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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 51

Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament CommentaryKeil & Delitzsch


Penitential Prayer and intercession for Restoration to Favour

The same depreciation of the external sacrifice that is expressed in Ps 50 finds utterance in Ps 51, which supplements the former, according as it extends the spiritualizing of the sacrifice to the offering for sin (cf. Psalms 40:7). This Psalm is the first of the Davidic Elohim-Psalms. The inscription runs: To the Precentor, a Psalm by David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. The carelessness of the Hebrew style shows itself in the fact that one and the same phrase is used of Nathan's coming in an official capacity to David (cf. 2 Samuel 12:1) and of David's going in unto Bathsheba ( בּוא אל , as in Genesis 6:4; Psalms 16:2, cf. 2 Samuel 11:4). The comparative כּאשׁר , as a particle of time in the whole compass of the Latin quum, holds together that which precedes and that which subsequently takes place. Followed by the perfect (2 Samuel 12:21; 1 Samuel 12:8), it has the sense of postquam (cf. the confusing of this כאשׁר with אחרי אשׁר , Joshua 2:7). By בּבוא the period within which the composition of the Psalm falls is merely indicated in a general way. The Psalm shows us how David struggles to gain an inward and conscious certainty of the forgiveness of sin, which was announced to him by Nathan (2 Samuel 12:13). In Psalms 6:1-10 and Psalms 38:1 we have already heard David, sick in soul and body, praying for forgiveness; in Ps 51 he has even become calmer and more cheerful in his soul, and there is nothing wanting to him except the rapturous realization of the favour within the range of which he already finds himself. On the other hand, Psalms 32:1-11 lies even beyond Ps 51. For what David promises in Psalms 51:15, viz., that, if favour is again shown to him, he will teach the apostate ones the ways of God, that he will teach sinners how they are to turn to God, we heard him fulfil in the sententious didactic Psalms 32:1-11.

Hitzig assigns Ps 51, like Ps 50, to the writer of Isaiah 40:1. But the manifold coincidences of matter and of style only prove that this prophet was familiar with the two Psalms. We discern in Ps 51 four parts of decreasing length. The first part, Psalms 51:3, contains the prayer for remission of sin; the second, Psalms 51:12, the prayer for renewal; the third, Psalms 51:16, the vow of spiritual sacrifices; the fourth, vv. 20, 21, the intercession for all Jerusalem. The divine name Elohim occurs five times, and is appropriately distributed throughout the Psalm.

Verses 1-2

Prayer for the remission of sin. Concerning the interchangeable names for sin, vid., on Psalms 32:1. Although the primary occasion of the Psalm is the sin of adultery, still David says פּשׁעי , not merely because many other sins were developed out of it, as his guilt of blood in the case of Uriah, the scandal put into the mouths of the enemies of Jahve, and his self-delusion, which lasted almost a whole year; but also because each solitary sin, the more it is perceived in its fundamental character and, as it were, microscopically discerned, all the more does it appear as a manifold and entangled skein of sins, and stands forth in a still more intimate and terrible relation, as of cause and effect, to the whole corrupt and degenerated condition in which the sinner finds himself. In מחה sins are conceived of as a cumulative debt (according to Isaiah 44:22, cf. Isaiah 43:25, like a thick, dark cloud) written down (Jeremiah 17:1) against the time of the payment by punishment. In כּבּסני (from כּבּס , πλύνειν , to wash by rubbing and kneading up, distinguished from רחץ , λούειν , to wash by rinsing) iniquity is conceived of as deeply ingrained dirt. In טהרני , the usual word for a declarative and de facto making clean, sin is conceived of as a leprosy, Leviticus 13:6, Leviticus 13:34. the Kerî runs הרב כּבּסני ( imperat. Hiph., like הרף , Psalms 37:8), “make great or much, wash me,” i.e., (according to Ges. §142, 3, b) wash me altogether, penitus et totum , which is the same as is expressed by the Chethîb הרבּה (prop. multum faciendo = multum, prorsus , Ges. §131, 2). In כּרב (Isaiah 63:7) and הרב is expressed the depth of the consciousness of sin; profunda enim malitia , as Martin Geier observes, insolitam raramque gratiam postulat .

