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1. Have mercy upon me. David begins, as I have already remarked, by praying for pardon; and his sin having been of an aggravated description, he prays with unwonted earnestness. He does not satisfy himself with one petition. Having mentioned the loving-kindness of the Lord, he adds the multitude of his compassions, to intimate that mercy of an ordinary kind would not suffice for so great a sinner. Had he prayed God to be favorable, simply according to his clemency or goodness, even that would have amounted to a confession that his case was a bad one; but when he speaks of his sin as remissible, only through the countless multitude of the compassions of God, he represents it as peculiarly atrocious. There is an implied antithesis between the greatness of the mercies sought for, and the greatness of the transgression which required them. Still more emphatical is the expression which follows, multiply to wash me Some take הרבה, (258) herebeh, for a noun, but this is too great a departure from the idiom of the language. The sense, on that supposition, would indeed remain the same, That God would wash him abundantly, and with multiplied washing; but I prefer that form of expression which agrees best with the Hebrew idiom. This, at least, is certain from the expression which he employs, that he felt the stain of his sin to be deep, and to require multiplied washings. Not as if God could experience any difficulty in cleansing the worst sinner, but the more aggravated a man’s sin is, the more earnest naturally are his desires to be delivered from the terrors of conscience.
The figure itself, as all are aware, is one of frequent occurrence in Scripture. Sin resembles filth or uncleanness, as it pollutes us, and makes us loathsome in the sight of God, and the remission of it is therefore aptly compared to washing This is a truth which should both commend the grace of God to us, and fill us with detestation of sin. Insensible, indeed, must that heart be which is not affected by it!
(258) There are here two verbs, הרבה, herebeh, and כבסני, kabbeseni, the first signifying to multiply, and the second to wash Many expositors think that the verb הרבה, herebeh, is used in the sense of an adverb, and they read, Multum lava me “When two verbs of the same tense are joined together, whether a copula goes between them or not, the first is often expressed in Latin by an adverb.” — Glass. Lib. 1, Tract. 3, De Verbo Can. 29, tom. 1, p. 272. See Genesis 25:1; Psalms 6:10
3. For If know my sins (259) He now discovers his reason for imploring pardon with so much vehemency, and this was the painful disquietude which his sins caused him, and which could only be relieved by his obtaining reconciliation with God. This proves that his prayer did not proceed from dissimulation, as many will be found commending the grace of God in high terms, although, in reality, they care little about it, having never felt the bitterness of being exposed to his displeasure. David, on the contrary, declares that he is subjected by his sin to constant anguish of mind, and that it is this which imparts such an earnestness to his supplications. From his example we may learn who they are that can alone be said to seek reconciliation with God in a proper manner. They are such as have had their consciences wounded with a sense of sin, and who can find no rest until they have obtained assurance of his mercy. We will never seriously apply to God for pardon, until we have obtained such a view of our sins as inspires us with fear. The more easily satisfied we are under our sins, the more do we provoke God to punish them with severity, and if we really desire absolution from his hand, we must do more than confess our guilt in words; we must institute a rigid and formidable scrutiny into the character of our transgressions. David does not simply say that he will confess his sins to man, but declares that he has a deep inward feeling of them, such a feeling of them as filled him with the keenest anguish. His was a very different spirit from that of the hypocrite, who displays a complete indifference upon this subject, or when it intrudes upon him, endeavors to bury the recollection of it. He speaks of his sins in the plural number. His transgression, although it sprung from one root, was complicated, including, besides adultery, treachery and cruelty; nor was it one man only whom he had betrayed, but the whole army which had been summoned to the field in defense of the Church of God. He accordingly recognises many particular sins as wrapt up in it.
(259) As if he had said, “I confess and acknowledge that I have sinned, nor do I say as Cain did, ‘I know not,’ (Genesis 4:9.) What I formerly shamefully and foolishly excused and extenuated, I now acknowledge before thee and thy prophet, and the whole Church, in this penitential psalm.” The verb is in the future, I will know or acknowledge, to intimate that he would continue to retain an humble sense of his guilt.
4. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned (260) It is the opinion of some that he here adverts to the circumstance of his sin, although it was committed against man, being concealed from every eye but that of God. None was aware of the double wrong which he had inflicted upon Uriah, nor of the wanton manner in which he had exposed his army to danger; and his crime being thus unknown to men, might be said to have been committed exclusively against God. According to others, David here intimates, that however deeply he was conscious of having injured men, he was chiefly distressed for having violated the law of God. But I conceive his meaning to be, that though all the world should pardon him, he felt that God was the Judge with whom he had to do, that conscience hailed him to his bar, and that the voice of man could administer no relief to him, however much he might be disposed to forgive, or to excuse, or to flatter. His eyes and his whole soul were directed to God, regardless of what man might think or say concerning him. To one who is thus overwhelmed with a sense of the dreadfulness of being obnoxious to the sentence of God, there needs no other accuser. God is to him instead of a thousand. There is every reason to believe that David, in order to prevent his mind from being soothed into a false peace by the flatteries of his court, realised the judgment of God upon his offense, and felt that this was in itself an intolerable burden, even supposing that he should escape all trouble from the hands of his fellow-creatures. This will be the exercise of every true penitent. It matters little to obtain our acquittal at the bar of human judgment, or to escape punishment through the connivance of others, provided we suffer from an accusing conscience and an offended God. And there is, perhaps, no better remedy against deception in the matter of our sins than to turn our thoughts inward upon ourselves, to concentrate them upon God, and lose every self-complacent imagination in a sharp sense of his displeasure. By a violent process of interpretation, some would have us read the second clause of this verse, That thou mayest be justified when thou speakest, in connection with the first verse of the psalm, and consider that it cannot be referred to the sentence immediately preceding. (261) But not to say that this breaks in upon the order of the verses, what sense could any attach to the prayer as it would then run, have mercy upon me, that thou mayest be clear when thou judgest? etc. Any doubt upon the meaning of the words, however, is completely removed by the connection in which they are cited in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans,“
