A Study of Psalm 51

Mike Johnson

In the Old Testament, there is a particular psalm in which the author expresses the depths of his heart in asking God for forgiveness.  He seems to have a childlike faith in God’s mercy and shows much profoundness and tenderness. Psalm 51 is often called a psalm of repentance, and most agree it was written by David in connection with his sin with Bathsheba.  It shows David’s inward hope and struggle during a very difficult time of his life.

In II Samuel 11 and 12, we have a record of David’s sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah the Hittite. If it were not for this historical record, understanding why David had such grief and pain would be more difficult.  Since David’s love for God was so real, his repentance was so sincere. A hypocrite could not have written this psalm.

This psalm can be divided into four sections.

  • Verses 1-4 – We have an earnest prayer for mercy and forgiveness.
  • Verses 5-12 – There is a request to be restored.
  • Verses 13-17 – David reveals the return which he will make if he is forgiven and restored.
  • Verses 18-19 -The psalmist is praying for God’s blessing upon the people and promising a full return on their part.

David started out saying, “Have mercy upon me, O God….” The Scriptures teach God is a God of mercy.  Deuteronomy 4:31 says the Lord our God is a merciful God.  Ephesians 2:4 reveals God is “rich in mercy.”  The Greek word used in Ephesians 2:4 means, “the outward manifestation of pity; it assumes need on the part of him who receives it, and resources adequate to meet the need on the part of him who shows it.” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Copyright © 1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers.)

David continued in verse 1 by saying, “According to Your lovingkindness; According to the multitude of Your tender mercies.”  It is because of God’s loving kindness and tender mercies (NASB “compassion”) that our sins can be forgiven.

David committed an awful deed. First, he committed the sin of adultery with Bathsheba who was the wife of one of his soldiers.  David was unable to cover up his sin with her because they conceived a child.  In an attempt to cover up his sin, he had her husband, Uriah, murdered by ordering his troops to withdraw from him in the heat of the battle.  This would have been a heinous series of deeds for anyone, but it was especially atrocious for David.  He was a divinely appointed king blessed abundantly by God. He should have served as a better example for the people.

In spite of David’s sin, however, he could be forgiven because God is merciful. David recognized this and with humility begged for His mercy, knowing only through mercy could he be forgiven.

When our sins are forgiven, it is also because of God’s mercy.  If we have not received forgiveness, God’s mercy will allow us to be forgiven.  God is willing to forgive us because He is a merciful God.

David also asked God,  “blot out my transgressions.”  The ESV translates this “wipe away.”  David recognized he bore a personal responsibility for his sins, i.e. “blot out MY transgressions.”  There are many excuses David could have made in connection with his sin with Bathsheba. He could have said,

  • “Bathsheba should not have been on the roof top bathing.”
  • “Bathsheba could have said no.”
  • “Someone should have kept it from happening.”
  • “People die in war all of the time; Uriah might have died anyway.”

Instead, rather than making excuses, David simply said, “I have sinned against the Lord” (II Sam.13).  Today, we bear a personal responsibility for our actions— only we can do something about our sins.

Notice further in verse two where David asked God to wash him thoroughly from his iniquity and to cleanse him from his sins.  This is making the same point he made in verse one, but he repeats it for the sake of emphasis due to his strong emotions.  He asked for all of his iniquity to be removed completely; he did not want any part of it held against him.

In the first part of verse three, David said, “For I acknowledge my transgressions.”  At first, David was not willing to acknowledge his sins.  However, after God sent Nathan to talk with him, David recognized his sins and willingly acknowledged them.

Christians today must be willing to confess their sins.  I John 1:8-10 says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.”

David said in verse three, “my sin is always before me.”  He knew he had been forgiven, but he did not forget his awful deeds.  David would always carry a picture in his mind of murder and adultery.  Sin leaves “scars.”   However, once we have been forgiven of our sins, we should never let them hinder our spiritual progress. We know God is willing to forgive, and we can trust Him to do so.  Nevertheless, sin has long lasting effects, and we must learn from our past mistakes.

