Psalms 51

PSALM LI

The psalmist, with a deeply penitent heart, prays for remission

of sins, 1-4;

which he confesses, and deeply deplores, 5-14;

states his willingness to offer sacrifice, but is convinced that

God prefers a broken heart to all kinds of oblations, 15-17;

prays for the restoration of the walls of Jerusalem, and

promises that then the Lord's sacrifice shall be properly

performed, 18, 19.

NOTES ON PSALM LI

The title is long: "To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David,

when Nathan the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to

Bath-sheba." The propriety of this title has been greatly

suspected, says Bishop Horsley: "That this Psalm was not written

on the occasion to which the title refers, is evident from the 4th

and 18th verses. The 4th verse Ps 51:4 ill suits the case of

David, who laid a successful plot against Uriah's life, after he

had defiled his bed: and the 18th Ps 51:18 verse refers the

Psalm to the time of the captivity, when Jerusalem lay in ruins."

Dr. Kennicott is of the same mind. He says: "The title is

misplaced; that it was written during the captivity, and the

cessation of the temple worship; the author under great depression

of mind, arising from the guilt of some crime, probably some

compliance with heathen idolatry, not murder nor adultery; is

plain from the 4th verse, "Against THEE ONLY have I sinned."

The crime mentioned in the title was not only against God, but

against the whole order of civil society; against the life of the

noble and valiant captain whose wife Bath-sheba was, and against

every thing sacred in friendship and hospitality. It was a

congeries of sins against God and society. Were it not for the

4th, 18th, and 19th verses, the rest of the Psalm would accord

well enough with the title, and the deep penitence it expresses

would be suitable enough to David's state. But see on

Ps 51:4, 18, 19.

Verse 1. Have mercy upon me, O God] Without mercy I am totally,

finally ruined and undone.

According to thy loving-kindness] Mark the gradation in the

sense of these three words, Have MERCY on me, chonneni; thy

LOVING-KINDNESS, chasdecha;-thy TENDER MERCIES,

rachameycha, here used to express the Divine compassion. The

propriety of the order in which they are placed deserves

particular observation.

The first, rendered have mercy or pity, denotes that kind of

affection which is expressed by moaning over an object we love and

pity; that natural affection and tenderness which even the brute

creation show to their young by the several noises they

respectively make over them.

The second, rendered loving-kindness, denotes a strong

proneness, a ready, large, and liberal disposition, to goodness

and compassion, powerfully prompting to all instances of kindness

and bounty; flowing as freely as waters from a perpetual fountain.

This denotes a higher degree of goodness than the former.

The third, rendered tender mercies, denotes what the Greeks

called σπλαγχνιζεσθαι, that most tender pity which we signify by

the moving of the heart and bowels, which argues the highest

degree of compassion of which nature is susceptible. See Chandler.

Blot out my transgressions] mecheh, wipe out. There is a

reference here to an indictment: the psalmist knows what it

contains; he pleads guilty, but begs that the writing may be

defaced; that a proper fluid may be applied to the parchment, to

discharge the ink, that no record of it may ever appear against

him: and this only the mercy, loving-kindness, and tender

compassions of the Lord can do.

Verse 2. Wash me throughly] harbeh cabbeseni, "Wash

me again and again,-cause my washings to be multiplied." My stain

is deep; ordinary purgation will not be sufficient.

Verse 3. For I acknowledge my transgressions] I know, I feel, I

confess that I have sinned.

My sin is ever before me.] A true, deep, and unsophisticated

mark of a genuine penitent. Wherever he turns his face, he sees

his sin, and through it the eye of an angry God.

Verse 4. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned] This verse is

supposed to show the impropriety of affixing the above title to

this Psalm. It could not have been composed on account of the

matter with Bath-sheba and the murder of Uriah; for, surely, these

sins could not be said to have been committed against God ONLY, if

we take the words of this verse in their common acceptation. That

was a public sin, grievous, and against society at large, as well

as against the peace, honour, comfort, and life of an innocent,

brave, and patriotic man. This is readily granted: but see below.

