Lecture 15 - Psalm 51

Course: Psalms by Dr. Bruce Waltke

Lecture 15: Psalm 51

I. Translation

This psalm is of David after the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba. It is also a petition psalm for the forgiveness of sin. It is a psalm we need constantly for God grace in our lives, to understand that his grace is greater than our sin.

1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.
5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God my Savior and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.
18 May it please you to prosper Zion, to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous, in burnt offerings offered whole; then bulls will be offered on your altar.

II. Background History

So it is a psalm written by David. In the medieval Roman Breviary recited every hour at the conclusion of each monastic service, with the exception of Christmas and Lent. It was repeated seven times daily for thirteen centuries. It was sung on the Day of Atonement using the ram’s horn. So it has had a great history within the covenant of people. There are sins of passion and of murder. So Bathsheba was the lust of the moment which overwhelmed David. But the murder of her husband transpired over a two week period. It was murder. He tried to cover up his acts with Bathsheba as she became pregnant. He tried to make it appear that her husband sired the child. Her husband was a Hittite, a gentile and loyal soldier converted to the Hebrew faith and is part of the covenant community. He is one of the 30 great warriors that David celebrates. He is battling against Joab outside Ammon, but David was home in Jerusalem. When he learns that Bathsheba is pregnant he needs a cover up. He sends a message to Ammon bringing Uriah back to Jerusalem. This took eight days so far. He tries to get Uriah to sleep with his wife which took another two or three days, but Uriah decides not to, especially during a battle. Even after David makes him drunk, he doesn’t sleep with Bathsheba. He was a tremendous man of God. So now David writes Uriah’s death sentence and tells Joab to put him up against the wall of the city and then withdraw so that he will be by himself. So it looks like a tragedy of war. So it is a total cover up and utterly wicked what David did. Joab doesn’t like it either, but he follows through with his orders. He was killed by the sword of the Ammonites. David is guilty of murdering Uriah just to cover up his lust for Bathsheba.

The worst part is when Nathan comes to him and accuses him of doing this and despising God’s Word. You see the problem; David rejected God’s Word. 2nd Samuel 12:9 says, ‘why have you despised the Word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be you wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.’ The two laws include Numbers 35:16. This is for murder and the one for adultery is Deuteronomy 22:22. Numbers 35:16, ‘But if he struck him down with an iron object, so that he died, he is a murderer. The murderer shall be put to death.’ So according to the law, this iron object in this sense is the sword and he did through the agency of the Ammonites. So David should be put to death and for adultery Deuteronomy 22:22 says if a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So both David and Bathsheba are under a sentence of death. Everyone knew where the king was; everyone knows that he is in residence. The question I ask; what is a woman doing bathing on the roof of a house underneath the palace, but the Bible doesn’t answer this and doesn’t fault Bathsheba. In this case, it only faults David. The point here is: he has despised God’s Word and disobeyed God for his own lust and therefore comes under a sentence of death. But the law not only includes what he says to Moses but how it is interpreted by God within the history of Israel. So the sparing of Rahab the prostitute shows us how to interpret the law when you have someone under a sentence of death and they repent, confessing God as Lord. She and her whole household came under the covenant community. That is part of the Torah and so God forgave David and thus the capital offense wasn’t exacted. They couldn’t change the situation as it was a historical fact in what David did. He can’t give life back to Uriah nor can he give Bathsheba back her purity. It is impossible. He cannot make restitution and restoration, but yet he is forgiven. This is just amazing because it shows us the depth of God’s grace.

A third point is that whoever confesses his or her sin and renounces it, obtains mercy. This is proverbs 28:13 which says: whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. So what David does in this Psalm; he confesses his sin and renounces it; he looks to blood for cleansing and he is forgiven and thus he will not die. This is amazing grace. The fourth point, he finds complete forgiveness. In fact, the forgiveness is so great that out of the adultery comes Solomon who is beloved by God. God’s grace was greater than all his sins. But there is still historical guilt. God will forgive us for our sins but there will still be historical guilt of what I have done. There is no covering it up. In this case, the baby will die. This is really an amazing story seeing how great God’s grace is. Some years ago, there was a capital killer known by the name of Fay. She confessed of everything and turned to God. In my judgement, Governor Bush should have pardoned her. If God could pardon David, it seems to me that the state can pardon a woman like this who committed terrible murders. The point of the story with David, no matter how great our sin is, God’s grace is greater when there is true repentance. Fay was changed and transformed by the grace of God. When Nathan said to David that you are the man, we are reminded of the rich man and Lazarus and how the rich man treated those under him and how Lazarus lived when he was on earth. David turns everything over to God and says whatever God decides. In this case restitution couldn’t have been made but if restitution can be made then it should be made. We know in the Old Testament if a person stole a sheep, the person had to give back two sheep to restore everything by making restitution for what the person did. If the person eats the sheep, then the restitution would include four sheep. That is what Zacchaeus the tax collection said to Jesus that if he had taken anything unlawfully that he would restore it four fold. Thus the principles behind the specifics of the Bible such as this can extend to abstract ideas that apply to our daily lives today.

