Psalm 51 has a title indicating
that it was written by King David when the prophet Nathan came to him following
his sin with Bathsheba. However, there are striking language parallels with the
latter half of Isaiah and other post-exilic writings, although it is unclear
which derives from which.
author writes “against thee only have I sinned” (verse 4). Whilst this may not be absolutely
accurate (given David’s position regarding Uriah), words expounded under
emotional stress seldom are.
Psalmist does refer (in verse 14) to “bloodguilt”, thereby implying sin against
another person. Thus, the author could indeed be David, reflecting upon his
adultery with Bathsheba and (indirect) murder of Uriah, although the latter
might be seen by David as being of lesser significance.
It is probable that the final
two verses were added later, as verse 19 - referring to burnt offerings - directly
contradicts verse 16b. Such an addition might also explain the reference in
verse 18b to
“building (up)” of the walls of Jerusalem. Without these verses the Psalm would, despite some scholars’ views, arrive
at a positive conclusion: “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not
Although an individual lament,
the Psalm may have been corporately used in the cult, especially as this very
personal Psalm broadens towards the end to suggest a concern with people
generally, represented by their holy city, Jerusalem.
Psalm’s main intent is awareness of and confession of sin, the Psalmist
throwing himself in deep repentance and remorse entirely on God’s mercy whilst
praying for forgiveness and (verse 7) cleansing. Although no sacrifice appears
sufficient to atone for his sins (and the law actually demands the death penalty
for adultery and murder), there is an element of progression in the Psalm
towards confidence, trust and restoration, the Psalmist also promising to teach
God’s ways to other transgressors (verse 13).
Some of the Psalm’s details
are not immediately straightforward, such as the inference (verse 4b) either that
David sinned in order to make it right for God to judge him or that only after
sinning might he realise the seriousness of God’s judgement and glimpse His
grace. Verse 5 probably means that all human beings are born to sin because they are
members of the human race. Verse 8 implies some physical problem has arisen out of
the Psalmist’s guilt.
Psalm’s application for today is that it gives an insight into the
seriousness of sin, which cannot be “undone” - only complete abandonment to
God’s mercy is of any avail. It reminds us that the consequences of sin need
to be realised and it acts as a model of how to confess and to seek repentance.
It is also affirms that God really can forgive us, although we might think
otherwise and that our lives should be led in humility and gratitude, having a right heart before God.
Richard Farquharson, Maulden, Bedfordshire June 2016