Commentary on Psalm 51:1-17
Psalm 51 lays bare the depths of the human condition and the equally profound need for the redeeming intervention of God.1
The Hebrew text begins by attributing this psalm to David when the prophet Nathan confronts him about the affair with Bathsheba. Most scholars would assign the text a much later date, given striking parallels with the thought of several of the prophets such as Jeremiah. Regardless of the historicity of the Hebrew ascription, it does provide an appropriate lead-in to the character of the emotions and petitions that the writer presents, whoever that person may have been.
Even without the Hebrew ascription, the psalm immediately and dramatically sets the tone for what will unfold. The first verse begins with a plea for God to “have mercy” (the Hebrew verb could also be translated “be gracious”). This is more than a simple cry for help. The cry carries with it the implication that the one from whom mercy is asked has been wronged in some way by the one who is asking. Graciousness and mercy are things asked of someone significantly involved in a given situation.
The petitioner further reveals the precarious position of distress from which he cries out by appealing to God’s “steadfast love” and “abundant mercy” (verse 1). These entreaties also provide us with an intimate glimpse into the core of God’s nature. “Steadfast love” translates the Hebrew word khesed, which describes God’s limitless, unconditional love. Tandem with this concept is that of God’s rakham. Translated here by the NRSV as “abundant mercy,” the term more specifically refers to “womb-compassion.” We are speaking here of the deep, compassionate love a mother has for her children. Such are the characteristics that serve as God’s departure points for responding to one who cries for mercy.
The cry, we learn next, is a plea for the blotting out of transgressions (verse 1), washing from iniquity, and cleansing from sin (verse 2). These are the descriptors of the human condition, in sharp contrast to the khesed and rakham of God. Not only is the knowledge of this condition ever before the petitioner (verse 3), he understands it fundamentally as offense against God (verse 4)!
What is one to do?! The condition of transgression, iniquity, and sin would seem unavoidable, since one is born guilty, a sinner even when conceived (verse 5). The petitioner’s assertion here need not cast a negative shadow on the act of conception or even point to a genetic transference of sin. Instead, birth brings us all into an environment already so thoroughly saturated with the marks of our petitioners condition, that we can not help but succumb to their influence.2
Given the perceived depth and seeming inescapability of the petitioner’s condition, and that over against this God still desires “truth in the inward being” (verse 6), there emerges only one possible solution — a miraculous intervention by God (verse 10). God must bring about the new creations of a clean heart and a right spirit. The text leaves no doubt that God alone is able to accomplish these things. The Hebrew term for “create” is the same one used of God in Genesis 1:1. Even more significantly, God is the only subject ever given this verb in the Old Testament. The petitioner’s hope is in the unique creative ability possessed only by the God of Israel.
Humanity’s total dependency on God for sustenance and rebirth is further highlighted by our need to be in God’s “presence” and to have God’s “holy spirit” (verse 11). It is the salvation of God (“your salvation”) that alone can sustain a sinner’s spirit (verse 12).
The new life brought about by God’s creative and redeeming work quickly becomes visible. The one who had cried for mercy anticipates being freed to teach others the ways of God (verse 13). The one redeemed will be able to speak from personal experience of the triumph of God’s khesed and rakham over the condition of transgression, iniquity, and sin. The delivered tongue will “sing aloud” (verse 14) and declare God’s praise (verse 15). As a result, other sinners will return to God (verse 13).
Through this all, the psalmist comes to what is likely a startling realization. God has no delight in sacrifice (verse 16)! A burnt offering does nothing to please God. By extension, neither do these traditional practices do anything beneficial for the human condition that the psalmist has experienced and wrestled with. The only sacrifice we are truly able to offer, and which God will not despise, is “a broken and contrite heart” (verse 17). Traditional sacrifices and religious rituals can be misappropriated for deceptive ends. But a distressed heart seeking renewal at the divine throne of mercy pulls no punches.
As the popular hymn expresses so beautifully, we do ultimately come to God just as we are, bearing transgression, iniquity, and sin. We return, however, not as we were, but as recreated and redeemed children of God called to sing aloud of God’s deliverance and to declare his praise.
- Commentary first published on this site on Feb. 13, 2013.
- Cf. Weiser, Artur. The Psalms: A Commentary (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962), 405.
Kraus, Hans-Joachim. Psalms 1-59: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988), 503.