A Study on Psalm 51

The subtitle of Psalm 51 clearly indicates that David wrote this after his affair with Bathsheba.  David was confronted by Nathan concerning his sins (II Samuel 12:1-13). The subscription on this Psalm reads, “After Nathan came to him.”  It reveals his innermost thoughts, for this Psalm was written as a result of Nathan’s visit. Like Paul, the Holy Spirit used circumstances to call forth experientially learned truths from the depths of his spirit. When David saw his guilt, he went for his harp. He prayed, he cried, and he sang.

This Psalm is addressed “To the chief musician,” and was meant for congregational song. This was not a song for just private meditation. It is a universal truth from God’s Word that calls for both private and public repentance. God was there with David and Bathsheba and saw it all. And David refers to this in his Psalm. The most honest and repentant confessions are not forced, as was David’s. How are you when you are confronted with sin? Do you run? Do you rebel? Do you deny? Do you transfer guilt? Do you pass the buck? 

David was a man who followed God’s own heart. As such, he eventually must admit and confess His sin, for sin always blocks sweet communication with God. No ungodly king would ever have admitted or confessed such wrongdoing. The Psalm serves as a warning – to both Kings and common folks.

Verse 1: “Have mercy upon me, O God”

The Word for God here is Elohim, not Jehovah. It is a more personal, endearing term for God. The names for God in His Word are deliberately selected to express various aspects of His character. David makes a direct appeal to God for mercy: not justice. Note that there is:

1. No attempt to justify his sins.
2. No effort made to vindicate himself.
3. No complaint about God’s judicial system.

It was guilt that was on David’s mind. And this is the first step in the “ABC’s of salvation” isn’t it?

Admit you are a sinner
Believe Jesus died for your sins
Confess Jesus as Lord

“Blot out my transgressions”
David is overwhelmed by the memory and enormity of his sins. “Sins” (transgressions) here is plural. David’s one great sin caused him to see all his sins. His request for God to “blot them out” means “to wipe away,” like the writing in a book. It is a plea for the Lord to erase the record; to wipe it clean. How is this possible? In a word: mercy.

“According to the multitude of your mercies”
David says, “Your countless acts of them; Your many instances of mercy.” By his admission of guilt and awareness God’s mercy, David pleads his case before God as Judge. He throws himself on the compassion of God. This verse shows where we must begin when we really repent. We know from God’s Word that a pro-active dynamic of God’s character is mercy. But we must seek to appropriate His mercy personally through prayer and repentance.

Verse 2:  “Wash me thoroughly”
This is a term associated with the washing of clothes, for David sees himself as a dirty garment in need of washing. He does not say, “Lord, wash me just enough for me to feel good about myself.”  The Hebrew term means “multiply to wash me.” David saw the need for continual cleansing. “The dirt is engrained, Lord, so wash me until it all comes out! Wash me thoroughly, completely and totally.”  The hypocrite wants only the outside of the cup clean, but David saw a deep-rooted sin. “Clean me by any method you see fit, only purify me absolutely and remove my sin completely by forgiving me.” David didn’t fear any method of cleaning that God might choose, as long as it was effectual.

Verse 3: “I acknowledge my transgressions”
Notice that David used the plural: “transgressions,” for he was aware of more sins than adultery and murder. The initial step in repentance is to acknowledge you have offended God. At end of the Psalm, David admits that he can only work for God if his heart is right with God. Repentance is essential, not optional. David desired God to do a deep work in his life. How about you?

“My sin is ever before me”
That is, it was always on his mind. The fact the David had offended God haunted him continually. “My sin confronts me all day.” This also is an essential element for true repentance. David shows here the state of mind necessary to obtain forgiveness. It is unfortunate that it took Nathan to get David to acknowledge his sin (II Samuel 12). It is always best when we come to this conclusion by ourselves, alone with God. This proves that a person can harden their conscience for a while and sometimes even for life. But when we allow the guilt to come home and convict us, we must deal with God about it. The guilt of sin can only be removed by repentance and forgiveness, not by psychotherapy. Mercy and forgiveness comes when we “confess and forsake” our sins (Proverbs 28:13).

Verse 4: “Against thee only have I sinned”
David cut to the heart of the matter: sin offends God. Yes, others are hurt, but if it didn’t offend God, it wouldn’t be sin. The Prodigal Son admitted he had sinned against his father. David admitted to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” ( II Samuel 12:13). This doesn’t mean that David didn’t realize he had hurt human beings like Bathsheba and Uriah, but that sin is sin because it offends God Himself.

“And done this evil in thy sight”
David was aware that God was there when he slept with Bathsheba. God was there when he attempted to get Uriah drunk and then sent him off to battle and certain death. “You saw me, God; you were there. You watched us!” David didn’t presume to ask how he could cover his tracks. He had tried that already.