That thou mightest be justified when thou speakest] Perhaps, to

save the propriety of the title, we might understand the verse

thus: David, being king, was not liable to be called to account by

any of his subjects; nor was there any authority in the land by

which he could be judged and punished. In this respect, God ALONE

was greater than the king; and to him ALONE, as king, he was

responsible. Nam quando rex deliquit, SOLI DEO reus est; guia

hominem non habet qui ejus facta dijudicet, says Cassiodorus. "For

when a king transgresses, he is accountable to GOD ONLY; for there

is no person who has authority to take cognizance of his conduct."

On this very maxim, which is a maxim in all countries, David might

say, Against thee only have I sinned. "I cannot be called to the

bar of my subjects; but I arraign myself before thy bar. They can

neither judge nor condemn me; but thou canst: and such are my

crimes that thou wilt be justified in the eyes of all men, and

cleared of all severity, shouldst thou inflict upon me the

heaviest punishment." This view, of the subject will reconcile the

Psalm to the title. As to the eighteenth and nineteenth verses, we

shall consider them in their own place; and probably find that the

objection taken from them has not much weight.

Verse 5. Behold, I was shapen in iniquity] A genuine penitent

will hide nothing of his state; he sees and bewails, not only the

acts of sin which he has committed, but the disposition that led

to those acts. He deplores, not only the transgression, but the

carnal mind, which is enmity against God. The light that shines

into his soul shows him the very source whence transgression

proceeds; he sees his fallen nature, as well as his sinful life;

he asks pardon for his transgressions, and he asks washing and

cleansing for his inward defilement. Notwithstanding all that

Grotius and others have said to the contrary, I believe David to

speak here of what is commonly called original sin; the propensity

to evil which every man brings into the world with him, and which

is the fruitful source whence all transgression proceeds. The word

cholalti, which we translate shapen, means more properly,

I was brought forth from the womb; and yechemathni rather

signifies made me warm, alluding to the whole process of the

formation of the fetus in utero, the formative heat which is

necessary to develope the parts of all embryo animals; to incubate

the ova in the female, after having been impregnated by the male;

and to bring the whole into such a state of maturity and

perfection as to render it capable of subsisting and growing up by

aliment received from without. "As my parts were developed in the

womb, the sinful principle diffused itself through the whole, so

that body and mind grew up in a state of corruption and moral

imperfection."

Verse 6. Behold, thou desirest truth] I am the very reverse of

what I should be. Thou desirest truth in the heart; but in me

there is nothing but sin and falsity.

Thou shalt make me to know wisdom.] Thou wilt teach me to

restrain every inordinate propensity, and to act according to the

dictates of sound wisdom, the rest of my life.

Verse 7. Purge me with hyssop] techatteeni, "thou shalt

make a sin-offering for me;" probably alluding to the cleansing of

the leper: Le 14:1, &c. The priest took two clean birds,

cedar-wood, scarlet, and hyssop; one of the birds was killed; and

the living bird, with the scarlet, cedar, and hyssop, dipped in

the blood of the bird that had been killed, and then sprinkled

over the person who had been infected. But it is worthy of remark

that this ceremony was not performed till the plague of the

leprosy had been healed in the leper; (Le 14:3;) and the ceremony

above mentioned was for the purpose of declaring to the people

that the man was healed, that he might be restored to his place in

society, having been healed of a disease that the finger of God

alone could remove. This David seems to have full in view; hence

he requests the Lord to make the sin-offering for him, and to show

to the people that he had accepted him, and cleansed him from his

sin.

Verse 8. Make me to hear joy] Let me have a full testimony of my

reconciliation to thee; that the soul, which is so deeply

distressed by a sense of thy displeasure, may be healed by a sense

of thy pardoning mercy.

Verse 9. Hide thy face from my sins] The sentiment here is

nearly the same as that in Ps 51:3:

His sin was ever before his own face; and he knew that the eye

of God was constantly upon him, and that his purity and justice

must be highly incensed on the account. He therefore, with a just

horror of his transgressions, begs God to turn away his face from

them, and to blot them out, so that they may never more be seen.

