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David appealed to God (Elohim) to cleanse him because of His loyal love and compassion. This is the first of David’s psalms in which he addressed the Lord as Elohim, possibly reflecting the distance he felt from God as Yahweh. [Note: Merrill, "Psalms," p. 433.] He knew he did not deserve the Lord’s forgiveness nor could he earn it. Divine pardon comes to sinners by His grace alone. He asked God to blot out the record of his transgressions, namely, sins that go beyond the limits that God has established for conduct.
1. Prayer for gracious cleansing 51:1-2
In this penitential individual lament psalm (cf. Psalms 6, 32, 38, 102, 130, , 143) David confessed the sins he committed against Bathsheba and Uriah. It is a model of confession that has become popular with God’s people. Since we all sin so often and need to confess frequently, this psalm is a help and comfort to us all.
Psalms 32 proposed the need to confess sin, and Psalms 51:5 of that poem is a brief statement of confession. But Psalms 51 moves closer to "the center of the crisis of alienation" [Note: Brueggemann, p. 98.] and gives us a model of confession. In it, David did not utter one word of excuse for the sins he had committed, nor did he seek to tone down the gravity of his offenses or blame others for what he had done. [Note: Armerding, p. 96.]
The title explains the situation out of which this psalm arose (2 Samuel 11).
The biblical writers often compared a person’s deeds to the clothing he wears because that is what other people see when they look at us. David asked God to wash away his iniquity (moral evil) like dirt that was on his garment (behavior). Cleansing is a term that comes from the tabernacle ritual. Those who came into God’s presence to worship and serve Him had to be clean. David correctly viewed his sin (falling short of what God requires) as making the worship and service of a holy God impossible.
"In the Jewish society of that day, to wash and change clothes marked a new beginning in life (Genesis 35:1; Genesis 41:14; Genesis 45:22; Exodus 19:10; Exodus 19:14), and David made such a new start (2 Samuel 12:20)." [Note: Wiersbe, The . . . Wisdom . . ., p. 191.]
About a year had passed between David’s sin of adultery and the time when he acknowledged his guilt. We know this because Bathsheba had given birth to the child she had conceived illegitimately when David confessed his sin (cf. 2 Samuel 12:13-18). David’s sin had been on his mind for many months. Evidently he had hardened his heart and refused to admit that what he had done was sinful. Perhaps he had tried to rationalize it somehow.
2. Confession of gross sin 51:3-6
David had finally come to the place where he was willing, not only to call his sin what it was, but to admit that it was sin against God primarily. Obviously he had sinned against Bathsheba and her husband, but David rightfully admitted that the worst thing he had done was offending God. He made no attempt to blame God for what had happened but took full responsibility himself. He acknowledged that his Judge was guiltless and that he was guilty. Taking personal responsibility for our sins is an important part of true confession.
"To say ’Against thee, thee only, have I sinned’ may invite the quibble that adultery and murder are hardly private wrongs. But it is a typically biblical way of going to the heart of the matter. Sin can be against oneself (1 Corinthians 6:18) and against one’s neighbour; but the flouting of God is always the length and breadth of it, as Joseph saw long before (Genesis 39:9)." [Note: Kidner, p. 190.]
"Once we understand that no sin is against a fellow human being alone and that all sin is transgression against God, we will no longer treat it so lightly." [Note: Merrill, "Psalms," p. 433.]
The king went on to confess the depth of his sinfulness. He had been a sinner from the time he came into existence as a human being, namely, at his conception. This is one of the strongest indications in the Bible that human life begins at conception rather than at birth (cf. Psalms 139:13-16). He viewed sinful acts as the fruit of a sinful nature, not as the product of his environment or the situation that had triggered his acts. This verse does not mean David felt free of personal responsibility for his actions. He felt responsible, as is clear from his statements in the context.
David also realized that God wanted him to be completely honest, not just to offer a sacrifice. He needed to get his heart right with God. His confession had to be genuine rather than the superficial repetition of some words. Wisdom in the Old Testament refers to living life in the light of God’s presence and revelation. God wants people to be completely honest with Him and to deal with reality. David acknowledged this.
Again David pleaded for purification and cleansing (Psalms 51:1-2). In Israel, the priest sprinkled animal blood on the altar with a hyssop branch. This ritual symbolized cleansing by sacrificial death (cf. Hebrews 9:22). If God would wash David morally, he would be thoroughly clean.
"Cleansing in Scripture is twofold: (1) of a sinner from the guilt of sin-the blood (hyssop) aspect; and (2) of a saint from the defilement of sin-the water (wash) aspect. Under grace the sinner is purged by blood when he believes (Matthew 26:28; Hebrews 1:3; Hebrews 9:12; Hebrews 10:14). Both aspects of cleansing, by blood and by water, are brought out in John 13:10; Ephesians 5:25-26 . . ." [Note: The New Scofield . . ., pp. 624-25.]
