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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 51

Benson's Commentary of the Old and New TestamentsBenson's Commentary


A.M. 2970. B.C. 1034.

Though David composed this Psalm upon a very particular occasion, yet it is of as general use as any of his Psalms. It is the most eminent of the penitential Psalms, and most expressive of the cares and desires of a repenting sinner. It is a pity, indeed, that in our devout addresses to God, we should have any thing else to do but to praise God, for that is the work of heaven; but as we make other work for ourselves by our sins and follies, we must come to the throne of grace in the posture of penitents to confess them, and sue for pardoning and renewing grace. And if, in doing this, we would take with us words, we can nowhere find any more apposite than in this Psalm, which is the record of David’s repentance for his sin in the matter of Uriah, which, of all his faults, was the greatest blemish upon his character. Here David prays for pardon, Psalms 51:1 , Psalms 51:2 . Confesses his sins, Psalms 51:3-5 . Prays for renewing grace, Psalms 51:6-14 . Promises unfeigned thankfulness, Psalms 51:15-17 . Prays for the whole church, Psalms 51:18 , Psalms 51:19 .

Title. When Nathan the prophet came unto him After his conscience was awakened by Nathan’s words, 2 Samuel 12:7-14, and Nathan had left him, David, being brought to true repentance for his very heinous sin, expressed his bitter sorrow for it, and poured out his soul in prayer to God for pardon and grace, in the following words, which he afterward wrote down and left on record, to be a monument both of his sin and repentance to all future generations.

Verse 1

Psalms 51:1. Have mercy upon me, O God O thou, who art the supreme Lawgiver, Governor, and Judge of the world, whom I have most highly offended many ways, and, therefore, may most justly be condemned to suffer the effects of thy severest displeasure; I cast myself down before thee, and humbly supplicate for mercy. O pity, help, and answer me in the desires I am now about to spread before thee; according to thy loving- kindness Thy known clemency and infinite compassions. For I pretend to no merit: I know my desert is everlasting destruction of body and soul; but I humbly implore the interposition of thy free grace and unmerited goodness. According to the multitude of thy tender mercies Hebrew, רחמיךְ , rachameicha, thy bowels of mercies, yearning over thy fallen, sinful, and miserable creatures. Thy mercies are infinite, and, therefore, sufficient for my relief: and such mercies, indeed, do I now need. “How reviving,” says Chandler, “is the belief and consideration of these abundant and tender compassions of God, to one in David’s circumstances; whose mind laboured under the burden of the most heinous, complicated guilt, and the fear of the divine displeasure and vengeance!” Blot out מחה , mechee, deleto, absterge, destroy, wipe away, my transgressions That is, entirely and absolutely forgive them; so that no part of the guilt I have contracted may remain, and the punishment of it may be wholly remitted. The word properly signifies to wipe out, or to wipe any thing absolutely clean, as a person wipes a dish: see 2 Kings 21:13. Blot out my transgressions As a debt is blotted or crossed out of the book, when either the debtor has paid it, or the creditor has remitted it; wipe them out That they may not appear to demand judgment against me, nor stare me in the face to my confusion and terror. Give me peace with thee, by turning away thine anger from me, and taking me again into thy favour; and give me peace in my own conscience, by assuring me thou hast done so.

Verse 2

Psalms 51:2. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, &c. “I have made myself exceeding loathsome by my repeated and heinous acts of wickedness, which, like a stain that hath long stuck to a garment, is not easily purged away; but do not, therefore, I beseech thee, abhor me, but rather magnify thy mercy in purifying me perfectly, and cleansing me so thoroughly, that there may be no spot remaining in me.” Bishop Patrick. Hebrew, הרבה כבסני , harbeh chabbeseeni, is literally, multiplica, lava me, multiply, wash me: that is, Wash me very much. By which phrase he implies the greatness of his guilt, the insufficiency of all legal washing, and the absolute necessity of some other and better means of cleansing him from it, even God’s grace and the atoning blood of Christ; which as Abraham saw by faith, John 8:56, so did David, as is sufficiently evident (allowance being made for the darkness of the Old Testament dispensation) from divers passages of his Psalms. Observe, reader, sin defiles us, renders us odious in the sight of the holy God, and uneasy to ourselves; it unfits us for communion with God, in grace or glory. But when God pardons sin, he cleanses us from it, so that we become acceptable to him, easy to ourselves, and have liberty of access to him. Nathan had assured David, upon his first profession of repentance, that his sin was pardoned. The Lord has taken away thy sin, thou shalt not die, 2 Samuel 12:13: yet he prays, Wash me, cleanse me, blot out my transgressions; for God will be sought unto, even for that which he has promised; and those whose sins are pardoned, must pray that the pardon may be more and more evidenced to them. God had forgiven him, but he could not forgive himself, and therefore he is thus importunate for pardon as one that thought himself unworthy of it.

