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This psalm purports to be a psalm of David, and the contents of it accord with this supposition, and with the statement in the title in regard to the occasion on which it was composed. There would be no difficulty on the subject, and no ground for hesitation, in regard to the author and the occasion on which it was composed, if it were not for the prayer in Psalms 51:18, “Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion; build thou the walls of Jerusalem,” which, it has been maintained by DeWette, Rosenmuller, Venema, and others, must have been written in the time of the Babylonian cxile. Except this, it is admitted on all hands that the psalm in its composition accords entirely with the statement in the title, that it was composed by David. It has, in fact, been generally admitted that the psalm “was” composed by David, though it is the opinion of Rosenmuller, Venema, and Doederlein, that the last two verses were added by a later hand.
According to the title, the psalm was composed on occasion of the great fault and crime in the life of David, and as an expression of his penitence in view of his sin. On the phrase “To the chief Musician,” see the notes at the title to Psalms 4:1-8. We are not to suppose that this title was prefixed to the psalm by David himself, but the use to be made of it by committing it to the “chief Musician,” or to the overseer of the music in the public worship of God shows that the psalm was considered as designed to be used in public, and was not a mere expression of the private feelings of the author. It was, doubtless, commonly understood (and was probably so intended by David himself) that it was to be used as a “public” expression of his penitence in view of his crane; and both the fact of its composition, and the manner in which it was to be used, were to be interpreted as indicating his willingness that the widest publicity should be given to his confession, and that the memory of the crime and of his penitence should be perpetuated in all ages of the world. The phrase in the title, “A “Psalm” of David,” denotes that it was to be used for public worship, or as connected with praise. It was designed not merely to express his private feelings, but was intended to be employed in the solemn services of public devotion. See introduction to Psalms 3:1-8.
The phrase “when Nathan the prophet came unto him,” refers to the fact recorded in 2 Samuel 12:1-13. It means that the psalm was the “result” of the visit of Nathan to him; or that it records the feelings of the author, when the sense of his sin had been brought to his mind by the faithful message of the prophet. We may suppose that the record of his feelings was made without delay, for the psalm bears all the marks of having been composed under the deepest feeling, and not of being the result of calm reflection. On the phrase “after he had gone in to Bath-sheba,” see the sad record in 2 Samuel 11:1-5.
DeWette, however, maintains that psalm could not have been composed David, but that it must have been in the time of the Babylonian exile. The only argument which he adduces in favor of this opinion is the prayer in Psalms 51:18, “Build thou the walls of Jerusalem,” which, he says, could not have been a prayer offered by David, as there was in his time nothing which would make this prayer proper. Jerusalem was not then in ruins. It had been strongly fortified by David himself, and required no particular interposition of God as if to “restore” walls that had been thrown down; whereas, in the time of the exile, such a prayer would have been eminently proper, and would be a natural petition for one who loved his country, and who, as an expression of his own penitence, was desirous of doing all he could for the cause of religion. The difficulty will be more appropriately met in the notes at those verses.
It may be observed here, however, that possibly the expression “Build thou the walls of Jerusalem,” “may” be used in a figurative or spiritual sense, expressive of a desire that God would bless his people; that he would interpose in their behalf; that he would be their protector and friend; that he would do for them what would be well expressed by building strong and secure wails around a city. But it may be asked, also, Is it absolutely certain that when the psalm was composed the work of enclosing the city of Jerusalem with walls had been completed? May it not have been, in fact, that at that very time David was engaged in “carrying out” his design of rendering the city impregnable by walls and towers, and that in the midst of his intense sorrow for his own sin, though so heinous and aggravated, his heart may have trurned to that which was so dear to him as an object to be accomplished, and that even then, in connection with his bitter repentance for his sin, he may have prayed that God would favor that great design?
It is no evidence that our sorrow for sin is not deep and genuine, that, even in our expressions of penitence, our heart turns to Zion - to the Church - to the great work which the Church is accomplishing - and that, though our prayers “began” with a reference to our own sin, they should “close” with a petition that God would bless his people, and fulfill the great purposes so near to the heart of piety in reference to the progress of true religion in the world. Indeed, from the very narrative in 2 Sam. 6–12. it would seem probable that the work of fortifying the city of Jerusalem, contemplated by David, was not yet completed, when he committed the crime for which this psalm is the expression of penitence. It was a work of years to do this: and it is not improbable that the guilty transaction to which this psalm refers occurred in the very midst of his design for the defense and protection of the capital of his kingdom.