For what if some did not believe? Shall God be unjust? God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mayest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.” — Romans 3:3
Here the words before us are quoted in proof of the doctrine that God’s righteousness is apparent even in the sins of men, and his truth in their falsehood. To have a clear apprehension of their meaning, it is necessary that we reflect upon the covenant which God had made with David. The salvation of the whole world having been in a certain sense deposited with him by this covenant, the enemies of religion might take occasion to exclaim upon his fall, “Here is the pillar of the Church gone, and what is now to become of the miserable remnant whose hopes rested upon his holiness? Once nothing could be more conspicuous than the glory by which he was distinguished, but mark the depth of disgrace to which he has been reduced! Who, after so gross a fall, would look for salvation from his seed?” Aware that such attempts might be made to impugn the righteousness of God, David takes this opportunity of justifying it, and charging himself with the whole guilt of the transaction. He declares that God was justified when he spoke — not when he spoke the promises of the covenant, although some have so understood the words, but justified should he have spoken the sentence of condemnation against him for his sin, as he might have done but for his gratuitous mercy. Two forms of expression are here employed which have the same meaning, that thou mayest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest As Paul, in the quotation already referred to, has altered the latter clause, and may even seem to have given a new turn to the sentiment contained in the verse, I shall briefly show how the words were applicable to the purpose for which they were cited by him. He adduces them to prove that God’s faithfulness remained unaffected by the fact that the Jews had broken his covenant, and fallen from the grace which he had promised. Now, at first sight it may not appear how they contain the proof alleged. But their appositeness will at once be seen if we reflect upon the circumstance to which I have already adverted. Upon the fall of one who was so great a pillar in the Church, so illustrious both as a prophet and a king, as David, we cannot but believe that many were shaken and staggered in the faith of the promises. Many must have been disposed to conclude, considering the close connection into which God had adopted David, that he was implicated in some measure in his fall. David, however, repels an insinuation so injurious to the divine honor, and declares, that although God should cast him headlong into everlasting destruction, his mouth would be shut, or opened only to acknowledge his unimpeachable justice. The sole departure which the apostle has made from the passage in his quotation consists in his using the verb to judge in a passive sense, and reading, that thou mightest overcome, instead of, that thou mightest be clear. In this he follows the Septuagint, (262) and it is well known that the apostles do not study verbal exactness in their quotations from the Old Testament. It is enough for us to be satisfied, that the passage answers the purpose for which it was adduced by the apostle. The general doctrine which we are taught from the passage is, that whatever sins men may commit are chargeable entirely upon themselves, and never can implicate the righteousness of God. Men are ever ready to arraign his administration, when it does not correspond with the judgment of sense and human reason. But should God at any time raise persons from the depth of obscurity to the highest distinction, or, on the other hand, allow persons who occupied a most conspicuous station to be suddenly precipitated from it, we should learn from the example which is here set before us to judge of the divine procedure with sobriety, modesty, and reverence and to rest satisfied that it is holy, and that the works of God, as well as his words, are characterised by unerring rectitude. The conjunction in the verse, that-that thou mayest be justified, denotes not so much cause as consequence. It was not the fall of David, properly speaking, which caused the glory of God’s righteousness to appear. And yet, although men when they sin seem to obscure his righteousness, it emerges from the foul attempt only more bright than ever, it being the peculiar work of God to bring light out of darkness.
(260) From the confession which David makes in this verse, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned,” Horsley is of opinion that the title of the psalm is not authentic, and that it could not have been composed on the occasion to which the title refers. “It ill suits the case of David,” says he, “who laid a successful plot against Uriah after he had defiled his bed.” But there seems to be no force in this objection. The prefix ל, lamed, translated against, sometimes means before, in the presence of, and is so rendered in Genesis 23:11, and 45:1. The Hebrew words לך לברך, lecha, lebaddecha, may, therefore be rendered, “before thee, before thee only.” If this reading is adopted, then, David alludes to the clandestine manner in which he committed the sin, intimating that it was a secret sin witnessed by God only, and known in the first instance only to him, God says of it, “For thou didst it secretly,” (2 Samuel 12:12.) There is, however, no need to alter the translation to meet the objection of Horsley. By these words, “Against thee, thee only,” David does not mean to say that he had not wronged Uriah, whose wife he had dishonored, whom he had caused to be made drunk, and afterwards to be slain; for he acknowledges in the 14 verse that “blood-guiltiness” lay heavy upon him, and he prays for deliverance from it. They are an emphatic declaration of the heinousness of his guilt — that he had sinned chiefly against God — more against him than against man. “My offense,” as if he had said, “against Uriah, and against society at large, great as it has been, is nothing compared to that which I have committed against thee.”
(261) This is the opinion of R. Abraham and other Jewish commentators. They say that these words are not to be joined to the immediately preceding part of this verse, but either to the prayer in the first verse, or to what is stated in the third verse, “I acknowledge my transgressions;” and they put the beginning of the fourth verse, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done evil in thy sight,” within a parenthesis. But there is no just ground for such an interpretation. Green reads the last clause of the verse, “So that thou art just in passing sentence upon me, and clear in condemning me. ” And it is not uncommon for למען, le-maan, to be used in the sense of so that, as in Psalms 30:12; Isaiah 28:13; and Jeremiah 50:34. According to this reading, the words are a part of David’s confession; — he not only confesses his sin in the first part of the verse, but also here acknowledges the divine righteousness should God condemn him. This is the sense in which Calvin understands the passage.
(262) There does not appear to be any substantial difference between the reading of the Septuagint, which the apostle follows, and that of the Hebrew text. Calvin says that Paul uses the verb to judge in a passive sense, whereas it is here used actively. But this is a mistake. Street, after giving the words of the Septuagint, which are, Νικησης ἐν τω κρινεσθαι σε, says, “The verb κρινεσθαι is in the middle, not in the passive voice, and the phrase ἐν τω κρινεσθαι σε, signifies cum tu judicas ,” [ i e when thou judgest. ] “I take notice of this the rather, because the passage being cited by Paul, Romans 3:4, (and the Septuagint version of it having been inserted instead of the Hebrew, which the apostle quoted,) our translators seem to have mistaken the sense of it; for they render it, ‘That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged. ’ But who shall judge the Almighty?” In the other instance which Calvin mentions, the difference between the apostle’s reading and that of the Hebrew text is more in appearance than in reality. “The word זכה,” says Hammond, “is ordinarily rendered mundus fuit , clean, or clear, or pure But this, as the context evinces, must be understood in a forensic sense, as pure is all one with free from guilt; and so there is a second notion of the word for overcoming, meaning that sort of victory which belongs to him that carries the cause in judicature.” After stating that this is the rendering of the Septuagint, he observes, “That is very reconcilable with the notion of mundus fuit ; for he that doth overcome in the suit is fitly said to be cleared or quitted by the law.” Thus Hammond, with Chrysostom, supposes the meaning to be, that should God proceed against David, should he indite and arraign him at the bar of justice for his sins, demanding vengeance to be inflicted upon him, God would be justified and cleared, and would overcome in the suit.
5 Behold, I was born in iniquity, etc He now proceeds further than the mere acknowledgement of one or of many sins, confessing that he brought nothing but sin with him into the world, and that his nature was entirely depraved. He is thus led by the consideration of one offense of peculiar atrocity to the conclusion that he was born in iniquity, and was absolutely destitute of all spiritual good. Indeed, every sin should convince us of the general truth of the corruption of our nature. The Hebrew word יחמתני, yechemathni, signifies literally, hath warmed herself of me, from יחם, yacham, or חמם, chamam, to warm; but interpreters have very properly rendered it hath conceived me. The expression intimates that we are cherished in sin from the first moment that we are in the womb. David, then, is here brought, by reflecting on one particular transgression, to east a retrospective glance upon his whole past life, and to discover nothing but sin in it. And let us not imagine that he speaks of the corruption of his nature, merely as hypocrites will occasionally do, to excuse their faults, saying, “I have sinned it may be, but what could I do? We are men, and prone by nature to everything which is evil.” David has recourse to no such stratagems for evading the sentence of God, and refers to original sin with the view of aggravating his guilt, acknowledging that he had not contracted this or that sin for the first time lately, but had been born into the world with the seed of every iniquity.
The passage affords a striking testimony in proof of original sin entailed by Adam upon the whole human family. It not only teaches the doctrine, but may assist us in forming a correct idea of it. The Pelagians, to avoid what they considered the absurdity of holding that all were ruined through one man’s transgression, maintained of old, that sin descended from Adam only through force of imitation. But the Bible, both in this and other places, clearly asserts that we are born in sin, and that it exists within us as a disease fixed in our nature. David does not charge it upon his parents, nor trace his crime to them, but sists himself before the Divine tribunal, confesses that he was formed in sin, and that he was a transgressor ere he saw the light of this world. It was therefore a gross error in Pelagius to deny that sin was hereditary, descending in the human family by contagion. The Papists, in our own day, grant that the nature of man has become depraved, but they extenuate original sin as much as possible, and represent it as consisting merely in an inclination to that which is evil. They restrict its seat besides to the inferior part of the soul and the gross appetites; and while nothing is more evident from experience than that corruption adheres to men through life, they deny that it remains in them subsequently to baptism. We have no adequate idea of the dominion of sin, unless we conceive of it as extending to every part of the soul, and acknowledge that both the mind and heart of man have become utterly corrupt. The language of David sounds very differently from that of the Papists, I was formed in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me He says nothing of his grosser appetites, but asserts that sin cleaved by nature to every part of him without exception.
Here the question has been started, How sin is transmitted from the parents to the children? And this question has led to another regarding the transmission of the soul, many denying that corruption can be derived from the parent to the child, except on the supposition of one soul being begotten of the substance of another. Without entering upon such mysterious discussions, it is enough that we hold, that Adam, upon his fall, was despoiled of his original righteousness, his reason darkened, his will perverted, and that, being reduced to this state of corruption, he brought children into the world resembling himself in character. Should any object that generation is confined to bodies, and that souls can never derive anything in common from one another, I would reply, that Adam, when he was endued at his creation with the gifts of the Spirit, did not sustain a private character, but represented all mankind, who may be considered as having been endued with these gifts in his person; and from this view it necessarily follows that when he fell, we all forfeited along with him our original integrity. (263)
(263) Our Author’s views on the doctrine of original sin are more fully stated in his Institutes, Book II. chap. 1.
6. Behold, thou hast desired truth, etc. This verse confirms the remark which we already made, that David was far from seeking to invent an apology for his sin, when he traced it back to the period of his conception, and rather intended by this to acknowledge that from his very infancy he was an heir of eternal death. He thus represents his whole life to have been obnoxious to condemnation. So far is he from imitating those who arraign God as the author of sin, and impiously suggest that he might have given man a better nature, that in the verse now before us he opposes God’s judgment to our corruption, insinuating, that every time we appear before him, we are certain of being condemned, inasmuch as we are born in sin, while he delights in holiness and uprightness. He goes further, and asserts, that in order to meet the approval of God, it is not enough that our lives be conformed to the letter of his law, unless our heart be clean and purified from all guile. He tells us that God desires truth in the inward parts, (264) intimating to us, that secret as well as outward and gross sins excite his displeasure. In the second clause of the verse, he aggravates his offense by confessing that he could not plead the excuse of ignorance. He had been sufficiently instructed by God in his duty. Some interpret בסתום, besathum, as if he here declared that God had discovered secret mysteries to him, or things hidden from the human understanding. He seems rather to mean that wisdom had been discovered to his mind in a secret and intimate manner. (265) The one member of the verse responds to the other. He acknowledges that it was not a mere superficial acquaintance with divine truth which he had enjoyed, but that it had been closely brought home to his heart. This rendered his offense the more inexcusable. Though privileged so highly with the saving knowledge of the truth, he had plunged into the commission of brutish sin, and by various acts of iniquity had almost ruined his soul.
We have thus set before us the exercise of the Psalmist at this time. First, we have seen that he is brought to a confession of the greatness of his offense: this leads him to a sense of the complete depravity of his nature: to deepen his convictions, he then directs his thoughts to the strict judgment of God, who looks not to the outward appearance but the heart; and, lastly, he adverts to the peculiarity of his case, as one who had enjoyed no ordinary measure of the gifts of the Spirit, and deserved on that account the severer punishment. The exercise is such as we should all strive to imitate. Are we conscious of having committed any one sin, let it be the means of recalling others to our recollection, until we are brought to prostrate ourselves before God in deep self-abasement. And if it has been our privilege to enjoy the special teaching of the Spirit of God, we ought to feel that our guilt is additionally heavy, having sinned in this case against light, and having trampled under foot the precious gifts with which we were intrusted.
(264) The word טחות, tuchoth, which is rendered inward parts, and which is derived from the verb טוח, tuach, to spread over, means the reins, which are so called, because they are overspread with fat. “Once more it is used in Scripture, Job 38:36, where, as here, our English Bible renders it inward parts, somewhat too generally. The Chaldee expresses it more particularly by reins, and these, in the Scripture style, are frequently taken for the seat of the affections, the purity whereof is most contrary to the natural corruption or inbred pollution spoken of in the preceding verse. The word אמת, emeth, truth, ordinarily signifies sincerity, uprightness, and integrity; and so truth in the reins is equivalent to a hearty sincere obedience, not only of the actions, but of the very thoughts and affections to God; and so, in things of this nature, wherein this psalm is principally concerned, denotes the purity of the heart, the not admitting any unclean desire or thought, the very first degree of indulgence to any lust. And this God is said to will, or desire, or delight in, and so to command and require of us.” — Hammond
(265) The word is explained in the first of these senses in the Septuagint: “ Τὰ ἄδηλα καὶ τα κρύφια τὢς σοφίας εδήλοσίς μοι;” — “Thou hast manifested to me the secret and hidden things of thy wisdom.” Viewed in this light as well as in the other, the language expresses the aggravated nature of David’s sin. He had sinned, although God had revealed to him high and secret mysteries.
7. Thou shalt purge me with hyssop He still follows out the same strain of supplication; and the repetition of his requests for pardon proves how earnestly he desired it. He speaks of hyssop (266) , in allusion to the ceremonies of the law; and though he was far from putting his trust in the mere outward symbol of purification, he knew that, like every other legal rite, it was instituted for an important end. The sacrifices were seals of the grace of God. In them, therefore, he was anxious to find assurance of his reconciliation; and it is highly proper that, when our faith is disposed at any time to waver, we should confirm it by improving such means of divine support. All which David here prays for is, that God would effectually accomplish, in his experience, what he had signified to his Church and people by these outward rites; and in this he has set us a good example for our imitation. It is no doubt to the blood of Christ alone that we must look for the atonement of our sins; but we are creatures of sense, who must see with our eyes, and handle with our hands; and it is only by improving the outward symbols of propitiation that we can arrive at a full and assured persuasion of it. What we have said of the hyssop applies also to the washings (267) referred to in this verse, and which were commonly practiced under the Law. They figuratively represented our being purged from all iniquity, in order to our reception into the divine favor. I need not say that it is the peculiar work of the Holy Spirit to sprinkle our consciences inwardly with the blood of Christ, and, by removing the sense of guilt, to secure our access into the presence of God.
In the two verses which follow, the Psalmist prays that God would be pacified towards him. Those put too confined a meaning upon the words who have suggested that, in praying to hear the voice of joy and gladness, he requests some prophet to be sent, who might assure him of pardon. He prays, in general, for testimonies of the divine favor. When he speaks of his bones as having been broken, he alludes to the extreme grief and overwhelming distress to which he had been reduced. The joy of the Lord would reanimate his soul; and this joy he describes as to be obtained by hearing; for it is the word of God alone which can first and effectually cheer the heart of any sinner. There is no true or solid peace to be enjoyed in the world except in the way of reposing upon the promises of God. Those who do not resort to them may succeed for a time in hushing or evading the terrors of conscience, but they must ever be strangers to true inward comfort. And, granting that they may attain to the peace of insensibility, this is not a state which could satisfy any man who has seriously felt the fear of the Lord. The joy which he desires is that which flows from hearing the word of God, in which he promises to pardon our guilt, and readmit us into his favor. It is this alone which supports the believer amidst all the fears, dangers, and distresses of his earthly pilgrimage; for the joy of the Spirit is inseparable from faith. When God is said, in the 9 verse, to hide his face from our sins, this signifies his pardoning them, as is explained in the clause immediately annexed — Blot out all my sins. This represents our justification as consisting in a voluntary act of God, by which he condescends to forget all our iniquities; and it represents our cleansing to consist in the reception of a gratuitous pardon. We repeat the remark which has been already made, that David, in thus reiterating his one request for the mercy of God, evinces the depth of that anxiety which he felt for a favor which his conduct had rendered difficult of attainment. The man who prays for pardon in a mere formal manner, is proved to be a stranger to the dreadful desert of sin. “Happy is the man,” said Solomon, “that feareth alway,” (Proverbs 28:14.)