Verses 3-4

Substantiation of the prayer by the consideration, that his sense of sin is more than superficial, and that he is ready to make a penitential confession. True penitence is not a dead knowledge of sin committed, but a living sensitive consciousness of it (Isaiah 59:12), to which it is ever present as a matter and ground of unrest and pain. This penitential sorrow, which pervades the whole man, is, it is true, no merit that wins mercy or favour, but it is the condition, without which it is impossible for any manifestation of favour to take place. Such true consciousness of sin contemplates sin, of whatever kind it may be, directly as sin against God, and in its ultimate ground as sin against Him alone ( חטא with ל of the person sinned against, Isaiah 42:24; Micah 7:9); for every relation in which man stands to his fellow-men, and to created things in general, is but the manifest form of his fundamental relationship to God; and sin is “that which is evil in the eyes of God” (Isaiah 65:12; Isaiah 66:4), it is contradiction to the will of God, the sole and highest Lawgiver and Judge. Thus it is, as David confesses, with regard to his sin, in order that... This למען must not be weakened by understanding it to refer to the result instead of to the aim or purpose. If, however, it is intended to express intention, it follows close upon the moral relationship of man to God expressed in לך לבדּך and הרע בּעיניך , - a relationship, the aim of which is, that God, when He now condemns the sinner, may appear as the just and holy One, who, as the sinner is obliged himself to acknowledge, cannot do otherwise than pronounce a condemnatory decision concerning him. When sin becomes manifest to a man as such, he must himself say Amen to the divine sentence, just as David does to that passed upon him by Nathan. And it is just the nature of penitence so to confess one's self to be in the wrong in order that God may be in the right and gain His cause. If, however, the sinner's self-accusation justifies the divine righteousness or justice, just as, on the other hand, all self-justification on the part of the sinner (which, however, sooner or later will be undeceived) accuses God of unrighteousness or injustice (Job 40:8): then all human sin must in the end tend towards the glorifying of God. In this sense Psalms 51:6 is applied by Paul (Romans 3:4), inasmuch as he regards what is here written in the Psalter - ὅπως ἂν δικαιωθῇς ἐν τοῖς λόγοις σου, καὶ νικῃσεες ἐν τῷ κρίνεσθαί σε (lxx) - as the goal towards which the whole history of Israel tends. Instead of בּדברך ( infin. like שׁלחך , Genesis 38:17, in this instance for the sake of similarity of sound

(Note: Cf. the following forms, chosen on account of their accord: - נשׂוּי , Psalms 32:1; הנדּף , Psalms 68:3; צאינה , Song of Solomon 3:11; שׁתות , Isaiah 22:13; ממחים , ib. Psalms 25:6; הלּוט , ib. Psalms 25:7.)

instead of the otherwise usual form דּבּר ), in Thy speaking, the lxx renders ἐν τοῖς λόγοις σου = בּדבריך ; instead of בּשׁפטך , ἐν τῷ κρίνεσθαί σε = בּהשּׁפטך ( infin. Niph.), provided κρίνεσθαι is intended as passive and not (as in Jeremiah 2:9 lxx, cf. Matthew 5:40) as middle. The thought remains essentially unchanged by the side of these deviations; and even the taking of the verb זכה , to be clean, pure, in the Syriac signification νικᾶν , does not alter it. That God may be justified in His decisive speaking and judging; that He, the Judge, may gain His cause in opposition to all human judgment, towards this tends David's confession of sin, towards this tends all human history, and more especially the history of Israel.