The psalm consists of two parts:
I. In the first Psalms 51:1-12, the psalmist confesses his guilt, and prays for pardon. He begins with an earnest plea for mercy Psalms 51:1-2; he humbly acknowledges his offence, without any attempt to vindicate himself, or to apologise for it Psalms 51:3-6; he pleads with God to cleanse him, to pardon him, to create in him a new heart, and not to cast him off or to take his Holy Spirit from him Psalms 51:7-12.
II. In the second part Psalms 51:13-19 he shows how he would manifest his sense of the divine mercy if he was forgiven: expressing the purpose to lead a new life; to devote himself to the duties of religion; to do all in his power to repair the evils of his conduct, and especially to induce others to avoid the way of sin, warning them by his example. He says that he would teach transgressors the true ways of God, and that sinners would be converted to Him, Psalms 51:13; that he would sing aloud the praise of God, Psalms 51:14-15; that he would offer to God the sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit, Psalms 51:16-17; and he then pleads Psalms 51:18-19, that God would interpose and bless Zion, that the great work might be completed in which he had been engaged in defending the city, and in preparing a place which would be secure, where God might be worshipped, and where sacrifices and offerings might perpetually ascend on his altar.
Have mercy opon me, O God - This is the utterance of a full heart; a heart crushed and broken by the consciousness of sin. The psalmist had been made to see his great guilt; and his first act is to cry out for mercy. There is no attempt to excuse his sin, or to apologise for it; there is no effort to vindicate his conduct; there is no complaint of the righteousness of that holy law which condemned him. It was “guilt” that was before his mind; guilt only; deep and dreadful guilt. The appeal properly expresses the state of a mind that is overwhelmed at the remembrance of crime, and that comes with earnestness to God to plead for pardon. The only hope of a sinner when crushed with the consciousness of sin is the mercy of God; and the plea for that mercy will be urged in the most earnest and impassioned language that the mind can employ. “Accordingly to thy Iovingkindness.” On the meaning of the word used here, see the notes at Psalms 36:7.
(a) The “ground” of his hope was the compassion of God:
(b) the “measure” of that hope was His boundless beneficence; or, in other words, he felt that there was need of “all” the compassion of a God.
His sin was so great, his offence was so aggravated, that he could have no hope but in a Being of infinite compassion, and he felt that the need of mercy in his case could be measured and covered “only” by that infinite compassion.
According unto the multitude of thy tender mercies - The same idea occurs here also. The psalmist fixed his eye on the “vastness” of the divine mercy; on the numberless “acts” of that mercy toward the guilty; here he found his hope, and here alone. Every instance of extraordinary mercy which had occurred in the world furnished him now with an argument in his appeal to God; was an encouragement to him “in” that appeal; was a ground of hope that his appeal would not be rejected. So to us: every instance in which a great sinner has been forgiven is evidence that we may be forgiven also, and is an encouragement to us to come to God for pardon. See the notes at 1 Timothy 1:16.
Blot out my transgressions - In allusion to an account that is kept, or a charge made, when such an account is wiped away, erased, or blotted out. Compare Exodus 32:32-33; see the notes at Isaiah 43:25; notes at Isaiah 44:22; notes at Colossians 2:14. Never was a more earnest appeal made by a sinner than that which is made in this verse; never was there a more sincere cry for mercy. It shows us where we should “begin” in our prayers when we are pressed down with the consciousness of sin - with a cry for “mercy,” and not an appeal to “justice;” it shows us what is to be the “ground” and the “measure” of our hope - the mere compassion of an infinitely benevolent God; it shows us the place which we must take, and the argument on which we must rely - a place among sinners, and an argument that God has been merciful to great sinners, and that therefore he may be merciful to us.
Wash me throughly from mine iniquity - literally, “Multiply to wash me.” The word rendered “throughly” is a verb, either in the infinitive or imperative mood, and suggests the idea of “multiplying” or “increasing.” The reference is to that which might need constant or repeated washings in order to remove a stain adverbially to denote intensity, or thoroughness. On the word wash as applicable to sin, see the notes at Isaiah 1:16.