III. Exposition

A. Structure

We immediately have the direct address: to God. It is an introductory petition for God’s mercy in the A verse set and then the specifics that God will just blot out his transgression; which means to just erase the slate along with washing away all my iniquities. Then we have the lament for his sin. In verse 3, he says, ‘for I know my transgressions.’ He confesses that he has sinned against God. He is confessing his overt sin and for his sin nature in verses 3 – 6. Verse 7 begins the petition with the imperatives: cleanse me with hyssop, wash me, let me hear joy and gladness, let the bones you have crushed rejoice, hide your face from my sins, blot out all my iniquity, create in me a pure heart, renew a steadfast spirit within me. So 2 verses for introductory petition, 4 verses of lament and now we get 6 verses of petition in verses 7-12: so introductory address, lament and then petition and at the end we have praise from verse 13 – 18. We get a wish at the end of it. So this is the basic structure of the motifs of the Psalm.

B. Details

The address says ‘O God.’ But why isn’t it to ‘I AM’? There was an editing at some point of the Elohim salter. From Psalm 42 – 83 there are 42 Psalms which use Elohim in preference to Yahweh. From Psalm 42 – 72 includes Book 2 and then in Book 3, 73 – 83 the priority is Elohim. As before we said, the number 42 speaks of premature death. For example, when Elisha calls the bear on the 42 boys and when Jehu kills the offspring of Ethalia, there were 42 killed. I don’t have all the answers to understand this. Evidently there were some editors that preferred Elohim to I AM.

1. Three Words for Sin

He talks about transgressions in verse 1 then iniquity in verse 2 and sin in verse 2b. He uses three different words for sin. Every word for sin assumes an absolute standard and each one has a different picture and a different strength. Most people know that the word for sin at the end of verse 2 has a standard meaning that we fall short of. It means to miss the mark, you don’t measure up. The word transgression is the strongest word and it means to rebel, you can picture it as a raised fist of rebellion. So David has rebelled against the rule of God in regards to murder and adultery. The word iniquity also has a standard which means that you have deviated from it and it includes guilt with it. The important point is that they all include a standard and he has missed it. So he has transgressed against it; he has twisted it and this is going to be important when he says, ‘against you and you only have I sinned’, because the standard is God’s standard. When we sin, we sin against God’s standard and this has profound implications.

2. The Ways of God

Also notice how he used the words from Exodus 34:6; there are three words from God’s communicable attributes, namely: mercy, unfailing love and great compassion from verse 1. Those are the three of the given words in Exodus 34:6 which are the ways of God. Then in verse 13, he says that he will teach transgressors your ways. His ways are the ways of grace. Sinners need to hear that God has compassion; God looks at you with favor and he looks at your need to have grace. Having passion is to have pity; he knows who we are and what we are, simply dust; he knows our propensity to sin and he takes pity upon us. David is in a helpless situation for he cannot save himself and he appealing to God with his repentance. He is saying, ‘remain loyal to me with love and keep your covenant.’ Standing in a deep hold of sin; he looks up and he sees stars of God’s grace. Those who stand in the noonday light of their own self-righteousness never see. But David sees this quality of God. Whatever skeletons we have in our closet, we can see God’s stars of grace.

3. Forgiveness

So what is he asking for? One thing is forensic forgiveness, just blot out my sin and wipe the slates clean. There are 54 ways of expressing forgiveness in the Old Testament. He removes them as far as the east is from the west; he buries them in the bottom of the sea. He hides his face for he can’t see them anymore. Here is another one, just erase it off the slate. When I get to heaven, my slate will be clean and he puts a benediction upon us. I think we can all look back and see our failures; at least I do and know God’s grace that forgives me and removes it. Not only is he looking for legal forgiveness but he is also looking for liturgical cleansing. That is, he feels unclean and unworthy to be with the people of God. He feels like a dirty garment; he stinks and that is why he is saying, ‘wash me and cleanse me and de-sin me.’

