Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
This psalm has been so identified with David, that to surrender the tradition which ascribes it to him seems a literary crime. Indeed, the character of the man has been react so constantly through the medium of Psalms 32, 51, that we must admit that a personality, dear to all the religious world, recedes and becomes less distinct before the criticism which questions the genuineness of the Davidic authorship of either of them. Yet in the case before us we must either break this long cherished association, or admit the last two verses of the psalm to be a later addition for liturgical use.
But the question of authorship does not affect the estimation in which this psalm has always been held, and always will be held, in the Church, as the noblest expression of penitence. Even if it was not originally, directly, and exclusively the expression of an individual’s repentance, but rather the voice of the people of Israel deploring, during the exile, its ancient errors and sins (the only conclusion which completely explains Psalm 51:4, see Note), and praying for a new lease of covenant-favour, yet the associations of the psalm with individual experience of sin and repentance from it are now far too close to be broken, and it must ever remain in the truest sense one of the penitential psalms, suited for private use as well as for that of the Church. It presents as has been rightly said, the Hebrew and Christian idea of repentance; not remorse, not mere general confession of human depravity, not minute confessions of minute sins dragged to light by a too impulsive casuistry, but change of life and mind; and, in the words of Carlyle, “all earnest souls will ever discern in it the faithful struggle of an earnest human soul towards what is good and best.” The parallelism is distinct and well sustained.
Title.—See title Psalms 4.
To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.(1) Blot out.—The figure is most probably, as in Exodus 32:32-33, taken from the custom of erasing a written record (comp. Numbers 5:23; Psalm 69:28). So LXX. and Vulg. Isaiah, however (Isaiah 44:22) uses the same word in a different connection, “I will blot out thy sins as a cloud.” A fine thought that the error and guilt that cloud the mind and conscience can be cleared off like a mist by a breath from heaven.
Transgressions.—See Psalm 32:1. The word seems to imply a wilful throwing off of authority or restraint, perhaps here the breach of the covenant-relation irrespective of any particular sin by which the breach was brought about. Whether it is an individual or the community that speaks, the prayer is that Jehovah would act according to His chesed or covenant-favour towards the suppliant, and wipe out from His records whatever has intervened between the covenant parties.
Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.(2) Wash me thoroughly.—Literally, Wash me much, whether we follow the Hebrew text or the Hebrew margin. The two clauses of the verse are not merely antithetic. The terms wash and cleanse seem to imply respectively the actual and the ceremonial purification, the former meaning literally to tread, describing the process of washing clothes (as blankets are washed to this day in Scotland) by trampling them with the feet, the latter used of the formal declaration of cleanliness by the priest in the case of leprosy (Leviticus 13:6-34). (For the iniquity and sin, see Psalm 32:1.)
For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.(3) For I.—There is an emphatic pronoun in the first clause which we may preserve, at the same time noticing the difference between the violation of the covenant generally in the term transgressions in the first clause, and the offence which made the breach in the second. (See Note Psalm 51:1.) Because I am one who is conscious of my transgressions, and (or, possibly, even) my offence is ever before me.
The thought that he had been unfaithful to the covenant was an accusing conscience to him, keeping his sin always before his eyes, and until, according to his prayer in Psalm 51:1-2, he was received back into conscious relationship again, his offence must weigh upon his mind. This explanation holds, whether an individual or the community speaks.
Against 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.(4) Against thee, thee only . . .—This can refer to nothing but a breach of the covenant-relation by the nation at large. An individual would have felt his guilt against the nation or other individuals, as well as against Jehovah. The fact that St. Paul quotes (from the LXX.) part of the verse in Romans 3:4 (see Note, New Testament Commentary) has naturally opened up an avenue for discussion on the bearing of the words on the doctrines of free-will and predestination. But the immediate object of his quotation appears to be to contrast the faithfulness of the God of the covenant with the falsehood of the covenant people (“Let God be true, and every man a liar”). The honour of God, as God of the covenant, was at stake. It is this thought which appears in the last clauses of this verse.
That . . .—So that (or, in order that) thou art (or mayest be) justified in thy cause, and clear in thy judgment. The Hebrew, rendered in the Authorised Version when thou speakest, is often used of a cause or suit (see (Exodus 18:16-22, “matter,” &c), and it is here plainly used in this sense and is parallel to judgment. The clause seems to imply not only a sense of a breach of the covenant, but some manifest judgment from Jehovah in consequence; and, as usual, it is of its effect on the heathen that the psalmist thinks. The Divine honour would be justified when the suffering nation confessed that condemnation and punishment had been deserved. This was apparently the meaning read in the words by the LXX.
Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.(5) Behold, I was shapen . . .—Better, Behold, I was born in iniquity.
The later rabbis, combining this verse with the mystery hanging over the origin and name of David’s mother, represent him as born in adultery. (See Stanley, Jewish Church, chap. ii., p. 46, Note.) The word rendered conceived is certainly one generally used of animal desire. (The marginal warm me is erroneous.) But the verse is only a statement of the truth of experience so constantly affirmed in Scripture of hereditary corruption and the innate proneness to sin in every child of man. The argument for a personal origin to the psalm from this verse seems strong; but in Psalm 129:1, and frequently, the community is personified as an individual growing from youth to age, and so may here speak of its far-back idolatrous ancestry as the mother who conceived it in sin.
Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.(6) Truth.—Or, faithfulness.
Inward parts.—The Hebrew word is found only once besides (Job 38:36), where it is in parallelism with “heart.”
The sincerity and true self-discernment which God requires can only come of spiritual insight, or, as the last clause states it, divine instruction.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.(7) Hyssop.—The mention of this connects this verse with the priestly ordinances concerning leprosy and contact with a dead body (Leviticus 14; Numbers 19); but generally it is a repetition of the former prayer to have the breach made in the covenant - relationship healed. (Comp. Isaiah 1:18.)
Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.(8) The bones which thou hast broken . . .—Through his whole being the psalmist has felt the crushing weight of sin; to its very fibres, as we say, his frame has suffered.
Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.(9) Hide thy face . . .—i.e., thy angry look. (See Psalm 21:9.) More usually the expression is used in the opposite sense of hiding the gracious look. As long as Jehovah kept the offences before Him the breach in the covenant must continue.
Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.(10) Right spirit.—So LXX. and Vulg.; but the constant of the margin is nearer the Hebrew, and better.
Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.(11) Cast me not away.—This phrase is used of the formal rejection of Israel by the God of the covenant (2Kings 13:23; 2Kings 17:20; 2Kings 24:20; Jeremiah 7:15). Its use here not only confirms the explanation of the notes above, but makes in favour of understanding the whole psalm of the community.
Take not thy holy spirit.—Commentators have discussed whether this means the spirit of office given to the king on his anointing (1Samuel 16:13), or of grace, and Calvinists and Lutherans have made the text a battle-ground of controversy. Plainly, as the parallelism shows, the petition is equivalent to a prayer against rejection from the Divine favour, and is not to be pressed into any doctrinal discussion.
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.(12) Joy of thy salvation.—This again points to a sense of restoration of covenant privileges.
Thy free spirit.—Rather, with a willing spirit. Or we may render, a willing spirit shall support me.
Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.(13) Shall be converted.—Better, shall turn to thee. (See Note Psalm 50:23.)
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.(14) Bloodguiltiness . . .—Literally, as in the margin, bloods. So in LXX. and in Vulg., but thus hardly making it clear whether the word implies the guilt of blood already shed or anticipated violence. The latter would rather have taken the form of Psalm 59:2, “from men of blood.” Probably we should read “from death,” as in Psalm 56:13.
O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.(15) My lips.—Comp. Psalm 71:15. The sense of forgiveness is like a glad morning to song-birds.
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.(16) Sacrifice.—The rabbinical commentators on this verse represent the penitence of David as having taken the place of the sin-offering prescribed by the Law. In the mouth of an individual, language with such an intention would not have been possible. To the nation exiled and deprived of the legal rites, and by that very deprivation compelled to look beyond their outward form to their inner spirit, the words are most appropriate.
Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.(18) Do good.—The last two verses have occasioned much controversy. They do not fit in well with the theory of Davidic authorship, Theodoret long ago saying that they better suited the exiles in Babylon. They seem at first sight to contradict what has just been asserted of sacrifice. On both grounds they have been regarded as a liturgical addition, such as doubtless the compiler made, without any sense of infringement of the rights of authorship. On the other hand, it is not only these two verses which harmonise with the feelings of the restored exiles, but the whole psalm, and the contradiction in regard to the worth of sacrifices is only apparent. While vindicating spiritual religion, the psalmist no more abrogates ceremonies than the prophets do. As soon as their performance is possible they will be resumed.