Psalm 51 is a prayer of repentance which King David wrote after the prophet Nathan convicted him about his sins involving Bathsheba. By the time Nathan came, David had committed a shocking string of crimes (see 2 Sam. 11-12). First, he used his position as a monarch to force another man’s wife to have adulterous sex with him while her husband was out of town. Jewish kings could do whatever they wanted–they didn’t have to run their decisions past any kind of senate first.
But then things got complicated. Bathsheba turned up pregnant and her husband Uriah was one of David’s most loyal soldiers who had been out fighting for the kingdom while David had been stealing his wife. A king needs his military to support him. Men aren’t going to want to fight for a man who violates their wives in their absence. David had to act fast to cover his tracks. The first plan was to call Uriah back from the battlefield and have him sleep with his wife. Then when he found out Bathsheba was pregnant, he would assume he was the father. But that plan didn’t work. Uriah returned to the battlefield without ever sleeping in his own bed. Now a desperate man, David gave Uriah a confidential message to carry back to his commanding officer. It was an order for Uriah to be abandoned on the front lines. It was murder. And once Uriah was declared dead, David was free to take Bathsheba for his wife. Well, Yahweh wasn’t a fan of any of this and when David kept refusing to respond to Yahweh’s direct conviction, Yahweh finally sent His prophet Nathan in to confront the king.
Once he was publicly called out on his crimes, David finally broke down and repented. Yahweh immediately assured him that he was forgiven, but He also said there would be consequences for the sin: the baby would die and David would have to suffer the humiliation of having one of his own sons (Absalom) try to seize the crown in David’s lifetime. After Nathan left the king, Yahweh struck the baby ill. Deeply grieved by all he had done, David spent seven days fasting and sleeping on the ground and praying for God to spare his baby’s life. This psalm was probably written during that period.
Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your loving-kindness. According to the greatness of Your compassion, blot out my transgressions. (Ps. 51:1)
Yahweh has already told David that he’s forgiven, but David is having trouble believing Him. It’s very difficult for us humans to accept God’s mercy when we’re reeling with shame over what we’ve done.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. (Ps. 51:2)
Under the Old Covenant, certain kinds of sins had to be symbolically washed away by a person physically taking a bath before they would be considered “clean” in God’s sight again.
For I am conscious of my rebellion, and my sin is ever before me. Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so You are right in Your verdict and justified when You judge. (Ps. 51:3-4)
Here David isn’t denying the fact that he’s sinned against other people, but he’s emphasizing his guilt in sinning against Yahweh. Anytime we do wrong to someone else, we are really sinning against God Himself, for it is His command that we are breaking. David is very focused on his sins at this time, and feeling quite overwhelmed by them.
Indeed I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (Ps. 51:5)
We are all born as selfish little beasts, screaming to get our way, and assuming that we are the center of the universe. Now that he has reconnected with humility, David is owning the depravity of his human nature.
Surely You desire truth in the innermost being, and You teach me wisdom deep within. (Ps. 51:6)
God cares more about our motivations than our external actions. But He doesn’t just expect us to mature ourselves—He teaches us and opens our minds to be able to understand His wisdom on deep levels.
Purify me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. (Ps. 51:7)
The hyssop and washing are more references to cleansing rituals that Yahweh required in His Old Covenant.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones You have crushed rejoice. Turn Your face away from my sins and blot out all my guilt. (Ps. 51:8-9)
At this time, David’s young son is dying of an illness. Bathsheba is probably beside herself with grief. David’s household isn’t a fun place to be right now, plus he has the heavy internal burden of guilt weighing on him. Demons were alive and well in the Old Testament days and they loved heaping condemnation onto people back then just as much as they do today. David rightly acknowledges that Yahweh is the One killing his child, but he is incorrect in thinking that God has turned His face away. God has not turned away from David, nor is He still furious with him because of his sins. When God forgives, He moves on. The child will die just as Yahweh said he would, but Yahweh is not still harboring some angry grudge at this point. David has repented, and repentance immediately restores us to a good place with God. Here David is falling into the classic trap of letting his emotions be his guide in spiritual matters. Because he still feels upset, he is taking that to mean there is still a problem between him and Yahweh.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. (Ps. 51:10)
Deeply troubled by the strength of his carnality and by his momentary rebellion, David pleads with Yahweh to renew his desire for righteousness and to fill him with new devotion to God. It’s very humbling to realize that even our desire to please God comes from Him—without His help, we’re just endless carnality.
Do not cast me away from Your Presence or take Your Holy Spirit from me. (Ps. 51:11)
When Jews speak of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, they mean the Spirit of Yahweh. David is really panicking over the thought of Yahweh leaving him, demonstrating how much condemnation he’s receiving from demons at this time. Naturally they want to get him paralyzed with fear and self-loathing so that he’ll never move on from the past.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and provide me with a spirit of willing obedience. (Ps. 51:12)
Now we see David’s faith fighting back. He asks Yahweh to help him reconnect with the joy of salvation which God’s forgiveness brings. And once again he asks Yahweh to fill him with a desire and ability to obey. Such a prayer proves he already has the desire—but after we’ve stumbled badly, it’s easy to feel paranoid about messing up again in the future.
Then I will teach the rebellious Your ways, and sinners will be converted to You. (Ps. 51:13)
David is done with trying to avoid Yahweh and ignore God’s convictions. Now he wants to go back to exalting Yahweh and encouraging rebels to repent of their sins.
Save me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, the God of my salvation; then my tongue will joyfully sing of Your righteousness. (Ps. 51:14)
According to God’s Old Covenant Laws, David should have been stoned on two accounts: for committing adultery and for taking an innocent life. David understands this. Here he pleads for a mercy he knows he does not deserve because he knows how good and generous God is.
O Lord, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your praise. For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offerings. The sacrifice that is pleasing to God is a broken spirit. A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise. (Ps. 51:15-17)
Though the Old Covenant called for many atonement sacrifices (burnt offerings), Yahweh emphasized that it was not the rituals He cared about, but the soul attitudes they represented. God wants our souls to sincerely care about pleasing Him. He can take or leave the formalities. Here David demonstrates how well he knows God by acknowledging what Yahweh’s true preferences are and aligning with them. David isn’t trying to bribe Yahweh with a bunch of dead animals. He is giving God the only kind of sacrifice God really wants: a humble and repentant heart. Once again we hear David’s faith coming through as he confidently stands on the fact that Yahweh will accept his sincere repentance.
May it please You to prosper Zion, to build up the walls of Jerusalem. Then You will delight in righteous sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then young bulls will be offered on Your altar. (Ps. 51:18-19)
David’s confidence in Yahweh’s love and mercy is returning to him as talks about God blessing His chosen nation of Israel, and especially the capital city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was built across the tops of several mountains, one of which was named Zion. It was on the top of Mount Zion that God’s center of worship was kept–the Tabernacle, then the Temple. Zion was considered Yahweh’s holy mountain and we’ll find psalmists frequently referring to Yahweh dwelling on Zion, coming from Zion, and doing a lot of Zion based activities. It’s with a mental image of Yahweh being abundantly worshiped on His holy mountain within a thriving city that David closes this psalm.
After seven days, David’s son died. At first his servants were afraid to tell him for fear that he might kill himself. But when he heard the news, David shocked everyone by his reaction.
So David arose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes; and he went to the House of Yahweh and worshiped. Then he went to his own house, and when he requested, they set food before him and he ate. (2 Sam. 12:20).
Notice how David went to worship God. This isn’t something a man does when he feels spiritually rejected and despaired. While David had been lying around on the floor for seven days reflecting on what a worm he’d been, Yahweh had been comforting his soul and preparing him to move on from the past. The baby’s death was a new beginning for David. He went in and slept with Bathsheba again and Yahweh caused her to immediately get pregnant, this time with a son who would become the next king of Israel: Solomon. And then we come across this unexpected statement:
Yahweh loved Solomon and He sent word through Nathan the prophet to name the baby Jedidiah (“loved by Yahweh”), because Yahweh loved the child. (2 Sam. 12:24-25)
How generous of Yahweh to show such favor toward a child from this union that was established on rebellion and lust. What a powerful and personal statement to David of how Yahweh was totally over the past. It is beautiful moments like this that are often overlooked when we buy the lie that “the God of the Old Testament” was a mean, unreasonable Monster. The way Yahweh walks David through the recovery process after this Bathsheba mess is a mind-blowing demonstration of just how generous, kind, and merciful He is towards those who sincerely want to please Him.
None of us are going to be perfect in life. Some of us are going to do terrible things that we don’t even want to believe we are capable of right now. But as David’s story demonstrates: sin is never the end of our hope with God. He is full of new chances. He is eager to redeem. He is swift to move on from the past.
Repentant Sinners: Is it wrong to stop feeling bad about the past?
How long will God punish me for the past?