These notes are based on the NASB text.
What is the background of Psalm 51?
The psalms have been called “a mirror of life.” That description is fitting of Psalm 51. This psalm grew out of the darkest experience in the life of David–his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and the orchestration of Uriah’s death. These events are recorded in 2 Samuel 11 and 12. David tried to hide and keep silent about his sin but was confronted by Nathan the prophet (see the superscription to the psalm). When Nathan confronted the king about his sin, David acknowledged that he had indeed sinned against the Lord. The words of this psalm can certainly speak for every speechless sinner who has felt the agonizing pain of sin and struggled to find the way back to God, to forgiveness, to restoration, and to usefulness once again.
Practical Consideration: Nathan will come!
When we sin, God will convict us. If we do not correct the issues at hand, then God will take greater measures to communicate with us — He will send Nathan. God will send Nathan when we shun correction and persist in concealing our sin. And even though Nathan’s message is painful, God sends him in the hope of redeeming and restoring an individual to a proper course of action.
51:1 Be gracious to me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindness;
According to the greatness of Thy compassion blot out my transgressions.
David appealed for mercy even before he mentioned his sin. He asked God to “blot out” or wipe away his transgressions as one would erase the writing from a ledger (see also Isaiah 43:25 regarding the wiping out of sin). The word “transgression” describes a willful and deliberate act of rebellion against the revealed commandment of God. It means to step beyond the boundary, to enter into a territory where one should not pass.
51:2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
And cleanse me from my sin.
Sin always leaves a stain. It always defiles and makes men filthy on the inside. David asked God to “wash” him from his “iniquity” and “cleanse” him from his “sin.” The words “wash” and “cleanse” suggest repeated action to whatever extent it takes to make one clean, as one might repeatedly launder a garment. The word “iniquity” means crooked, perverse, or twisted conduct. It suggests a departure from the straight way. The word “sin” means to miss the mark.
Note: David did not ask God to remove the consequences or the punishment of his sin. His primary concern was with the impact his sin was having on him and his relationship with God.
Practical Consideration: We must go to God for cleansing.
We must go to God for cleansing from sin. We cannot cleanse ourselves nor can others cleanse us. God alone can cleanse every fiber of a life stained by sin. He alone can reach into every infinitesimal place where the vile filth of sin has seeped and thoroughly flush it out.
51:3 For I know my transgressions,
And my sin is ever before me.
The use of the personal pronoun “my” tells us that we must first own our sin before we can disown it. We must first acknowledge and then abandon our sin. We must first confess and then forsake our sin. David accepted responsibility for his sin. He did not blame others. He did not make excuses or try to rationalize his actions. He did not try to point out extenuating circumstances. He knew his transgressions. He knew where he had stepped beyond the boundary. David was here referring to deliberate acts of rebellion against God (refer to comments on Psalm 19:13 on page 16). David’s sin was ever before him. He could not escape the guilt and agony brought on by unconfessed sin (see Psalm 32:3-4 and Proverbs 28:13). It haunted and troubled him.
Practical Consideration: God never designed us to be containers for garbage.
When we allow unconfessed sin to remain in our lives we endanger ourselves. Psalm 32:3-5 describes the torment brought about by unconfessed sin. When we harbor unconfessed sin it becomes like an acid or infection that unsettles us spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, mentally, and physically. It robs us of peace, joy, strength, and security. Unconfessed sin has an awesome and destructive power. God never designed us to bottle up garbage. We must confess our sin.
51:4 Against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned,
And done what is evil in Thy sight,
So that Thou art justified when Thou dost speak,
And blameless when Thou dost judge.
When Saul violated the command of the Lord and instruction of Samuel he said, “I have sinned” (see 1 Samuel 15:24). When Judas tried to return the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders he said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” (see Matthew 27:4). When David sinned he said, “Against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned, and done what is evil in Thy sight.” David’s sin was certainly against Bathsheba, Uriah, the nation, and himself. But ultimately and most importantly, his sin was against God. David understood and acknowledged that his sin was against the God who created him and set the moral standard by which men are to conduct themselves. And because he had done what he knew was evil in the sight of God, he knew that he would not be able to find fault with God’s judgment.
Our sin is always against God. We must understand that before we can say “yes” to sin we must say “no” to God. And, when we say “yes” to sin we in essence say to God, “I do not honor (or give weight and consideration) to Your Word.” We must also understand that the sin we commit is always committed in God’s sight (see Psalm 139:1-6). No one ever sins “behind God’s back.”
Note: Joseph understood that sin is against God. Read his response to Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39:9.
51:5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.
This verse should not be taken to mean that David was the product of an illegitimate union, but rather that he was a sinner by birth (as well as by volition). David understood that he had been born into a sinful world.
51:6 Behold, Thou dost desire truth in the innermost being,
And in the hidden part Thou wilt make me know wisdom.
God desires that people be sincere and honest within, where their priorities are established and decisions made.
51:7 Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
David asked God to purify him with “hyssop” (a plant frequently used in ceremonies of cleansing and purification) and cleanse him inwardly.
51:8 Make me to hear joy and gladness,
Let the bones which Thou hast broken rejoice.
David longed to hear joy and gladness, two of the things that are lost to the sinner. The latter part of the verse probably refers to the manner in which shepherds of old dealt with a lamb that was given to straying. The shepherd would break its legs, wounding the lamb for its own good. The shepherd then set the broken bones and carried the lamb upon his shoulders until the legs were healed. The experience kept the lamb from straying again and always close to the shepherd’s side.
Practical Consideration: God always disciplines us for our good.
The discipline of the Lord is never capricious or cruel. God’s disciplinary actions are always redemptive in nature. His aim is to always recover and restore the erring. God always disciplines us for our good.
51:9 Hide Thy face from my sins,
And blot out all my iniquities.
David asked God to not look upon his sin and to “blot out” or erase everything recorded against him. He asked God to cleanse, cancel, and destroy everything that testified of his sin.
51:10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
David asked God to “create” in him a clean heart, not to restore the old one. He asked God to radically change and transform him.
51:11 Do not cast me away from Thy presence,
And do not take Thy Holy Spirit from me.
The background of this verse is probably 1 Samuel 16:14 which tells of the Spirit of the Lord departing from Saul. See also Judges 16:20 regarding the Lord departing from Samson.
51:12 Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation,
And sustain me with a willing spirit.
David asked God to cause to return to him the joy of salvation. Sin always robs the believer of the joy, and sometimes even the assurance, of salvation.
51:13 Then I will teach transgressors Thy ways,
And sinners will be converted to Thee.
51:14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, Thou God of my salvation;
Then my tongue will joyfully sing of Thy righteousness.
51:15 O Lord, open my lips,
That my mouth may declare Thy praise.
David vowed to demonstrate the sincerity of his confession by his service. The forgiven should seek to lead others to the source of forgiveness that they might also experience and partake of it. (See also the words of Jesus to Peter in Luke 22:32). David vowed to become an evangelist proclaiming God’s grace and mercy. God’s pardon produced in him an irrepressible urge to tell others about the goodness of the Lord. He could not keep silent about God’s forgiveness. He had to shout for joy and celebrate God’s wonderful forgiveness. Gratitude would not let him remain silent.
Practical Consideration: Those who have experienced God’s grace cannot keep silent.
David vowed to proclaim the message that there is forgiveness with the Lord. He vowed to announce the message of forgiveness to all who needed to hear it. His heart overflowed with gratitude and praise to God for His forgiveness. We too, should have an urgency about proclaiming the forgiveness of God.
51:16 For Thou dost not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it;
Thou art not pleased with burnt offering.
51:17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.
Verse 16 accentuates the fact that God cannot accept ritual as a substitute for repentance. David understood that God was interested in more than sacrifices. God was more interested in a heart that was right with Him. Burnt offerings are not enough. “Broken” (torn or shattered) spirits and “contrite” (bruised or crushed) hearts are needed. These terms suggest that a person must continue to have a deep sense of contrition for sin and its consequences even after pardon.
51:18 By Thy favor do good to Zion;
Build the walls of Jerusalem.
51:19 Then Thou wilt delight in righteous sacrifices,
In burnt offering and whole burnt offering;
Then young bulls will be offered on Thine altar.
David turned his attention to the city of Jerusalem. He did not want for his conduct to hinder God’s blessings or favor on the city. He asked God to bless the city with security. He prayed that walls be built around Jerusalem (for the first time). David closed the psalm by recognizing the value of sacrifices and ceremony in the religious life of the city.