And cleanse me from my sin - Remove it entirely. Make me wholly pure. See the notes at Isaiah 1:16. In what manner he hoped that this would be done is shown in the following portions of the psalm. It was -
(a) by forgiveness of the past, Psalms 51:9; and
(b) by making the heart pure and holy through the renewing and sanctifying influences of the Holy Spirit, Psalms 51:10-11.
For I acknowledge my transgressions - literally, I know, or make known. That is, he knew that he was a sinner, and he did not seek to cloak or conceal that fact. He came with the knowledge of it himself; he was willing to make acknowledgment of it before God. There was no attempt to conceal it; to excuse it. Compare the notes at Psalms 32:5. The word ““for”” does not imply that he referred to his willingness to confess his sins as an act of merit, but it indicates a state of mind which was necessary to forgiveness, and without which he could not hope for pardon.
And my sin is ever before me - That is, It is now constantly before my mind. It had not been so until Nathan brought it vividly to his recollection (2 Samuel 12:1 ff); but after that it was continually in his view. He could not turn his mind from it. The memory of his guilt followed him; it pressed upon him; it haunted him. It was no wonder that this was so. The only ground of wonder in the case is that it did not occur “before” Nathan made that solemn appeal to him, or that he could have been for a moment insensible to the greatness of his crime. The whole transaction, however, shows that people “may” be guilty of enormous sins, and have for a long time no sense of their criminality; but that “when” the consciousness of guilt is made to come home to the soul, nothing will calm it down. Everything reminds the soul of it; and nothing will drive away its recollection. In such a state the sinner has no refuge - no hope of permanent peace - but in the mercy of God.
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned - That is, the sin, considered as an offence against God, now appeared to him so enormous and so aggravated, that, for the moment, he lost sight of it considered in any other of its bearings. It “was” a sin, as all other sins are, primarily and mainly against God; it derived its chief enormity from that fact. We are not to suppose that David did not believe and notice that he had done wrong to people, or that he had offended against human laws, and against the well-being of society. His crime against Uriah and his family was of the deepest and most aggravated character, but still the offence derived its chief heinousness from the fact that it was a violation of the law of God. The state of mind here illustrated is that which occurs in every case of true penitence. It is not merely because that which has been done is a violation of human law; it is not that it brings us to poverty or disgrace; it is not that it exposes us to punishment on earth from a parent, a teacher, or civil ruler; it is not that it exposes us to punishment in the world to come: it is that it is of itself, and apart from all other relations and consequences, “an offence against God;” a violation of his pure and holy law; a wrong done against him, and in his sight. Unless there is this feeling there can be no true penitence; and unless there is this feeling there can be no hope of pardon, for God forgives offences only as committed against himself; not as involving us in dangerous consequences, or as committed against our fellow-men.
And done this evil in thy sight - Or, When thine eye was fixed on me. Compare the notes at Isaiah 65:3. God saw what he had done; and David knew, or might have known, that the eye of God was upon him in his wickedness. It was to him then a great aggravation of his sin that he had “dared” to commit it when he “knew” that God saw everything. The presence of a child - or even of an idiot - would restrain people from many acts of sin which they would venture to commit if alone; how much more should the fact that God is always present, and always sees all that is done, restrain us from open and from secret transgression.
That thou mightest be justified when thou speakest - That thy character might be vindicated in all that thou hast said; in the law which thou hast revealed; in the condemnation of the sin in that law; and in the punishment which thou mayest appoint. That is, he acknowledged his guilt. He did not seek to apologise for it, or to vindicate it. God was right, and he was wrong. The sin deserved all that God in his law “had” declared it to deserve; it deserved all that God by any sentence which he might pass upon him “would” declare it to deserve. The sin was so aggravated that “any” sentence which God might pronounce would not be beyond the measure of its ill-desert.
And be clear when thou judgest - Be regarded as right, holy, pure, in the judgment which thou mayest appoint. See this more fully explained in the notes at Romans 3:4.