See Clarke on Ps 51:1.

Verse 10. Create in me a clean heart] Mending will not avail; my

heart is altogether corrupted; it must be new made, made as it was

in the beginning. This is exactly the sentiment of St. Paul:

Neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but

a new creation; and the salvation given under the Gospel

dispensation is called a being created anew in Christ Jesus.

A right spirit within me.] ruach nachon, a constant,

steady, determined spirit; called Ps 51:12,

ruach nedibah, a noble spirit, a free, generous, princely spirit;

cheerfully giving up itself to thee; no longer bound and degraded

by the sinfulness of sin.

Verse 11. Cast me not away from thy presence] Banish me not from

thy house and ordinances.

Take not thy Holy Spirit from me.] I know I have sufficiently

grieved it to justify its departure for ever, in consequence of

which I should be consigned to the blackness of darkness,-either

to utter despair, or to a hard heart and seared conscience; and so

work iniquity with greediness, till I fell into the pit of

perdition. While the Spirit stays, painfully convincing of sin,

righteousness, and judgment, there is hope of salvation; when it

departs, then the hope of redemption is gone. But while there his

any godly sorrow, any feeling of regret for having sinned against

God, any desire to seek mercy, then the case is not hopeless; for

these things prove that the light of the Spirit is not withdrawn.

Verse 12. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation] This is an

awful prayer. And why? Because it shows he once HAD the joy of

God's salvation; and had LOST it by sin!

Uphold me with thy free spirit.] Prop me up; support me with a

princely spirit, one that will not stoop to a mean or base act.

See on Ps 51:10.

Verse 13. Then will I teach transgressors] I will show myself to

be grateful; I will testify of thy loving-kindness; I will call on

transgressors to consider the error of their ways; and shall set

before them so forcibly thy justice and mercy, that sinners shall

be converted unto thee. With a little change I can adopt the

language of Dr. Delaney on this place: "Who can confide in his own

strength, when he sees David fall? Who can despair of Divine mercy

when he sees him forgiven? Sad triumph of sin over all that is

great or excellent in man! Glorious triumph of grace over all that

is shameful and dreadful in sin!"

Verse 14. Deliver me from blood-guiltiness] This is one of the

expressions that gives most colour to the propriety of the title

affixed to this Psalm. Here he may have in view the death of

Uriah, and consider that his blood cries for vengeance against

him; and nothing but the mere mercy of God can wipe this blood

from his conscience. The prayer here is earnest and energetic: O

God! thou God of my salvation! deliver me! The Chaldee reads,

"Deliver me ( middin ketol) from the judgment of

slaughter."

My tongue shall sing aloud] My tongue shall praise thy

righteousness. I shall testify to all that thou hast the highest

displeasure against sin, and wilt excuse it in no person; and that

so merciful art thou, that if a sinner turn to thee with a deeply

penitent and broken heart, thou wilt forgive his iniquities. None,

from my case, can ever presume; none, from my case, need ever

despair.

Verse 15. O Lord, open thou my lips] My heart is believing unto

righteousness; give me thy peace, that my tongue may make

confession unto salvation. He could not praise God for pardon till

he felt that God had pardoned him; then his lips would be opened,

and his tongue would show forth the praise of his Redeemer.

Verse 16. For thou desirest not sacrifice] This is the same

sentiment which he delivers in Ps 40:6, &c., where see the notes.

There may be here, however, a farther meaning: Crimes, like mine,

are not to be expiated by any sacrifices that the law requires;

nor hast thou appointed in the law any sacrifices to atone for

deliberate murder and adultery: if thou hadst, I would cheerfully

have given them to thee. The matter is before thee as Judge.

Verse 17. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit] As my

crimes are such as admit of no legal atonement, so thou hast

reserved them to be punished by exemplary acts of justice, or to

be pardoned by a sovereign act of mercy: but in order to find this

mercy, thou requirest that the heart and soul should deeply feel

the transgression, and turn to thee with the fullest compunction

and remorse. This thou hast enabled me to do. I have the broken

spirit, ruach nishbarah; and the broken and contrite

heart, leb nishbar venidkeh. These words are very

expressive. shabar signifies exactly the same as our word

shiver, to break into pieces, to reduce into splinters; and

dakah, signifies to beat out thin,-to beat out masses of metal,

&c., into laminae or thin plates. The spirit broken all to pieces,

and the heart broken all to pieces, stamped and beaten out, are

the sacrifices which, in such cases, thou requirest; and these

"thou wilt not despise." We may now suppose that God had shone

upon his soul, healed his broken spirit, and renewed and removed

his broken and distracted heart; and that he had now received the

answer to the preceding prayers. And here the Psalm properly ends;

as, in the two following verses, there is nothing similar to what

we find in the rest of this very nervous and most important

composition.

Verse 18. Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion] This and the

following verse most evidently refer to the time of the captivity,

when the walls of Jerusalem were broken down, and the temple

service entirely discontinued; and, consequently, are long

posterior to the times of David. Hence it has been concluded that

the Psalm was not composed by David, nor in his time and that the

title must be that of some other Psalm inadvertently affixed to

this. The fourth verse has also been considered as decisive

against this title: but the note on that verse has considerably

weakened, if not destroyed, that objection. I have been long of

opinion that, whether the title be properly or improperly affixed

to this Psalm, these two verses make no part of it: the subject is

totally dissimilar; and there is no rule of analogy by which it

can be interpreted as belonging to the Psalm, to the subject, or

to the person. I think they originally made a Psalm of themselves,

a kind of ejaculatory prayer for the redemption of the captives

from Babylon, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and the restoration of

the temple worship. And, taken in this light, they are very proper

and very expressive.

The cxviith Psalm contains only two verses; and is an

ejaculation of praise from the captives who had just then

returned from Babylon. And it is a fact that this Psalm is written

as a part of the cxvith in no less than thirty-two of Kennicott's

and De Rossi's MSS.; and in some early editions. Again, because of

its smallness, it has been absorbed by the cxviiith, of which it

makes the commencement, in twenty-eight of Kennicott's and De

Rossi's MSS. In a similar way I suppose the two last verses of

this Psalm to have been absorbed by the preceding, which

originally made a complete Psalm of themselves; and this

absorption was the more easy, because, like the cxviith it has no

title. I cannot allege a similar evidence relative to these two

verses, as ever having made a distinct Psalm; but of the fact I

can have no doubt, for the reasons assigned above. And I still

think that Psalm is too dignified, too energetic, and too elegant,

to have been the composition of any but David. It was not Asaph;

it was not any of the sons of Korah; it was not Heman or Jeduthun:

the hand and mind of a greater master are here.

ANALYSIS OF THE FIFTY-FIRST PSALM

In general the Psalm contains David's prayer,-

I. For himself, Ps 51:1-12.

II. Three vows or promises, Ps 51:13-18.

III. For the Church, Ps 51:18, 19.

I. David being in deep distress on account of his sins, prays to

God for mercy: and while he feels that he is unworthy of the name

of king, or God's anointed, of his son, or of his servant,

he uses no plea of his own merit, but, 1. Of the loving-kindness

of God: "According to thy loving-kindness." 2. Of the compassion

of God: "According to the multitude of thy tender mercies."

The general petition for mercy being offered, next he offers

three particular petitions:-

First. He prays for forgiveness of sins. The fact was past, but

the guilt remained: therefore, he earnestly petitions: "Put away

mine iniquities;" my sin is a deep stain: "Wash me throughly from

mine iniquities, and cleanse me from my sin," multiply washing; my

sin is a deep defilement.

To this petition he joins confession of sin; from which we may

learn the conditions requisite in a genuine confession:-

He considers the nature of his sin; he feels the weight of it,

the burden, and the anguish of it; and abhors it.

1. "I know mine iniquity." It is no longer hidden from me.

2. "It is ever before me;" and the sight breaks my heart.

3. He uses different epithets for it, in order to aggravate the

guilt, and deepen the repentance. 1. It is transgression,

pesha, rebellion. 2. It is iniquity, avon, crooked

dealing. 3. It is sin, chattath, error and wandering.

Then he begins his earnest confession: "I have sinned." And this

he aggravates by several circumstances:-

1. Of the person. It is "against thee;" a good and gracious God,

who of a shepherd made me a king over thy own people. Against

thee, the great and terrible God. The people are my subjects,

and they cannot judge me: it is against thee I have sinned, and to

thee I must give account, and by thee be judged and punished.

2. Of the manner. It was an impudent sin; not committed by

surprise, but done openly: "In thy sight." Therefore, the

threatenings by thy prophet are all right. Whatever punishment

thou mayest inflict upon me, both thy justice and mercy will stand

clear: "That thou mightest be justified," &c.

3. He shows from what root his sin sprang; from his original

corruption: "Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my

mother conceive me." I am all corruption within, and defilement

without. The evil fountain hath sent forth bitter waters.

4. Another aggravation of his sin was, that he was in principle

devoid of that which God loves: "Thou desirest truth in the inward

parts."

5. The greatest aggravation of all was, his having sinned

against light and knowledge. God had endued him with wisdom in the

hidden part, by the motions of his own Spirit; but he had

permitted his passions to obscure that light, and had quenched the

Spirit.

Having made this general confession, he names the particular sin

that lay heaviest on his conscience: "Deliver me from

blood-guiltiness." And then renews his petition for pardon under a

type then in use, and a metaphor. The type, hyssop; the

metaphor, wash me.

1. "Purge me with hyssop." With a bunch of hyssop, dipped in the

blood of the paschal lamb, the Israelites sprinkled their doors.

It was also used in the sprinkling of the leper, and in the

sacrifice for sin: and the blood and sprinkling were a type of

Christ's blood, and the pardon and holiness that came through it.

Sprinkled with this, David knew he must be clean; "for the blood

of Christ cleanseth from all sin;" and it is "the blood of Christ

that justifies."

2. Sanctified also he wishes to be; and there, he says, Wash me.

And this is done by the influence of God's Spirit: "I will

sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean,"

Eze 36:25.

Secondly. David, having ended his petitions for pardon,

proceeds,-

1. To pray that the evil effects which had been produced by his

sin might be removed: "Make me to hear joy and gladness," &c.

2. That his body, which was in a pining condition, might be

restored: "That the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice."

3. A third evil effect of his sin was, that God's face, that is,

his favour, was turned away from him: he therefore begs,-

(1) "Hide thy face from my sins." Remember them not against me.

(2) "And blot out mine iniquities." I know there is a long and

black catalogue in thy book against me; blot it out; blot out the

handwriting of ordinances that is against me.

Thirdly. Now follows David's last petition; in which he again

craves more particularly the grace of sanctification. He first

prayed for remission; next for reconciliation; and now for

renovation, which he asks of God in the three following verses:

1. "Create in me a clean heart." 2. "Renew a right spirit within

me." 3. "Cast me not away from thy presence." 4. "Take not thy

Holy Spirit from me." 5. "Restore unto me the joy of thy

salvation." 6. "Uphold me with thy free spirit." In which

petitions we are to consider,-

1. The subject on which the work is to be done. The heart-the

spirit. For as the heart is that part that first lives in nature;

so it is the first that lives in grace. The work must begin

within, else outward renovation will be to little purpose.

2. The work itself, which is,-

1. A creation. Sin had reduced David's heart to nothing in

respect to heavenly affections and things; and to bring it into a

state in which it would answer the end of its creation, was to

bring something out of nothing; which, in all cases, is the work

of Almighty God: "Create in me, O God," &c.

2. It is a renovation. All in David was the old man, nothing

left of the new man. He prays, therefore, to be renewed in the

spirit of his mind: "Renew a right spirit within me."

3. Reconciliation and restitution. Cast me not away-as a dead

man; nor take away thy Spirit from me, by which I live: "Cast me

not away-take not thy Holy Spirit from me."

4. A confirmation in what was good. Uphold-confirm me.

3. WHO was to do this work? Not himself; GOD alone. Therefore,

he prays: "O God, create;-O Lord, renew;-uphold by thy Spirit."

4. The quality of this. A cleansing-implied in these remarkable

words:-a right spirit,-a holy spirit,-a free spirit; in which

some have thought they saw the mystery of the HOLY TRINITY.

1. A right spirit. He felt that he might easily go wrong; a

crooked and perverse spirit had prevailed within him, which had

led him out of the right way to salvation: "Renew in me a RIGHT

spirit.'

2. A holy spirit; one opposed to the carnal spirit that was

enmity against God, the motions and desires of which were from

the flesh, and tended only to its gratification: "Take not thy

Holy Spirit from me." It is God's Holy Spirit that makes the

spirit of man holy. Holiness of heart depends on the indwelling of

the Holy Ghost.

3. A free spirit. A noble, a princely spirit. Ever since his

fall he felt he did nothing good; but by constraint, he was in

bondage to corruption. There was no dignity in his mind, sin had

debased it. "Ennoble me by a birth from above," and by thy noble

Spirit uphold me!

II. He had now presented his three petitions, and now he makes

his vows: 1. To teach others; 2. To praise God; and, 3. To offer

him such a sacrifice as he could accept.

His first vow. 1. Then, after pardon obtained, "I shall teach;"

for a man under guilt is not able to declare pardon to others.

2. "I will teach thy way to sinners;" viz.: that to the stubborn

thou wilt show thyself froward; but to the penitent thou wilt show

mercy.

The effect of which will be: "Sinners shall be converted unto

thee." They who hear of thy justice and mercy, as manifested in my

case, will fear, and turn from sin; have faith, and turn to

THEE.

His second vow and promise is to praise God: "My tongue shall

sing aloud of thy righteousness." But to this he was 1. Unapt; and

must be so till received into favour. And, 2. Unable, till he

received the healthful Spirit of the grace of God. Therefore he

prays for a capacity to do both: 1. "Deliver me from

blood-guiltiness, O God; then my tongue shall sing." 2. "O Lord,

open my lips-and my mouth shall show forth thy praise."

His third promise is about a sacrifice, not of any animal, but

of a "broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart," which he knew

God would not despise. 1. "Thou desirest no sacrifice, else I

would give it thee." No outward sacrifice can be of any avail if

the heart be not offered. 2. Nor will the heart be accepted if it

be not sacrificed. "The broken spirit and contrite heart," this

sacrifice he vowed to bring.

III. Having finished his prayers and vows for himself, he

forgets not Jerusalem. He petitions for God's Church; and the

reason might be, that he was afraid Jerusalem would suffer because

of his sins; for peccant reges, plectuntur Achivi, "the king sins,

the people suffer." This was the case when he sinned against God

by numbering the people.

His method and his charity in this are both instructive.

1. His method. 1. To be reconciled to God himself; and then, 2.

To pray for others. "The prayers of the righteous avail much."

2. His charity, for we are always bound "to remember the

afflictions of Joseph, and pray for the peace of Jerusalem." He

prays,

1. That God, who out of his good pleasure did choose a Church,

would out of his mere good will do it good, and preserve it: "Do

good, in thy good pleasure, to Zion."

2. That he would have a special favour, even to the building:

"Build thou the walls of Jerusalem;" for these fall not alone;

religion and the service of God fall, when the people permit their

churches and chapels to be dilapidated or get out of repair. Of

this there are multitudes of proofs.

3. For the consequence of Jerusalem's prosperity would be this,

that "religion would flourish with it;" then there would be

sacrifices, burnt-offerings, and holocausts: "Then they shall

offer bullocks upon thine altar."

4. And, what is yet more and better, we shall offer. and THOU

wilt accent: "Then thou shalt be pleased with the sacrifices of

righteousness." Being reconciled to thee, justified, and

sanctified; and righteous in all our conduct; all our sacrifices,

springing from thy own grace and love in us, shall find a gracious

acceptance. See Clarke on Ps 51:18.

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