Verse 3

Psalms 51:3. For I acknowledge my transgressions With grief, and shame, and abhorrence of myself and of my sins, which hitherto I have dissembled and covered. And, being thus truly penitent, I hope and beg that I may find mercy with thee. This David had formerly found to be the only way of obtaining forgiveness and peace of conscience, Psalms 32:4-5, and he now hoped to find the same blessings in the same way. And my sin is ever before me That sin, which I had cast behind my back, is now constantly in my view, to humble and mortify, and make me continually to blush and tremble. We see here David’s contrition for his sin was not a slight, sudden passion, but all abiding grief. He was put in mind of his crimes on all occasions; they were continually in his thoughts: and he was willing they should be so for his further abasement. Let us learn from hence, that our acts of repentance, for the same sin, ought to be often repeated, and that it is very expedient, and will be of great use for us, to have our sins ever before us, that by the remembrance of those that are past, we may be armed against temptations for the future, and may be kept humble, quickened to duty, and made patient under the cross.

Verse 4

Psalms 51:4. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned Which is not to be understood absolutely, because he had sinned against Bath-sheba and Uriah, and many others; but comparatively. So the sense is, Though I have sinned against my own conscience, and against others, yet nothing is more grievous to me than that I have sinned against thee. And done this evil in thy sight With gross contempt of thee, whom I knew to be a spectator of my most secret actions. That thou mightest be justified This will be the fruit of my sin, that whatsoever severities thou shalt use toward me, it will be no blemish to thy righteousness, but thy justice will be glorified by all men. When thou speakest Hebrew, in thy words, in all thy threatenings denounced against me. And be clear when thou judgest When thou dost execute thy sentence upon me.

Verse 5

Psalms 51:5. Behold, I was shapen in iniquity Hebrew, חוללתי , cholaleti, I was born, or brought forth: for it does not appear that the word ever signifies, I was shapen; and then the ensuing words will contain the reason of it; the sense being, because in sin did my mother conceive me, therefore I was brought forth in iniquity; that is, with great propensities and dispositions to sin. This verse is, both by Jewish and Christian, by ancient and later interpreters generally, and most justly, understood of what we call original sin; which David here mentions, not as an excuse for, but as an aggravation of, his transgression, inasmuch as the knowledge which he had of the total corruption of his nature, and its tendency to evil, ought to have made him more on his guard, and to have watched more carefully over his sensual passions and affections. And the sense of the place is this: Nor is this the only sin which I have reason to acknowledge and bewail before thee; for this filthy stream leads me to a corrupt fountain. And, upon a serious review of my heart and life, I find that I am guilty of innumerable other sins; and that this heinous crime, though drawn forth by external temptations, yet was indeed the proper fruit of my own vile nature, which, without the restraints of thy providence or grace, ever was and still will be inclinable and ready to commit ten thousand sins as occasion offers. Thus, as Dr. Dodd, after Chandler, justly observes, “The psalmist owns himself to be the corrupted, degenerate offspring, of corrupted, degenerate parents, agreeable to what was said long before he was born, Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one, Job 14:4. Nor is it unusual with good men, when confessing their own sins before God, to make mention of the sins of their parents, for their greater mortification and humiliation.”

Verse 6

Psalms 51:6. Behold, thou desirest Hebrew, חפצת , chaphatzta, delightest in, willest, or requirest, truth in the inward parts Uprightness of heart, which seems to be here opposed to that iniquity mentioned in the last verse, in which all men are conceived and born; and it may be here added as a proof, or aggravation, of the sinfulness of original corruption, because it is contrary to the holy nature and will of God, which requires not only unblameableness in men’s actions, but also the universal innocence and rectitude of their minds and hearts; and as an aggravation of his own actual sin, in which he had used gross deceit and treachery. And in the hidden part, &c. That is, in the heart, called the hidden man of the heart, 1 Peter 3:4; and, in the former clause, the reins, or inward parts; thou shalt make me to know wisdom That is, true piety and integrity, called wisdom, Job 28:28; Psalms 111:10, and in many other passages; as sin, on the contrary, is commonly called, as it really is, folly. And to know wisdom is here to be understood of knowing it practically and experimentally; so as to approve, and love, and practise it: as words of knowledge are most commonly to be understood in Scripture, and in other authors. According to this interpretation the psalmist, in these words, declares his hope that God would pardon and cure the folly which he had discovered, and make him wiser for the future. But, as this does not seem to suit perfectly with the context, which runs in rather another strain, the word תודיעני , todigneeni, may, and it seems ought to, be rendered in the past time, thou hast made me to know. And so this is another aggravation of his sin, that it was committed against that knowledge which God had not only revealed to him outwardly by his word, but also inwardly by his Spirit, writing it on his heart, according to his promise, Jeremiah 31:33. Or, the future verb may be here taken imperatively; and the words may be understood as a prayer, Do thou make me to know, &c., as the following future verbs ( Psa 51:7-8 ) are translated. Having then now said, for the aggravation of his sin, that God required truth in the inward parts, he takes occasion to break forth into prayer, which also he continues in the following verses.

