Psalm 51 was written by David after he had been convicted by God (through the prophet Nathan) of committing adultery with Bathsheba and organising the death of her husband Uriah. In order to understand this psalm therefore you will need to be familiar with this account as it is recorded in 2 Samuel 11-12. Psalm 32 is a psalm that is also based around that event though it is a subsequent reflection on the spiritual dynamics of the situation (see commentary on psalm 32). In Psalm 32 David tells how he tried to suppress his guilt and avoid God. He tells of the agony of this and finally of how he abandoned his self deceit and confessed to God. The result he says was a profound experience of God’s forgiveness. This, then, is where Psalm 51 fits in. Psalm 51 records the actual words that David prayed to God in this moment of confession. It records the desperate penitent pleas of David for the mercy of God upon one who is being tormented by the guilt of such a terrible sin. In this sense the psalm is possibly the best biblical example of ‘penitence’ which is the unavoidable means to experiencing God’s forgiveness.
David’s prayer is permeated with covenant language. He refers to God’s self revelation as one who is compassionate and whose love is unfailing (vs. 1). The latter term is loaded with the idea that God had made vows of love to his people and had promised that he would never cast them off irrevocably but that he would always receive them back if they humbled themselves in repentance. God’s compassion and mercy had been displayed all through the history of Israel and David now pleads with God not to treat him according to justice but according to his great and elaborately demonstrated compassion (vs. 1).
David expresses here to the pain and torment that he described later in psalm 32:3-4: ‘When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.’ He is desperate to be cleansed (vs. 2) and freed from the sin that is always before him burning into his soul and causing him to despise himself so bitterly (vs. 3). He moreover feels the weight of God’s displeasure upon him and this becomes the hardest thing of all to endure (vs. 4a). He confesses here that God’s conviction through Nathan is exactly right (vs. 4b). He has done a terrible thing, much worse than that which Nathan described in his parable (2 Sam. 12:1-4) and God is right to be angry with him. He expresses in verse 5 the personal realisation that his nature is truly corrupt. He was born with a fallen nature and now he has allowed that sinful nature to blossom in sin.
Truth in the inward parts and wisdom in the inner most place (vs. 6) is the opposite to what David describes in psalm 32 as self deceit. Self deceit is the closing of one’s heart to God and the conviction that we are something that we are not. Wisdom and truth on the other hand mean knowing oneself and one’s character. It is allowing God to bring to light the sins that cling to the dark corners of our being, the sins that we inherited in our nature and which we have walked in devoutly ourselves.
And so David’s plea is for cleansing (vs. 7). He prays that he would be cleansed in the manner that had been demonstrated in his sight every day in the temple sacrifices and rituals. Hyssop (vs. 7) was the branch that the priests used to sprinkle the blood of the sacrificial animal in a symbolic act of cleansing. It was used to sprinkle the blood on the door posts of the houses at the Passover (exodus 12:22); it was used in rituals for the cleansing of lepers (Lev. 14:4,6 49, 51, 52) and in the purification of a person defiled by contact with a corpse (Num. 19:6, 18). David prays that in this manner he would be cleansed to perfection so that he might rejoice again (vs. 8). And indeed his rejoicing would be greater then than if had never sinned in the first place since he would be recipient to a new depth and measure of God’s redeeming mercy and love.
David is also feeling the destitution of his sense of separation from God in sin. And so he begs God to not leave him as a spiritual outcast any longer. He also prays that the Holy Spirit with which he was anointed would not be taken away from him on account of his actions (vs. 11). He is speaking here about his special kingly anointing. He fears now that God may take from him the empowering Spirit just as he did from Saul. Sin will always rob us of the presence of God in our lives, not because God necessarily abandons us, but because sin shuts the doors of our heart to God. Sin is a rejection of God and by sin we caste ourselves from God’s presence and quench the work of his spirit in our lives.
In verse 13 David vows that once God restores him that he will give himself to leading transgressors to the same repentance and forgiveness that he will have experienced. Once God has forgiven him his lips will be opened to declare God’s praise and he will become a living testimony to God’s mercy and love (vss. 14-15). This in itself is a strong appeal to a God who purposes, in all things, to bring glory to his own name. David will indeed become a reflection of God’s glory in salvation once forgiven and cleansed of his sin. As is often the case in the psalms these kind of intelligent appeals become the first sign of the psalmist emerging from despair into hope. The appeals themselves are acts of faith and it is this kind of faith, as in many cases during the ministry of Christ (Matt. 8:5-13; Matt. 15:21-28), that precedes the response of God.
The profound words of verses 16 and 17 are evidence that David has received his assurance and with this the profound truth that he expresses here. He is assured now that what he has at this time is the one thing that God will never despise: penitence. Offerings and sacrifices give no assurance that God will accept the giver. We can offer up our whole lives in service to God and yet this in itself is no assurance that we will be ultimately accepted by God. The only thing that we can bring that God will always accept is this: ‘a broken spirit and a contrite heart.’ This is expressed throughout Jesus’ ministry. While he rebuked many self righteous people and even turned away an earnest seeker who felt that he had walking in God’s ways (Luke 18:18-29), Jesus always received, with open arms, the sinners who came to him in sorrow and penitence.
The last two verses of the psalms make an interesting addition to what has reached a resolution in verse 17. The prayer is a classic corporate prayer for prosperity and security in the kingdom. The confidence expressed in the last section naturally gives way to confidence in intercession. Whether these last two verses were also written by David or added by another writer (possibly a writer who lived during the time of Nehemiah after the exile when the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem was the national preoccupation) the lesson of vs. 16-17 is implied in the vision of ‘righteous sacrifices’ being offered to God (vs. 19). Righteous sacrifices are those which gain significance from the attitude of the one offering the sacrifice. A guilt offering without penitence is meaningless; as is a thank offering that does not come from a thankful heart. The writer prays that there would be many righteous sacrifices to celebrate the goodness of God. And indeed when God built up the walls of Jerusalem in the time of Nehemiah there was just such a celebration of magnificent proportions :
At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres. . . . And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away. (Nehemiah 12:27, 43.)