Lectionary Calendar
Friday, April 12th, 2024
the Second Week after Easter
StudyLight.org has pledged to help build churches in Uganda. Help us with that pledge and support pastors in the heart of Africa.
Click here to join the effort!

Bible Commentaries
Psalms 51

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



Here we have adopted the title by Arnold Rhodes, expressing some kind of a superlative for this Psalm, which we think it fully deserves.

For ages, the psalm has been identified with King David’s prayer for pardon, as the superscription has it:

For the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David; when Nathan the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

Of all the Oriental kings, satraps, emperors, and rulers of whatever name who ever lived on earth, King David of Israel is no doubt the only one who would have responded to the message of Nathan the Prophet with repentance and prayer as did David. The odds in that generation were a million to one that Nathan would have lost his head if he had confronted any other monarch with a charge of wickedness like that he skillfully leveled against the king of Israel.

It is not David’s terrible sins that entitled him to be called “A Man After God’s Own Heart,” but his confession, his repentance, and his prayers that justly entitled him to such an accolade.

“King David was definitely not one of the habitually wicked who refuse to repent. The saint is the sinner who repents; the wicked man is the sinner who refuses, either to acknowledge his sins or cast himself upon the mercy of God in prayers for pardon.”(F1)

The scriptural background of this psalm is 2 Samuel 11-12.

Ash’s discerning words about this psalm are:

“This is the zenith of the penitential psalms (Psalms 6; Psalms 32; Psalms 38; Psalms 102; Psalms 130; Psalms 143). There may be no more impassioned or beautiful prayer for forgiveness and renewal in the Bible than here. The poet’s wrongdoing has overwhelmed him. His remorse and his plea are intense.”(F2)

This psalm has its application now to every man who ever lived. Although written three thousand years ago, “It might have been written yesterday; it describes the vicissitudes of spiritual life of an Englishman as truly as of a Jew.”(F3)

An organization of the psalm was proposed by Delitzsch:

I. Prayer for the Remission of Sin (Psalms 51:1-9).

II. Prayer for Renewal (Psalms 51:10-13).

III. A Vow to Offer Spiritual Sacrifices (Psalms 51:14-17).

IV. Intercession for Jerusalem (Psalms 51:18-19).

Verses 1-9


“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: According to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, And cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions; And my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, And done that which is evil in thy sight; That thou mayest be justified when thou speakest, And be clear when thou judgest. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; And in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts; And in the hidden part thou wilt make me to know wisdom. Purify thou me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness, That the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, And blot out all mine iniquities.”

These nine verses are as remarkable as anything else in Scripture. There are three elements here which deserve attention.

I. David Accepted Personal Responsibility for what he He Had Done

He speaks of “my” transgression (Psalms 51:1), “my” sin and “my” iniquity (Psalms 51:2), “my” transgression and “my” sin (Psalms 51:3), declares that, “I sinned” (Psalms 51:4), again mentions “my” sin in Psalms 51:9. Seven times he takes all the blame and guilt upon himself.

David did not attempt to shift the blame as did Adam; he offered no excuse, he pleaded no extenuating circumstances, but simply accepted full responsibility for his deeds. Oh yes, he might have said, “Well that voluptuous female Bathsheba had no business stripping off naked for a bath in full view of the palace; she’s to blame”; or, he might have said, “All the other kings do as they please in matters of this kind; why shouldn’t I be as privileged as they?”

II. David Used Four Different Words for Sin

A number of commentators have noted that David referred to sin as “transgression” (Psalms 51:1; Psalms 51:3), “iniquity” (Psalms 51:2; Psalms 51:5; Psalms 51:9), “evil” (Psalms 51:4), and “sin” (Psalms 51:2-5; Psalms 51:9). Some pointed out that “sin” means missing the mark, “transgression” means breaking God’s law, and that “iniquity” means wickedness. The big word, however, in this connection is “sin,” which appears five times in these nine verses.


