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Psalm 51



A Contrite Sinner's Prayer for Pardon
MT Intro
For the choir director. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone to Bathsheba.
A Prayer of Repentance A Prayer for Healing and Moral Renewal A Prayer for Forgiveness A Prayer of Contrition
51:1-4 51:1-2 51:1-2 51:1-2 51:1-2
  51:3-4 51:3-5 51:3-5 51:3-4b
51:5-9 51:5-6      
    51:6-9 51:6-9 51:6-7
51:10-13 51:10-11 51:10-12 51:10-13 51:10-11
  51:12-13     51:12-13
51:14-17 51:14-17   51:14-15 51:14-15
      51:16-17 51:16-17
51:18-19 51:18-19 51:18-19 51:18-19 51:18-19

READING CYCLE THREE (see "Guide to Good Bible Reading")


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.



A. This is one of the penitential Psalms, cf. Psalm 6; 32; 38; 51; 102; 130; and 143. Psalm 51 may be related to Psalm 32, i.e., possibly David's sin; Psalm 32 may have been written later in David's life.


B. Although the introduction to Psalm 51 in the MT is a later addition, it may accurately reflect the subject matter of this Psalm. For a fuller understanding of the background read 2 Samuel 11 and 12.


C. David, as King of Israel, was God's official representative among His people. He betrayed this sacred trust. He does not call God "YHWH" in this Psalm (but this is characteristic of Book II of the Psalms). However, he calls upon God's unchanging character of love and mercy (cf. Mal. 3:6) as he throws himself, without excuse, in God's hands.

There was no OT sacrifice for intentional, premeditated sin (cf. Lev. 4:2, 22, 27; 5:15-18; 22:14).

1. lusted after another's wife

2. forced her to commit adultery

3. lied to her husband who was a royal soldier

4. had others (i.e., Israeli military duplicity) murder him

5. tried to cover the entire thing up instead of repenting


D. Notice how many different expressions are used to denote "forgiveness."

1. blot out — Ps. 51:1, 9

2. wash — Ps. 51:2,9

3. cleanse — Ps. 51:2

4. purify — Ps. 51:7

5. hide Your face — Ps. 51:9

6. deliver — Ps. 51:14



 1Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness;
 According to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions.
 2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
 And cleanse me from my sin.
 3For I know my transgressions,
 And my sin is ever before me.
 4Against You, You only, I have sinned
 And done what is evil in Your sight,
 So that You are justified when You speak
 And blameless when You judge.

51:1-2 Notice the literary flow of this strophe, which deals with a believer's confession of known sin. There are four (possibly five, Qere) imperatives of request.

1. be gracious to me — BDB 335, KB 334, Qal imperative; this is a recurrent prayer request (cf. Ps. 4:1; 6:2; 9:13; 25:16; 26:11; 27:7; 30:10; 31:9; 41:4,10; 56:1; 57:1 [twice] etc.) to a gracious God (BDB 337, cf. Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 111:4; 116:5; 145:8; see Special Topic at Ps. 9:10b)

a. according to Your lovingkindness (BDB 338, see Special Topic at Ps. 5:7)

b. according to the greatness of Your compassion (i.e., construct BDB 913 and BDB 933, cf. Ps. 25:6; 69:16; 119:156; 145:9)

2. blot out my transgressions — BDB 562, KB 567, Qal imperative, cf. Ps. 51:9, usually this word is used of destroying sinners (cf. Ps. 9:5; 69:28; 109:13) from life and the book of life (cf. Exod. 32:32-33; see Special Topic at Ps. 9:5)

This concept of "experienced" forgiveness and restoration to divine fellowship is also found in the NT, esp. Heb. 9:14; 1 John 1:7,9.

The same three nouns for "sin" also are found in Exod. 34:7. Interestingly the verb "blot out" is found in Exod. 32:32-33. Maybe the psalmist had the book of Exodus in mind.

The verb is also found in Isa. 43:25; 44:22. It asserts the great truth that when God forgives, God forgets—note Isa. 1:18; 38:17; 43:25; 44:22; Micah 7:19. Several different metaphors are used but all suggest "out of sight, out of mind."

In the ANE ink was acidic. When one wrote on a papyrus page the ink bit into the plant material and could not be erased. To erase something was a miracle of God, just like washing a dyed cloth white (cf. Isa. 1:18) was also impossible (i.e., no bleach available). Forgiveness is a miracle of God!