In verse four David said, “Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight.”  As noted, this psalm was probably written by David after his sin with Bathsheba and it shows a penitent heart.  But, he said he had sinned against God and God only.  What sins could be more against another person than murder and adultery?  Yet, David said he had sinned only against God.  David seems to be using the word only in the sense of “mainly” or “chiefly.” Although David did sin against individuals, the main one whom he sinned against was God.  Another example of this type of statement is found in Acts 5:4.  Here, Ananias lied to Peter and the other apostles about what he had given to the Lord.  In rebuking him, Peter told him (v. 4), “…You have not lied to men but to God.” Ananias had lied to men but primarily he had lied to God.  The verse is saying, “It is not so much you have lied to men but you have especially lied to God.” Our sin is made even worse when we understand if we commit sin, even against another person, we are primarily sinning against God.

Verse 5 starts a new section in the psalm. David asked God for restoration and renewal. “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me.”

Some use this passage to teach babies are born in sin, i.e. infants have inherited Adam’s sin.  This doctrine is not taught in the Bible.  In fact, Ezekiel 18:20 explains sin is not inherited: it clearly says the son does not bear the iniquity of the father.  The Bible tells us sin is something we commit, not inherit (I Jn. 3:4).

It is quite possible verse 5 is speaking of the sin of David’s mother.  For example, a wife might say, “In drunkenness my husband beat me,” or a child might say “In anger, my father whipped me.”  One would attribute the drunkenness to the husband and the anger to the father; they would not be attributed to the person speaking. In like manner, David would not have attributed the sin to himself but to his mother.

Consider another possibility.  Even if the sin does not refer to the sin of David’s mother, contextually, the verse would still not fit the idea that David was born a sinner. In verses 1-4, David has emphatically mourned his sins.  Continuing this thought, he would say he was conceived and brought forth into a world of sin.  This would certainly be characteristic of what a penitent person would say.  The same sentence structure exists, for example, in Acts 2:8 which says, “And now hear we every man in our own tongue wherein we were born.” This does not mean these people were born speaking a certain language but were born where all spoke this language. In like manner, David stresses he was born into a world where sin is rampant, not that he was born already guilty of sin.

The first part of verse 6 says, “Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts….”  David acknowledges God requires more than just outward purity and righteousness.  It is clear the inner man is also very important.  In Jesus’ day, this was a problem with the Pharisees.  On the outside, these people appeared to be righteous, but on the inside, they were corrupt.  In Matthew 23:27, He compared them to whitewashed tombs which looked beautiful on the outside, but were full of dead men’s bones.  Further, in John 4:24, Jesus pointed out, “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Clearly, David understood the importance of truth.  Sadly, many today do not think truth is important.  They say, “as long as we are sincere, it does not matter how we worship God.”  This concept is not found in the Bible.  As noted earlier, worship must be in truth (Jn. 4:24).  Jesus taught only truth (God’s revealed will) can make us free (Jn. 8:32).  In Proverbs 23:23, we are told to buy the truth and sell it not.  Truth must be pursued and adhered to.

In the later part of verse 6, David continued, “And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom.”   It is clear David knew the value of wisdom.  If David had used wisdom, he would not have committed his sin with Bathsheba.  Proverbs 1:5 says, “A wise man will hear and increase learning, And a man of understanding will attain wise counsel.” Proverbs 1:7 reveals, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, But fools despise wisdom and instruction.”  The most important wisdom comes from God; we can obtain this wisdom through His Word.

In verse 7 David continued, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”  Previously, in verse one, David asked God to forgive him.  Engulfed with emotion, David asked again for forgiveness but in a different way. David wanted to be purged with hyssop, which was a plant used to sprinkle the blood of animals in connection with the sacrifices under the Mosaic law.  White symbolizes purity.  To the faithful few in the book of Revelation 3:4, Jesus pointed out they would “walk with him in white” for they were worthy.