Verse 7

Psalms 51:7. Purge me with hyssop Or, as with hyssop; the note of similitude being frequently understood. As lepers, and other unclean persons, are by thy appointment purified by the use of hyssop and other things, Leviticus 14:6; Numbers 19:6; so do thou cleanse me, a most leprous and polluted creature, by thy grace, and by the virtue of that blood of Christ, which is signified by those ceremonial usages. The word

תחשׂאני , techatteeni, here rendered purge me, properly means, expiate my sin. “The psalmist well knew that his sins were too great to be expiated by any legal purifications, and therefore prays that God would himself expiate them, and restore him; that is,” not only remove their guilt, but “make him as free from those criminal propensities to sin, and from all the bad effects of his aggravated crimes, as though he had been purified from a leprosy, by the water of cleansing, sprinkled on him by a branch of hyssop; and that he might be, if possible, clearer from all the defilement and guilt of sin than the new fallen snow. I think both these senses are included in the expiation which the psalmist prays for; as the person whose leprosy was expiated was wholly cured of his disease, and freed from all the incapacities attending it.” Dodd.

Verse 8

Psalms 51:8. Make me to hear joy and gladness Send me glad tidings of thy reconciliation to me; and by thy Spirit seal the pardon of my sins on my conscience, which will fill me with joy. That the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice That my heart, which hath been sorely wounded, and terrified by thy dreadful message sent by Nathan, and by the awful sentence of thy law, denounced against such sinners as I am, may be revived and comforted by the manifestation of thy favour to my soul. For he compares the pains and agonies of his mind, arising from the deep sense he had of the aggravated nature of his sins, and of the displeasure of God against him on account of them, to that exquisite torture he must have felt if all his bones had been crushed: “for the original word דכית , dicchita, signifies more than broken; namely, the being entirely mashed. And he compares the joy that God’s declaring himself fully reconciled to him would produce in his mind to that inconceivable pleasure which would have arisen from the instantaneous restoring and healing those bones, after they had been thus broken and crushed to pieces.”

Verses 9-10

Psalms 51:9-10. Hide thy face from my sins Do not look upon them with an eye of indignation and wrath, but forgive and forget them. Create in me a clean heart Seeing I have not only defiled myself by these actual sins, but also have a most unclean heart, corrupt even from my birth, which nothing but thy almighty, new-creating power can purify; I beseech thee to exert that power to produce in me a new and holy frame of heart, free from those impure inclinations and vile affections, the effects of which I have too fatally felt; a heart in possession, and under the influence, of those sacred dispositions of piety and virtue, in which the moral rectitude and purity of the mind consist. Thus shall both my inward uncleanness be purged away, and I shall be prevented from falling again into such actual and scandalous sins. And renew a right spirit in me Hebrew, רוח נכון , ruach nachon, a firm, constant, or steadfast disposition or temper of soul, that I may not be shaken and cast down by temptation, as I have been, but that my resolution may be fixed and immoveable. He says, חדשׁ , chaddesh, renew, because he had had this good temper, in a great measure, before his late apostacy, and here prays that it might be restored to him with increase. Within me Hebrew, בקרבי , bekirbi, in my inward parts. Thus he wisely strikes at the root and cause of all sinful actions.

Verses 11-12

Psalms 51:11-12. Cast me not away from thy presence That is, from thy favour and care. Take not thy Holy Spirit from me Thy sanctifying Spirit, by which alone I can have acquaintance and fellowship with thee. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation The comfortable sense of thy saving grace, promised and vouchsafed to me, both for my present and everlasting salvation. And uphold me A weak and frail creature, not able to stand against temptation and the corruption of my nature, without thy powerful and gracious succours; with thy free Spirit Or ingenuous, liberal, or princely, which he seems to oppose to this own base, illiberal, disingenuous, and servile spirit, which he had discovered in his wicked and unworthy practices. And he now desires a better spirit of God, which might free him from the bondage of sin, and incline and enable him freely, cheerfully, and constantly to run the way of God’s precepts.

