Psalm 51 is classified as an individual lament in which a single voice cries out to God for deliverance from a life-threatening situation.
In the case of Psalm 51, the life-threatening situation is King David’s guilt over the taking of Bathsheba. The psalm’s superscription reads, “To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”
The historical background for Psalm 51 thus is 2 Samuel 11-12. David, in residence in Jerusalem while his armies are battling the Ammonites, observes Bathsheba, the wife of one of his military generals, bathing on her rooftop. He sends for her, has intercourse with her, and then conspires to have her husband, Uriah, killed in battle. When Nathan confronts David with the implications of what he has done, David’s only words are, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam 12:13). Might we read Psalm 51 as the rest of David’s words: David’s confession of sin and his plea for forgiveness? They are indeed appropriate.
The psalm singer (David?) begins in verses 1-2 with four pleas to God in the imperative voice: “have mercy, blot out, wash me, cleanse me,” thus introducing language about cleansing that runs throughout the psalm. The psalmist seeks cleansing from “my transgressions,” “my iniquity,” and “my sin.” These three are the most common words used in the Hebrew Bible to describe acts committed against God and humanity, and they are often found in parallel construction.
And while each has a basic root meaning—”transgression” means “to go against, to rebel”; “iniquity” means “to bend, to twist”; and “sin” means “to miss a mark or goal” -- attempting to define and then differentiate each as a particular kind of action or attitude is not productive. The psalm opens, thus, with what we may describe as a piling up of pleas for cleansing and of terms describing the past actions of the psalmist.
The essential character of God is the grounding of the psalmist’s plea, the reason it might be heard and heeded: “steadfast love (hesed) “ and “abundant mercy (raham)” (verse 1). Hesed is a difficult word to render into English; it has to do with the relationship between two parties of an agreement or a covenant. God made a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15:18, stating “To your descendants I give the land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”
In Exodus 19:4-5, God and the people of Israel entered into a covenant relationship at Mt. Sinai. God said to them, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.” God promised that the Israelites would be a treasured possession; they had only to keep God’s covenant stipulations. Hesed has to do with the sacred agreement, the sacred relationship, between God and God’s people.
The word translated “mercy” in Psalm 51:1 is derived from the Hebrew verbal root raham, whose noun form rehem means “womb.” God's mercy is tied closely to the concept of “womb love,” the love a mother feels for her yet-to-be-born child. The psalmist repeatedly call upon God's steadfast love (hesed) and God’s mercy (raham): “Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love” (25:6); “Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me” (69:16); “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion (another word used by the NRSV to translate raham) is over all that he has made” (145:9). References to God’s steadfast love occur no less than one hundred times in the book of Psalms, and references to God’s mercy (compassion) occur no less than twenty-two times.
Verses 3-6 of Psalm 51 begin with words that emphatically acknowledge the gravity of the psalmist’s situation. Verse 3a translates literally as “For my transgressions, I, I know”; verse 4a as “Against you, you alone I have sinned.” We may ask, “Is the psalmist guilty of committing harm to humanity as well as harm to God?” The obvious answer is “yes.” And yet the words of the psalm are addressed only to God. In other places in the Hebrew Bible, sins against humans are considered to be sins against God (e.g., Genesis 39:3). When Nathan confronts David with his sin in 2 Samuel 12, David replies, “I have sinned against the Lord” (verse 13).
Verse 5 of Psalm 51 is perhaps one of the most misinterpreted verses in the Old Testament. The psalmist, in the depths of remorse, declares that “guilt” and “sin” were part and parcel of the psalmist’s very conception and birth. Many interpreters have understood these words to reflect the concept of “original sin,” a depraved nature that is intrinsic to every human being, passed down to us by the first human pair. A more plausible interpretation, however, is that the psalmist is expressing with these words the all-pervasive quality of the guilt that accompanies the wrongdoing. In verse 6, the psalm singer affirms that rather than dealing in transgression, guilt, and sin, God delights in truth and bestows wisdom.
In verse 7, the psalmist takes up the theme of verses 1-2, imploring God once again: “Purge me ... and I will be clean ... wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” In verse 8, the psalm singer longs to “hear joy and gladness” and be able to “rejoice.” Immediately following, in verses 9 and 10, the singer returns to the language of cleansing and implores God to “hide your face from my sins,” “blot out all my iniquities,” “create in me a clean heart,” and “put a right spirit within me.”
Psalm 51 is heartfelt cry to God from one who has committed an unspeakable sin in the eyes of God. The particulars of the sin are not enumerated -- God knows the details. One of my colleagues once remarked that David sinned big and repented big, and the biblical text remembers him as “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). The words of Psalm 51 are fitting for the great king of ancient Israel; they are just as fitting for worshippers in the twenty-first century. Our sins may not be as public and blatant as David’s, but we all fall short of living in the steadfast love and mercy of God. May we be as repentant as David and as willing to come to God for cleansing.