3. Petition for restoration 51:7-12
David’s prayer for restoration included requests for God’s forgiveness (Psalms 51:7; Psalms 51:9), a renewal of his joy (Psalms 51:8), and a heart of wisdom and full restoration to divine favor (Psalms 51:10-12).
This verse is a request for renewed joy. "Joy and gladness" indicates deep joy. David’s fractured relationship with God pained him as much as a broken bone (cf. Psalms 6:2).
The expressions in this verse picture God as a judge removing David’s sins. The psalmist wanted God to put his sins in a place where He would not see them, and to blot out any record of them from His record books.
The psalmist’s petition now turned to thoughts of spiritual renewal. In contrast to his natural sinful heart (Psalms 51:5), David sensed the need for a clean heart. He requested a spirit more faithful to the Lord than his natural spirit (inclination) to depart from the Lord.
Casting away from God’s presence implies a rejection as God’s servant. Saul had suffered such a fate for his continuing rebellion against Yahweh. In Old Testament times God gave His Holy Spirit selectively (to empower only some believers) and temporarily (primarily to empower them for special acts of service). Since the Day of Pentecost all believers enjoy the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the Church Age (John 14:17; Romans 8:9). Consequently the possibility of God withdrawing His Spirit from David was a real one for him, but it is not for us. [Note: For further study of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in Old Testament times, see Walvoord, pp. 71-73; L. S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, 6:66-79; or Leon Wood, The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament.] It is possible that a Christian may lose his or her opportunities to serve the Lord, however (1 Corinthians 9:27). For example, a Christian who gets involved in gross sin will not lose his or her salvation (John 10:28-29), but he or she may lose the opportunity to serve God in a leadership capacity (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:27).
Again David asked for renewed joy (cf. Psalms 51:8). He had not lost his salvation as a result of his sin, but he had lost the joy of it. The Lord was apparently not delivering him from his present distresses as He had done previously. He also requested a cooperative spirit, one that would cooperate with God and thereby sustain him.
The promises David made in this section of verses gave God reasons to grant forgiveness, so they were indirect requests for pardon. If forgiven, David would show others how God deals with penitent sinners. He would do this as an example, as well as verbally. Then sinners would turn to the Lord for deliverance.
4. Promise of grateful service 51:13-17
David’s confession of his sins and prayer for inner renewal formed a basis for him to instruct sinners (Psalms 51:13), praise Yahweh (Psalms 51:14-15), and deepen his own commitment to the Lord (Psalms 51:16-17).
"Bloodguilt" refers to guilt as a result of killing someone without divine authorization. When God saved him from this guilt and opened his lips by forgiving him, David would joyfully praise the Lord.
Third, David promised to sacrifice to Yahweh if God would forgive him. He would offer sacrifices of worship, but he acknowledged that what God really wanted, and what he would also offer, was a different attitude (cf. Psalms 50:7-15; Psalms 50:23). In David’s case, there was no sin or trespass offering that he could present that God would accept. Since he had sinned with a high hand, in rebellious defiance of Yahweh and in repudiation of the terms of His covenant, his sentence was death (Numbers 15:30-31; cf. 2 Samuel 12:9). The only reason he did not suffer this fate was that God pardoned him. The prophet Nathan brought the news of God’s special pardon to David (2 Samuel 12:13). God has already given His promise to pardon the guilt of any New Testament believer for any sin we may commit (1 John 1:9). The basis of this gracious pardon is the work of Jesus Christ on Calvary (1 John 1:7).
David extended his request for personal blessing to the nation under his authority. God had promised to protect David from death. He now asked the Lord to protect His people as well.
5. Request for Israel’s prosperity 51:18-19
If God did so, His people could and would continue to worship Him in His appointed ways. This would bring delight to the Lord even as He had brought delight to His people by forgiving and preserving them.
When believers sin against God, they should confess their sins and repent (i.e., adopt a different attitude toward the Lord that results in changed conduct). They can count on His gracious, abundant forgiveness because He has promised to forgive the fellowship consequences of sin for those who confess their sins. Forgiveness should result in a renewed commitment to worship and serve the Lord. [Note: For some interesting insights on this psalm, see John White, Daring To Draw Near, pp. 51-64.]
There are two types of forgiveness. There is judicial forgiveness that every person experiences when he or she trusts in Christ as Savior (Romans 5:1). God will never condemn us to eternal damnation for our sins if we trust in His Son (Romans 8:1). However, there is also familial forgiveness. This is the forgiveness believers need because they offend God (Matthew 6:12; Matthew 6:14-15; 1 John 1:9). In one sense, therefore, God has forgiven all our sins, but in another sense we need to confess our sins to receive forgiveness. Judicial forgiveness makes us acceptable to God, but familial forgiveness makes us intimate with God. Judicial forgiveness removes the guilt of sin, and familial forgiveness restores the broken fellowship caused by sin.
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Psalms 51". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/
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