“That thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.”
David was saying God was justified in condemning his sin; that his faults were beyond any doubt. He didn’t fault God for finding fault in him.

Verse 5:
”Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
David was not saying that his mother conceived him during fornication, but that David was a sinner—as are all humans—by nature. We tend to sin. We lean toward sin. The evidence of our depraved nature is all over our livesand is in evidence in Bible characters such as David. Eve stole fruit. Adam tried to cop out and blame Eve. Cain killed Able. Rahab was a hooker. Noah got drunk. Judas betrayed Jesus. But Jesus came to pardon our sins by dying on the cross. It only remains for us to trust in His sacrifice.

It is to David’s credit that, when he was made aware of his sin, he threw himself on the mercy of God. A new awareness of sin brings a new awareness of our responsibility to God. In verses 6-9, David begs for restoration after God forgives him….and to bridge the gap between himself and God. Mercy spanned the gulf between what God demanded and what David confessed.

Verse 6: “Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts”
David acknowledges his deep need for accountability to God, not some external show of emotion. David sees himself as very guilty before God, and he does something about it.

Verse 7: “Purge me with hyssop”
David here alludes to the sprinkled blood of Leviticus 14:6-7, symbolic of the future blood of Christ essential to the forgiveness of sins. It is also an allusion to the cleansing of the leper, sprinkled seven times with sacrificial blood into which a batch of hyssop was dipped (Leviticus 14). In both situations, we find the phrase “and thus he shall be made clean.” In Revelation, we find those who have washed their robes in the Lamb’s Blood and made them white and clean (purged). But David puts it in the first person: “Cleanse me!” 

“Whiter than snow”
David asks God to take no half-measures. He sought the reality of what the ceremonial washings only symbolized.

Verse 8: “Make me to hear joy and gladness”
The guilt of sin breeds only sorrow. Because of David’s deep sense of his own sinfulness, he hoped for the miracle of the joy of pardon.

“That the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice”
David felt, deep in his spirit, that every wound could become a song if only God would forgive him. When a prodigal son returns, there is joy and singing. Jesus is the music for the “broken bones” of sin.

Verse 9: “Hide thy face from my sins”
“Turn Yourself away, Lord, for I am ashamed of them.”  “Refuse to behold them!”  David was ashamed for God to behold his sins. This is an evidence of true conviction. God-given guilt has repentance and freedom from sin as its goal.

“Blot out all mine iniquities”
David here repeats the prayer of the first verse but enlarges it with the use of the word “all.” God’s face is hidden from us if He does not blot out our sins. But He has both the correct diagnosis and the complete cure. David seemed to sense what John the Apostle wrote a thousand years later:  if God did not blot out his sins, God would blot out his name from the Book of Life (Revelation 3:5).

Verse 10: “Create in me”
David, like many backsliders, desired one primary thing: restoration to God’s favor. But he asks for more than cleansing. He asks for something new to be created inside. What sin destroys, God must re-create. In the mirror, you appear the same, but inside you need what only God can create, an emptiness only God can fill. Although the doctrine of the new birth was not to be introduced for millennia, David knew he needed intimacy with God.

“A clean heart”
David knew his heart was soiled by sin. He doesn’t ask for a little makeover. He asks for a re-created heart, one acceptable to God because it was re-formed by God. Only the Creator can create and re-create.

“And renew a right spirit within me”
David remembered that he once had a right spirit. Now he asks God to put it inside of him again. These two thoughts form a complete one: “Create inside of me what is not there and renew what is there already.”

Verse 11: “Cast me not away from thy presence”
This Hebrew phrase means “Don’t throw me away as worthless and cast me out of Your covenant. Don’t make me an alien nor deprive me of Your fellowship.”

“And take not thy Holy Spirit from me”
Although the Spirit had not yet fully come as He did on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), there was still a sense that the Spirit was essential to experience greater fellowship with God. Sin grieves the Spirit and hinders fellowship with God (I Thessalonians 5:19).

One cannot be close to God and sin at the same time. David knew the sweetness of the Spirit of God. The Spirit first came upon David when Samuel anointed him, even before he fought Goliath (I Samuel 16:13). It is as if David is crying, “Don’t desert me to my own wickedness! Don’t banish me like Cain! Don’t leave me as you left Saul and Samson! Maintain your fellowship with me, Holy Spirit!”

Verse 12: “Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation”
The joy of the Lord is your strength. To delight in God’s will is essential. When David writes verses 13-17, he turns from prayer to promise. “When and if you renew and restore me, I can return to my duties. I can teach, praise and sacrifice to You” (vv. 13-15). David knew he was useless to God without a contrite heart (verses 16-17).

