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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 51

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary


To the chief Musician. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

The date, authorship, and occasion of this psalm point to 2 Samuel 12:0, as fully suggested by the title. As a penitential psalm it holds a pre-eminent rank. Its profoundly spiritual, doctrinal, evangelical character, has caused it to be widely repeated in the Church in all ages in homily, in hymns, and in litanies. It fathoms the depth of true contrition and confession, and is the true out-reaching of a sinking soul after God.

The most general division of the psalm may be rendered in two parts, the prayer for forgiveness, Psalms 51:1-6; the prayer for renewal, Psalms 51:7-19. In Psalms 51:13-15, vows of praise and of activity in leading back transgressors are mingled with prayer. The last two verses have an air of liturgical supplementation to the psalm, as if by a later hand, but they should be considered as the natural outgoings of a king’s heart for the safety and prosperity of his people and capital, with an undertone of deprecation of that public wrath which was now due to his sins, and threatened his kingdom.


Chief Musician The precentor.

When Nathan the prophet came unto him See 2 Samuel 12:1-13.

After he had gone About a year after. 2 Samuel 12:14

Verse 1

1. Have mercy upon me Psalms 51:1-2, are a simple, earnest plea for mercy. In the greatness of David’s guilt the compassion of God afforded the only ray of hope.

According to thy lovingkindness The infinite “kindness” of God could alone supply a rule of measurement for that grace which the enormity of his offences called for. (Compare “according to the riches of his glory,” Ephesians 3:16.) This quality and fulness of grace are twice urged by the particle “according.”

Multitude of thy tender mercies The greatness and manifoldness of grace are still kept in view.

Verse 2

2. Wash me thoroughly Literally, multiply to wash, or wash me much, or many times. The word belongs to the fuller’s art of cleansing by treading with the feet, or scouring, and is intensive of thorough work, because of the difficulty of cleansing on account of deep stains.

Verse 3

3. In Psalms 51:3-5 are brought out more distinctly the psalmist’s clear sense of guilt, and his free confessions.

I acknowledge Literally, I will know. The word is expressive of clear internal perception of sin. The willingness to know sin is the first step towards repentance, and the open expression of this knowledge is the exact idea of acknowledge, confess.

Transgressions He uses the plural here as in Psalms 51:1. He had caused the death of Uriah, used deceit, covered his sin, hardened his heart, dishonoured his family, and weakened his kingdom, added to the breach of the seventh commandment. Thus one sin never stands alone, but, as Perowne says, “each single transgression is the mother of many.” Each sin has a malignant and multiform embryonic vitality.

Verse 4

4. Against thee, thee only The particle rendered “only,” should here take its radical signification of separately, apart, as it often does elsewhere. The sense is, “against thee, against thee” apart, or separately, from all human relations of my offense, have I sinned. His sin against humanity was great, but he now sees more clearly than ever that each sin against humanity is a sin against God, and it was the divine law, the relations of his soul to God, which gave sin its peculiar turpitude.

That… mightest be justified The telic use of “that” appears strongly here, and the doctrine stands thus: From the relation of all souls to God every sin against man lies primarily against God, to the end, or final consequence, that God, who is the supreme and ultimate judge of all human conduct, may be justified in his sentence upon the wicked.

Verse 5

5. I was shapen in iniquity;… in sin… conceive me The verb rendered “shapen” simply denotes the being born. The words “in sin,” etc., do not imply any thing sinful in the means leading to that birth, but merely the being born with a sinful nature. The text is of like import with Ephesians 2:3, “And were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.” This confession of natural depravity was not made in abatement of actual transgression, but to show that David not only abandons every plea of self-justification, but also of self-restorative power.

Verse 6

6. In the inward parts:… the hidden part Literally, the reins and the covered parts, two synonymous words which, in Hebrew psychology, correspond to the New Testament phrase, “ inner man,” or “ inward part,”

Luke 11:39; Romans 7:22; 2 Chronicles 4:16; Ephesians 3:16; and must here be understood generically of the entire spiritual and psychical nature of man. In Job 38:36, the connexion, and the parallel word rendered heart, require us to understand the mind, intellect. See also Psalms 16:7. David assigns inward part as the seat of truth and wisdom, which determines it to be the seat of thought and purpose as well as feeling. The Hebrews had no metaphysical system of thought, but located the mind or sensibilities phenomenally; that is, according to their sensible effect on the nerves. Truth here takes the sense of integrity, uprightness, and wisdom that of the knowledge of God.

Verse 7

7. Purge me with hyssop The allusion is to the purification from death-corruption, as recorded Numbers 19:0; Numbers 31:19, the substance and ritualistic form of which were the strongest and most imposing known to the Mosaic law. Both the sprinkling and washing are referred to: “ Sprinkle me with hyssop; wash me,” etc. See Numbers 19:19. The pollution by the touch of a dead body was considered as the infection of death, and the purifying element, which must be correspondingly strong, was the essence of the blood and flesh of the “red heifer,” with the alkali from the ashes of the “cedar wood” mixed with living water, partaking at once of the nature of a sin offering and a holocaust, or burnt offering; that is, of an expiation, and a complete surrender to God. The idea of purification from the corruption of in-reigning death as the penalty of sin, was fundamental to the institution.

Whiter than snow Compare Isaiah 1:18

Verse 8

8. Bones which thou hast broken The crushing of the bones, says Perowne, constituting, as they do, the strength and framework of the body, is a very strong figure, denoting the most complete prostration, mental and bodily. Psalms 6:2

Verse 10

10. Create in me a clean heart The spiritual work, heart renewal, is constantly before the royal penitent, and this is nothing less than a new creation. The word create is the strongest known in the Hebrew for bringing into being that which did not before exist, as Genesis 1:1. Comp. Ephesians 2:10; Ephesians 4:24; and “ new creation,” 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15. The renewal of the heart by creative energy is a purely evangelical idea.

Right spirit The word means a steadfast, established mind; one that could stand firm and resist temptation. See Psalms 78:37

Verse 11

11. Take not thy Holy Spirit from me That Spirit which came upon David at his anointing as king, (1 Samuel 16:13,) and by which he had achieved all his victories, he had now forfeited, and he deprecates the justice which would take back the forfeiture. With the divine rejection, as with Saul, would follow that by the people of Israel. 1 Samuel 16:14; 1 Samuel 2:0 Kings 24:24. The order follows in moral sequence no less than in judicial judgment loss of the favour of God, loss of providential rank and honour, loss of the soul. “They that despise me shall be lightly esteemed.” 1 Samuel 2:30

Verse 12

12. Uphold me with thy free Spirit The idea of “uphold,” here, is to confirm, render permanent. David desires that the restored state be sustained and abiding. This is the point of the petition. But he has not in himself the elements of this stability. God only can “restore the joys of salvation,” and he alone can cause him to stand firm in this restored life. The word “free,” in the Hebrew, is often used as a substantive to denote a prince, noble, grandee; and thus the Septuagint and Jerome understood it. This gives the sense of a governing, or princely Spirit, with the idea of liberality implied, (see Isaiah 32:6; Isaiah 32:8,) and this meets the point of the request: By thy governing Spirit establish me. If we understand by “free spirit,” “not the Holy Spirit, but the human spirit made free from the dominion of sin by the Holy Spirit,” (Delitzsch,) still the doctrinal recognition of the Holy Spirit’s influence upon the heart is the same. But the sense we have given more naturally connects with Psalms 51:11 and the parallelism, and is sustained by usage.

Verse 13

13. Will I teach transgressors Thus the psalmist would show forth his gratitude for that renewal and establishment in righteousness for which he agonizes. And for this he would be prepared only when he himself should be fully reinstated in the divine favour. How he fulfilled this promise is shown in some of his subsequent psalms, as Psalms 32, 40, , 103, which should be read in this connexion.

Thy ways The way of thy commandments.

Shall be converted Shall turn to thee. The verb is active, and is broadly significant of entire and hearty repentance. The example of his forgiveness should encourage others to repent.

Verse 14

14. Bloodguiltiness A direct allusion to 2 Samuel 11:14-17. He covers nothing of his sin, but openly calls things by their right names. The word rendered “bloodguiltiness” is in the Hebrew simply bloods, (plural.) In the singular it is often used for wilful blood shedding, the taking of human life by violence; in the plural, as here, uniformly so.

Sing aloud of thy righteousness Thus, after forgiveness, according to the law of Moses, comes the offering of praise and thanksgiving. See on Psalms 51:19, and Psalms 107:22

Verse 15

15. Open thou my lips His lips were closed as to praise and thanksgiving. How can a guilty soul speak the praises of God? He longs for the return of the spirit and freedom of praise. See Psalms 40:3, which was written after his recovery.

Verse 16

16. Thou desirest not sacrifice The word זבח , ( zebahh,) sacrifice, is the generic term for bloody offerings, but more especially for sin and trespass offerings. The law of Moses made no provision for the forgiveness or expiation of such sins as David had committed. See Numbers 15:30-31. He felt that he had passed the ordinary limits of expiable sins. Forms and types now availed nothing. But if the letter and the form were impotent, he would still appeal to the spirit of the sacrificial system. If the blood of a bullock or of a lamb could avail nothing now, and the death penalty still hung darkly over him, yet God would not overlook the true spirit of contrition, and a heart bleeding and broken by penitential sorrow. This is another instance of his profoundly evangelical views of the expiatory system of Moses, as pointing to an expiation and a pardoning power beyond the letter of the law. Afterwards he referred back to this crisis of his agony, where he felt the conscious insufficiency of the bloody sacrifices under the law, and it became the occasion of a glorious Messianic prophecy. See on Psalms 40:6-8, and compare Hebrews 10:5-10, and the notes there.

Verse 18

18. Do good… unto Zion As a king he feels he has exposed his people and kingdom, no less than himself, to judgments, and these public calamities had been sternly foretold by Nathan. 2 Samuel 12:10-12. They must suffer with him; yea through their suffering the king more profoundly suffers.

Build… the walls of Jerusalem A figurative expression for the prosperity and strength of the nation, and as a proof or symbol of the divine protection. See Psalms 69:35. Or, it may be an allusion to the unfinished walls and fortifications in David’s time, which were completed in Solomon’s reign. 1 Kings 3:1; 1Ki 9:15 ; 1 Kings 9:19. It is not necessary to suppose these last two verses of the psalm to have been added by the returned exiles, much less that they are proof that the entire psalm was written at that date and by another hand than David’s. The word rendered “build” is never, in our version, translated rebuild, and seldom bears that sense. Hitherto David’s wars had been carried on in the enemy’s country, and it would be but natural that he should anticipate the possibility of a recoil of his foreign victories by an invasion that would test the strength of the fortifications of his capital. Having finished his penitential prayer for himself, and with his eye on the fiery denunciation of the prophet above alluded to, “the sword shall never depart from thy house,” his kingly heart turns to his people in prayer for their safety and the stability of his kingdom.

Verse 19

19. Sacrifices of righteousness The construct or genitive relation of the nouns yields the sense of sacrifice in order to justification expiatory sacrifices. So the word denotes Psalms 51:16. In perfect analogy with this construction, the phrase sacrifices of thanksgiving, the exact opposite, occurs; that is, sacrifices for, or to express, thanksgiving for justifying favour received. See Psalms 107:22; Psalms 116:17.

Burnt offering and whole burnt offering Two synonymous words, the latter in apposition to the former, and added for emphasis, as in 1 Samuel 7:9. The order of sacrifices here observed is to be noticed. The “sacrifices of righteousness” were for expiation, or atonement; the “burnt offering” “was the sacrifice of entire, full, unconditional surrender to Jehovah.” The former for justification, the latter expressive of complete self-consecration.

Bullocks Young “bullocks,” as being fat, vigorous, and full of life. The description gives the climax of acceptable worship and of national prosperity.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Psalms 51". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/psalms-51.html. 1874-1909.
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