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Bible Commentaries

Kingcomments on the Whole Bible

Psalms 51

Verses 1-2

Introduction

Psalm 51 is the response of the believing remnant to the exhortation of Psalm 50. They are called to call upon the LORD “in the day of trouble” (Psalms 50:15). They have “a broken spirit” and “a broken and contrite heart” (Psalms 51:17) and tremble at His word (Isaiah 66:2).

That response is the sacrifice that is pleasing to God. In Psalm 50 that are sacrifice of thanksgiving and the vow offering (Psalms 50:14), in Psalm 51 it is the sacrifice of a broken spirit and a broken and contrite heart (Psalms 51:17).

We can divide Psalm 51 into three parts:
1. Psalms 51:1-Joshua : deal with atonement.
2. Psalms 51:7-1 Chronicles : deal with the demand for forgiveness.
3. Psalms 51:14-: talk about restoration and praise.

If we compare some of the concepts that appear in these three sections,
1. “wash me thoroughly” (Psalms 51:2),
2. “purify me” (Psalms 51:7) and
3. “deliver me from bloodguiltiness” (Psalms 51:14),
we get a sense of the deep humiliation David went through in order to come to a complete restoration and praise through repentance and forgiveness.

Prayer for Cleansing

It is a psalm “for the choir director” (Psalms 51:1). That means that it is meant for others who have a similar experience to the one David expresses in this psalm. See also at Psalm 4:1. That David addresses this psalm “to the choirmaster” shows that he is truly broken. This psalm is the fourth “penitential psalm” of the seven found in Psalms (Psalms 6; 32; 38; 51; 102; 130; 143). It is the middle and also the most profound of those seven psalms.

For “a Psalm of David” see at Psalm 3:1.

The occasion of the psalm’s poetry is David’s adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:1-Deuteronomy :; 2 Samuel 12:1-2 Kings :). Nathan came to David after David had come to Bathsheba. The Spirit uses a play on words here. Nathan came to David to make David’s sin known.

His sin is multiple. First he commits the sin of adultery “after he had gone in to Bathsheba” to sin with her by committing adultery with her. Then he sins by killing Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, with a trick, thereby incurring blood guilt (Psalms 51:14). The Hebrew word for “transgression” in Psalms 51:1 and Psalms 51:3 is plural.

Of David it is said that he did “what was right in the sight of the Lord, and did not deviate from anything that He commanded him all the days of his life, except in the case of Uriah the Hittite” (1 Kings 15:5). What David did – adultery with Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, and the murder of Uriah – is a type of Israel’s twofold sin in
1. the acceptance of antichrist, which is (spiritual) adultery, and
2. the rejection of Christ, which is murder (cf. John 5:43).

David first concealed his sins for about a year. It was only through Nathan’s ministry that he was broken and confessed his sins, after which he was immediately told that the LORD had taken away his sin (2 Samuel 12:13). Yet we see in this psalm that confession and forgiveness can be a process. Real understanding of sin and the awareness and acceptance of forgiveness take time. It is evidence of a deep work of God’s Spirit when it takes some time. Those who confess their sins and claim forgiveness just as quickly have no idea of their sinfulness before God and are insincere in their confession.

David’s confession is prophetically applicable to the believing remnant. As mentioned above, the people have sinned in two respects:
1. It has committed adultery against God by associating with the antichrist (John 5:43).
2. It has committed murder by bringing Christ to the cross (John 5:43).

The first sin is the transgression of the commandments on the first stone tablet of the law that governs one’s relationship to God. The second sin is the transgression of the commandments of the second stone tablet of the law which governs the relationship toward one’s neighbor. The first is the sin of depravity, the other is the sin of violence (Genesis 6:11; cf. Matthew 5:31; Matthew 5:21).

After Nathan convinces David of the terrible sins he has committed, his first question to God is whether He will be gracious to him (Psalms 51:1). The Old Testament gives provisions for manslaughter without intent, but David’s sin is premeditated murder. There is no forgiveness for that in the Old Testament. David knows that he deserves the death penalty. He has no right to continue living unless God is gracious to him. In doing so, he asks that God is gracious to him “according to” His “lovingkindness”. David appeals to Who God is (Exodus 34:6-Judges :).