Clearly, David took his sin very seriously, and he wanted to do what was necessary to have his sins removed.  This is very important because sin will cause us to be lost eternally.  Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In Isaiah 59:2, we are told, “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.”

Continuing in verses 8 and 9 David wrote, “Make me hear joy and gladness, That the bones You have broken may rejoice.  Hide Your face from my sins, And blot out all my iniquities.”  David was overwhelmed with sorrow; he knew he had displeased God and he stood condemned.  In a figurative sense, his bones had been broken; he was made to feel the painful reality of his sins when God, through Nathan the prophet, said, “thou art the man” (II Sam. 12:7).  He had also faced certain consequences due to his sins, and he asked for forgiveness.

It was actually good that David was sorrowful for his sins.  Many people commit sins and are not sorry at all.  This is very dangerous because when there is no sorrow there can be no repentance.  Sorrow is actually an element involved in producing repentance.  II Corinthians 7:10 says, “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation. . . .”  But, godly sorrow is not all that is involved in repentance.  Repentance requires a change of heart or mind which results in a reformation of one’s life.  On one occasion, Jesus referred to the people of Nineveh as having repented at the preaching of Jonah (Mt. 12:41).  From the book of Jonah, however, we learn, the people were not only sorrowful, but they turned from their sin, and thus Jesus defines repentance as requiring both (Jonah 3:5-10). In a children’s Bible class, a teacher once asked the class to define repentance.  A young boy said repentance was being sorry about sins.  Immediately, a little girl spoke up and said, “No, repentance is being sorry enough to quit sinning.”

Verses ten reads, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me.” Here, David focused more on the inner man. He asked for clean heart and a right spirit —a heart no longer contaminated by his sin and for a disposition to resist temptation. Jesus taught this principle in Matthew 15:18-20: “But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man . . . .”

In verse 11, David pleaded,  “Do not cast me away from Your presence, And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.”  Isaiah 59:1-2 informs us sin separates us from God.  Being cast away from God’s presence would mean David would not be saved.  The Psalmist may have felt he deserved to be cast away from the presence of God, but he asked for the mercy of God. On the Judgment Day, the disobedient will be forced to depart from the presence of the Lord.  Matthew 7:23 points out Jesus will say to many on that day, “. . . I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”

David asked God that His Holy Spirit not be taken away from him.  In one sense, David had the Holy Spirit as an inspired man (II Tim. 3:16-17, II Pet. 1:21).  Being guilty of sins, David would not be able to retain the Holy Spirit.  Contextually, however, there might be a better application. Jesus would speak later of the Holy Spirit not only serving to inspire, but also serving as a comforter (Jn. 15:26, 16:7).  Perhaps David, in the context of his sorrow and recognition of sins separating effect, fears losing the Holy Spirit’s continuing comfort.

David’s desire for restoration continues in verse 12, “Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, And uphold me by Your generous Spirit.”  He wanted to be restored to God’s full favor.  He is asking God to give him back the joy which he had when he was walking uprightly.  While in a lost state, he felt darkness, despair, and pain.  He felt that way because of his sin. Many, who were once faithful servants of God, feel this same despair which can only be alleviated by their transgressions being blotted out, by their being washed thoroughly from their iniquity, and by their being cleansed from their sins.  In the New Testament, Paul asked the wayward Galatians (4:15),”What has happened to all your joy….”  The word joy occurs over 60 times in the New Testament.  It is an emotion which should characterize the child of God.  In fact, it is listed as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22).  Paul said in Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” In fact, this verse is considered the theme of the entire book of Philippians.  Paul was able to write this despite being in prison, not knowing whether he would live or die because his joy was not dependent on external conditions but with his right relationship with God.

