Psalm 51

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 51 and its interpreters.  This week, the format will be different from my usual write-ups on the Psalms, for I will post the Psalm in its entirety in the King James Version, which is in the public domain, and then I will comment on select verses.

To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

I listened to J. Vernon McGee’s comments on the superscription, and he said that he wants us to understand that the superscription was not attached to the Psalm at a later date.  Most likely, McGee was responding to the scholarly view that Psalm 51 was a generic Psalm of repentance that was not by David, but rather was applied at a later date to an event from David’s life.  To be honest, I did not like McGee’s approach to this issue, not so much because of what he said, but because of how he said it.  It reminded me of the evangelical authoritarianism that I have encountered over the years, in which a leader tells people to believe something, and they just follow, like sheep.  I prefer the times when I have heard evangelical leaders (even McGee) give reasons why they believe as they do, as they seek to convince their audience of their position.

1Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.

 2Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

 3For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.

In his Treasury of David, Charles Spurgeon quotes Thomas Fuller’s comments on this verse: “Ever before me. Sorrow for sin exceeds sorrow for suffering, in the continuance and durableness thereof: the other, like a landlord, quickly come, quickly gone; this is a continual dropping or running river, keeping a constant stream. My sins, saith David, are ever before me; so also is the sorrow for sin in the soul of a child of God, morning, evening, day, night, when sick, when sound, fasting, at home, abroad, ever within him. This grief begins at his conversion, continues all his life, ends only at his death.”

This is a pretty morose picture of the Christian life—-that I can know that I’m a true child of God if I am continually beating myself up for my flaws.  I’m all for being aware of my imperfections and trying to do something about them, but what is the point of me weeping over them, even in times when I do not feel all that sad about having some of them?  I’m just tired of Christianity telling me how I am supposed to feel.  I feel what I feel, period.

 4Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.

What has baffled exegetes here (at least many of the ones who ascribe the Psalm to David) is that David says that his sin was against God alone, when his sin was also against Uriah and Bathsheba.  Patrick Miller may not attribute this Psalm to David, but he states that a sin against other people can also be a sin against the LORD, for David says in II Samuel 12:13 that he has sinned against the LORD, after Nathan has told him a parable illustrating that he sinned against Uriah.  The Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary handles Psalm 51:4 by saying that the Psalmist wants for God to be the one who will punish him, rather than for a human avenger of blood to go after his life.  Consequently, the Psalmist asks God to consider the sin to be against God alone, not the Psalmist’s human victims.

Then there is the rabbinic view, which I found in the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll.  It essentially denies that David even sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah.  The Artscroll commentary summarizes: “As pointed out by the Sages, David sinned only ethically, not technically, since Bath sheba was legally divorced, and Uriah had forfeited his life by defying the king…”  According to this view, David did not technically commit adultery or murder, but, somehow, he sinned against God.

 5Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.

This is a widely-discussed verse.  Many Christians have read this verse in light of the Christian doctrine of original sin, which states that humans have inherited guilt and a sinful nature from Adam and Eve.  Several Jewish interpretations that I read (from Rashi and others) do not interpret the verse in light of original sin, but they do believe that the verse is saying that human nature is flawed.  Other Jewish interpreters maintain that the verse is referring to women’s impurity during conception or menstruation (Babylonian Talmud Niddah 9a, 31b; see Leviticus 15:18; 12:8).

Surprisingly, not all ancient Christian interpreters whom I read related the verse to the original sin doctrine.  The fourth century Christian exegete Theodore of Mopsuestia states the following (according to Robert Hill’s translation):

“He finds no fault with offspring on the basis of nature—-perish the thought.  [I]t is clear from conceived in iniquities and carried in sin by the mother that he refers to the fault of the parents, not the offspring, criticizing the mind-set of the former, not the nature of the children, as some foolish people would like to hold.  David, in fact, is not referring to himself: how could he say this of his own nature, when God had said of him, ‘I found a man after my own heart,’ far from finding fault with his nature but even admiring his use of free will?  So David is not saying this of himself; and even if someone mistakenly put a title on the psalm to this effect, it does not bring the drift of the psalm into question.”

So Theodore not only denies that the verse is about original sin, but he also questions the superscription that applies Psalm 51 to David’s sin with Bathsheba.  Theodore believes that David is prophesying what sinful Israel will say in the future, as she repents before God.  At that time, many Israelites will confess that they are the offspring of adultery, a sin that Jeremiah and Ezekiel criticize (Jeremiah 5:8; Ezekiel 22:11).  For Theodore, Psalm 51 is Israel’s confession of sin, and v 5 concerns the sin of adultery within Israel.

I’ve referred before on this blog to Erhard Gerstenberger’s views on Psalm 51:5, but they deserve repeating.  Gerstenberger states: “There is absolutely nothing here against sexuality or anything in support of original sin in the biological sense…Reference to birth and conception only stress the gravity and totality of wrongness at the given moment of penitential prayer (see Pss 22:11 [RSV 10]; 58:4 [RSV 3]; 88:16 [RSV 15]).”  Psalm 22:11 says that God has protected the Psalmist from the time of the womb, Psalm 58:4 affirms that the wicked lie from birth, and Psalm 88:16 states that the Psalmist is afflicted and ready to die from his youth up (to draw from the KJV’s language).  Gerstenberger’s point appears to be that the Psalms project current problems onto the time of one’s birth or youth, and that’s what Psalm 51:5 is doing; it’s not making a dogmatic statement about people being born in a state of sinfulness.

I particularly liked what The Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary had to say about this verse.  For the author(s) of this commentary, Psalm 51:5 is simply the penitent drawing a contrast between his own sinfulness and the perfection of God.  The commentary notes a similar phenomenon in the nineteenth dynasty Egyptian prayer to Amon, which “confesses that it is ‘normal’ for humans to do wrong just as it is ‘normal’ for the god to be merciful” (the commentary’s words), as well as an acknowledgment of the universal sinfulness of human beings in Babylonian incantations and the Egyptian teachings of Amenemope.  For the commentary, Psalm 51:5 reflects one’s repentant acknowledgement that human nature is flawed as he seeks God’s mercy, not the Christian doctrine of original sin.

I will say one more thing about this verse.  Theodore stated that David could not have been speaking about himself here because he was a man after God’s own heart, not a person with a corrupt human nature.  John MacArthur, however, said in a sermon that David was saying here that this (a sinner) is who he truly is.  How could David be a man after God’s own heart, yet be someone with a corrupt nature?  What I have heard in sermons is that David was a man after God’s own heart because he felt sorrow about his own sins: he was repentant.

 6Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.

I have long interpreted this verse to mean that David (or the Psalmist) is acknowledging God’s desire for righteousness and is hoping that God will teach him wisdom, as part of God’s restoration of him from his sin.  But I encountered another interpretation in my study: that God placed truth and wisdom inside of the Psalmist when he was in the womb, and so the Psalmist had no excuse for his sin: he should have known better.  The Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary says that there is a similar theme in the Egyptian Hymn to the Aten: “The writer repeatedly praises the god for supplying all that is necessary for human survival, even within the womb.”

 7Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

 8Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.

This may contradict what I said in my comments on v 3, but something that has long bothered me about Psalm 51 is that the Psalmist wants for God to make him happy, even though the Psalmist has sinned.  If the Psalmist is truly repentant, shouldn’t he accept whatever misery or punishment results from his misdeed, rather than asking God to take them away?  At the same time, whom exactly would that help?  If God restores the Psalmist, then the Psalmist is in a position to encourage people to turn to God and to follow God’s ways (see vv 13-14).  Lasting feelings of guilt, by contrast, would probably help no one.

 9Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.

 10Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.

I heard Christian preachers say that the Psalmist desires a new nature because he realizes that his own human nature is corrupt and sinful, a la v 5.  But Augustine (who believes in original sin) says, “By my doing, he says, the uprightness of my spirit has been made old and bowed.”  Augustine’s point appears to be (if I’m understanding it correctly) that the Psalmist is saying that his heart was upright but has become crooked on account of his sins and his lusts.  Is the Psalmist in v 10 asking God to create a totally new heart, or is he requesting that God renew or repair the heart that he has, since the piel of ch-d-sh most often means “renew” or “repair” (I Samuel 11:14; II Chronicles 15:8; 24:4, 12; Isaiah 61:4; Lamentations 5:21)?  Perhaps creation of a new heart entails a renewal or repair of the old one.  I’m uncomfortable with how Christianity often presents regeneration as the replacement of our old selves (which die) with new selves, for, to me, that appears to imply that God kills human individuality.  I prefer to think that God will take James—-with James’ uniqueness—-and will make a better James, one not as weighed down by sin and selfishness.

(Note: I don’t want to imply that Augustine believed that a new nature was unnecessary, for Augustine argued vehemently against Pelagianism, the view that humans in their natural state could be morally good.  Augustine believed that supernatural transformation was essential.  Augustine may have thought that David in Psalm 51 was asking God to renew his already-new heart, as if David had experienced some degree of regeneration in the past yet had backslidden from that point through his sins.  I am just guessing on this, though.)

 11Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.

The best explanation for this verse that I encountered was in The Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary, which states: “For a reigning monarch, who is God’s representative, being cut off from Yahweh’s voice or presence would be the signal that his dynasty has been rejected and will come to an end…”  As the commentary notes, this is what happened to Saul (see I Samuel 16:14; 28:6).

 12Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.

The debate on this verse concerns whether “uphold me with thy free spirit” means that the Psalmist is hoping that God will uphold him with God’s generous spirit, or the Psalmist wants for God to give him (the Psalmist) a spirit that is humble and willing to do God’s will, upholding him that way.

 13Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.

One Christian preacher I heard said that a problem in today’s churches is that people who have not experienced God’s forgiveness are trying to exhort sinners to receive forgiveness from God, making it a second-hand doctrine.  I will admit that listening to someone who has found redemption after a life of selfishness, brokenness, or depravity is a powerful experience.  But I’m also against the legalistic view that God can only use me if I was (say) strung out on heroin (or something like that) before I became a Christian.  I suppose that where I stand on this issue is that I am learning and growing in areas, and I will share with others where I am learning and growing, and, if they find that to be beneficial to them, fine.  If not, fine.  My experience, strength, and hope do not speak to everybody, for they come from my specific situation.  But God does not love me less if I am regressing, or if my weaknesses are a present reality and not just a past one.  I can better help others to overcome their problems if I have overcome my own, but I can also minister to people even if I am far from perfect.  I can listen to them, I can point them to somebody else who can help them, etc.

 14Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.

 15O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

 16For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.

 17The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

Most commentaries I read interpreted vv 16-17 to mean that God wants repentance and not just sacrifice, and The Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary mentioned a similar sentiment in the Egyptian Instruction of Merikare and Babylonian wisdom literature.  But Theodore of Mopsuestia offers an interpretation I never encountered before: “…you saw us depressed in thought, suffering from discouragement, and incapable of coming to any logical or healthy thinking on account of the great number of troubles besetting us; so you stipulated no sacrifices nor required them of us when you freed us from the misfortune.”  The idea here seems to be that God did not want to give the Jews more than they could handle when they were in a state of despair, and so God refrained from commanding them to sacrifice, until they arrived at a state of greater healing.

 18Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.

 19Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.

Many say that vv 18-19 were added later because they are pro-sacrifice, whereas vv 16-17 are anti-sacrifice.  Others disagree, however, maintaining that vv 16-17 oppose sacrifices without repentance, not sacrifices themselves.  Vv 18-19 appear to concern the desire that God restore Israel from exile by rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, and many interpreters place vv 18-19 in that context.  Some evangelical pastors I heard, however, relate vv 18-19 to the time of David, saying that God was allowing Israel’s enemies to tear down pieces of the walls of Jerusalem as punishment for David’s sin, and David wanted God to reverse that.  Theodore of Mopsuestia, however, did not believe that God would punish Israel for David’s sin (even though God seems to do precisely that in II Samuel 24).

Perhaps my favorite interpretation of this verse was that of the Jewish exegete Radak, which I read in the Artscroll commentary.  In vv 11-12, David prays that God not remove God’s Holy Spirit from him.  Well, in vv 18-19, we see an answer to that prayer, Radak contends, for David through God’s prophetic spirit is foreseeing the destruction of the two temples, and David prays for God to restore them in the future.  God’s Holy Spirit is still with David, the argument runs, for David continues to have the spirit of prophecy.  God has answered David’s prayer for forgiveness.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Bible, Psalms, Rabbinics, Religion, Weekly Quiet Time. Bookmark the permalink.