He then asks God to blot out his transgressions from His criminal record, to remove them from it, so that he no longer has a criminal record (cf. Colossians 2:14; Isaiah 43:25; Isaiah 44:22). He acknowledges that He has broken God’s commandments “you shall not commit adultery” and “you shall not kill”. These transgressions He does not condone, but confesses them without apology.

Nor is there any apology for adultery and fornication. They are sins that cannot be undone. David has an unerasable guilt on him. The only possibility of erasure lies in “the greatness” of God’s “compassion”. To this he appeals.

The Hebrew word for sin, chata’a, means to miss the goal that God has set for creature, which is the glorification of God toward creation (people) (Romans 3:23). Sin is, as it were, a blot on his clothing, or his outward revelation, and therefore must be washed.

David is not only guilty because of his sin, he has become dirty because of it (Psalms 51:2). He asks not only for the expiation of his transgression through forgiveness on the basis of compassion, but also to be washed clean of his “iniquity”.

The word for “wash thoroughly” is used to wash dirty clothes clean. David’s sins are “as scarlet” (Isaiah 1:18) and can never be made white by men. Washed clothing speaks of a new beginning with God (Genesis 35:2).

The Hebrew word for “iniquity” is awon. The meaning is “to act crookedly, not sincerely”. It is acting as “a crooked and perverse generation” does (Philippians 2:15). The conscience no longer works. It is turned off.

As king, he is God’s representative and has an exemplary function. It is his calling and mission to lead the people in the way of God and to show them how God is to be served. Instead, through his sins he has dirtied his example. God’s Name has been disgraced by his behavior. That disgrace must be washed clean and only God can do that.

Finally, David asks God to cleanse him of his sin. In this is the idea of leprosy. Sin, like leprosy, is an impediment to drawing near to God (cf. Psalms 51:7). Through sin the relationship with God is broken and man falls short of the glory of God. Because of his sin, David no longer has access to God in His sanctuary, where everything is pure and holy, in accordance with Who God is. He longs for restoration of his fellowship with God and therefore he asks to be cleansed (cf. 1 John 1:9).

What David asks for in these opening verses shows that he has an understanding of what sin brings about and what it takes to be freed from its burden. He asks to be ‘blotted out’, ‘washed’ and ‘cleansed’. To ‘blot out’ is to completely remove the record of one’s transgressions. ‘Washing’ is the removal of the dirt of the blot of sin. ‘Cleanse’ refers to cleansing his heart and conscience in connection with his iniquity. The first is toward God, the second toward men, the third is toward himself. When all that happens, his transgressions, his iniquities, and his sins are completely forgiven.

Verses 3-6

Confession and Repentance

David knows his transgressions (Psalms 51:3). Awareness of this is necessary if God is to do His work of restoration. There must be complete openness about it. His sin is constantly before his eyes since Nathan discovered it for him. This is not a pleasant state, but it is extremely beneficial. Only when God sends Nathan to him does he come to full and sincere confession. This psalm is proof of that.

Although David has sinned against his neighbor, he confesses that he has sinned against God, yes, against God alone (Psalms 51:4; 2 Samuel 12:13). The point of sin is first and foremost that it is evil in God’s eyes. Dishonor has been done to God. Any sin against a neighbor is first and foremost a sin against God. If this awareness is not at the top, there will be no thorough confession. Then there is only regret and that mainly about the consequences, but no repentance for the deed.

God is absolutely righteous. If we acknowledge that we have sinned against Him and done what is evil in His sight, we acknowledge that He is righteous in His judgment of sin. The word ‘confess’ means ‘to say the same thing’. To confess a sin is to see a sin as God sees it and to speak of it the same as He does. This is what David did when Nathan confronted him with his sin on behalf of God. He admitted God was right in His judgment of the sin he committed. Paul quotes this verse in the letter to the Romans, the letter in which he explains what the righteousness of God is (Romans 3:4).