But here it may be asked why David needed to pray so earnestly for the joy of remission, when he had already received assurance from the lips of Nathan that his sin was pardoned? (2 Samuel 12:13.) Why did he not embrace this absolution? and was he not chargeable with dishonoring God by disbelieving the word of his prophet? We cannot expect that God will send us angels in order to announce the pardon which we require. Was it not said by Christ, that whatever his disciples remitted on earth would be remitted in heaven? (John 20:23.) And does not the apostle declare that ministers of the gospel are ambassadors to reconcile men to God? (2 Corinthians 5:20.) From this it might appear to have argued unbelief in David, that, notwithstanding the announcement of Nathan, he should evince a remaining perplexity or uncertainty regarding his forgiveness. There is a twofold explanation which may be given of the difficulty. We may hold that Nathan did not immediately make him aware of the fact that God was willing to be reconciled to him. In Scripture, it is well known, things are not always stated according to the strict order of time in which they occurred. It is quite conceivable that, having thrown him into this situation of distress, God might keep him in it for a considerable interval, for his deeper humiliation; and that David expresses in these verses the dreadful anguish which he endured when challenged with his crime, and not yet informed of the divine determination to pardon it. Let us take the other supposition, however, and it by no means follows that a person may not be assured of the favor of God, and yet show great earnestness and importunity in praying for pardon. David might be much relieved by the announcement of the prophet, and yet be visited occasionally with fresh convictions, influencing him to have recourse to the throne of grace. However rich and liberal the offers of mercy may be which God extends to us, it is highly proper on our part that we should reflect upon the grievous dishonor which we have done to his name, and be filled with due sorrow on account of it. Then our faith is weak, and we cannot at once apprehend the full extent of the divine mercy; so that there is no reason to be surprised that David should have once and again renewed his prayers for pardon, the more to confirm his belief in it. The truth is, that we cannot properly pray for the pardon of sin until we have come to a persuasion that God will be reconciled to us. Who can venture to open his mouth in God’s presence unless he be assured of his fatherly favor? And pardon being the first thing we should pray for, it is plain that there is no inconsistency in having a persuasion of the grace of God, and yet proceeding to supplicate his forgiveness. In proof of this, I might refer to the Lord’s Prayer, in which we are taught to begin by addressing God as our Father, and yet afterwards to pray for the remission of our sins. God’s pardon is full and complete; but our faith cannot take in his overflowing goodness, and it is necessary that it should distil to us drop by drop. It is owing to this infirmity of our faith, that we are often found repeating and repeating again the same petition, not with the view surely of gradually softening the heart of God to compassion, but because we advance by slow and difficult steps to the requisite fullness of assurance. The mention which is here made of purging with hyssop, and of washing or sprinkling, teaches us, in all our prayers for the pardon of sin, to have our thoughts directed to the great sacrifice by which Christ has reconciled us to God. “Without shedding of blood,” says Paul, “is no remissions” (Hebrews 9:22;) and this, which was intimated by God to the ancient Church under figures, has been fully made known by the coming of Christ. The sinner, if he would find mercy, must look to the sacrifice of Christ, which expiated the sins of the world, glancing, at the same time, for the confirmation of his faith, to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; for it were vain to imagine that God, the Judge of the world, would receive us again into his favor in any other way than through a satisfaction made to his justice.
(266) Hyssop was much used by the Hebrews in their sacred purifications and sprinklings. The allusion here probably is to the ceremony of sprinkling such as had been infected with leprosy. Two birds were to be taken, cedar wood, scarlet, and hyssop; one of the birds was to be killed, and the priest having dipped the living bird, the cedar wood, scarlet, and hyssop, in the blood of the bird that was killed, sprinkled the leper, (Leviticus 14:0.) This ceremony, it is to be observed, was not to be performed until the person was cured; and it was intended as a declaration to the people, that, God having healed him of a disease which no human means could remove, he might with safety be restored to society, and to the privileges of which he had been deprived. David, polluted with the crimes of adultery and murder, regarded himself as a man affected with the dreadful disease of leprosy, and he prays that God would sprinkle him with hyssop, as the leper was sprinkled, using this figurative language to express his ardent desires to obtain forgiveness and cleansing by the application of the blood of Christ, and that God would show to the people that he had pardoned his sin, restored him to favor, and purified his soul.
(267) David felt that he was stained, as it were, by the blood of Uriah, and therefore he prays, “Wash me.” The word כבסנ, cabbeseni, wash me, is from כבס, cabas, to tread, to trample with the feet; and hence it signifies to wash, to cleanse, for example, garments, by treading them in a trough, etc. It differs from רחף, rachats, to lave or wash the body, as the Greek word πλύνειν, to cleanse soiled garments, differs from λούειν, to wash the body See Gesenius Lexicon. These two words, כבס, cabas, and רחף, rachats, which thus express different kinds of washing, observes Bishop Mant, “are always used in the Hebrew language with the strictest propriety: the one to signify that kind of washing which pervades the substance of the thing washed, and cleanses it thoroughly; and the other to express that kind of washing which only cleanses the surface of a substance, which the water cannot penetrate. The former is applied to the washing of clothes; the latter is used for washing some part of the body. By a beautiful and strong metaphor, David uses the former word in this and the second verse: ‘ Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.’ ‘ Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.’ So in Jeremiah 4:14, the same word is applied to the heart. There is a similar distinction in the Greek language, which the LXX. constantly observe in their rendering of the Hebrew words above alluded to.”
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God! In the previous part of the psalm David has been praying for pardon. He now requests that the grace of the Spirit, which he had forfeited, or deserved to have forfeited, might be restored to him. The two requests are quite distinct, though sometimes confounded together, even by men of learning. He passes from the subject of the gratuitous remission of sin to that of sanctification. And to this he was naturally led with earnest anxiety, by the consciousness of his having merited the loss of all the gifts of the Spirit, and of his having actually, in a great measure, lost them. By employing the term create, he expresses his persuasion that nothing less than a miracle could effect his reformation, and emphatically declares that repentance is the gift of God. The Sophists grant the necessity of the aids of the Spirit, and allow that assisting grace must both go before and come after; but by assigning a middle place to the free will of man, they rob God of a great part of his glory. David, by the word which he here uses, describes the work of God in renewing the heart in a manner suitable to its extraordinary nature, representing it as the formation of a new creature.
As he had already been endued with the Spirit, he prays in the latter part of the verse that God would renew a right spirit within him But by the term create, which he had previously employed, he acknowledges that we are indebted entirely to the grace of God, both for our first regeneration, and, in the event of our falling, for subsequent restoration. He does not merely assert that his heart and spirit were weak, requiring divine assistance, but that they must remain destitute of all purity and rectitude till these be communicated from above. By this it appears that our nature is entirely corrupt: for were it possessed of any rectitude or purity, David would not, as in this verse, have called the one a gift of the Spirit, and the other a creation.