Verse 13: “Then will I teach transgressors thy ways”
“After you restore to me that joy, I can be used by you but not until then. If I am restored, I can lead others to you so that you can restore them as you have me.” The grateful heart cannot be silent.  In Luke 22:32 Jesus said to Peter, “When you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Jesus knew that Peter would have to become strengthened in God before he could lead others in the ways of God. People will study your life, not the academic degrees on your wall. They look into your heart to see the Jesus you claim to love and serve. Let Jesus manifest Himself in your life.

“And sinners shall be converted unto thee”
“People will get right with God, because they will see what You have done in my life,” writes David, “because I will teach them about You.”  James 3:1 warns us not to be anxious to become teachers, for God requires more from teachers than He does students. David desired for God to do a deep work within his own life before he mentors others. Let the sword of the Spirit cut deeply into your spirit, you that desire to teach – for God requires holiness of all who desire others to be holy.

Verse 14: “Deliver me from blood guiltiness, O God”
David here is no doubt referring to the murder of Uriah. He was a faithful subject of King David, as was Bathsheba, and David felt his horrible sin of murder very deeply.

“And my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness”
Only a pardoned sinner has the heart for singing about God.

Verse 15: “O Lord, open thou my lips”
David uses a more personal term for God, “Adonai,” as he pleads for forgiveness and the ability to sing and testify. Sin tends to keep us silent about God, but David writes, “I won’t speak until you have cleaned me up. Forgive me and clear my conscience so I can testify.”  It has been well said that “They who testify by the yard, but live for God by the inch, should be kicked by the foot.”

Verse 16: “For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it”
There was no sacrificial provision for adultery and murder. One could not plea bargain their way out of such sins. The law of the “eye for an eye” was still in effect. If David had not been King, murder and adultery could have resulted in a death sentence. David is acknowledging that God is not bribed by man’s sacrifices. He knew that to get to God’s heart, more was required than superficial sacrifices.

“Thou delightest not in burnt offering”
Animal sacrifices only verified one’s fear of God, not one’s respect. What could God possibly gain from the sacrifice of dead animals? David knew that the sacrifices God was after meant something deeper, something more personal. God won’t force us to give Him gratitude, devotion and respect. God wants self-sacrifice by a life lived for Him. As Christians we are admonished to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1), not to bring dead animals to sacrifice. David’s deep need caused him to look deeper into God. Somehow, even in David’s era, there was an awareness that animal sacrifices were but a first step, a baby step, toward true fellowship with God.

Verse 17: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit”
When a human heart bleeds for sin, it is always better than the blood of animals. People today often attempt to bribe God by “sacrificing” their tithes, giving to charities and doing volunteer work. But God wants something deeper – a heart broken for sin.

“A broken and a contrite hear, O God, thou wilt not despise”
God alone knows if your repentance is genuine. God cannot be fooled. It’s better to bare your soul before Him in openness and in honesty. No one knows you—or loves you—more than He does.

Verse 18: “Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion”
In other words, “Let Zion be blessed.” If David was writing in 60 AD, he would write, “Let the Church be blessed.” Though David loved Zion, he was not allowed to build the Temple. That task fell to his son Solomon. David may have felt that, by his transgressions, the growth of Zion was somehow hindered.

It is characteristic of David’s Psalms to pass from himself and begin to write about what he desired God to do for His people (See Psalm 25:22; Psalm 5:11-12). David closely identifies himself with his people, for in this Psalm, he realized he had done damage personally to two of them…Uriah and Bathsheba.

“Build thou the walls of Jerusalem”
David may have built the temple every night in his dreams. His desire was to build up the Holy City as a monument to Jehovah. David had a heart that wanted to please and honor God. It was that deep felt desire that brought him to repentance and back into fellowship with his Creator.

“Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness”
After the walls are rebuilt, the normal flow of public sacrifices will continue daily (Nehemiah 12:43). God’s people will worship God freely and joyfully.

“With burnt offering and whole burnt offering”
In such offerings, no parts were reserved for the priests, for the entire animal was consumed by fire. This depicts a complete surrender to God.(Leviticus 1:8-12 and 3:3-4).

“Then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar”
The sacrifice of bulls and oxen were often reserved for special occasions (II Samuel 24). David was expressing that, in his heart, such special sacrifices will be a daily occurrence; that he desired to give his best to God everyday. Is that your desire today?

We have seen that Psalm 51 has two parts:
Verses 1-12: David’s confession and prayer for pardon
Verses 13-19: What David will do if God forgives him

Or this Psalm can also be divided into three parts:
Verses 1-4: David’s plea for mercy and forgiveness
Verses 5-12: David’s plea for restoration and renewal    
Verses 13-17: David’s pledge to work for God afterwards

In Psalm 51, David never asks to escape punishment, but to escape from the guilt of his sins through God’s forgiveness. God is searching for the heart that knows how much it owes God…and how little it deserves God’s grace and mercy. 

Maxim of the Moment

I’d rather be a failure at something I love than a success at something I hate. - George Burns