God defines what sin is. Sin is anything done without the acknowledgment of His right to our lives. Man was created for the goal of glorifying his Creator. He misses that goal by living as a sinner (Romans 3:23). In His law, He states what man must do and what He will do if man breaks the law. When God judges because His law has been broken, He proves that He is pure. His “eyes are too pure to approve evil” (Habakkuk 1:13). Only when a person acknowledges that God is righteous and pure can God declare that person righteous and pure.

David descends even deeper into the problem of sin. He acknowledges that he was “brought forth in iniquity” and “in sin … conceived” by his mother (Psalms 51:5). This is not a shrugging off of his guilt, but the recognition that he is a sinner to the core of his being. He speaks not only of his sins as deeds, but of the sin that is in him as the source of the deeds, of the sinful nature that every man has (cf. Romans 7:18).

We call this “original sin”, which is every human being’s nature since Adam fell into sin. We are not sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners. The teaching on this is given in the letter to the Romans. It is recommended that we read that letter regularly. Seeing the difference between sin as an act and sin as a source is fundamental if there is to be a profound confession. This statement by David is a rare and yet clear statement about original sin in the Old Testament (cf. Job 14:4; Job 15:14Job 25:4; Psalms 58:3).

David has a deep understanding of what God seeks and values (Psalms 51:6). He knows that God desires “truth in the innermost being”. The innermost is the inner self, the soul or heart (cf. Job 38:36). He experienced in his feelings that God had no joy in his innermost being, nor did he experience God’s joy when he hid his sins in his innermost being. Joy is the result of God’s work. He creates the joy (Isaiah 65:17-Job :). The truth in which He finds joy is the recognition of sin before Him and the acceptance of His judgment of it without reservation.

If in the sinner that truth is present as a deep conviction, then God “makes known wisdom in the hidden part”. There is room in the innermost being through confession and now God can make His wisdom known therein. As a result, the restored believer can make the right decisions in the choice he is always faced with: the choice between good and evil.

Verses 7-12

Prayer for Restoration

After his profound confession, David asks God to purify him with hyssop (Psalms 51:7). Hyssop is like a biological brush, used to smear liquid on a solid surface. Typologically, it speaks of applying the work of Christ to man. Hyssop is used, among other things, in the applying of the blood of the Paschal lamb to the lintel and the doorposts (Exodus 12:22). The application of the blood, or accepting its value in faith, that it covers sins before the eyes of God, works cleansing and forgiveness (1 John 1:7; Revelation 1:5; Hebrews 9:22). The blood cleanses us in the eyes of God.

David also asks that God washes him. This refers to the Word of God being compared to water (Ephesians 5:26; John 15:3). We see here the application of the leper’s cleansing sacrifice in Leviticus 14 (Leviticus 14:1-Proverbs :). The people as a whole, that is, the believing remnant in the end times, will also be cleansed by this sacrifice, restoring them to their fellowship with God. The application for us is that by reading God’s Word we come to recognize our sins. If there are sins, we confess them and they are forgiven (1 John 1:9).

David looks forward to God’s response to his confession (Psalms 51:8). He asks for the proof that God has accepted his confession. That proof is God’s joy and gladness over his confession. When God makes him know that, that joy will flow into his bones and he will leap for joy. Now he still feels shattered and powerless because the law condemns him and his conscience accuses him.

He asks God to hide His face from his sins (Psalms 51:9). By this he asks that God forgives his sins and remember them no more. He is now no longer asking for forgiveness for a particular sin but for the expiation of “all” his iniquities. In a thorough confession of a sin, we become aware that we have not done just one particular wrong act, but that we have often fallen into error. In God’s presence we see our entire lost condition.

This confession awakens the desire for something totally new, a new creation of God, the creation of a pure heart (Psalms 51:10). No human being can work this out for himself; God must do it. It must be a creative act of God, in the same sense that we are “a new creation” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15; Ephesians 2:10). The verb “create” here is the same as in Genesis 1 (Genesis 1:1). It is creating something totally new that was not already there. God cannot fix us; He must start something new.

