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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 51

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-19

Psalms 51:1-19

THE main grounds on which the Davidic authorship of this psalm is denied are four. First, it is alleged that its conceptions of sin and penitence are in advance of his stage of religious development; or, as Cheyene puts it, "David could not have had these ideas" ("Aids to Dev. Study of Crit.," 166). The impossibility depends on theory which is not yet so established as to be confidently used to settle questions of date. Again, the psalmist’s wail, "Against Thee only have I sinned," is said to be conclusive proof that the wrong done to Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah cannot be referred to. But is not God the correlative of sin, and may not the same act be qualified in one aspect as a crime and in another as a sin, bearing in the latter character exclusive relation to God? The prayer in Psalms 51:18 is the ground of a third objection to the Davidic authorship. Certainly it is hopeless to attempt to, explain "Build the walls of Jerusalem" as David’s prayer. But the opinion held by both advocates and opponents of David’s authorship, that Psalms 51:18-19 are a later liturgical addition, removes this difficulty. Another ground on which the psalm is brought down to a late date is the resemblances in it to Isaiah 40:1-31; Isaiah 41:1-29; Isaiah 42:1-25; Isaiah 43:1-28; Isaiah 44:1-28; Isaiah 45:1-25; Isaiah 46:1-13, which are taken to be echoes of the prophetic words. The resemblances are undoubted; the assumption that. the psalmist is the copyist is not.

The personified nation is supposed by most modern authorities to be the speaker; and the date is sometimes taken to be the Restoration period, before the rebuilding of the walls by Nehemiah (Cheyne, "Orig. of Psalt.," 162); by others, the time of the Babylonish exile; and, as usual, by some, the Maccabean epoch. It puts considerable strain upon the theory of personification to believe that these confessions of personal sin, and longing cries for a clean heart, which so many generations have felt to fit their most secret experiences, were not the wailings of a soul which had learned the burden of individuality, by consciousness of sin, and by realisation of the awful solitude of its relation to God. There are also expressions in the psalm which seem to clog the supposition that the speaker is the nation with great difficulties-e.g., the reference to birth in Psalms 51:5, the prayer for inward truth in Psalms 51:6, and for a clean heart in Psalms 51:10. Baethgen acknowledges that the two latter only receive their full meaning when applied to an individual. He quotes Olshausen, a defender of the national reference, who really admits the force of the objection to it, raised on the ground of these expressions, while he seeks to parry it by saying that "it is not unnatural that the poet, speaking in the singular, should, although he writes for the congregation, bring in occasional expressions here and there which do not fit the community so well as they do each individual in it." The acknowledgment is valuable; the attempt to turn its edge may be left to the reader’s judgment.

In Psalms 51:1-9 the psalmist’s cry is chiefly for pardon; in Psalms 51:10-12 he prays chiefly for purity; in Psalms 51:13-17 he vows grateful service. Psalms 51:18-19 are probably a later addition.

The psalm begins with at once grasping the character of God as the sole ground of hope. That character has been revealed in an infinite number of acts of love. The very number of the psalmist’s sins drove him to contemplate the yet greater number of God’s mercies. For where but in an infinite placableness and lovingkindness could he find pardon? If the Davidic authorship is adopted, this psalm followed Nathan’s assurance of forgiveness, and its petitions are the psalmist’s efforts to lay hold of that assurance. The revelation of God’s love precedes and causes true penitence. Our prayer for forgiveness is the appropriation of God’s promise of forgiveness. The assurance of pardon does not lead to a light estimate of sin, but drives it home to the conscience.

The petitions of Psalms 51:1-2 teach us how the psalmist thought of sin. They are all substantially the same, and their repetition discloses the depth of longing in the suppliant. The language fluctuates between plural and singular nouns, designating the evil as "transgressions" and as "iniquity" and "sin." The psalmist regards it, first, as a multitude of separate acts, then as all gathered together into a grim unity. The single deeds of wrong doing pass before him. But these have a common root; and we must not only recognise acts, but that alienation of heart from which they come-not only sin as it comes out in the life, but as it is coiled round our hearts. Sins are the manifestations of sin.

We note, too, how the psalmist realises his personal responsibility. He reiterates "my"-"my transgressions, my iniquity, my sin." He does not throw blame on circumstances, or talk about temperament or maxims of society or bodily organisation. All these had some share in impelling him to sin; but after all allowance made for them, the deed is the doer’s, and he must bear its burden.

The same eloquent synonyms for evil deeds which are found in Psalms 32:1-11 occur again here. "Transgression" is literally rebellion; "iniquity," that which is twisted or bent; "sin," missing a mark. Sin is rebellion, the uprising of the will against rightful authority-not merely the breach of abstract propriety or law, but opposition to a living Person, who has right to obedience. The definition of virtue is obedience to God, and the sin in sin is the assertion of independence of God and opposition to His will.

Not less profound is that other name, which regards sin as "iniquity" or distortion. Then there is a straight line to which men’s lives should run parallel. Our life’s paths should be like these conquering Roman roads, turning aside for nothing, but going straight to their aim over mountain and ravine, stream or desert. But this man’s passion had made for him a crooked path, where he found no end, "in wandering mazes lost." Sin is, further, missing an aim, the aim being either the Divine purpose for man, the true ideal of manhood, or the satisfaction proposed by the sinner to himself as the result of his sin. In both senses every sin misses the mark.

These petitions show also how the psalmist thought of forgiveness. As the words for sin give a threefold view of it, so those for pardon set it forth in three aspects. "Blot out"; -that petition conceives of forgiveness as being the erasure of a writing, perhaps of an indictment. Our past is a blurred manuscript full of false and bad things. The melancholy theory of some thinkers is summed up in the despairing words, "What I have written, I have written." But the psalmist knew better than that; and we should know better than he did. Our souls may become palimpsests: and, as devotional meditations might be written by a saint on a parchment that had borne foul legends of false gods, the bad writing on them may be obliterated, and God’s law be written there. "Wash me thoroughly" needs no explanation. But the word employed is significant, in that it probably means washing by kneading or beating, not by simple rinsing. The psalmist is ready to submit to any painful discipline, if only he may be cleansed. "Wash me, beat me, tread me down, hammer me with mallets, dash me against stones, do anything with me, if only these foul stains are melted from the texture of my soul." The psalmist had not heard of the alchemy by which men can "wash their robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb"; but he held fast by God’s "lovingkindness," and knew the blackness of his own sin, and groaned under it; and therefore his cry was not in vain. An anticipation of the Christian teaching as to forgiveness lies in his last expression for pardon, "make me clean," which is the technical word for the priestly act of declaring ceremonial purity, and for the other priestly act of making as well as declaring clean from the stains of leprosy. The suppliant thinks of his guilt not only as a blotted record or as a polluted robe, but as a fatal disease, the "firstborn of death," and as capable of being taken away only by the hand of the Priest laid on the feculent mass. We know who put out His hand and touched the leper, and said, "I will: be thou clean."

The petitions for cleansing are, in Psalms 51:3, urged on the ground of the psalmist’s consciousness of sin. Penitent confession is a condition of forgiveness. There is no need to take this verse as giving the reason why the psalmist offered his prayer, rather than as presenting a plea why it should be answered. Some commentators have adopted the former explanation, from a fear lest the other should give countenance to the notion that repentance is a meritorious cause of forgiveness; but that is unnecessary scrupulousness. "Sin is always sin, and deserving of punishment, whether it is confessed or not. Still, confession of sin is of importance on this account-that God will be gracious to none but to those who confess their sin" (Luther, quoted by Perowne).

Psalms 51:4 sounds the depths in both its clauses. In the first the psalmist shuts out all other aspects of his guilt, and is absorbed in its solemnity as viewed in relation to God. It is asked, How could David have thought of his sin, which had in so many ways been "against" others, as having been "against Thee, Thee only"? As has been noted above, this confession has been taken to demonstrate conclusively the impossibility of the Davidic authorship. But surely it argues a strange ignorance of the language of a penitent soul, to suppose that such words as the psalmist’s could be spoken only in regard to sins which had no bearing at all on other men. David’s deed had been a crime against Bathsheba, against Uriah, against his family and his realm; but these were not its blackest characteristics. Every crime against man is sin against God. "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these ye have done it unto Me" is the spirit of the Decalogue as well as the language of Jesus. And it is only when considered as having relation to God that crimes are darkened into sins. The psalmist is stating a strictly true and profound thought when he declares that he has sinned "against Thee only." Further, that thought has, for the time being, filled his whole horizon. Other aspects of his shameful deed will torture him enough in coming days, even when he has fully entered into the blessedness of forgiveness; but they are not present to his mind now, when the one awful thought of his perverted relation to God swallows up all others. A man who has never felt that all-engrossing sense of his sin as against God only has much to learn.

The second clause of Psalms 51:4 opens the question whether "in order that" is always used in the Old Testament in its full meaning as expressing intention, or sometimes in the looser signification of "so that," expressing result. Several passages usually referred to on this point {e.g., Exodus 11:9; Isaiah 44:9; Hosea 8:4} strongly favour the less stringent view, which is also in accordance with the genius of the Hebrew race, who were not metaphysicians. The other view, that the expression here means "in order that," insists on grammatical precision in the cries of a penitent heart, and clogs the words with difficulty. If their meaning is that the psalmist’s sin was intended to show forth God’s righteousness in judging, the intention must have been God’s, not the sinner’s; and such a thought not only ascribes man’s sin directly to God, but is quite irrelevant to the psalmist’s purpose in the words. For he is not palliating his transgression or throwing it on Divine predestination (as Cheyne takes him to be doing), but is submitting himself, in profoundest abasement of undivided guilt, to the just judgment of God. His prayer for forgiveness is accompanied with willingness to submit to chastisement, as all true desire for pardon is. He makes no excuses for his sin, but submits himself unconditionally to the just judgment of God. "Thou remainest the Holy One; I am the sinner; and therefore Thou mayest, with perfect justice, punish me and spurn me from Thy presence" (Stier).

Psalms 51:5-6 are marked as closely related by the "Behold" at the beginning of each. The psalmist passes from penitent contemplation and confession of his acts of sin to acknowledge his sinful nature, derived from sinful parents. "Original sin" is theological terminology for the same facts which science gathers together under the name of "heredity." The psalmist is not responsible for later dogmatic developments of the idea, but he feels that he has to confess not only his acts but his nature. "A corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit." The taint is transmitted. No fact is more plain than this, as all the more serious observers of human life and of their own characters have recognised. Only a superficial view of humanity or an inadequate conception of morality can jauntily say that "all children are born good." Theologians have exaggerated and elaborated, as is their wont, and so have made the thought repugnant; but the derived sinful bias of human nature is a fact, not a dogma, and those who know it and their own share of it best will be disposed to agree with Browning, in finding one great reason for believing in Biblical religion, that-

"‘Tis the faith that launched point blank her dart

At the head of a lie-taught Original Sin,

The Corruption of Man’s Heart."

The psalmist is not, strictly speaking, either extenuating or aggravating his sin by thus recognising his evil nature. He does not think that sin is the less his, because the tendency has been inherited. But he is spreading all his condition before God. In fact, he is not so much thinking of his criminality as of his desperate need. From a burden so heavy and so entwined with himself none but God can deliver him. He cannot cleanse himself, for self is infected. He cannot find cleansing among men, for they too have inherited the poison. And so he is driven to God, or else must sink into despair. He who once sees into the black depths of his own heart will give up thereafter all ideas of "every man his own redeemer." That the psalmist’s purpose was not to minimise his own guilt is clear, not only from the tone of the psalm, but from the antithesis presented by the Divine desire after inward truth in the next verse, which is out of place if this verse contains a palliation for sin.

We can scarcely miss the bearing of this verse on the question of whether the psalm is the confession of an individual penitent or that of the nation. It strongly favours the former, view, though it does not make the latter absolutely impossible.

The discovery of inherent and inherited sinfulness brings with it another discovery-that of the penetrating depth of the requirements of God’s law. He cannot be satisfied with outside conformity in deed. The more intensely conscience realises sin, the more solemnly rises before it the Divine ideal of man in its inwardness as well as in its sweep. Truth within - inward correspondence with His will, and absolute sincerity of soul are His desire. But I am "born in iniquity": a terrible antithesis, and hopeless but for one hope which dawns over the suppliant like morning on a troubled sea. If we cannot ask God to make us what He wishes us to be, these two discoveries of our nature and of His will are open doorways to despair; but he who apprehends them wisely will find in their conjoint operation a force impelling him to prayer, and therefore to confidence. Only God can enable such a Being as man to become such as He will delight in; and since He seeks for truth within, He thereby pledges Himself to give the truth and wisdom for which He seeks.

Meditation on the sin which was ever before the psalmist, passes into renewed prayers for pardon, which partly reiterate those already offered in Psalms 51:1-2. The petition in Psalms 51:7 for purging with hyssop alludes to sprinkling of lepers and unclean persons, and indicates both a consciousness of great impurity and a clear perception of the symbolic meaning of ritual cleansings. "Wash me" repeats a former petition; but now the psalmist can venture to dwell more on the thought of future purity than he could do then. The approaching answer begins to make its brightness visible through the gloom, and it seems possible to the suppliant that even his stained nature shall glisten like sunlit snow. Nor does that expectation exhaust his confidence. He hopes for "joy and gladness." His bones have been crushed-i.e., his whole self has been, as it were, ground to powder by the weight of God’s hand; but restoration is possible. A penitent heart is not too bold when it asks for joy. There is no real well-founded gladness without the consciousness of Divine forgiveness. The psalmist closes his petitions for pardon (Psalms 51:9) with asking God to "hide His face from his sins," so that they be, as it were, no more existent for Him, and, by a repetition of the initial petition in Psalms 51:1, for the blotting out of "all mine iniquities."

The second principal division begins with Psalms 51:10, and is a prayer for purity, followed by vows of glad service. The prayer is contained in three verses (Psalms 51:10-12), of which the first implores complete renewal of nature, the second beseeches that there may be no break between the suppliant and God, and the third asks for the joy and willingness to serve which would flow from the granting of the desires preceding. In each verse the second clause has "spirit" for its leading word, and the middle one of the three asks for "Thy holy spirit." The petitions themselves, and the order in which they occur, are deeply significant, and deserve much more elucidation than can be given here. The same profound consciousness of inward corruption which spoke in the former part of the psalm shapes the prayer for renewal. Nothing less than a new creation will make this man’s heart "clean." His past has taught him that. The word employed is always used of God’s creative act; and the psalmist feels that nothing less than the power which brooded over the face of primeval chaos, and evolved thence an ordered world, can deal with the confused ruin within himself. What he felt that he must have is what prophets promised {Jeremiah 24:7; Ezekiel 36:26} and Christ has brought-a new creation, in which, while personality remains unaffected, and the components of character continue as before, a real new life is bestowed, which stamps new directions on affections, gives new aims, impulses, convictions, casts out inveterate evils, and gradually changes "all but the basis of the soul." A desire for pardon which does not unfold into such longing for deliverance from the misery of the old self is not the offspring of genuine penitence, but only of base fear.

"A steadfast spirit" is needful in order to keep a cleansed heart clean; and, on the other hand, when, by cleanness of heart, a man is freed from the perturbations of rebellious desires and the weakening influences of sin, his spirit will be steadfast. The two characteristics sustain each other. Consciousness of corruption dictated the former desire; penitent recognition of weakness and fluctuation inspires the latter. It may be observed, too, that the triad of petitions having reference to "spirit" has for its central one a prayer for God’s Spirit, and that the other two may be regarded as dependent on that. Where God’s spirit dwells, the human spirit in which it abides will be firm with uncreated strength. His energy, being infused into a tremulous, changeful humanity, will make it stable. If we are to stand fast, we must be stayed on God.

The group of petitions in Psalms 51:11 is negative. It deprecates a possible tragic separation from God, and that under two aspects. "Part me not from Thee; part not Thyself from me." The former prayer, "Cast me not out from Thy presence," is by some explained according to the analogy of other instances of the occurrence of the phrase, where it means expulsion from the land of Israel; and is claimed, thus interpreted, as a clear indication that the psalmist speaks in the name of the nation. But however certainly the expression is thus used elsewhere, it cannot, without introducing an alien thought, be so interpreted in its present connection, imbedded in petitions of the most spiritual and individual character: much rather, the psalmist is recoiling from what he knows only too well to be the consequence of an unclean heart-separation from God, whether in the sense of exclusion from the sanctuary, or in the profounder sense, which is not too deep for such a psalm, of conscious loss of the light of God’s face. He dreads being, Cain-like, shut out from that presence which is life; and he knows that, unless his previous prayer for a clean heart is answered, that dreary solitude of great darkness must be his lot. The sister petition, "Take not Thy holy spirit from me," contemplates the union between God and him from the other side. He regards himself as possessing that Divine spirit; for he knows that, notwithstanding his sin, God has not left him, else he would not have these movements of godly sorrow and yearnings for purity. There is no reason to commit the anachronism of supposing that the psalmist had any knowledge of New Testament teaching of a personal Divine Spirit. But if we may suppose that he is David, this prayer has special force. That anointing which designated and fitted him for kingly office symbolised the gift of a Divine influence accompanying a Divine call. If we further remember how it had fared with his predecessor, from whom, because of impenitence, "the Spirit of the Lord departed, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him," we understand how Saul’s successor, trembling as he remembers his fate, prays with peculiar emphasis, "Take not Thy Holy Spirit from me."

The last member of the triad, in Psalms 51:12, looks back to former petitions, and asks for restoration of the "joy of Thy salvation," which had lain like dew on this man before he fell. In this connection the supplication for joy follows on the other two, because the joy which it desires is the result of their being granted. For what is "Thy salvation" but the gift of a clean heart and a steadfast spirit, the blessed consciousness of unbroken closeness of communion with God, in which the suppliant suns himself in the beams of God’s face, and receives an uninterrupted communication of His Spirit’s gifts? These are the sources of pure joy, lasting as God Himself, and victorious over all occasions for surface sorrow. The issue of all these gifts will be "a willing spirit," delighting to obey, eager to serve. If God’s Spirit dwells in us, obedience will be delight. To serve God because we must is not service. To serve Him because we had rather do His will than anything else is the service which delights Him and blesses us. The word rendered "willing" comes by a very natural process, to mean nobles. God’s servants are princes and lords of everything besides, themselves included. Such obedience is freedom. If desires flow with equable motion parallel to God’s will, there is no sense of restraint in keeping within limits beyond which we do not desire to go. "I will walk at liberty; for I keep Thy precepts."

The last part of the psalm runs over with joyful vows-first, of magnifying God’s name (Psalms 51:13-15), and then of offering true sacrifices. A man who has passed through such experiences as the psalmist’s and has received the blessings for which he prayed, cannot be silent. The instinct of hearts touched by God’s mercies is to speak of them to others. And no man who can say "I will tell what He has done for my soul" is without the most persuasive argument to bring to bear on others. A piece of autobiography will touch men who are unaffected by elaborate reasonings and deaf to polished eloquence. The impulse and the capacity to "teach transgressors Thy ways" are given in the experience of sin and forgiveness; and if anyone has not the former, it is questionable whether he has, in any real sense or large measure, received the latter. The prayer for deliverance from blood guiltiness in Psalms 51:14 breaks for a moment the flow of vows; but only for a moment. It indicates how amid them the psalmist preserved his sense of guilt, and how little he was disposed to think lightly of the sins of whose forgiveness he had prayed himself into the assurance. Its emergence here, like a black rock pushing its grimness up through a sparkling, sunny sea, in no sign of doubt whether his prayers had been answered; but it marks the abiding sense of sinfulness, which must ever accompany abiding gratitude for pardon and abiding holiness of heart. It seems hard to believe, as the advocates of a national reference in the psalm are obliged to do, that "blood guiltiness" has no special reference in the psalmist’s crime, but is employed simply as typical of sin in general. The mention of it finds a very obvious explanation on the hypothesis of Davidic authorship, and a rather constrained one on any other.

Psalms 51:16 introduces the reason for the preceding vow of grateful praise, as is shown by the initial "For." The psalmist will bring the sacrifices of a grateful heart making his lips musical, because he has learned that these, and not ritual offerings, are acceptable. The same depreciation of external sacrifices is strongly expressed in Psalms 40:6, and here, as there, is not to be taken as an absolute condemnation of these, but as setting them decisively below spiritual service. To suppose that prophets or psalmists waged a polemic against ritual observances per se misapprehends their position entirely. They do war against "the sacrifice of the wicked," against external acts which had no inward reality corresponding to them, against reliance on the outward and its undue exaltation. The authors of the later addition to this psalm had a true conception of its drift when they appended to it, not as a correction of a heretical tendency, but as a liturgical addition in full harmony with its spirit, the vow to "offer whole burnt offerings on" the restored "altar," when God should again build up Zion.

The psalmist’s last words are immortal. "A heart broken and crushed, O God, Thou wilt not despise." But they derive still deeper beauty and pathos when it is observed that they are spoken after confession has been answered to his consciousness by pardon, and longing for purity by at least some bestowal of it. The "joy of Thy salvation," for which he had prayed has begun to flow into his heart. The "bones" which had been "crushed" are beginning to reknit, and thrills of gladness to steal through his frame; but still he feels that with all these happy experiences contrite consciousness of his sin must mingle. It does not rob his joy of one rapture, but it keeps it from becoming careless. He goes safely who goes humbly. The more sure a man is that God has put away the iniquity of his sin, the more should he remember it; for the remembrance will vivify gratitude and bind close to Him without whom there can be no steadfastness of spirit nor purity of life. The clean heart must continue contrite, if it is not to cease to be clean.

The liturgical addition implies that Jerusalem is in ruins. It cannot be supposed without violence to come from David. It is not needed in order to form a completion to the psalm, which ends more impressively, and has an inner unity and coherence, if the deep words of Psalms 51:17 are taken as its close.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 51". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/psalms-51.html.
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