In the verse which follows, he presents the same petition, in language which implies the connection of pardon with the enjoyment of the leading of the Holy Spirit. If God reconcile us gratuitously to himself, it follows that he will guide us by the Spirit of adoption. It is only such as he loves, and has numbered among his own children, that he blesses with a share of his Spirit; and David shows that he was sensible of this when he prays for the continuance of the grace of adoption as indispensable to the continued possession of the Spirit. The words of this verse imply that the Spirit had not altogether been taken away from him, however much his gifts had been temporarily obscured. Indeed, it is evident that he could not be altogether divested of his former excellencies, for he seems to have discharged his duties as a king with credit, to have conscientiously observed the ordinances of religion, and to have regulated his conduct by the divine law. Upon one point he had fallen into a deadly lethargy, but he was not given over to a reprobate mind;” and it is scarcely conceivable that the rebuke of Nathan the prophet should have operated so easily and so suddenly in arousing him, had there been no latent spark of godliness still remaining in his soul. He prays, it is true, that his spirit may be renewed, but this must be understood with a limitation. The truth on which we are now insisting is an important one, as many learned men have been inconsiderately drawn into the opinion that the elect, by falling into mortal sin, may lose the Spirit altogether, and be alienated from God. The contrary is clearly declared by Peter, who tells us that the word by which we are born again is an incorruptible seed, (1 Peter 1:23;) and John is equally explicit in informing us that the elect are preserved from falling away altogether, (1 John 3:9.) However much they may appear for a time to have been cast off by God, it is afterwards seen that grace must have been alive in their breast, even during that interval when it seemed to be extinct. Nor is there any force in the objection that David speaks as if he feared that he might be deprived of the Spirit. It is natural that the saints, when they have fallen into sin, and have thus done what they could to expel the grace of God, should feel an anxiety upon this point; but it is their duty to hold fast the truth that grace is the incorruptible seed of God, which never can perish in any heart where it has been deposited. This is the spirit displayed by David. Reflecting upon his offense, he is agitated with fears, and yet rests in the persuasion that, being a child of God, he would not be deprived of what indeed he had justly forfeited.
12 Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation He cannot dismiss his grief of mind until he have obtained peace with God. This he declares once and again, for David had no sympathy with those who can indulge themselves in ease when they are lying under the divine displeasure. In the latter clause of the verse, he prays as in the verses preceding, that the Holy Spirit might not be taken away from him. There is a slight ambiguity in the words. Some take תסמכני, thismecheni, to be the third person of the verb, because רוח, ruach, is feminine, and translate, let the Spirit uphold me. The difference is immaterial, and does not affect the meaning of the passage. There is more difficulty in fixing the sense of the epithet נדיבה , nedibah, which I have translated free As the verb נדב, nadab, signifies to deal liberally, princes are in the Hebrew called, by way of eminence, נדיבים, nedibim, which has led several learned men to think that David speaks here of a princely or royal spirit; and the translators of the Septuagint rendered it accordingly ἡγεμονικον. The prayer, in this sense, would no doubt be a suitable one for David, who was a king, and required a heroical courage for the execution of his office. But it seems better to adopt the more extensive meaning, and to suppose that David, under a painful consciousness of the bondage to which he had been reduced by a sense of guilt, prays for a free and cheerful spirit. (269) This invaluable attainment, he was sensible, could only be recovered through divine grace.
(269) Some commentators refer the clause, upon which Calvin is here commenting, to the Holy Spirit, and others to the qualities of mind with which David desired to be endued. The translators of our English Bible understand the expression in the first sense, reading, “thy free Spirit.” The word thy is a supplement, but it does not appear to be liable to any material objection. Fry, who adopts the same view, reads, “bountiful or spontaneously flowing Spirit;” and observes, that the word נדיבה, nedibah, “is more still than spontaneously flowing: it signifies to flow both spontaneously and plentifully: ‘ prae uberitate succi sponte fluens.’ This epithet of the indwelling Spirit will be best explained from our Lord’s own words, John 4:14.” Others refer the expression to the mind of the Psalmist. Mudge reads, “And let a plentiful effusion of spirit support me.” Dimock, “Let a free spirit sustain me;” “that is,” says he, “let me not be enslaved, as I have been, by my sinful passions.” Green, “And support with a cheerful spirit.” French and Skinner, “And may a willing spirit uphold me;” by which they understand, “a spirit devoted to the service of God.” Walford, following the Septuagint, reads, “And with a princely spirit sustain me.” “David,” says this critic, “was so overwhelmed by the consciousness of his extreme iniquity, so broken in spirit, courage, and fortitude, as to feel altogether incompetent to the discharge of his office, as the King of Israel. He therefore addresses this petition to God, in the hope that he would grant to him a renewal of that powerful energy by which he had at first been fitted for an employment so every way unsuitable to his lowly descent, and his employment as a shepherd.”
13 I will teach transgressors thy ways Here he speaks of the gratitude which he would feel should God answer his prayer, and engages to show it by exerting himself in effecting the conversion of others by his example. Those who have been mercifully recovered from their falls will feel inflamed by the common law of charity to extend a helping hand to their brethren; and in general, such as are partakers of the grace of God are constrained by religious principle, and regard for the divine glory, to desire that others should be brought into the participation of it. The sanguine manner in which he expresses his expectation of converting others is not unworthy of our notice. We are too apt to conclude that our attempts at reclaiming the ungodly are vain and ineffectual, and forget that God is able to crown them with success.
14 Deliver me from bloods His recurring so often to petitions for pardon, proves how far David was from flattering himself with unfounded hopes, and what a severe struggle he sustained with inward terrors. According to some, he prays in this verse to be delivered from the guilt of the blood of Uriah, and, in general, of the whole army. (270) But the term bloods in Hebrew may denote any capital crime, and, in my opinion, he is here to be considered as alluding to the sentence of death, to which he felt himself to be obnoxious, and from which he requests deliverance. By the righteousness of God, which he engages to celebrate, we are to understand his goodness; for this attribute, as usually ascribed to God in the Scriptures, does not so much denote the strictness with which he exacts vengeance, as his faithfulness in fulfilling the promises and extending help to all who seek him in the hour of need. There is much emphasis and vehemency in the mode of his address, O God! the God of my salvation, intimating at once how tremblingly he was alive to the danger of his situation, and how strongly his faith terminated upon God as the ground of his hope. Similar is the strain of the verse which follows. He prays that his lips may be opened; in other words, that God would afford him matter of praise. The meaning usually attached to the expression is, that God would so direct his tongue by the Spirit as to fit him for singing his praises. But though it is true that God must supply us with words, and that if he do not, we cannot fail to be silent in his praise, David seems rather to intimate that his mouth must be shut until God called him to the exercise of thanksgiving by extending pardon. In another place we find him declaring that a new song had been put in his mouth, (Psalms 40:3,)and it seems to be in this sense that he here desires his lips to be opened. He again signifies the gratitude which he would feel, and which he would express, intimating, that he sought the mercy of God with no other view than that he might become the herald of it to others. My mouth, he says emphatically, shall show forth thy praise.
(270) This opinion, although disapproved of by our Author, is very generally held by commentators. When blood is used in the plural number as here, it usually denotes murder or manslaughter, and the guilt following thereupon: as in Genesis 4:11, “The voice of thy brother’s bloods crieth unto me from the ground;” 1 Chronicles 22:8, “Thou hast shed bloods abundantly;” and Psalms 9:13, “When he maketh inquisition for bloods.” See also Psalms 106:38. “A man of bloods” is a bloody man, a man who is guilty of bloodshed, Psalms 5:6. David’s conduct towards Uriah, forming as it did a dark and an atrocious deed of treachery and cruelty which has few parallels in the history of mankind, must, on his recovery to a sense of its real character, have inflicted on his soul an agony which cannot be told. He escaped being tried before an earthly tribunal; but his conscience told him that he stood at the bar of Heaven, laden with the guilt of murder; and he was convinced that the mercy of God alone could pardon him and purify his conscience. No wonder then that he cries out with such emphasis and earnestness, O God ! thou God of my salvation ! deliver me ! The Chaldee reads, “Deliver me from the judgment of murder.”
16. For thou wilt not accept a sacrifice By this language he expresses his confidence of obtaining pardon, although he brought nothing to God in the shape of compensation, but relied entirely upon the riches of Divine mercy. He confesses that he comes to God both poor and needy; but is persuaded that this will not prevent the success of his suit, because God attaches no importance to sacrifices. In this he indirectly reproves the Jews for an error which prevailed amongst them in all ages. In proclaiming that the sacrifices made expiation for sin, the Law had designed to withdraw them from all trust in their own works to the one satisfaction of Christ; but they presumed to bring their sacrifices to the altar as a price by which they hoped to procure their own redemption. In opposition to this proud and preposterous notion, David declares that God had no delight in sacrifices, (272) and that he had nothing to present which could purchase his favor. God had enjoined the observance of sacrifice, and David was far from neglecting it. He is not to be understood as asserting that the rite might warrantably be omitted, or that God would absolutely reject the sacrifices of his own institution, which, along with the other ceremonies of the Law, proved important helps, as we have already observed, both to David and the whole Church of God. He speaks of them as observed by the proud and the ignorant, under an impression of meriting the divine favor. Diligent as he was, therefore, in the practice of sacrifice, resting his whole dependence upon the satisfaction of Christ, who atoned for the sins of the world, he could yet honestly declare that he brought nothing to God in the shape of compensation, and that he trusted entirely to a gratuitous reconciliation. The Jews, when they presented their sacrifices, could not be said to bring anything of their own to the Lord, but must rather be viewed as borrowing from Christ the necessary purchase-money of redemption. They were passive, not active, in this divine service.
(272) There may be another reason why David here affirms that God would not accept of a sacrifice, nor be pleased with a burnt-offering. No particular sacrifices were appointed by the Law of Moses to expiate the guilt of murder and adultery. The person who had perpetrated these crimes was, according to the Divine law, to be punished with death. David therefore may be understood as declaring, that it was utterly vain for him to think of resorting to sacrifices and burnt-offerings with a view to the expiation of his guilt; that his criminality was of such a character, that the ceremonial law made no provision for his deliverance from the doom which his deeds of horror deserved; and that the only sacrifices which would avail were those mentioned in the succeeding verse, “The sacrifices of a broken heart.”
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. He had shown that sacrifices have no such efficacy in procuring the Divine favor as the Jews imagined; and now he declares that he needed to bring nothing whatever to God but a contrite and humbled heart. Nothing more is necessary, on the part of the sinner, than to prostrate himself in supplication for Divine mercy. The plural number is used in the verse to express more forcibly the truth, that the sacrifice of repentance is enough in itself without any other. Had he said no more than that this kind of sacrifice was peculiarly acceptable to God, the Jews might easily have evaded his argument by alleging that this might be true, and yet other sacrifices be equally agreeable in his sight; just as the Papists in our own day mix up the grace of God with their own works, rather than submit to receive a gratuitous pardon for their sins. In order to exclude every idea of a pretended satisfaction, David represents contrition of heart as comprehending in itself the whole sum of acceptable sacrifices. And in using the term sacrifices of God, he conveys a tacit reproof to the proud hypocrite, who sets a high value upon such sacrifices as are of his own unauthorised fancy, when he imagines that by means of them he can propitiate God. But here a difficulty may be started. “If the contrite heart,” it may be said, “hold a higher place in the estimation of God than all sacrifices, does it not follow that we acquire pardon by our penitence, and that thus it ceases to be gratuitous?” In reply to this, I might observe, that David is not speaking at this time of the meritorious condition by which pardon is procured, but, on the contrary, asserting our absolute destitution of merit by enjoining humiliation and contrition of spirit, in opposition to everything like an attempt to render a compensation to God. The man of broken spirit is one who has been emptied of all vain-glorious confidence, and brought to acknowledge that he is nothing. The contrite heart abjures the idea of merit, and has no dealings with God upon the principle of exchange. Is it objected, that faith is a more excellent sacrifice that that which is here commended by the Psalmist, and of greater efficacy in procuring the Divine favor, as it presents to the view of God that Savior who is the true and only propitiation? I would observe, that faith cannot be separated from the humility of which David speaks. This is such a humility as is altogether unknown to the wicked. They may tremble in the presence of God, and the obstinacy and rebellion of their hearts may be partially restrained, but they still retain some remainders of inward pride. Where the spirit has been broken, on the other hand, and the heart has become contrite, through a felt sense of the anger of the Lord, a man is brought to genuine fear and self-loathing, with a deep conviction that of himself he can do or deserve nothing, and must be indebted unconditionally for salvation to Divine mercy. That this should be represented by David as constituting all which God desires in the shape of sacrifice, need not excite our surprise. He does not exclude faith, he does not condescend upon any nice division of true penitence into its several parts, but asserts in general, that the only way of obtaining the favor of God is by prostrating ourselves with a wounded heart at the feet of his Divine mercy, and supplicating his grace with ingenuous confessions of our own helplessness.
18 Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure: build thou the walls of Jerusalem (273) From prayer in his own behalf he now proceeds to offer up supplications for the collective Church of God, a duty which he may have felt to be the more incumbent upon him from the circumstance of his having done what he could by his fall to ruin it, Raised to the throne, and originally anointed to be king for the very purpose of fostering the Church of God, he had by his disgraceful conduct nearly accomplished its destruction. Although chargeable with this guilt, he now prays that God would restore it in the exercise of his free mercy. He makes no mention of the righteousness of others, but rests his plea entirely upon the good pleasure of God, intimating that the Church, when at any period it has been brought low, must be indebted for its restoration solely to Divine grace. Jerusalem was already built, but David prays that God would build it still farther for he knew that it fell far short of being complete, so long as it wanted the temple, where he had promised to establish the Ark of his Covenant, and also the royal palace. We learn from the passage, that it is God’s own work to build the Church. “His foundation,” says the Psalmist elsewhere, “is in the holy mountains,” (Psalms 87:1.) We are not to imagine that David refers simply to the Church as a material structure, but must consider him as having his eye fixed upon the spiritual temple, which cannot be raised by human skill or industry. It is true, indeed, that men will not make progress even in the building of material walls, unless their labor be blessed from above; but the Church is in a peculiar sense the erection of God, who has founded it upon the earth in the exercise of his mighty power, and who will exalt it higher than the heavens. In this prayer David does not contemplate the welfare of the Church for a short period merely, but prays that God would preserve and advance it till the coming of Christ. And here, may it not justly excite our surprise, to find one who, in the preceding part of the psalm, had employed the language of distress and almost of despair, now inspired with the confidence necessary for commending the whole Church to the care of God? How comes it about, may we not ask, that one who so narrowly escaped destruction himself, should now appear as a guide to conduct others to salvation? In this we have a striking proof, that, provided we obtain reconciliation with God, we may not only expect to be inspired with confidence in praying for our own salvation, but may hope to be admitted as intercessors in behalf of others, and even to be advanced to the higher honor still, of commending into the hands of God the glory of the Redeemer’s kingdom.
(273) We have already considered Horsley’s first objection, founded on the fourth verse, to the authenticity of the title of this psalm. His second and only other objection rests on the 18 verse. He thinks that the prayer, “Build thou the walls of Jerusalem,” is more applicable to the time of the Babylonish captivity than to the time of David; and to the former period he refers the psalm. Calmet and Mudge are of the same opinion. Some learned Jewish interpreters, while they assign the psalm to the occasion mentioned in the title, conjecture that the 18 and 19 verses were added by some Jewish bard in the time of the Babylonish captivity. This opinion is also held by Venema, Green, Street, French and Skinner. There does not, however, seem to be any sufficient ground for referring the poem, either in whole or in part, to that period. Neither the walls of Jerusalem, nor the buildings of Zion, as the royal palace, and the magnificent structure of the temple, which we know David had already contemplated for the worship of God, (2 Samuel 7:1, etc.) were completed during his reign. This was only effected under the reign of his son Solomon, (Genesis 3:1.) The prayer, then, in the 18 verse, might have a particular reference to the completion of these buildings, and especially to the rearing of the temple, in which sacrifices of unprecedented magnitude were to be offered. David’s fears might easily suggest to him that his crimes might prevent the building of the temple which God had promised should be erected, (2 Samuel 7:13.) “The king forgets not,” observes Bishop Horne, “to ask mercy for his people, as well as for himself; that so neither his own nor their sins might prevent either the building and flourishing of the earthly Jerusalem, or, what was of infinitely greater importance, the promised blessing of Messiah, who was to descend from him, and to rear the walls of the New Jerusalem.”
19 Then shalt thou accept sacrifices of righteousness In these words there is an apparent, but only an apparent, inconsistency with others which he had used in the preceding context. He had declared sacrifices to be of no value when considered in themselves, but now he acknowledges them to be acceptable to God when viewed as expressions or symbols of faith, penitence, and thanksgiving. He calls them distinctly sacrifices of righteousness, right, warrantable, and such as are offered in strict accordance with the commandment of God. The expression is the same employed in Psalms 4:5, where David uses it with a tacit condemnation of those who gloried in the mere outward form of ceremonies. We find him again exciting himself and others by his example to the exercise of gratitude, and to the expression of it openly in the solemn assembly. Besides sacrifices in general, two particular kinds of sacrifice are specified. Although some consider כליל, calil, and עולה, olah, to be both of one signification, others maintain with more correctness, that the first is to be understood as meaning the priest’s sacrifice, because in it the offering was consumed or burnt with fire. (274) In the enumeration which he makes, David designs to teach us that none of all the legal rites can find acceptance with God, unless they be used with a reference to the proper end of their institution. The whole of this verse has been figuratively applied by some to the kingdom of Christ, but the interpretation is unnatural and too refined. Thanksgivings are indeed called by Hosea “the calves of the lips,” (Hosea 14:2;) but it seems evident that in the passage before us there are conjoined along with the frame or disposition of the heart those solemn ceremonies which constituted part of the ancient worship.
(274) Ainsworth reads, “the burnt-offering and the whole oblation;” and observes, that “ The whole oblation, the calil, was a kind of oblation that was wholly and every whit given up in fire unto God, and differed from the ghnola, or burnt-offering, which was only of beasts or birds, Leviticus 1:0; whereas the calil was also of flour, called the meat-offering, but burned altogether, which the common meat-offerings were not, Leviticus 6:20. It was also of beasts, 1 Samuel 7:9.”
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Calvin, John. "Commentary on Psalms 51". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent