Psalm 51

A brief exposition 

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.

The 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. The 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 despise”.

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.

The 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.

The 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