3. wash me — BDB 460, KB 459, Piel imperative, only here in the Psalms and Piel imperfect in Ps. 51:7; used predominately in Leviticus for ritual purification

4. "thoroughly" (MT has a Hiphil infinitive absolute, but the Masoretic Jewish scholars suggested a changes to another imperative) — BDB 915, KB 1176, Hiphil imperative

5. cleanse me — BDB 372, KB 369, Piel imperative, only here in the Psalms, and Qal imperfect in Ps. 51:7; used predominately in Leviticus for something pronounced clean.


51:1 "transgressions" There are several terms for human rebellion against God found in this strophe.

1. transgression, 51:1,3 — BDB 833, cf. Isa. 59:12-13; Amos 5:12; Micah 1:5 (twice),13; its basic meaning is to revolt or rebel against God

2. iniquity, Ps. 51:2,5,9 — BDB 730, cf. Ps. 32:5 (thrice), used often in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel

3. sin, Ps. 51:2,9,13 — BDB 308, cf Ps. 32:5 (twice), its basic meaning is to "miss"; the basic root is often used of a "sin offering"

4. evil, Ps. 51:4 — BDB 948 II, very common word, cf. Ps. 5:4; 7:4,9; 10:6,15; 23:4; 34:13,14,16; 36:4; 37:27; 41:5; 49:5; 52:3; 54:5, etc.

One can tell how important a concept is to a culture/language by how many terms are used to communicate or clarify the concept. Hebrew has many words for sin/rebellion against God.

▣ "sin" This feminine noun (BDB 308) is found in Ps. 51: 2,3,9,13. The masculine noun (BDB 307) is in Ps. 51:5,9. The verb (BDB 306, KB 305) is in Ps. 51:4,7.

51:3-4 These verses reveal the inner consequences of sin and its terrible disruption of fellowship with God.

1. "I know my transgressions" — They are not sins of ignorance but of open rebellion.

2. "My sin is ever before me" — Guilt cannot be relieved or minimized. It is a constant reminder of the broken fellowship and its consequences.

3. "Against You, You only, I have sinned" — This is a theological statement (cf. Gen. 20:6; 2 Sam. 12:13; Ps. 41:4). Sin is known only when human action is put up against a divine command (cf. Rom. 3:20,25; 4:15; 5:13,20; Acts 17:30).

This is not to depreciate the pain of victims but to note that ultimately all sin is against the one and only Holy God!

51:4c-d The TEV catches the meaning of these two lines of poetry.

"So you are right in judging me; you are justified in condemning me."

This is quoted by Paul from the LXX in Rom. 3:4. It is introduced by "let God be found true, though every man be found a liar."

 5Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
 And in sin my mother conceived me.
 6Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being,
 And in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom.
 7Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
 Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
 8Make me to hear joy and gladness,
 Let the bones which You have broken rejoice.
 9Hide Your face from my sins
 And blot out all my iniquities.

51:5 This verse may go with verses 1-4. It is not an excuse but the terrible reality of the fallen human condition (cf. Gen. 8:21; 1 Kgs. 8:46; Job 14:1-4; 15:14; 25:4; Ps. 58:3; Pro. 20:9; Isa. 48:8; Rom. 3:9-18,23; Eph. 2:3; all express the reality of the fall of mankind in Genesis 3. It is true that most rabbis emphasized the origin of sin as Genesis 6. The Apostle Paul is the NT author who focuses on Genesis 3 as the source of sin and its consequences).

For me the theological issue is the sinfulness of children before the age of moral responsibility. Calvinism has emphasized the total depravity of mankind, in all areas, from birth to death. I am more drawn to the concept of informed human volition. This means that until a child knows he/she is breaking God's laws, they are not! Sin involves open-eyed rebellion! We are sinners in Adam/Eve (cf. Rom. 5:12-21) and also we choose to sin. Both are true!

51:6-9 The psalmist is asking God to restore him to his previous place/state of fellowship. He has acknowledged his sin (51:3-4) and asked for forgiveness (51:1-2). This strophe repeats these.

1. acknowledge his sins

a. v. 5

b. two imperatives

(1) "hide Your face from my sins" — BDB 711, KB 771, Hiphil imperative

(2) "blot out all my iniquities" — same as Ps. 51:1 (the "book of God" is also mentioned in Ps. 139:16, see note on "secret" below)

2. desires forgiveness

a. God desires "truth in the innermost being" (BDB 711, note the use of "secret" [BDB 712] in Ps. 139:15)

b. God please make that truth known

c. prayer requests (6 imperfects)

(1) purify me — BDB 306, KB 305, Piel imperfect

(2) I shall be clean — BDB 372, KB 369, Qal imperfect (i.e., result of being purified)

(3) wash me — BDB 460, KB 459, Piel imperfect

(4) I shall be whiter than snow — BDB 526, KB 517, Hiphil imperfect (i.e., result of being washed, cf. Isa. 1:18)

(5) make me to hear joy (BDB 965) and gladness (BDB 970) — BDB 1033, KB 1570, Hiphil imperfect

(6) let the bones. . .rejoice — BDB 162, KB 189, Qal imperfect ("broken bones" were an OT idiom of divine judgment, cf. Isa. 38:13; Lam. 3:4)

The psalmist deeply desires that the intimate fellowship he had known with God, which was damaged by his sin, be restored by God's grace and mercy.

51:6 "desires" This verb (BDB 342, KB 339, Qal perfect) is used in verse 6 of that which God "desires" (i.e., truth in the innermost being) and in Ps. 51:16 of that which He does not desire (Qal imperfect, i.e., perfunctory sacrifices or sacrifices for intentional sins).

51:7 "hyssop" The small desert plant (BDB 23) was used in a bunch to sprinkle liquids for ritualistic ceremonies.

1. blood of the Passover lamb on the doorpost of homes — Exod. 12;21-22

2. ceremony for cleansing of the leper — Lev. 14:4,6 (for leprous buildings, Lev. 14:19,51,52)

3. in connection to the ritual of burning the Red Heifer (i.e., ashes of purification) — Num. 19:6,18

4. in connection with Moses sprinkling the book of the law — Heb. 9:19, cf. Exod. 24:6-8


 10Create in me a clean heart, O God,
 And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
 11Do not cast me away from Your presence
 And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
 12Restore to me the joy of Your salvation
 And sustain me with a willing spirit.
 13Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
 And sinners will be converted to You.

51:10-13 This strophe also has several prayer requests (imperatives, jussives) which call for a personal faith renewal. This must be brought about by the sovereign acts of God, but the psalmist must present himself for it to be done.

1. create in me a clean heart — BDB 135, KB 153, Qal imperative, cf. Ezek. 36:26-27; he desires a miracle or recreation (bara used only of God, Gen. 1:1)

2. renew a steadfast spirit within me — BDB 293, KB 293, Piel imperative, cf. Ps. 78:37

3. do not cast me away from Your presence — BDB 1020, KB 1527, Hiphil imperfect used in a jussive sense, cf. 2 Kgs. 13:23 and negative in 2 Kgs. 24:20; Jer. 7:15

4. do not take Your Holy Spirit from me — BDB 542, KB 534, Qal imperfect used in a jussive sense, cf. Isa. 63:10,11; Ezek. 36:26-27

5. restore to me the joy of Your salvation — BDB 996, KB 1427, Hiphil imperative

6. sustain me with a willing spirit — BDB 701, KB 759, Qal imperfect used in a jussive sense to match #3,4

Notice the emphasis on the internal, personal aspect of faith (i.e., Isa. 26:9). The result of this spiritual renewal will be

1. I will teach transgressors Your ways — BDB 540, KB 531, Piel cohortative; note the fellowship and knowledge of God must come first, cf. Ezra 7:10

2. sinners will be converted (lit. "turn back") — same verb as 51:12a, "to restore," but Qal imperfect


51:10 "heart" See Special Topic at Ps. 4:7. Mankind's unique creation in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen. 1:26-27) and personally "fashioned/formed" by God (Gen. 2:7), makes him a

1. physical creature, like the other animals on this planet (cf. nephesh)

2. spiritual creature, uniquely suited for fellowship with God; this spiritual aspect goes by several metaphors/analogies/terms

a. heart, i.e., Ps. 36:1; 39:3; 55:4; 109:22

b. kidneys/bowels, i.e., Ps. 22:14; Jer. 4:19; 31:20; Lam. 1:20; 2:11

c. spirit, i.e., Isa. 57:16; Zech. 12:1

d. thoughts, Ps. 94:19


▣ "spirit" The term (BDB 924) is used several times in this Psalm.

1. "a steadfast spirit," 51:10

2. "Your Holy Spirit," 51:11

3. "a willing spirit, 51:12

4. "a broken spirit, 51:17



51:11b Many commentators believe this line of poetry is a reference to 1 Sam.11:6; 16:14; 18:12, where Saul initially had the Spirit but after his repeated sins, the Spirit left him and went to David.

My own denomination has used this Psalm, especially verse 12, to assert that no one can lose their salvation because it says, "restore the joy of Your salvation." However, Saul's spiritual status is uncertain. I have chosen to at least provide my understanding of these issues by

1. referring you to the SPECIAL TOPIC: APOSTASY (APHISTĒMI) at Ps. 26:8-12

2. referring you to the SPECIAL TOPIC: PERSEVERANCE at Ps. 7:12

3. inserting the following SPECIAL TOPIC: ASSURANCE (see below)



▣ "Your Holy Spirit" In most of the OT, the "Spirit" is a force of God (i.e., Gen. 1:2), not a distinct person (but note Isa. 63:10-11). However, this concept of the personhood of the Spirit is developed in the NT. Two Special Topics help clarify the point.



 14Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation;
 Then my tongue will joyfully sing of Your righteousness.
 15O Lord, open my lips,
 That my mouth may declare Your praise.
 16For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it;
 You are not pleased with burnt offering.
 17The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
 A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.

51:14-17 This strophe continues the thought of

1. deliver — BDB 664, KB 717, Hiphil imperative, the psalmist was sinful and needed to be forgiven. Verse 14 may link to David's murder of Uriah (lit. "bloods," BDB 196, assumed to refer to "bloodguiltiness," that is, "murder of an innocent person").

2. the "teach transgressors" (BDB 540, KB 531, Piel cohortative) of Ps. 51:13a is explained/defined

a. my tongue will joyfully sing (David was a singer) of Your righteousness (this key term [BDB 842] basically means a standard, ruler, straight edge. All the words for "sin" are a deviation from the standard; in this context it has the connotation of "vindication" or "just actions," cf. Ps. 71:2,15; see Special Topic at Ps. 1:5).

(1) open my lips

(2) my mouth may declare Your praise

The new thought is begun in Ps. 51:16-17. There was no sacrifice listed in Leviticus 1-7 that dealt with intentional, premeditated sin (cf. Lev. 4:2,22,27; 5:15-18; 22:14; Num. 15:27-28). If there were he would give it (BDB 678, KB 733, Qal cohortative), but there was not, so he threw himself on the mercy of God. He trusted/believed that God would not reject (both Niphal participles)

1. a broken heart over sin (BDB 990, cf. Ps. 34:19; Isa. 61:1; Jer. 23:9)

2. a contrite heart (lit. "crushed, BDB 194, cf. Isa. 57:15)

This refers to a Rom. 12:1-2 kind of worshiper. Repentance has an effect on God (cf. Ps. 34:18)!


NASB (1970)"Lord"
NASB (1995)"Lord"

The MT has Adon, not YHWH. The covenant name for Israel's God is not found in Book II of the Psalter as frequently as in Book I. Some scholars speculate that the compiler of Book II changed many of the references of YHWH to Elohim.

 18By Your favor do good to Zion;
 Build the walls of Jerusalem.
 19Then You will delight in righteous sacrifices,
 In burnt offering and whole burnt offering;
 Then young bulls will be offered on Your altar.

51:18-19 The Psalm closes with a seemingly separate thought. There is an unexpected switch from an individual to a national prayer for God's blessing ("do good," BDB 405, KB 408, Hiphil imperative) on Jerusalem. The prayer implies that Jerusalem had problems.

1. build her walls

2. restore her sacrificial system

Many commentators have used verse 16 to depreciate sacrifice, but because of Ps. 51:23, it is best to see it as emphasizing the difference between "intentional" and "unintentional" sin.

Also notice that at no time would these two verses fit David's life. There is no MSS evidence they were added after the compositions or compilation of the Psalm.


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought provoking, not definitive.

1. The psalmist gives two reasons for God to be gracious to him. What are they and why are they significant?

2. List the different words used to describe forgiveness in this Psalm.

3. Explain verse 4 in your own words.

4. What does verse 5 mean in an OT setting?

5. Does God take the Holy Spirit away from sinners?

6. Explain verses 16-17's relationship to verse 19. Explain the difference between an "intentional sin" and an "unintentional sin" in relation to the sacrificial system.

7. How are verses 18-19 related to the rest of the Psalm?


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