Verses 5-6

David here confesses his hereditary sin as the root of his actual sin. The declaration moves backwards from his birth to conception, it consequently penetrates even to the most remote point of life's beginning. חוללתּי stands instead of נולדתּי , perhaps (although elsewhere, i.e., in Psalms 90:2, the idea of painfulness is kept entirely in the background) with reference to the decree, “with pain shalt thou bring forth children,” Genesis 3:16 (Kurtz); instead of הרתה אתי , with still more definite reference to that which precedes conception, the expression is יחמתני (for יחמתני , following the same interchange of vowel as in Genesis 30:39; Judges 5:28). The choice of the verb decides the question whether by עון and חטא is meant the guilt and sin of the child or of the parents. יחם (to burn with desire) has reference to that, in coition, which partakes of the animal, and may well awaken modest sensibilities in man, without עיון and חטא on that account characterizing birth and conception itself as sin; the meaning is merely, that his parents were sinful human begins, and that this sinful state ( habitus ) has operated upon his birth and even his conception, and from this point has passed over to him. What is thereby expressed is not so much any self-exculpation, as on the contrary a self-accusation which glances back to the ultimate ground of natural corruption. He is sinful מלּדה וּמהריון (Psalms 58:4; Genesis 8:21), is טמא מטּמא , an unclean one springing from an unclean (Job 14:4), flesh born of flesh. That man from his first beginning onwards, and that this beginning itself, is stained with sin; that the proneness to sin with its guilt and its corruption is propagated from parents to their children; and that consequently in the single actual sin the sin-pervaded nature of man, inasmuch as he allows himself to be determined by it and himself resolves in accordance with it, become outwardly manifest-therefore the fact of hereditary sin is here more distinctly expressed than in any other passage in the Old Testament, since the Old Testament conception, according to its special character, which always fastens upon the phenomenal, outward side rather than penetrates to the secret roots of a matter, is directed almost entirely to the outward manifestation only of sin, and leaves its natural foundation, its issue in relation to primeval history, and its demonic background undisclosed. The הן in Psalms 51:7 is followed by a correlative second הן in Psalms 51:8 (cf. Isaiah 55:4., Isaiah 54:15.). Geier correctly says: Orat ut sibi in peccatis concepto veraque cordis probitate carenti penitiorem ac mysticam largiri velit sapientiam, cujus medio liberetur a peccati tum reatu tum dominio . אמת is the nature and life of man as conformed to the nature and will of God (cf. ἀλήθεια , Ephesians 4:21). חכמה , wisdom which is most intimately acquainted with ( eindringlich weiss ) such nature and life and the way to attain it. God delights in and desires truth בטּחות . The Beth of this word is not a radical letter here as it is in Job 12:6, but the preposition. The reins utpote adipe obducti , here and in Job 38:36, according to the Targum, Jerome, and Parchon, are called טחות ( Psychol. S. 269; tr. p. 317). Truth in the reins (cf. Psalms 40:9, God's law in visceribus meis ) is an upright nature in man's deepest inward parts; and in fact, since the reins are accounted as the seat of the tenderest feelings, in man's inmost experience and perception, in his most secret life both of conscience and of mind (Psalms 16:7). In the parallel member סתם denotes the hidden inward part of man. Out of the confession, that according to the will of God truth ought to dwell and rule in man even in his reins, comes the wish, that God would impart to him (i.e., teach him and make his own), - who, as being born and conceived in sin, is commended to God's mercy, - that wisdom in the hidden part of his mind which is the way to such truth.

Verses 7-9

The possession of all possessions, however, most needed by him, the foundation of all other possessions, is the assurance of the forgiveness of his sins. The second futures in Psalms 51:9 are consequents of the first, which are used as optatives. Psalms 51:9 recalls to mind the sprinkling of the leper, and of one unclean by reason of his contact with a dead body, by means of the bunch of hyssop (Lev. 14, Num. 19), the βοτάνη καθαρτική (Bähr, Symbol. ii. 503); and Psalms 51:9 recalls the washings which, according to priestly directions, the unclean person in all cases of uncleanness had to undergo. Purification and washing which the Law enjoins, are regarded in connection with the idea implied in them, and with a setting aside of their symbolic and carnal outward side, inasmuch as the performance of both acts, which in other cases takes place through priestly mediation, is here supplicated directly from God Himself. Manifestly בּאזוב (not כבאזוב ) is intended to be understood in a spiritual sense. It is a spiritual medium of purification without the medium itself being stated. The New Testament believer confesses, with Petrarch in the second of his seven penitential Psalms: omnes sordes meas una gutta, vel tenuis, sacri sanguinis absterget . But there is here no mention made of atonement by blood; for the antitype of the atoning blood was still hidden from David. The operation of justifying grace on a man stained by the blood-red guilt of sin could not, however, be more forcibly denoted than by the expression that it makes him whiter than snow (cf. the dependent passage Isaiah 1:18). And history scarcely records a grander instance of the change of blood-red sin into dazzling whiteness than this, that out of the subsequent marriage of David and Bathsheba sprang Solomon, the most richly blessed of all kings. At the present time David's very bones are still shaken, and as it were crushed, with the sense of sin. דּכּית is an attributive clause like יפעל in Psalms 7:16. Into what rejoicing will this smitten condition be changed, when he only realizes within his soul the comforting and joyous assuring utterance of the God who is once more gracious to him! For this he yearns, viz., that God would hide His face from the sin which He is now visiting upon him, so that it may as it were be no longer present to Him; that He would blot out all his iniquities, so that they may no longer testify against him. Here the first part of the Psalm closes; the close recurs to the language of the opening ( Psalms 51:3).