Christians have many reasons to be joyful as members of God’s family and being so blessed spiritually.  In Paul’s opening remarks to the Ephesians, he said (1:3), “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.” More specifically, 1:7 says, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace.”  In I Peter 2:9, Peter describes Christians as, “…a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. “

Christians will obviously face hardships in life like everyone else (Note I Pet. 4:14-16, Mt. 5:10-12.).  But, the child of God has a deep and abiding joy and hope which cannot be taken away by external circumstances.  Christians have the hope of eternal life.  In I Thessalonians 4:14, Paul said we are not to sorrow as those who have no hope.  In John 16, just before His death, Jesus told his disciples he would soon be leaving them and they would be sorrowful, but he pointed out their sorrow would be turned into joy (v. 20).  In verse 22 He said, “Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.”  Christians do have disappointments and heartaches, but, as long as they remain faithful to God, they have a joy which cannot be taken away.

Verse 13 begins the third section.  Here David is speaking of the return he will make if he is forgiven and restored.  Here he said, “Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, And sinners shall be converted to You.”  While David was in rebellion against God, he was in no position to teach others.  He would now like to be cleared of this guilt and use his life in service to God.

Today, when Christians are in rebellion against God, they are in no position to teach others.  According to Paul (Gal. 6:1), people who are “spiritual” are the ones who are qualified to restore the fallen.  He said, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.”  In Matthew 7:1-6, Jesus condemned “hypocritical” judging,  pointing out that one who has a beam in his eye is in no position to pull out the mote from another’s eye.  Paul told Timothy he was to teach those who are faithful who would then be able to teach others (II Tim. 2:2).

In verse 14a, David asked God, “Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God.”  David had committed the sins of adultery and murder. His conscience weighed him down.  He was certainly worthy of death; however, he asked for mercy and deliverance.

Further, in verse 14b, David continued by referring to God as, “The God of my salvation.”  On other occasions in the Scriptures, God is referred to in this way (Mic. 7:7, Hab. 3:18, Ps. 25:5).  David was dependent on God for salvation, and God was the only one who could provide it.

David then promised (14c), “my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness.”  This is similar to Psalm 35:28 which is thought to be written by David during the time Saul was trying to kill him. Once God had delivered him from his enemies, he would have even more evidence to speak about God’s righteousness.  The verse says, “And my tongue shall speak of Your righteousness And of Your praise all the day long.” In our text, once God forgave David, he could proclaim loudly the righteousness of God.

Then, in verse 15, David continued with the same line of thought saying, “O Lord, open my lips, And my mouth shall show forth Your praise.”  His guilt had kept his lips closed, but when he is forgiven, he could then open his lips in praise to God.

In verse 16, David seems to be speaking of animal sacrifices when he said, “You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering.”  Animal sacrifices were required under the law of Moses, and David could offer plenty of sacrifices.  But, he recognized sacrifices were not enough as forgiveness would require more.  David explains in verses 16-17 when he said, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart —  These, O God, You will not despise.” The agony David showed throughout this psalm testify that he understood what God required.

God wants a broken spirit and a broken and contrite heart (note also Is. 1:11-18).  Usually, a broken spirit is undesirable.  For example, a horse which has been beaten and abused is sometimes characterized as having a broken spirit.  Thus, the animal becomes fearful, timid, and unproductive.  But, in David’s case, a broken spirit would be a good feature.  David had sinned; he needed to feel guilt for what he had done; he needed a broken and a contrite heart.  His heart, or mind, needed to be crushed, or broken, by the guilt of his sins. This would lead to repentance (II Cor. 7:10) and ultimately to the forgiveness he longed for, and then he could again experience the joy of his salvation (vs. 12).

In the last section (vs. 18-19), David asked for God’s blessings upon Israel and promised a full return on their part. He passed from praying for himself to praying for the people under his rule, which is common in the Psalms. He said, ” Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion; Build the walls of Jerusalem. Then You shall be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, With burnt offering and whole burnt offering; Then they shall offer bulls on Your altar.

David is described as a man after God’s own heart (I Sam. 13:14, Acts 13:22), but he committed sins which not only affected himself but other people. He was not even immediately motivated to repent. Instead of being a righteous leader for Israel, he engaged in treachery and deceit.  God, through Nathan, helped him realize his sins.  David cried out to God in agony and pain.  He wanted back the joy of his salvation. Because of the great mercy of God, he was forgiven. You and I can be too.