Commentary on Psalm 51:1-12
A single voice speaks to us in this text.
Its words ring of agony, pain, desperation, brokenness, and great remorse. The speaker directly addresses God himself, but God says nothing. Instead, this text invites us to eavesdrop on one side of a two-party conversation with God.
Who is speaking? The psalm title identifies the person as David, writing sometime after Nathan condemned him for adultery with Bathsheba (see 2 Samuel 12:1-14). This is possible, but a later editor probably penned the connection between the psalm and that seamy episode. Whatever the case, the title at least offers a powerful and infamous example of the kind of sin the psalm has in mind.
Structurally, the voice opens with heartfelt pleas for mercy and cleansing from sin (verses 1-2) and supports them with a long confession of sin (verses 3-6). A series of pleas for radical renewal (verses 7-12) gives its desperate outcry a powerful, closing crescendo.
A Black-and-White Negative
What immediately grabs my attention are the striking contrasts the speaker’s words paint. Before the digital era, cameras shot film, and photos were copied from “negatives” – film with the light/dark polarities reversed. Like the negative of a snapshot, the psalm pictures everything as starkly black and white, the polar opposite of what it should be.
- The dark side of his/her experience – where s/he is now – features “sin(s),” “iniquity,” “transgressions,” and “evil.”
- S/he feels “dirty” and “sinful,” i.e., grimy, filthy, and stained.
- The light side of her/his experience–where s/he wants God to take her/him – features “truth,” “wisdom,” “purity,” “cleanness,” and “joy.”
- S/he pleads to be “clean,” “pure,” “washed,” “cleansed,” and “purified.”
I imagine dear Pigpen of the “Peanuts” cartoons and guys in movies who’ve just brawled in slimy mud and soggy manure. It’s an ugly, smelly, foul scene. Emotionally, I feel grimy, filthy, and in desperate need of a bath, too. Whoever the voice is, I know s/he’s talking about me! I desperately need cleansing and renewed joy, too.
I confess that I’m not a big fan of Lent. Give me Christmas and Easter and I’m a happy Christian! The reason is that I wasn’t raised in a Christian clan that observed Lent. Ironically, however, every Sunday was like Lent, calling me to “get right with God.” I took God very, very seriously, but the week-after-week drumbeat gave me a spiritual inferiority complex.
Twice a year, I see my doctor for a physical checkup. He monitors my vital signs and points me in the direction of good health. Today I embrace Lent as an annual spiritual checkup to see where I’m at and to renew my relationship with God. But, please, annually, not weekly!
Getting the Color Back in Life
The stark contrasts drive home another point: the impossibility of self-reformation drives me (with the speaker) back to God. I (and he) do so for two reasons:
- Because God is the one I’ve (s/he’s) so horribly offended (verse 4), the dear, long-time friend with whom I (and s/he) crave reconciliation.
- Because only God can do the “blotting-out,” “cleansing,” “ignoring,” and “purifying,” etc. In computer terms, only God can hit the “restore” key.
Hit “Pause” to Ponder
At this point my mind hits the “Pause” button to ponder what kind of God I (and the psalmist) face. God has said nothing, so I search the psalmist’s words for a theological straw or two to grasp. My eyes drift between two key phrases: “Have mercy on me!” (hanani, verse 1) and “Cleanse me” (tehatte’eni, verse 7).
The first cry reminds me that God is a God of mercy. My mind replays tapes of sinful humans like me voicing that truth:
- That’s what Moses tells Israel camped near the Jordan (Deuteronomy 4:31).
- That’s why a guilty David casts his fate in God’s (rather than his enemies’) hands (2 Samuel 24:14).
- That fuels the climactic cry of hope by the prophet Micah (Micah 7:18-20).
- That’s why God sent Jonah to Nineveh (Jonah 4:2).
- That underlies Jesus’ climactic cry on the cross for forgiveness (Luke 23:34).
- That drives Paul’s dramatic declaration about “no condemnation” (Romans 8:1).
In short, God’s ears eagerly scan the world’s chatter to hear someone cry “Have mercy, O God!”
The second cry reminds me that God is a God of restoration. “Cleanse” (verse 7) puns on the root hata’ (“to sin”) and its multiple appearances in the psalm. In verse 4, the voice confesses “Against you… have I sinned” (hata’ basic stem), but in verse 7 it pleads “Cleanse me” (hata’ intensive stem). The pun works like the English words “contaminate” and “decontaminate.” The biblical speaker pleads: “I’ve sinned, so please de-sin me.”
That de-sinning has huge results:
- The stains and grime are “blotted out” – no longer visible, and no longer offensive.
- The grime is gone, replaced by vivid color – bright snow-like “whiteness” (verse 7b).
- God need no longer “hide [his] face” from their offense (verse 9).
- I feel the promised “joy” and “gladness” alongside the “cleanness” (verses 8a, 10a).
- Once “on the outs” (verse 11a), God and I are friends again.
“Lent For Dummies”
I may not like Lent, but this is what Lent does for me: I humbly hand myself over to God – to be sure, filthy, broken, and in despair – and he lovingly “restores” me to his favor. I feel good about myself, and life gleams with joyous, bright, vivid color! I bask again in the warm sunshine of his love and glimpse afresh the cheery radiance of his smile
That’s something worthy doing every year – but not every week!