Commentary on Psalm 51:1-17
This Psalm is a prayer of penitence, confession, remorse, owning mistakes made, and seeking a fresh start of new life with a restored soul upon receiving God’s forgiveness.
Psalm 51 is traditionally attributed to David, who offered this prayer of repentance after Nathan the prophet confronted David about his affair with Bathsheba. David abused his power as king to sexually exploit Bathsheba, reassign her husband to ensure his death in order to cover his impregnation of Bathsheba, and then take Bathsheba as a wife. Nathan used an allegory of stealing sheep to help David recognize the depth of his sin, and upon understanding, David reportedly authored this prayer of contrition.
Though himself a king and a well-established beacon of faith in God’s power, David was a mere human, standing in shame before God for his sin, and in need of God’s forgiveness. To be clear, his sin was not just adultery; it was rape. His sin was not just abuse of power; it was murder. Whatever innocence of his legacy as the boy who defeated Goliath, companion to Jonathan, or the unlikely military successor to Saul, David was now a corrupt monarch.
In verses 1 through 9, David repeats the phrases “blot out” and “wash” to point to God’s forgiveness as a cleansing, a spiritual rinsing of sin from his person. David’s sin makes him dirty, from which God’s forgiveness would clean him. David certainly notes the cleansing properties of water and the association of God’s presence with the people through water.
In verses 6, 10, and 17, David emphasizes his heart as the center of his being, the nexus of a pure spirit, changed by God’s forgiveness. Alongside allegorical understandings of cleansing himself of sin, David also has an embodied understanding of holiness, in his heart and in his bones, evident through a joyful and willing spirit.
David anticipates, even expects, that God will forgive him, because David believes God is faithful. God’s forgiveness will help David to renew and recover from the inside out, which will help him to become a better person as well as improve his ability to be an example for others. Though a king, David seems intent on setting a moral, and not just militaristic, example for Israel
In the absence of a physical temple, which David’s son Solomon will build, David offers a sacrifice of repentance, a sacrifice of contrition, a sacrifice of transformational grief, which he believes will be more pleasing to God than a physical sacrifice or religious ritual.
As I imagine this scene taking place, I picture David on his knees, perhaps hiding in a closet or a storage room, or kneeling in the rain. I see him somewhere where he believes he is alone, in a posture of self-acknowledged shame, in a Romans 8—“groans which words cannot express”—kind of sorrow. Not only did he betray his calling as king, not only did he betray his calling as God’s chosen, but he betrayed the trust of a nation. He surrendered his identity, and for what? For sex? To exercise power he already possessed? To cover his tracks from the people who follow him?
David cries out in self-defamation, convicted by Nathan’s confrontation. Yet even in this prostration, David may not still realize the severity of his sin. Is he penitent for his sin? Is he ashamed of being confronted by a prophet? His prayer focuses on his personal sin and spirit, as in verse 4 when he claims that he has only sinned against God. One could argue, though, that he has also sinned against Uriah, Bathsheba, and his nation—past, present, and future.
Though he committed sinful acts as an individual, there were real effects of David’s actions on other people, as well as collective consequences. David’s sin impacted people and systems beyond his own personal morality scorecard. And as the Deuteronomistic history narrative would suggest, his sin undermined the stability and future peace of the entire Jewish people.
David may be performing repentance, likely genuinely, even if he has additional steps to take in his journey to understanding that can lead to sanctification. Our spiritual journeys often take place in such steps, peeling layer by layer. This isn’t dishonesty. To the contrary, it’s a very genuine expression of where we are in that moment, starting from within ourselves and turning outward by the leading of God’s spirit over time.
In David’s case, the sensitivity to the spirit’s leading did not progress as we would hope. David did not become more alert to avoiding temptation, more vigilant in protecting his family, or more self-aware. Though this prayer shows a strong desire to recover from this tipping-point moment, to those of us who know the rest of the story, it reads like unrealized potential, eventually abandoned in the disgrace with which the prayer begins.
Are we misguided to resonate with this prayer? It is certainly a staple of Christian worship practice, because it has been meaningful to millions of people worldwide who find aid for their own prayers by beginning with David’s words found here. David is right that a contrite heart is more precious than burnt offerings; Jesus will echo this clearly when calling us to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24). David is right that water is a powerful cleanser, literally and metaphorically, and certainly has a significant place in spirituality, indicating God’s presence with the people (John 4:10). David is right that repentance must take place from the inside out, as a total transformation of our hearts and spirits.
David failed at living as he hoped in this prayer. We know more about David’s expectation that God would deliver military victory than transformed character and redeemed societal infrastructures. But to his people, his reign was the apex of history. There are some modern world leaders about which we could say the same. What is it about their story that remains so inspirational in spite of their multitudinous and egregious transgressions? Perhaps it is those parts of the narrative we have in common with them that give us hope for what God might yet do in and through us.
But will we follow God’s spirit?