Behold, I was shapen in iniquity - The object of this important verse is to express the deep sense which David had of his depravity. That sense was derived from the fact that this was not a sudden thought, or a mere outward act, or an offence committed under the influence of strong temptation, but that it was the result of an entire corruption of his nature - of a deep depravity of heart, running back to the very commencement of his being. The idea is, that he could not have committed this offence unless he had been thoroughly corrupt, and always corrupt. The sin was as heinous and aggravated “as if” in his very conception and birth there had been nothing but depravity. He looked at his, sin, and he looked back to his own origin, and he inferred that the one demonstrated that in the other there was no good thing, no tendency to goodness, no germ of goodness, but that there was evil, and only evil; as when one looks at a tree, and sees that it bears sour or poisonous fruit, he infers that it is in the very nature of the tree, and that there is nothing else in the tree, from its origin, but a tendency to produce just such fruit.
Of course, the idea here is not to cast reflections on the character of his mother, or to refer to her feelings in regard to his conception and birth, but the design is to express his deep sense of his own depravity; a depravity so deep as to demonstrate that it must have had its origin in the very beginning of his existence. The word rendered “I was shapen” - חוללתי chôlaletiy - is from a word - חול chûl - which means properly, “to turn around, to twist, to whirl;” and then it comes to mean “to twist oneself with pain, to writhe;” and then it is used especially with reference to the pains of childbirth. Isaiah 13:8; Isaiah 23:4; Isaiah 26:18; Isaiah 66:7-8; Micah 4:10. That is the meaning here. The idea is simply that he was “born” in iniquity; or that he was a sinner when he was born; or that his sin could be traced back to his very birth - as one might say that he was born with a love of music, or with a love of nature, or with a sanguine, a phlegmatic, or a melancholy temperament.
There is not in the Hebrew word any idea corresponding to the word ““shapen,”” as if he had been “formed” or “moulded” in that manner by divine power; but the entire meaning of the word is exhausted by saying that his sin could be traced back to his “very birth;” that it was so deep and aggravated, that it could be accounted for - or that he could express his sense of it - in no other way, than by saying that he was “born a sinner.” How that occurred, or how it was connected with the first apostasy in Adam, or how the fact that he was thus born could be vindicated, is not intimated, nor is it alluded to. There is no statement that the sin of another was “imputed” to him; or that he was “responsible” for the sin of Adam; or that he was guilty “on account of” Adam’s sin, for on these points the psalmist makes no assertion. It is worthy of remark, further, that the psalmist did not endeavor to “excuse” his guilt on the ground that he was ““born”” in iniquity; nor did he allude to that fact with any purpose of “exculpating” himself. The fact that he was thus born only deepened his sense of his own guilt, or showed the enormity of the offence which was the regular result or outbreak of that carly depravity. The points, therefore, which are established by this expression of the psalmist, so far as the language is designed to illustrate how human nature is conceived, are
(1) that people are born with a propensity to sin; and
(2) that this fact does not excuse us in sin, but rather tends to aggravate and deepen our guilt.
The language goes no further than this in regard to the question of original sin or native depravity. The Septuagint agrees with this interpretation - ἰδού γὰρ ἐν ανομίαις συνελήφθην idou gar en anomias sunelēfthēn. So the Vulgate: in iniquitatibus conceptus sum.
And in sin did my mother conceive me - Margin, as in Hebrew, “warm me.” This language simply traces his sin back to the time when he began to exist. The previous expression traced it to “his birth;” this expression goes back to the very beginning of “life;” when there were the first indications of life. The idea is, “as soon as I began to exist I was a sinner; or, I had then a propensity to sin - a propensity, the sad proof and result of which is that enormous act of guilt which I have committed.”
Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts - The word rendered “desirest,” means to have pleasure in; to delight in; and the idea is that this only is agreeable to God, or this only accords with his own nature. The word rendered “inward parts,” means properly the reins, and is usually employed to denote the seat of the mind, the feelings, the intellect. Compare the notes at Job 38:36. The allusion is to the “soul;” and the idea is, that God could be satisfied with nothing “but” purity in the soul. The “connection” is this: David was deeply conscious of his own pollution; his deep, early, native depravity. This, in his own mind, he contrasted strongly with the nature of God, and with what God must require, and be pleased with. He “felt” that God could not approve of or love such a heart as his, so vile, so polluted, so corrupt; and he felt that it was necessary that he should have a pure heart in order to meet with the favor of a God so holy. But how was that to be obtained? His mind at once adverted to the fact that it could come only from God; and hence, the psalm now turns from confession to prayer. The psalmist pleads earnestly Psalms 51:7-10 that God “would” thus cleanse and purify his soul.
