Psalm 51

Submitted by admin on Tue, 2006-10-03 09:25.

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The Hebrew expression natsách (preceded by the preposition “to”) is commonly thought to signify “to the musical director” or “leader.” In the Septuagint, the rendering is “to the end.” An ancient Latin translation of the Hebrew Psalter reads victori (“to the victor”), probably because of linking the Hebrew expression to a root meaning “to defeat.” This suggests that considerable uncertainty exists about the significance of the Hebrew expression.

Psalm 51 is ascribed to David and relates to the time the prophet Nathan confronted him regarding his having committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. (2 Samuel 12:1-15) This psalm expresses David’s confession of guilt and his plea for forgiveness.

David prayed to be shown mercy on the basis of God’s compassionate care, steadfast love, or “great mercy” (LXX). According to God’s abundant mercies, David pleaded for his transgressions to be wiped away or to have the record of his sin blotted out.

He wanted the stain of his iniquity to be removed as if thoroughly washed away. His appeal was to be cleansed from his sin. Fully aware of his sin, David spoke of knowing or recognizing his transgressions and having his sin constantly before him.

He acknowledged his sin as having been a sin against God, saying, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned.” Admitting that he had done evil in God’s sight, David recognized that God was just or righteous when pronouncing sentence and pure or blameless when passing judgment. This would be because the Most High always proved himself to be just and holy.

The opening word “behold” in this verse (5[7]) and verse 6[8] apparently serves to focus attention on the expressions that follow. Fully aware of his inability to observe God’s commands flawlessly, David acknowledged his having been born and conceived in sin. The expression “in sin my mother conceived me” probably is to be understood as meaning that, from the time of conception, David regarded himself as a sinner and never thought of himself as ever having been without sin.

The Hebrew expression tuchóth may denote “inward parts” or what a person is deep within himself (in his hidden or secret self). The Septuagint rendering is the plural of the word ádelos, designating that which is secret, obscure, uncertain, or unknown. So David’s words may be understood to mean that God delights in truth or complete honesty in the inmost self of the individual. According to the Septuagint, God loves truth. The reference to “secret things,” however, is included in a separate thought. The Septuagint reads, “The secret things and the hidden things of your wisdom you have disclosed to me.” In the Masoretic Text, the words are David’s petition for God to make him know wisdom in his hidden self. This suggests that David desired to have godly wisdom as part of his inner self, prompting him to conduct himself aright.

Hyssop (possibly marjoram, a plant of the mint family) played a role in the cleansing ceremony for a leper and was used as an ingredient in the water of cleansing. (Leviticus 14:4; Numbers 19:6) Therefore, David’s petition about being purified from sin with hyssop expressed his desire to be cleansed from his sin. For the stain of sin to be removed, he pleaded to be washed, leading to his being whiter than snow or being completely clean.

Before confessing his sin, David had no joy and his sin weighed heavily upon him. His sin had alienated him from his God. He therefore desired to again hear joy and gladness as a person restored to divine favor. Probably because his conscience deeply troubled him, David spoke of God as having crushed his bones, apparently reducing his entire frame to a downcast state.

He wanted the Most High no longer to see his sins as if concealing (turning away, LXX) his face from them. David also asked for his iniquities to blotted out and so no longer held against him.

When David committed adultery with Bathsheba he was not in possession of a clean heart. In his deep inner self, he proved himself to be defiled. His petition for a pure heart suggests that he wanted to be clean in his inner motivations and restrained from committing grave wrong. He pleaded for God to renew within him a “spirit of steadfastness” (a “right spirit,” LXX). This seemingly meant that he wanted the motivating force within him to be firm in the face of temptation, prompting him to act uprightly.

David pleaded not to be cast away from God’s face or presence as one who would be divinely disapproved. He prayed that God would not take his holy spirit away from him, leaving him without dependable guidance.

The joy of God’s salvation would be the enjoyment resulting from experiencing God’s saving acts on account of being in an approved condition before him. This was the joy that had been in David’s possession prior to his sin, and he longed for it to be restored to him. He also prayed for the support of a willing spirit. This could mean that he wanted the motivating force operating within him to incline him in the right direction, preventing him from becoming guilty of serious sin. Numerous translations have chosen this significance. “Sustain in me a willing spirit.” (NAB) “Let a vigorous spirit sustain me.” (Tanakh) “And renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Margolis) “Grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” (NIV) “Make me want to obey!” (CEV) In the Septuagint, the Hebrew word for “willing” (nadív) is rendered hegemonikós, meaning “governing,” “guiding,” “directing,” or “leading.” This could apply to God’s spirit, which is the significance a number of translations convey. One example is the New King James Version: “And uphold me by Your generous Spirit.”

Based on his own experience, David would teach transgressors God’s ways, directing them to follow a divinely approved course, and would urge sinners repentantly to return to the Almighty. Both the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint could also be understood to mean that, as a result of David’s teaching, sinners would return to God.

When maneuvering to bring about Uriah’s death in battle, David incurred bloodguilt. The prophet Nathan told David, “You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.” (2 Samuel 12:9, NRSV) This is seemingly the reason for David’s appeal to be delivered from bloodguilt. He recognized that YHWH alone could effect this rescue and acknowledged him as the “God of salvation” or deliverance. As one freed from bloodguilt, David would be in a position to use his tongue in singing aloud about God’s righteousness. One way in which YHWH reveals his righteousness is by fulfilling his promise to forgive repentant sinners.

When plagued with a guilty conscience, David would not have been able to render wholehearted praise to God. It appears that he desired to have his lips opened in order to be free from all restraint when rendering praise. Upon being extended divine forgiveness, his mouth could openly laud YHWH.

David recognized that sacrifice in itself could not bring about a reconciliation with his God, against whom he had gravely sinned. He knew that the Almighty’s delight was not in mere sacrifice; otherwise, he would have made whatever sacrifice it would have taken to be forgiven. David knew that his God did not desire that a sinner just present a burnt offering.

What truly counts with God is true repentance. An acceptable sacrifice is a “broken spirit,” a deep inner sense of the need for forgiveness. David recognized that God would not despise or look down upon a “broken and crushed heart” or an inner self in a state of great sorrow because of having sinned.

In David’s time, the ark of the covenant, the symbol of God’s presence, was located in a tent on Mount Zion. So it would have been natural for him to think about the city YHWH had chosen as his representative dwelling place. David prayed that God, in his good pleasure, deal well with Zion and build the walls of Jerusalem. The “building” of the walls could denote providing protection for the city.

In his safeguarded city, God could then delight in the “sacrifices of righteousness” or proper sacrifices (burnt offerings and holocausts) presented with the right motive. Bulls would continue to be offered on God’s altar in expression of thanksgiving and praise.