Verse 13

Psalms 51:13. Then will I teach transgressors thy way Thy will and their duty, and the way to eternal happiness; or, rather, the manner of thy dealing with sinners, whom thou dost so severely chastise for their sins, and yet so graciously receive to mercy upon their repentance. Both which I will show them in my own example, for I will make known unto them my fall and recovery, through thy grace, although I shall thereby publish, not only thy goodness, but my own shame, which I shall most willingly bear, that I may, in some measure, repair the injury which I have done to thy cause and to my fellow-creatures, by my public and scandalous crimes. And sinners shall be converted unto thee I persuade myself that my endeavours shall not want success; and that either thy justice and severity on the one hand, or thy goodness and clemency on the other, will bring some sinners to repentance. Certainly, as Dr. Delaney observes in this verse, this instance of David’s miserable fall and happy restoration is well “fitted to mortify the vanity and merit of human virtue, and to raise the power and price of humble penitence, to abate the pride of self-sufficiency, and support the hope of frailty! Who can confide in his own strength when he sees a David fall? Who can despair of divine mercy when he sees him forgiven? Sad triumph of sin over all that is great and excellent in man! Glorious triumph of repentance over all that is shameful and dreadful in sin!” Book 4. chap. 24.

Verses 14-15

Psalms 51:14-15. Deliver me from blood-guiltiness Hebrew, מדמים , middamim, from bloods, because he had been the cause of the death, not only of Uriah, but of others of the Lord’s people with him, 2 Samuel 11:17. My tongue shall sing of thy righteousness, of thy faithfulness in making good thy promises; or, rather, of thy clemency and goodness, as the word righteousness often signifies. Open thou my lips Which are shut with shame, and grief, and horror. Restore unto me the opportunity, ability, and liberty which I formerly had of speaking to thee in prayer and praise, and to my fellow-creatures, by way of instruction, reproof, or exhortation, with freedom and boldness. And my mouth shall show forth thy praise In thy mercy and thy faithfulness remember thy gracious promises, and accomplish them, notwithstanding my unworthiness, and, as I shall be furnished with new motives and occasions for gratitude and thankfulness, my mouth shall everywhere declare thy goodness, to thy perpetual praise and glory.

Verses 16-17

Psalms 51:16-17. For thou desirest not sacrifice Which is not to be understood absolutely and universally, as appears from Psalms 51:19, but comparatively, (see on Psalms 40:6,) and with particular respect to David’s crimes of murder and adultery, which were not to be expiated by any sacrifice, but, according to the law of God, were to be punished with death. Thou requirest more and better sacrifices, namely, such as are mentioned Psalms 51:17. Else would I give it I should have spared no cost of that kind. The sacrifices of God Which God, in such cases as mine, requires, and will accept; are a broken spirit, &c. A heart deeply afflicted and grieved for sin, humbled under a sense of God’s displeasure, and earnestly seeking, and willing to accept of, reconciliation with God upon any terms: see Isaiah 57:15; Isaiah 61:2; Isaiah 66:2; Matthew 11:28. This is opposed to that hard or stony heart, of which we read so often, which implies an insensibility of the burden of sin, a spirit stubborn and rebellious against God, impenitent and incorrigible. O God, thou wilt not despise This is such an acceptable sacrifice that thou canst not possibly reject it.

Verse 18

Psalms 51:18. Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion Hebrew, ברצונךְ , birtzonecha, for, or according to, thy grace, favour, or pleasure That is, thy free and rich mercy, and thy gracious purpose and promise, made to and concerning thy church and people, here termed Zion. Build the walls of Jerusalem Perfect the walls and buildings of that city, and especially let the temple be built and established in it, notwithstanding my great sins whereby I have polluted it, which I pray thee to purge away. But he may also be understood as speaking figuratively in these words, and praying for the enlargement and establishment of God’s church, often meant by Jerusalem.

Verse 19

Psalms 51:19. Then When thou hast granted my humble requests, expressed in the former verses; when thou hast renewed, and pardoned, and comforted me, and restored thy favour unto thy people and this city; shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness Which I and my people, being justified and reconciled to thee, shall offer with sincere and penitent hearts. These are opposed to the sacrifices of the wicked, which God abhors, Proverbs 15:8; Isaiah 1:11; and, withal, by thus speaking, he intimates that God, for their sins, might justly now reject their sacrifices as not being, properly speaking, sacrifices of righteousness, because they who offered them were not righteous. Then shall they, &c. That is, they who, by thy appointment, are to do that work, namely, the priests in the name and on the behalf of thy people. Offer bullocks upon thine altar The best and most costly sacrifices, and that in great numbers, in testimony of their gratitude for thy great favour, in pardoning mine and their sins, and preventing that total ruin which we had reason to expect and fear upon that account.

Bibliographical Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on Psalms 51". Benson's Commentary. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/rbc/psalms-51.html. 1857.
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