An Exegetical Perspective of Psalm 51:1-17

Theologically rich and poetically powerful, Psalm 51 is an earnest prayer of contrition in the form of an individual lament. As one of the seven Penitential Psalms of the Christian tradition (Pss. 6; 32; 38; 51; 102; 130; 143), it is most appropriate for Ash Wednesday. This elegant poem utilizes expressive imagery and vocabulary for both human sinfulness and divine grace. It portrays sincere penitence for deliberate sin and rebellion against God. Perhaps for this reason the editors of the Psalter attribute its composition to Nathan’s confrontation of David over his adultery with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12). Historically, the text more likely dates to the seventh or sixth century BCE, but the Davidic setting provides a useful context for this cry of a “broken and contrite heart” (v. 17).
The text’s structure moves from an appeal to divine mercy (1-2), through confession of sins (3-5) and pleas for cleansing and renewal (6-12), to a vow with thanksgiving and further petitions (13-17).
This confessional psalm applies traditional terms for “transgression” (peša’), “iniquity” (‘awon), and “evil” (ra’). The appeal for divine forgiveness is contingent upon God’s gracious nature, and the psalmist begs God to “have mercy” or “be gracious” (ḥnn, v. 1). The penitent invokes God’s “steadfast love” (ḥesed), using an important relational or covenant term, and “abundant mercy” or “compassion” (rḥmyk) (v. 1). Psalm 51 shares much of its vocabulary with God’s self-revelation in Exodus 34:6-7, which describes the Lord as “merciful and gracious” (raḥûm weḥannûn), “abounding in steadfast love [ḥesed] and faithfulness [’emet],” and “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”
Psalm 51 employs five images for the remission of sin while avoiding the common verb “to forgive” (ns’). The penitent urges God to “blot out [mḥh] my transgressions” (vv. 1, 9), as though they were written in a book of guilt (cf. Isa. 43:25; 44:22; Ps. 109:14; Num. 5:23). The verb kbs in “wash me” (vv. 2, 7) means “to wash by treading,” usually applied to stained clothing (Exod. 19:10, 14; 2 Sam. 19:24). Jeremiah (2:22) artfully applies this verb: “Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me.”
The third verb, “cleanse” (ṭhr, vv. 2, 7, 10), is a priestly term used in the ritual purification of uncleanness (e.g., Lev. 13:13-17; 16:30). Using the hiphil stem of ḥṭ’, verse 7 eloquently prays, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash [kbs] me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (cf. Isa. 1:18). Hyssop (‘ezôb) is used in priestly rituals of purification (Lev. 14; Num. 19) and to mark the doorposts with blood during the first Passover (Exod. 12:22). Finally, verse 9 turns the negative image of God’s hidden face (e.g., Pss. 88:14; 102:2; 143:7) into a positive metaphor: “Hide [hstr] your face from my sins.”
Although extensive exegetical comments are not possible here, a few textual issues should be noted. The NRSV translation of verse 4, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned,” correctly reflects the grammatical emphasis in Hebrew. Ethical sins against other humans are also sins against God in the Hebrew Bible, as David confesses in 2 Samuel 12:13 (cf. Gen. 39:9). This rhetoric highlights the importance of the individual’s personal relationship with God in this psalm. The author of Romans 3:4 aptly quotes verse 4b to justify the judgments of God against sinful humans. “Indeed I was born guilty” (v. 5) refers not to the Christian concept of original sin but to the impure nature of humanity before God (cf. Gen. 8:21; Jer. 17:9; Job 4:17-19; 15:14-16).
Although the nuance of verse 6b is uncertain, the NJPS rendition, “teach me wisdom about secret things,” is better than NRSV’s “teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” Regardless, the psalmist realizes the need for wisdom as well as piety. The metaphor of crushed bones in verse 8b is odd, but “bones” can refer to the whole person (Ps. 35:10) or one’s inmost being. A heart is similarly “crushed” (ndkh, “contrite” in NRSV) in verse 17. These are spiritual metaphors rather than physical ailments (cf. Ps. 38). Body imagery throughout this psalm, referring to the poet’s heart, spirit, bones, lips, tongue, and mouth, contributes to the prayer’s intimate character.
The beautiful prayer for God to create (br’) a “clean heart” and a “new and right spirit” in verse 10 is related to Ezekiel 36:25-27. Reference to God’s “holy spirit” (v. 10) appears only here and Isaiah 63:10-11 in the Hebrew Bible. The psalmist further requests a “willing spirit” (v. 12). Verse 11 begs God not to abandon the sinner, but actively to “restore” (v. 12), “sustain” (v. 12), and “deliver” (v. 14) one who seeks God. Divine initiative is necessary for human salvation in this psalm beloved by Reformation Christianity. In response, the repentant psalmist promises to teach others the ways of God for their renewal (vv. 13-14).
God does not “delight” in cultic sacrifices in verse 16 (cf. Isa. 1:11-17; Amos 5:21-24; Mic. 6:6-8). This apparently antitemple rhetoric is probably not meant as a wholesale rejection of the Jewish sacrificial system. Here a “broken spirit” (rwḥnšbrh) substitutes for formal sacrifices (v. 17) as either poetic hyperbole or perhaps an exilic reference to the absence of temple rites. Compare Psalm 50:14, where thanksgiving constitutes a sacrifice, and Psalm 69:30-31, in which praise is superior to bloody offerings. Sincere repentance is more efficacious than rituals to remove sin in this psalm’s poetic vision.
Our passage appropriately ends with the declaration that “a broken and contrite heart [lb-nšbr wndkh], O God, you will not despise.” While God delivers the broken-hearted (nšbry-lb) in Psalm 34:18 and Isaiah 61:1, this description of a repentant sinner turns the usually negative image of a broken heart into a positive spiritual attribute. The lectionary reading excludes the canonical psalm’s last two verses (vv. 18-19), a Persian-period addition that offers an intercession for Jerusalem and the rebuilding of Zion’s walls. This passage’s image of God “delighting” in animal sacrifices upon the temple altar seems inconsistent with verses 16-17.
Neal H. Walls

Published by Intentional Faith

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