Psalm 51 Commentary

During his lifetime, King David did what had pleased the Lord, “except in the case of Uriah the Hittite” (I Kings 15:5 nasb). This is the fourth of the Penitential Psalms (see 6) and is David’s prayer of confession after Nathan the prophet confronted him with his sins (see 32; 2 Sam. 11—12). This is also the first of fifteen consecutive psalms in book II attributed to David. In his prayer, David expressed three major requests.

“Cleanse Me” (vv. 1–7)
What dirt is to the body, sin is to the inner person, so it was right for David to feel defiled because of what he had done. By committing adultery and murder, he had crossed over the line God had drawn in His law (“transgression”); he had missed the mark God had set for him (“sin”) and had yielded to his twisted sinful nature (“iniquity”). He had willfully rebelled against God, and no atonement was provided in the law for such deliberate sins (Lev. 20:10; Num. 35:31–32). David could appeal only to God’s mercy, grace, and love (v. 1; Ex. 34:6–7; 2 Sam. 12:22). “Blot out” refers to a debt that must be paid (130:3; Isa. 43:25), and “cleanse” refers to defilement caused by touching something unclean (Lev. 11:32) or from disease (Lev. 13:1–3). “Wash” (vv. 2, 7) refers to the cleansing of dirty clothing (Isa. 1:18; 64:6). In the Jewish society of that day, to wash and change clothes marked a new beginning in life (Gen. 35:2; 41:14; 45:22; Ex. 19:10, 14), and David made such a new start (2 Sam. 12:20).

David had certainly sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah, but his greatest responsibility was to the Lord who had given the law to His people (2 Sam. 12:13; Ex. 20:13–14). Godly Jews saw all sins primarily as offenses against the Lord (Gen. 39:9). David openly acknowledged his sins and vindicated the Lord (v. 4; 1 John 1:9–10). Paul quoted verse 4 in Romans 3:4 as part of his argument that the whole world is guilty before God. David also confessed that he was not only a sinner by choice but also by nature (v. 5; 1 John 1:8). His statement doesn’t suggest that sex in marriage is sinful, or that his inherited fallen nature was an excuse for disobedience, but only that he was no better than any other man in the nation. (See Gen. 6:5; 8:21; Jer. 17:9; Matt. 15:19; Rom. 1:19ff.) The sinfulness of humans doesn’t mean that people can’t do anything good (Luke 11:13) but that their “goodness” can’t earn them entrance into God’s family (Eph. 2:8–10; Titus 3:3–7).

David knew the truth of God’s Word and loved it (19:7–11), but he had deliberately lied to himself (“I can get away with this”) and to the people, and he tried to lie to God. For nearly a year he attempted to cover up his sins, but God does not allow His children to sin successfully. Now he asked God for truth and wisdom in his innermost being (v. 6).

“Hyssop” (v. 7) was a shrub with hairy stems that could be dipped into liquid, and the priests used hyssop to sprinkle blood or water on people needing ceremonial cleansing (Lev. 14:4, 6; Num. 19:6, 18; see Ex. 12:22). Today’s believers find their cleansing in the work Jesus accomplished on the cross (1 John 1:5–10; Heb. 10:19–25).

“Restore Me” (vv. 8–12)
David’s sins had affected his whole person: his eyes (v. 3), mind (v. 6), ears and bones (v. 8; see 32:3–4; 35:9–10; 38:8), heart and spirit (v. 10), hands (v. 14), and lips (vv. 13–15). Such is the high cost of committing sin. David knew this, so he asked for more than cleansing, as important as that is; he wanted his entire being to be restored so he could serve the Lord acceptably. He wanted the joy of the Lord within him (see v. 12) and the face of the Lord smiling upon him (10:1; 44:24; 88:14; 104:29). “Joy and gladness” is a Hebrew phrase meaning “deep joy.” David asked the Lord to create a new heart within him and to give him a steadfast spirit that would not vacillate. Verse 10 is the central verse of the psalm and it expresses the heart of David’s concern. David knew that the inner person—the heart—was the source of his trouble as well as the seat of his joy and blessing, and he was incapable of changing his own heart. Only God could work the miracle (Jer. 24:7; Ezek. 11:19; 36:25–27).

The Lord gave the Holy Spirit to David when Samuel anointed him (1 Sam. 16:13), and David didn’t want to lose the blessing and help of the Spirit, as had happened to Saul when he sinned (1 Sam. 16:1, 14; see 2 Sam. 7:15). Today the Spirit abides with believers forever (John 14:15–18), but God’s children can lose His effective ministry by grieving the Spirit (Eph. 4:30–32), lying to Him (Acts 5:1–3), and quenching Him by deliberate disobedience (1 Thess. 5:19). The phrase “willing spirit” in verse 12 refers to David’s own spirit, as in verse 10. A “willing spirit” is one that is not in bondage but is free and yielded to the Spirit of God, who ministers to and through our own spirit (Rom. 8:14–17). It isn’t enough simply to confess sin and experience God’s cleansing; we must also let Him renew us within so that we will conquer sin and not succumb to temptation. The Lord did forgive David but permitted him to suffer the tragic consequences of his sins (2 Sam. 12:13–14).

“Use Me” (vv. 13–19)
David was God’s servant, and he wanted to regain his ministry and lead his people. He especially wanted to make careful preparations for the building of the temple. It’s interesting that Solomon, the child eventually born to Bathsheba, was chosen to be David’s successor and the one to supervise the temple construction. “But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more” (Rom. 5:20 nkjv). David wanted to witness to the lost and wandering and bring them back to the Lord (v. 13), and he wanted to sing the Lord’s praises (vv. 14–15). “Bloodguiltiness” refers to Uriah’s blood on David’s hands, for it was David who ordered his death (2 Sam. 11:6ff.; see Ezek. 3:18–20; 18:13; Acts 20:26).

David was wealthy enough to bring many sacrifices to the Lord, but he knew that this would not please the Lord (50:8–15; see 1 Sam. 15:22) and that their blood could not wash away his sins. David wasn’t denying the importance or the validity of the Jewish sacrificial system; he was affirming the importance of a repentant heart and a spirit yielded to the Lord (Isa. 57:15). God could not receive broken animals as sacrifices (Mal. 1:6–8), but He would receive a broken heart!

Some students believe that verses 18–19 were added later to adapt this very personal psalm for corporate worship, but there’s no reason why David could not have written these words. As king, he was certainly burdened for the welfare of Jerusalem and the kingdom, and he knew that his sins had weakened Israel’s position among the nations (2 Sam. 12:14). David must have begun building and repairing the walls, otherwise Solomon couldn’t have completed the work early in his reign (1 Kings 3:1). David destroyed much good when he sinned, but he also did much good during his lifetime and served the Lord faithfully.

Excerpt from:
Published by David C. Cook
© 2007 Warren W. Wiersbe