Verses 10-11

In the second part, the prayer for justification is followed by the prayer for renewing. A clean heart that is not beclouded by sin and a consciousness of sin (for לב includes the conscience, Psychology, S. 134; tr. p. 160); a stedfast spirit ( נכון , cf. Psalms 78:37; Psalms 112:7) is a spirit certain respecting his state of favour and well-grounded in it. David's prayer has reference to the very same thing that is promised by the prophets as a future work of salvation wrought by God the Redeemer on His people (Jeremiah 24:7; Ezekiel 11:19; Ezekiel 36:26); it has reference to those spiritual facts of experience which, it is true, could be experienced even under the Old Testament relatively and anticipatively, but to the actual realization of which the New Testament history, fulfilling ancient prophecy has first of all produced effectual and comprehensive grounds and motives, viz., μετάνοια ( לב = νοῦς ), καινὴ κτίσις, παλιγγενεσία καὶ ἀνακαὶνωσις πνεῦματος (Titus 3:5). David, without distinguishing between them, thinks of himself as king, as Israelite, and as man. Consequently we are not at liberty to say that רוּח הקּדשׁ (as in Isaiah 63:16), πνεῦμα ἁγιωσύνης = ἅγιον , is here the Spirit of grace in distinction from the Spirit of office. If Jahve should reject David as He rejected Saul, this would be the extreme manifestation of anger (2 Kings 24:20) towards him as king and as a man at the same time. The Holy Spirit is none other than that which came upon him by means of the anointing, 1 Samuel 16:13. This Spirit, by sin, he has grieved and forfeited. Hence he prays God to show favour rather than execute His right, and not to take this His Holy Spirit from him.

Verses 12-13

In connection with רוּח נדיבה , the old expositors thought of נדיב , a noble, a prince, and נדיבה , nobility, high rank, Job 30:15, lxx πνεύματι ἡγεμονικῷ ( spiritu principali ) στήριξόν με , - the word has, however, without any doubt, its ethical sense in this passage, Isaiah 32:8, cf. נדבה , Ps. 54:8; and the relation of the two words רוח נדיבה is not to be taken as adjectival, but genitival, since the poet has just used רוח in the same personal sense in Psalms 51:12. Nor are they to be taken as a nominative of the subject, but - what corresponds more closely to the connection of the prayer - according to Genesis 27:37, as a second accusative of the object: with a spirit of willingness, of willing, noble impulse towards that which is good, support me; i.e., imparting this spirit to me, uphold me constantly in that which is good. What is meant is not the Holy Spirit, but the human spirit made free from the dominion of sin by the Holy Spirit, to which good has become an inward, as it were instinctive, necessity. Thus assured of his justification and fortified in new obedience, David will teach transgressors the ways of God, and sinners shall be converted to Him, viz., by means of the testimony concerning God's order of mercy which he is able to bear as the result of his own rich experience.

Verses 14-17

The third part now begins with a doubly urgent prayer. The invocation of God by the name Elohim is here made more urgent by the addition of אלהי תשׁוּעתי ; inasmuch as the prayers for justification and for renewing blend together in the “deliver me.” David does not seek to lessen his guilt; he calls it in דּמים by its right name, - a word which signifies blood violently shed, and then also a deed of blood and blood-guiltiness (Psalms 9:13; Psalms 106:38, and frequently). We have also met with הצּיל construed with מן of the sin in Psalms 39:9. He had given Uriah over to death in order to possess himself of Bathsheba. And the accusation of his conscience spoke not merely of adultery, but also of murder. Nevertheless the consciousness of sin no longer smites him to the earth, Mercy has lifted him up; he prays only that she would complete her work in him, then shall his tongue exultingly praise ( רנּן with an accusative of the object, as in Psalms 59:17) God's righteousness, which, in accordance with the promise, takes the sinner under its protection. But in order to perform what he vowed he would do under such circumstances, he likewise needs grace, and prays, therefore, for a joyous opening of his mouth. In sacrifices God delighteth not (Psalms 40:7, cf. Isaiah 1:11), otherwise he would bring some ( ואתּנה , darem, sc. si velles, vid., on Psalms 40:6); whole-burnt-offerings God doth not desire: the sacrifices that are well-pleasing to Him and most beloved by Him, in comparison with which the flesh and the dead work of the עולות and the זבחים ( שׁלמים ) is altogether worthless, are thankfulness (Psalms 50:23) out of the fulness of a penitent and lowly heart. There is here, directly at least, no reference to the spiritual antitype of the sin-offering, which is never called זבה . The inward part of a man is said to be broken and crushed when his sinful nature is broken, his ungodly self slain, his impenetrable hardness softened, his haughty vainglorying brought low, - in fine, when he is in himself become as nothing, and when God is everything to him. Of such a spirit and heart, panting after grace or favour, consist the sacrifices that are truly worthy God's acceptance and well-pleasing to Him (cf. Isaiah 57:15, where such a spirit and such a heart are called God's earthly temple).

(Note: The Talmud finds a significance in the plural זבחי . Joshua ben Levi ( B. Sanhedrin 43 b) says: At the time when the temple was standing, whoever brought a burnt-offering received the reward of it, and whoever brought a meat-offering, the reward of it; but the lowly was accounted by the Scriptures as one who offered every kind of sacrifice at once ( כאילו הקריב כל הקרבנות כולן ). In Irenaeaus, iv. 17, 2, and Clemens Alexandrinus, Paedag. iii. 12, is found to θυσία τῷ Θεῷ καρδία συντετριμμένη the addition: ὀσμὴ εὐωδίας τῷ Θεῷ καρδία δοξάζουσα τὸν πεπλακότα αὐτήν .)

Verses 18-19

From this spiritual sacrifice, well-pleasing to God, the Psalm now, in vv. 20f., comes back to the material sacrifices that are offered in a right state of mind; and this is to be explained by the consideration that David's prayer for himself here passes over into an intercession on behalf of all Israel: Do good in Thy good pleasure unto Zion. את־ may be a sign of the accusative, for היטיב ( הטיב ) does take the accusative of the person (Job 24:21); but also a preposition, for as it is construed with ל and עם , so also with את in the same signification (Jeremiah 18:10; Jeremiah 32:41). זבח־צדק are here, as in Psalms 4:6; Deuteronomy 33:19, those sacrifices which not merely as regards their outward character, but also in respect of the inward character of him who causes them to be offered on his behalf, are exactly such as God the Lawgiver will have them to be. By כּליל beside עולה might be understood the priestly vegetable whole-offering, Leviticus 6:15. ( מנחת חבתּין , Epistle to the Hebrews, ii. 8), since every עולה as such is also כּליל ; but Psalm-poetry does not make any such special reference to the sacrificial tôra. וכליל is, like כליל in 1 Samuel 7:9, an explicative addition, and the combination is like ימינך וזרועך , Psalms 44:4, ארץ ותבל , Psalms 90:2, and the like. A שׁלם כּליל (Hitzig, after the Phoenician sacrificial tables) is unknown to the Israelitish sacrificial worship. The prayer: Build Thou the walls of Jerusalem, is not inadmissible in the mouth of David; since בּנה signifies not merely to build up what has been thrown down, but also to go on and finish building what is in the act of being built (Psalms 89:3); and, moreover, the wall built round about Jerusalem by Solomon (1 Kings 3:1) can be regarded as a fulfilment of David's prayer.

Nevertheless what even Theodoret has felt cannot be denied: τοῖς ἐν Βαβυλῶνι ... ἁρμόττει τὰ ῥήματα . Through penitence the way of the exiles led back to Jerusalem. The supposition is very natural that vv. 20f. may be a liturgical addition made by the church of the Exile. And if the origin of Isaiah 40:1 in the time of the Exile were as indisputable as the reasons against such a position are forcible, then it would give support not merely to the derivation of vv. 20f. (cf. Isaiah 60:5, Isaiah 60:7, Isaiah 60:10), but of the whole Psalm, from the time of the Exile; for the general impress of the Psalm is, according to the accurate observation of Hitzig, thoroughly deutero-Isaianic. But the writer of Isaiah 40:1 shows signs in other respects also of the most families acquaintance with the earlier literature of the Shı̂r and the Mashal ; and that he is none other than Isaiah reveals itself in connection with this Psalm by the echoes of this very Psalm, which are to be found not only in the second but also in the first part of the Isaianic collection of prophecy (cf. on Psalms 51:9, Psalms 51:18). We are therefore driven to the inference, that Ps 51 was a favourite Psalm of Isaiah's, and that, since the Isaianic echoes of it extend equally from the first verse to the last, it existed in the same complete form even in his day as in ours; and that consequently the close, just like the whole Psalm, so beautifully and touchingly expressed, is not the mere addition of a later age.

Bibliographical Information
Keil, Carl Friedrich & Delitzsch, Franz. "Commentary on Psalms 51". Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament Commentary. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kdo/psalms-51.html. 1854-1889.
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