And in the hidden part - In the secret part; the heart; the depths of the soul. The cleansing was to begin in that which was hidden from the eye of man; in the soul itself. Wisdom, heavenly, saving wisdom, was to have its seat there; the cleansing needed was not any mere outward purification, it was the purification of the soul itself.
Thou shalt make me to know wisdom - Thou only canst enable me to understand what is truly wise. This wisdom, this cleansing, this knowledge of the way in which a guilty man can be restored to favor, can be imparted only by thee; and “thou wilt do it.” There is here, therefore, at the same time a recognition of the truth that this “must” come from God, and an act of faith, or a strong assurance that he “would” impart this.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean - On the word hyssop, see the notes at John 19:29; notes at Hebrews 9:19. The plant or herb was much used by the Hebrews in their sacred purifications and sprinklings: Exodus 12:22; Leviticus 14:4, Leviticus 14:6,Leviticus 14:49, Lev 14:51; 1 Kings 4:33. Under this name the Hebrews seem to have comprised not only the common “hyssop” of the shops, but also other aromatic plants, as mint, wild marjoram, etc. - Gesenius, “Lexicon” The idea of the psalmist here evidently is not that the mere sprinkling with hyssop would make him clean; but he prays for that cleansing of which the sprinkling with hyssop was an emblem, or which was designed to be represented by that. The whole structure of the psalm implies that he was seeking an “internal” change, and that he did not depend on any mere outward ordinance or rite. The word rendered “purge” is from the word חטא châṭâ' - which means “to sin.” In the Piel form it means to bear the blame (or “loss”) for anything; and then to “atone for, to make atonement, to expiate:” Genesis 31:39; Leviticus 6:26; Numbers 19:19. Here it conveys the notion of cleansing from sin “by” a sacred rite, or by that which was signified by a sacred rite. The idea was that the sin was to be removed or taken away, so that he might be free from it, or that “that” might be accomplished which was represented by the sprinkling with hyssop, and that the soul might be made pure. Luther has rendered it with great force - Entsundige mich mit Ysop - “Unsin me with hyssop.”
Wash me - That is, cleanse me. Sin is represented as “defiling,” and the idea of “washing” it away is often employed in the Scriptures. See the notes at Isaiah 1:16.
And I shall be whiter than snow - See the notes at Isaiah 1:18. The prayer is, that he might be made “entirely” clean; that there might be no remaining pollution in his soul.
Make me to hear joy and gladness - That is, the voice of forgiveness, causing joy and rejoicing. What he wished to hear was the kind voice of God in pronouncing his pardon; not the voice of anger and condemnation. God now condemned him. The law condemned him. His own conscience condemned him. The result was anguish and sorrow. The burden was great and overpowering - such as to crush him; to break all his “bones.” He longed to hear the sweet voice of forgiveness, by which he might have peace, and by which his soul might be made to rejoice. Compare the notes at Psalms 32:1-2.
That the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice - That is, which have been crushed or broken by the weight of sin. Compare the notes at Psalms 32:3. See also Psalms 6:2; Psalms 22:14; Psalms 31:10; Psalms 38:3. The word “rejoice” means here, be free from suffering; the prayer is that the burden which had crushed him might be removed.
Hide thy face from my sins - That is, Do not look on them; avert thy face from them; do not regard them. Compare the notes at Psalms 13:1.
And blot out all mine iniquities - Take them entirely away. Let the account be erased, cancelled, destroyed. See the notes at Psalms 51:1.
Create in me a clean heart, O God - The word rendered “create,” ברא berâ' - is a word which is properly employed to denote an act of “creation;” that is, of causing something to exist where there was nothing before. It is the word which is used in Genesis 1:1 : “In the beginning God “created” the heaven and the earth,” and which is commonly used to express the act of creation. It is used “here” evidently in the sense of causing that to exist which did not exist before; and there is clearly a recognition of the divine “power,” or a feeling on the part of David that this could be done by God alone. The idea is, however, not that a new “substance” might be brought into being to which the name “a clean heart” might be given, but that he might “have” a clean heart; that his heart might be made pure; that his affections and feelings might be made right; that he might have what he was conscious that he did “not” now possess - a clean or a pure heart. This, he felt, could be produced only by the power of God; and the passage, therefore, proves that it is a doctrine of the Old Testament, as it is of the New, that the human heart is changed only by a divine agency.