A pure heart is a heart that is not defiled by sins. That heart has an aversion to sin, and what comes out of it is pure. Someone with a pure heart has no impediments to come near to God. He lives in fellowship with God. He sees God because he has a pure heart (Matthew 5:8). The New Testament believer knows that by faith he has a pure heart (Acts 15:9). However, it is important to live in accordance with that.

In addition to a pure heart, David asks for the renewal within him of “a steadfast spirit”. He used to have this steadfast spirit and remained in the way of God. Now that he has fallen into sin because he did not remain steadfastly focused on God, he asks for its renewal. He does not want to fall so deeply again. Because of his deep fall, he is all the more convinced that God must provide him with that spirit so that he remains in fellowship with God. As a result, he will not be easily tempted to commit sin again.

We also need ‘a steadfast spirit’ so that we direct ourselves to Christ alone and expect everything from Him. Then we will be preserved from the temptation to sin that leads to new defilements and, what is worst, to the breaking of our fellowship with God. We still have the sinful nature within us. Therefore, this question also applies to us. The important thing for us is that we remain true to the Lord with resolute heart (Acts 11:23). Then we will flee sin when it wants to tempt us (cf. Genesis 39:10-2 Kings :).

Sin causes a deep break with God. The fellowship with Him is broken as a result. When the awareness of sin dawns, the sinner also realizes that God must rightfully reject him (Psalms 51:11). After all, God can do nothing else with sin but reject it. At the same time, uttering that question implies that David trusts that God does not reject him, the sinner, because God always answers an upright confession with grace.

Asking God not to take His Holy Spirit away from him is appropriate in David’s mouth being an Old Testament believer (cf. 1 Samuel 16:14). In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit does not dwell in the believer. Yet He does work in him. We see the Spirit at work at creation (Genesis 1:2). An Old Testament believer can only do something that is pleasing to God through the Holy Spirit. Everything that is good with him comes from God’s Spirit. David is aware of this (2 Samuel 23:2).

The Holy Spirit comes to dwell on earth only after the glorification of the Lord Jesus. The Lord Jesus leaves no doubt about this (John 7:39). Since the day of Pentecost, the Spirit dwells in the church (Acts 2:1-Numbers :; Ephesians 2:21-Song of Solomon :) and in the believer (1 Corinthians 6:19). Those who know this will never ask God to take His Spirit away from them (John 14:16-Esther :; Galatians 4:1-Judges :; 1 Corinthians 12:13).

Of course, it is important that we do not grieve the Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), but allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit and to walk by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16; Galatians 5:18Galatians 5:25). Therefore, what David is asking here does have great practical significance for us. It is about the need for spiritual renewal that we too need on a regular basis. Hopefully we agree with that.

David has often known and enjoyed the joy of God’s salvation. Every time God gave Him salvation, there was that joy. All the time he kept silent about his sins, that joy was absent. He had no fellowship with God. Now that he has confessed his sins, he expresses a deep desire for the return of that joy of God’s salvation (Psalms 51:12).

The Spirit Who is on him now – for his confession is the work of the Spirit – could never be on him when he was silent about his sins. What he still desires now is the joy of God’s salvation. This joy he wants to experience continually in God’s presence. For that, he asks God to sustain him “with a willing spirit”. He asks for inner boldness to live in fellowship with God again by keeping His commandments and not breaking them again.

Verses 13-17

The Sacrifices God Will Not Despise

David has prayed for forgiveness and for restoration; now he prays if the LORD can still use him in His service. He wants to go and share his experiences as a transgressor with other transgressors (Psalms 51:13; cf. Luke 22:32; Psalms 34:11). Those who have a deep awareness of their own sinfulness and likewise of God’s forgiveness and restored joy will show concern for others. David wants to teach others who have broken God’s commandments God’s ways by speaking to them about confession to God and repentance to Him. He is eager to bring sinners back from a path of error and thereby cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19-Proverbs :).

When he thinks about teaching others God’s ways, the weight of his sins again overwhelms him (Psalms 51:14). Now he thinks of his blood guilt. After all, he killed Uriah to cover up his sin with Bathsheba. As a result, he has brought blood guilt upon himself (2 Samuel 11:14-Esther :). David has already spoken of the joy of God’s salvation (Psalms 51:12), now he speaks of “the God of my salvation”. When that God saves him from his blood debts, frees him from them, his tongue will sing joyfully. Then he will sing – not of God’s love and mercy, which we might expect, but – of God’s “righteousness”. God has a righteous basis for this salvation: the work of His Son on the cross.

This confession has a prophetic application. The believing remnant will acknowledge in the future that they are guilty as a people of the Messiah’s death, through which they have incurred blood guilt. For them, too, salvation from their blood guilt lies in the work of Christ on the cross. The remnant will also confess the people’s sin of adultery because they have accepted the antichrist.

David asks the “Lord”, Adonai, the sovereign God and Ruler of the universe, to open his lips (Psalms 51:15). Then he will proclaim God’s praise with his mouth. No praise has come on his lips or out of his mouth during the time he has kept silent about his sins. Now that he has realized and confessed his sins, David does not burst out in sudden jubilation. There is no posturing with him. His closed mouth and lips are the result of the sins he committed. The opening of them must be done by God. He humbly asks if God will work it out with him. He desires it and therefore God will do it.

God does “not delight in sacrifices” as such (Psalms 51:16), for the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away any sin (Hebrews 10:4). David knows this, is deeply aware of this. He already expressed that by the Spirit as well (Psalms 40:6). If God did find joy in that, he would have gladly brought it. Also in burnt offerings God takes no pleasure. David knows that too.

The only sacrifices in which God finds joy are “a broken spirit” and “a broken and a contrite heart” (Psalms 51:17; cf. Isaiah 57:15; Isaiah 66:2). There is nothing of pride and self-justification in those sacrifices, but there is a mind present that is precious to God. This also applies to us. One who offers such sacrifices is truly “a poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). Such a person does not boast, but is humble before God.

David does not speak of the joy God finds in such a mind, but says that God will “not despise” it. In doing so, he addresses God emphatically: “O God.” People often do despise such a mind, but “O God, You” certainly will not. By saying “will not despise”, David emphasizes that there is no glory attached to these sacrifices.

Verses 18-19

Prayer for Zion

After his profound confession and his request for cleansing, David now thinks of Zion (Psalms 51:18). As the representative of the people, he has brought slander upon all the people through his sins. God has had to withdraw Himself from Zion. Now that David has made confession, he asks that God do good to Zion according to His good pleasure.

Prophetically, this is about the rebuilding of the city and the temple that the LORD will have rebuilt. Because of the great tribulation, sacrifice ceased, and because of the attack of the king of the north, Jerusalem is destroyed. The restoration of the temple and of the sacrificial service is described by the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 40-44).

Because of his sins, the city has become fragile, its spiritual strength has disappeared. The literal walls may still be there, but when the spiritual strength is gone because of sin, the wall no longer provides protection. Therefore, David now asks that God rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, that is, that the city be protected again.

The result will be that God will again find delight in “righteous sacrifices” (Psalms 51:19) that will be brought by the inhabitants of Jerusalem. We can apply this to a local church, which is also seen as a place where God dwells. In a local church, when sin has been judged and fellowship with God has been restored, the spiritual sacrifices are again pleasing to God.

We might expect the “righteous sacrifices” to be sin offerings. That would fit well with the confession of sins. But David speaks of “burnt offering and whole burnt offering” that is completely consumed. When God begins to speak about sacrifices, He begins with the burnt offering (Leviticus 1:1-:). A burnt offering is the highest sacrifice that can be offered as a voluntary sacrifice. Of the various burnt offerings that can be offered, the “young bulls” are the highest form of burnt offering (cf. Leviticus 1:3; Leviticus 1:10Leviticus 1:14).

The burnt offering is an offering that is consumed in its entirety. Everything from this sacrifice comes on the altar and goes up in smoke as a soothing aroma to God (Leviticus 1:9; cf. Deuteronomy 33:10). When David speaks in addition to a burnt offering of a sacrifice that is completely consumed, he demonstrates an understanding of this sacrifice. He explains the essence of the burnt offering. The burnt offering represents the work of the Lord Jesus as a work done wholly and exclusively for God.

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Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Psalms 51". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/psalms-51.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.