There is a great deal more to “sin” than merely “missing the mark.” Sin is a lack of conformity to, or a transgression, especially if deliberate, of a law, precept, or principle regarded as having divine authority.

The synonyms are: crime, criminality, delinquency, depravity, evil, guilt, ill-doing, immorality, iniquity, misdeed, offense, transgression, ungodliness, wrong, or wrong-doing.(F4)

All of this might be summarized by saying that, “Sin is any violation of the will of God.”

“Forgive our sins,” is therefore always a sufficient petition.

III. David’s Multiple Petitions

Something of the earnestness and urgency of this marvelous prayer is evident in the number of ways in which the psalmist pleaded for God’s removal of his guilt.

Have mercy upon me (Psalms 51:1).

Blot out my transgressions (Psalms 51:1; Psalms 51:9).

Wash me from mine iniquity (Psalms 51:2; Psalms 51:7).

Cleanse me from my sin (Psalms 51:2).

Purify thou me with hyssop (Psalms 51:7).

Hide thy face from my sin (Psalms 51:9).

Deliver me from bloodguiltiness (Psalms 51:14).

The basis upon which David pleaded for forgiveness was not that of merit in himself, but because of (1) God’s lovingkindness, and (2) the multitude of God’s tender mercies (Psalms 51:1).

“According to thy lovingkindness… thy tender mercies” “The psalmist at once begins by grasping the character of God as the sole ground of hope, and implies a true knowledge of God, and of the fact that He can pardon sin no matter how black it is.”(F5)

“My sin is ever before me” “Sins may be forgiven, but their memory may leave an aching heart for a lifetime.”(F6) God indeed “forgets sins” when he forgives them, (Jeremiah 31:34); but mortal men are unable to do this.

“Against thee, thee only, have I sinned” Some writers cannot understand a statement like this. How could David have said a thing like this? Had he not contrived the death of Uriah? What does he mean, that “Against God only” had he done wrong? Addis rejected Davidic authorship of this psalm on the basis of this statement.(F7)

Nevertheless, the words are appropriately spoken by David. All sin is against God (Genesis 39:9), primarily and fundamentally. Of course sin is: (1) against one’s body; (2) against the church; (3) against society; (4) against our fellow human beings, etc., but “all sin” is first and preeminently a violation of our relationship with God. Murder, for example, is a sin, only because our fellow-creatures are made “in God’s image,” and it is God who is sinned against in such a crime.

No man has a proper view of sin until he appreciates the fact that it is always, “A sin against none less than God.”(F8)

“In sin did my mother conceive me” This verse is the basis from which the doctrine of “Original Sin” was constructed, a doctrine which Jesus Christ flatly contradicted, saying, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, for unto such belongs the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14).

What then, did David mean by this? “The meaning is simply this that his parents were sinful human beings.”(F9) Of course, as a result of our being human beings, we are naturally prone to sin. The Bible states that God made man in “His own image” (Genesis 1:26); but of Adam, it is stated that, “He begat a son in his own likeness, after his image” (Genesis 5:3)! See any difference? It is that difference which David mentioned here, and it pertains to all the human race who were ever born.

“Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts” Rawlinson’s paraphrase of this portion of the prayer is excellent. “As nothing will content thee but this perfect inward purity, wilt thou give me into my heart its fundamental principle of wisdom or the fear of God.”(F10)

“Purify thou me with hyssop” This seems to be an allusion to the cleansing of a leper (Leviticus 14:1-7), indicating David’s deep realization of the dreadful nature of his sins.

“Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” Many a hymn has found use of words such as these. Isaiah 1:18 also mentions the contrast of scarlet sins and the whiteness of snow.

“That the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice” Some try to find “a sickness unto death” in the psalmist, based upon this and upon a mistaken version of Psalms 51:14, but nothing like that is here. It is not a physical illness that required David’s prayer for deliverance, but a spiritual illness. “His soul (not his body) was deeply distressed by a sense of God’s displeasure.”(F11)

Verses 10-13


“Create in me a clean heart, O God; And renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; And take not thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; And uphold me with a willing spirit. Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; And sinners shall be converted unto thee.”

“Create in me a clean heart” Here is the Old Testament anticipation of the New Testament doctrine of the New Birth. “If anyone be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things have passed away; all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This means: `O God, do more than forgive me, more than purify me, more than cleanse me; create in me a clean new heart that I may truly serve thee.’

“Cast me not away from thy presence” It seems that David here may have remembered God’s casting away King Saul, and that this is a plea that a similar fate may not be executed upon David, a fate which he nevertheless feels that he deserves.

“Take not thy Holy Spirit from me” We know that David indeed was in possession of the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit inspired him in writing the Psalms, as Jesus himself testified (Matthew 22:43). The New Testament speaks of several things that men may do to the Holy Spirit. (1) They can resist Him; (2) they can grieve him; (3) they can lie to Him; (4) they can insult Him; and (5) they can quench Him (1 Thessalonians 5:19). Certainly the conduct of David regarding Bathsheba was a grief to the Holy Spirit.

“Restore… the joy of salvation” This verse teaches that although David had once enjoyed salvation, his sins had resulted in his having lost it. What a tragic desolation it is for any child of God to lose the joy of God’s service because of the cancer of sin in his heart.

“Then will I teach transgressors thy ways” In this, it appears that David already anticipates the joys of God’s forgiveness and restoration, therefore vowing to teach others the way of life and to bring sinners to God.

Verses 14-17


“Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation; And my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness. O Lord, open thou my lips; And my mouth shall show forth thy praise. For thou delightest not in sacrifice; else would I give it: Thou hast no pleasure in burnt-offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”

“Deliver me from bloodguiltiness” Reputable versions still retain this reading, although an alternative word for bloodguiltiness is alleged to be “death”; and from this some have concocted the theory of David’s suffering here from some terrible disease. There is no need whatever for such an interpretation. David here calls the murder of Uriah by its right name. “The word means `blood violently shed,’ or a deed of blood and bloodguiltiness.”(F12)

“O Lord, open my lips” David truly desired to worship and sing God’s praises, but his sins had seriously interfered with such activity. One reason for this is cited in the next verse.

“For thou delightest not in sacrifice, else would I give it” David could not mean here that God was changing Moses’ Law regarding animal sacrifices. The problem was that the Law provided no sacrifice for willful sins. Therefore, David was in a state of seeking restoration before he could offer sacrifices.

“A broken spirit… a contrite heart” Although no animal sacrifice could take away the guilt of willful and deliberate sin, David remembers that a broken spirit and a contrite heart are indeed true sacrifices that God will not despise.

This verse inspired the immortal lines of Kipling’s Recessional:

“Still stands thine ancient sacrifice, An humble and a contrite heart.”

Verses 18-19


“Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: Built thou the walls of Jerusalem. Then wilt thou delight in the sacrifices of righteousness, In burnt-offering and whole burnt-offering: Then will they offer bullocks upon thine altar.”

For no good reason whatever, some scholars have denied the Davidic authorship of this psalm, declaring it to have been written in the days of Nehemiah, during the period of the “rebuilding” of the walls of Jerusalem. But this psalm says absolutely nothing about rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls. What God is petitioned here to do is to build, not rebuild the walls; and the reference is to the actual building of the walls of Jerusalem, then under way, which task was accomplished by David. Josephus has this:

“Now David made buildings around the lower city (of Jerusalem), then joined the citadel to it, and made it one body; and when he had encompassed all with walls, he appointed Joab to take care of them.”(F13)

“The words of David’s prayer here do not ask God to build up what had been thrown down, but to go on and finish building what David was then in the act of building. The wall finished by Solomon around Jerusalem (1 Kings 3:1) can be regarded as an answer to David’s prayer.”(F14)

David’s prayer is unselfish in this that he did not cease until he had interceded upon behalf of Jerusalem and God’s Israel, praying that the Lord would do them good, and that he would complete the building of the wall then under way.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Psalms 51". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/psalms-51.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
adsFree icon
Ads FreeProfile