4. Confession

So now, we have his lament, which includes his confession and that falls into two parts. First of all he is speaking about his overt acts of sin, ‘for I know my transgressions’ and my sin is always before me. He takes full responsibility with the personal pronoun, ‘I’ and ‘my’ and ‘me’. I’m guilty God, it is me and I know it is a transgression and is aware that he has sinned against God. There is no hardness here. In saying that his sin is always before him, when I commit a sin, I keep playing it over and over again. I keep going back to it and I keep seeing it in my head. He is asking God to give him a clean heart, to take that memory away from him. Then he says something amazing, against you and you only have I sinned, so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge. He can say this because of the use of the words for sin. It is God’s standard; it is not a human standard and therefore it is a transgression against God. When Jesus told the man to take up his bed and walk, that his sins were forgiven; the theologians saw that as a claim for deity. For David, I don’t think everybody forgave him. I don’t think Ahithophel forgave him but God forgave him. He believes that only God can make a judgement about this and so I am not under the judgement from anybody else. Now he goes back and speaks of his moral impotence and he talks about the contradiction about the very nature of it. Surely, I was sinful at birth from the time my mother conceived me. We see from this that the unborn in the womb are in a spiritual state and they are in a state of sin in the womb. This is original sin. The contradiction to it is; he was basically sinful but God was putting a conscience in him that he knew right from wrong and that included wisdom on how it ought to live. This is the contradiction of human nature. We are sinful but we know better. He is confessing that he is a sinful creature and he is lamenting it. I’m sinful and I should know better.

5. Petition

Now his petition comes in the next six lines. The first three lines pertain to the overt acts of sin, in verses 7, 8, and 9. The next three pertain to his moral impotence and he’s looking for a new spirit that will enable him. He reverses these acts by starting with cleansing; cleanse me with hyssop, a hairy plant which you dipped it into blood and water. It was used on two occasions: first in coming across a dead animal and you would go to the priest and he would sprinkle you with blood and water and in that symbolic act, you were transferred from the realm of death into the realm of life. That was the intention; it is because you don’t belong to that realm of death. This applies to us; in Jesus’ blood and water, we have been transferred from the realm of death to that of life. The other reason you would use hyssop was if you were a leper and considered unclean, but you were healed, then you would be transferred to the realm of cleanliness. David sees himself as being in the realm of death and he is asking God to take him into the realm of life. Just know that hyssop implies blood. Let me hear joy and gladness is a figure of speech. This is when you have words that don’t go together. He cannot hear an emotional state. The only thing that I can see: he is talking about the words of Nathan, ‘you are forgiven.’ And that will produce joy and gladness. So he jumps into the terseness of poetry, cause me to hear the word of forgiveness and that will produce joy and gladness. This is exactly what God did. When I ask God to be merciful to me, a sinner; I knew that God heard my prayer and it produced joy and gladness. The chiasm includes blotting out and then he fully elaborates on it. Hide your face from my sins is another figure of speech. Obviously, we are going back to verse 7 in ‘wash me’ which matches verse 2 in ‘wash away’ and verse 9 in ‘blood out’ which goes back to verse 1 blood out.

6. The Holy Spirit

He has lamented his moral impotence in the moral contradiction of human nature. We are born sinful and yet we know better. The resolution is the Spirit as far as he could understand it. Notice what happens in verses 10, 11 and 12 in the b verse sets. Every verse references the Spirit: 10b – a new spirit, 11b – Holy Spirit, 12b – a willing spirit. He is asking for a changed spirit that will give him the strength. He says, ‘create in me a pure heart.’ There are some people who can accept God’s forgiveness and some who can’t and they stay in sin and he says that it takes a creation in order for you to accept the grace of God. ‘Create in me a pure heart that I really know that I’m forgiven.’ Even the ability to accept forgiveness is a gift of God. The steadfast spirit will help me overcome the depravity. The Holy Spirit empowers a person and when God took his spirit from Saul, he could no longer function as a king. David is asking God not to take that anointing from his which was the Holy Spirit. Verse 12 says, ‘restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.’ We need a willing spirit in order to offer ourselves up to God.

7. Praise

We now come to his praise section starting with verse 13, ‘then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you.’ We have seen that the ways means unfailing mercy from Exodus 34:6. People have hope that God can forgive them as with the prodigal son, they can turn to God and find salvation. They can return back to you because they know that they can be forgiven and have a relationship with the living God. He doesn’t presume upon God. The word of praise comes from, ‘and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.’ So, often righteousness is almost equivalent to salvation as you restore a difficult situation. Verse 15 says, ‘open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise.’ Praise is made up of the word and a sacrifice and you would eat a meal in conjunction with the word. It is in that context that David is saying that this is not the time for us to have a big meal with pregnant wife, a dead husband so he says not to delight in a sacrifice, or pleasure in burnt offerings for his sacrifice is a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart. He is not denying the sacrificial system; this is not what David is saying. In the end, now that the king is restored, may it please you to prosper Zion and build up the walls and when that occurs, we will have burnt offerings again. After this, we will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous with burnt offerings. If the king is right then the kingdom is right.

Transcribed by BT Ambassador Phil Smith