Jesus gives the Spirit who renews sinners. Only Jesus can perfectly pray this psalm for us and in us.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Psalm 51 describes David’s grievous sins but does not explore the various results of David’s actions for the kingdom. How does this psalm instead focus on David’s immediate relationship with God?
- What are penitential psalms? Do you relate to any of the seven penitential psalms mentioned? Explain.
- What are two key concerns at the center of Psalm 51? How did David emulate these key concerns in his own situation? What was the value of a sacrifice for sin according to the law, and what sacrifice is necessary today for our own sin?