And renew a right spirit within me - Margin, “a constant spirit.” The Hebrew word - נכון nākûn - means properly, that which is “erect,” or that which is made to stand up, or which is firm or established. It is used to denote
(a) that which is upright, right, proper: Exodus 8:26; Job 42:8; Psalms 5:9;
(b) that which is right, true, sincere, Psalms 78:37;
(c) that which is firm, constant, fixed.
This would seem to be the meaning here. He prays for a heart that would be firm in the purposes of virtue; that would not yield to temptation; that would carry out holy resolutions; that would be stedfast in the service of God. The word “renew” here means to be or to make new; to produce something new. It is also used in the sense of making anew, as applied to buildings or cities in the sense of “rebuilding” or “repairing” them: Isaiah 61:4; 2Ch 15:8; 2 Chronicles 24:4. The word here would naturally convey the idea that there had been formerly a right and proper spirit in him, which he prayed might now be restored. The language is that of one who had done right formerly, but who had fallen into sin, and who desired that he might be brought back into his former condition.
Cast me not away from thy presence - That is, Do not reject me, or cast me off entirely; do not abandon me; do not leave me in my sin and sorrow. The language is derived from the idea that true happiness is to be found in the “presence” of God, and that to be exiled from him is misery. Compare Psalms 16:11, note; Psalms 31:20, note. See also Psalms 140:13.
And take not thy holy Spirit from me - It is not certain that David understood by the phrase “thy Holy Spirit” precisely what is now denoted by it as referring to the third person of the Trinity. The language, as used by him, would denote some influence coming from God producing holiness, “as if” God breathed his own spirit, or his own self, into the soul. The language, however, is appropriate to be used in the higher and more definite sense in which it is now employed, as denoting that sacred Spirit - the Holy Spirit - by whom the heart is renewed, and by whom comfort is imparted to the soul. It is not necessary to suppose that the inspired writers of the Old Testament had a full and complete comprehension of the meaning of the words which they employed, or that they appreciated all that their words might properly convey, or the fullness of signification in which they might be properly used in the times of the Gospel. Compare the notes at 1 Peter 1:10-12. The language used here by David - “take not” - implies that he had been formerly in possession of that which he now sought. There was still in his heart that which might be regarded as the work of the Spirit of God; and he earnestly prayed that that might not be wholly taken away on account of his sin, or that he might not be entirely abandoned to despair.
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation - literally, “Cause the joy of thy salvation to return.” This implies that he had formerly known what was the happiness of being a friend of God, and of having a hope of salvation. That joy had been taken from him by his sin. He had lost his peace of mind. His soul was sad and cheerless. Sin always produces this effect. The only way to enjoy religion is to do that which is right; the only way to secure the favor of God is to obey his commands; the only way in which we can have comforting evidence that we are his children is by doing that which shall be pleasing to him: 1 John 2:29; 1Jo 3:7, 1 John 3:10. The path of sin is a dark path, and in that path neither hope nor comfort can be found.
And uphold me with thy free spirit - That is, Sustain me; keep me from falling. The words ““with thy”” are not in the original, and there is nothing there to indicate that by the word “spirit” the psalmist refers to the Spirit of God, though it should be observed that there is nothing “against” such a supposition. The word rendered “free” - נדיב nâdı̂yb - means properly “willing, voluntary, ready, prompt;” 1 Chronicles 28:21; Exodus 35:5. Then the word means liberal, generous, noble-minded; Isaiah 32:5, Isaiah 32:8; Proverbs 17:7, Proverbs 17:26. It would seem here to mean “a “willing” spirit,” referring to David’s own mind or spirit; and the prayer is, that God would uphold or sustain him “in” a “willing” spirit or state of mind; that is, a state of mind in which he would he “willing” and “ready” to obey all the commands of God, and to serve him faithfully. What he prayed for was grace and strength that he might be “kept” in a state of mind which would be constant and firm Psalms 51:10, and a state in which he would always be found “willing” and ready to keep the commandments of God. It is a proper object of prayer by all that they may be always kept in a state of mind in which they will be willing to do all that God requires of them, and to bear all that may be laid on them.
Then will I teach transgressors thy ways - As an expression of gratitude, and as the result of his own painful experience. He would show them, from that experience, the evil and the bitterness of sin in itself; he would show them with what dreadful consequences sin must always be followed; he would show them the nature of true repentance; he would show them what was required in order that sin might be forgiven; he would encourage them to come to that God who had forgiven him. So the Saviour charged Peter, from his own bitter experience in having fallen under the power of temptation, to strengthen and encourage those who were struggling with the depravity of their own hearts, and who were in danger of falling: “And when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren,” Luke 22:32.
And sinners shall be converted unto thee - They would see from his case the evil of transgression; they would learn from his example that mercy might be found; they would be persuaded to flee from the wrath to come. The best preparation for success in winning souls to God, and turning them from the error of their ways, is a deep personal experience of the guilt and the danger of sin, and of the great mercy of God in its forgiveness. No man can hope to be successful who has not experienced this in his own soul; no one who has, will labor wholly in vain in such a work.
Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God - Margin, as in Hebrew, “bloods.” So it is rendered by the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate. Luther renders it “blood-guilt.” DeWette, “from blood.” Compare Isaiah 4:4. The “plural” form - “bloods” - is used probably to mark “intensity,” or to denote “great” guilt. The allusion is to the guilt of shedding blood, or taking life (compare Genesis 9:5-6), and the reference is undoubtedly to his guilt in causing Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba, to be slain. 2 Samuel 11:14-17. It was this which weighed upon his conscience, and filled him with alarm. The guilt of this he prayed might be taken away, that he might have peace. The “fact” of the shedding of that blood could never be changed; the real “criminality” of that fact would always remain the same; the “crime” itself could never be declared to be innocence; his own personal “ill desert” for having caused the shedding of that blood would always remain; but the sin might be pardoned, and his soul could thus find peace.
The penalty might be remitted, and, though guilty, he might be assured of the divine favor. He could not, indeed, repair the evil to Uriah - for “he” had gone beyond the power of David for good or for evil - but he could do much to express his sense of the wrong; he could do much to save others from a similar course; he could do much to benefit society by keeping others from the like guilt. He could not, indeed, recall Uriah from the grave, and repair the evil which he had done to “him,” but he might save others from such a crime, and thus preserve many a useful life from the effects of unrestrained guilty passions. We cannot, indeed, by penitence recall those whom we have murdered; we cannot restore purity to those whom we have seduced; we cannot restore faith to the young man whom we may have made a sceptic; but we may do much to restrain others from sin, and much to benefit the world even when we have been guilty of wrongs that cannot be repaired.
Thou God of my salvation - On whom I am dependent for salvation; who art alone the source of salvation to me.
And my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness - Compare the notes at Psalms 35:28.
O Lord, open thou my lips - That is, by taking away my guilt; by giving me evidence that my sins are forgiven; by taking this burden from me, and filling my heart with the joy of pardon. The original word is in the future tense, but the meaning is well expressed in our common translation. There was, in fact, at the same time a confident expectation that God “would” thus open his lips, and a desire that he should do it.
And my mouth shall show forth thy praise - Or, I will praise thee. Praise is the natural expression of the feelings when the sense of sin is removed.
For thou desirest not sacrifice ... - On the words rendered in this verse “sacrifice” and “burnt-offering,” see the notes at Isaiah 1:11. On the main sentiment here expressed - that God did not “desire” such sacrifices - see the notes at Psalms 40:6-8. The idea here is, that any mere external offering, however precious or costly it might be, was not what God required in such cases. He demanded the expression of deep and sincere repentance; the sacrifices of a contrite heart and of a broken spirit: Psalms 51:17. No offering without this could be acceptable; nothing without this could secure pardon. In mere outward sacrifices - in bloody offerings themselves, unaccompanied with the expression of genuine penitence, God could have no pleasure. This is one of the numerous passages in the Old Testament which show that the external offerings of the law were valueless unless accompanied by the religion of the heart; or that the Jewish religion, much as it abounded in forms, yet required the offerings of pure hearts in order that man might be acceptable to God. Under all dispensations the real nature of religion is the same. Compare the notes at Hebrews 9:9-10. The phrase “else would I give it,” in the margin, “that I should give it,” expresses a willingness to make such an offering, if it was required, while, at the same time, there is the implied statement that it would be valueless without the heart.
The sacrifices of God - The sacrifices which God desires and approves; the sacrifices without which no other offering would be acceptable. David felt that that which he here specified was what was demanded in his case. He had grievously sinned; and the blood of animals offered in sacrifice could not put away his sin, nor could anything remove it unless the heart were itself penitent and contrite. The same thing is true now. Though a most perfect sacrifice, every way acceptable to God, has been made for human guilt by the Redeemer, yet it is as true as it was under the old dispensation in regard to the sacrifices there required, that even that will not avail for us unless we are truly penitent; unless we come before God with a contrite and humble heart.
Are a broken spirit - A mind broken or crushed under the weight of conscious guilt. The idea is that of a burden laid on the Soul until it is crushed and subdued.
A broken and a contrite heart - The word rendered contrite means to be broken or crushed, as when the bones are broken, Psalms 44:19; Psalms 51:8; and then it is applied to the mind or heart as that which is crushed or broken by the weight of guilt. The word does not differ materially from the term “broken.” The two together constitute intensity of expression.
Thou wilt not despise - Thou wilt not treat with contempt or disregard. That is, God would look upon them with favor, and to such a heart he would grant his blessing. See the notes at Isaiah 57:15; notes at Isaiah 66:2.
Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion - From himself - his deep sorrow, his conscious guilt, his earnest prayer for pardon and salvation - the psalmist turns to Zion, to the city of God, to the people of the Lord. These, after all, lay nearer to his heart than his own personal salvation; and to these his thoughts naturally turned even in connection with his own deep distress. Such a prayer as is here offered he would also be more naturally led to offer from the remembrance of the dishonor which he had brought on the cause of religion, and it was natural for him to pray that his own misconduct might not have the effect of hindering the cause of God in the world. The psalms often take this turn. Where they commence with a personal reference to the author himself, the thoughts often terminate in a reference to Zion, and to the promotion of the cause of religion in the world.
Build thou the walls of Jerusalem - It is this expression on which De Wette, Doederlein, and Rosenmuller rely in proof that this psalm, or this portion of it, was composed at a later period than the time of David, and that it must have been written in the time of the captivity, when Jerusalem was in ruins. See the introduction to the psalm. But, as was remarked there, it is not necessary to adopt this supposition. There are two other solutions of the difficulty, either of which would meet all that is implied in the language.
(a) One is, that the walls of Jerusalem, which David had undertaken to build, were not as yet complete, or that the public works commenced by him for the protection of the city had not been finished at the time of the fatal affair of Uriah. There is nothing in the history which forbids this supposition, and the language is such as would be used by David on the occasion, if he had been actually engaged in completing the walls of the city, and rendering it impregnable, and if his heart was intensely fixed on the completion of the work.
(b) The other supposition is, that this is figurative language - a prayer that God would favor and bless his people as if the city was to be protected by walls, and thus rendered safe from an attack by the enemy. Such language is, in fact, often used in cases where it could not be pretended that it was designed to be literal. See Jude 1:20; Rom 15:20; 1 Corinthians 3:12; Galatians 2:18; Ephesians 2:22; Colossians 2:7.
Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness - “Then,” that is, when God should have thus showed favor to Zion; when he should have poured out his blessing on Jerusalem; when religion should prosper and prevail; when there should be an increase of the pure worship of God. In such offerings as would “then” be made - in sacrifices presented not in mere form, but with sincerity, humility, and penitence - in the outward offering of blood presented with a corresponding sincerity of feeling, and with true contrition, and a proper acknowledgment of the guilt designed to be represented by the shedding of blood in sacrifice - God would be pleased, and would approve the worship thus rendered to him. Sacrifice would then be acceptable, for it would not be presented as a mere form, but would be so offered, that it might be called a “sacrifice of righteousness” - a sacrifice offered with a right spirit; in a manner which God would deem right.
With burnt-offering - See the notes at Isaiah 1:11.
And whole burnt-offering - The word here means that which is wholly consumed, no part of which was reserved to be eaten by the priests, as was the case in many of the sacrifices. See Deuteronomy 33:10. Compare Leviticus 6:9; Leviticus 1:3-17.
Then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar - That is, then shall bullocks be offered. The meaning is, that all the offerings prescribed in the law would then be brought, and that those sacrifices would be made with a right spirit - a spirit of true devotion - the offering of the heart accompanying the outward form. In other words, there would be manifested the spirit of humble worship; of pure religion.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 51". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany