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The title of this psalm, supported by the whole weight of rabbinical authority, and by the LXX, refers it to the repentance and recovery of David, “when Nathan the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” This application of the psalm has been disputed by some modern critics and commentators, chiefly because they think Psalms 51:4; Psalms 51:18-19.51.19, are not applicable to David’s complicated sin, and to the existing state of Jerusalem, whose walls were not then cast down. But this is a narrow view of the subject that overlooks the prophetic spirit which swelled the language and enlarged the sentiments of the psalmist. In his own sin David traced the workings of original corruption in all mankind, producing universal enmity and revolt against God. In his fall, the consequence of his sin, he traced the ruin of his people, who were all contaminated with the like corruption; and in his recovery he saw the building again of the walls of Jerusalem. There appears to be no more reason for referring the dates of this and a number of other psalms to the times of the Babylonish Captivity, merely because the psalmist, in the spirit of prophecy, associates himself with the captives, describes their circumstances and gives utterance to their griefs; than there would be to refer them to Christ and his apostles, because the psalmist saw HIS glory, and described his sufferings. With the exception of the three verses abovementioned, the whole psalm is most admirably adapted to the case and circumstances of David, as referred to in the title; and those who would disturb this application know of no other person, or case, to which it can apply.
Psalms 51:3 . I acknowledge my transgression, which, alas, I had concealed, and covered with crimes worse than the sin itself.
Psalms 51:4 . Against thee, thee only have I sinned. David, as king, was not accountable to man. His subjects had no authority to judge and punish his crimes; but he feared the judgment of God; and as He alone had power to punish, he regarded him as the only offended party. In this case the claims of others centered in the great Judge of all.
Psalms 51:7 . Purge me with hyssop. A bunch of hyssop dipped in sacrificial blood was usually employed in sprinkling the unclean, and almost all things under the law were thus purified with blood. Leviticus 14:6. Numbers 19:18. The leaves of hyssop and other bitter herbs were also eaten with the paschal lamb, to indicate the bitterness of sin and its punishment. Thus David prays to be cleansed by the blood of sprinkling, and like the leper to be washed in the laver of renewing and regenerating grace.
Psalms 51:14 . Deliver me from blood-guiltiness. Countless murders having of late years been committed in Ireland, we may note that the salvation of a murderer has great difficulties. The papist priest, who talks of absolution for this crime is a blasphemer, a destroyer of men’s souls. The pardons that men bestow are ecclesiastical only, and avail no farther than to restore a penitent to the peace of the church. At the same time no one should despair of final mercy. Though the assassin had no mercy on his victim; though he allowed him no time for repentance; though he cannot ask his pardon now, yet who would limit the Holy One? David had a troubled conscience for Uriah’s blood to the end of life. According to Josephus, he thought the bloody ghost of this valiant officer attended him. Herod felt the same, when he said, on hearing of Jesus, This is John the Baptist, whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead.
Psalms 51:18 . Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion, where the ark of God now lodged. Build thou the walls of Jerusalem, where David was carrying on great works of enlargement, and raising fortifications.
The tragic history of David’s fall and the admirable fruits of his repentance, have been already considered. 2 Samuel 12:0. We are here called to trace the piercing sentiments of his inward grief. He was enjoying his palace in health and peace. Bathsheba had just brought forth a son, which seemed to promise him happiness and joy, and Israel a king, though the fruit of guilt. But Nathan entered with a sorrowful countenance, and having excited the indignation of the king by the parable of the ewe-lamb, pierced him with the sword of the Spirit Thou art the man. The psalm before us is a sublime copy of grief, and of anguish in the extreme. The royal penitent’s first appeal was to mercy; yea, to the multitude of mercies for the erasure of all his sins. Sacrifices and burnt-offerings he did not dare to name; they were too cheap to procure a pardon of that extent; nor had the law appointed any sacrifice but death for crimes so enormous. Then loathing himself because of the depths and complicated nature of his defilement, he implored a thorough washing in the laver of mercy. In seeking this forgiving and sanctifying grace, he named no extenuating circumstance, but acknowledged his transgression. The whole of his ingratitude, of his impetuous passion which he had cherished, instead of suppressing, and all the consequent artifice and crimes to cover his sin; all these were ever before his eyes, for his repentance was lasting as life. In all his future afflictions and troubles this sin came foremost to his mind. Be instructed then, oh my soul, and touch not, taste not, the unclean thing. Lend neither ear nor eye to an evil propensity.
David, instead of extenuating, painted his crime in the deepest tints of crimson and scarlet. Against thee, and thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight. The ruin and destruction of Uriah, the wounds inflicted on the church, and the occasion given to the infidels to blaspheme, are nothing when compared with what I have done in despising thy mercy, daring thy justice, and trampling on thy law. Such is the language of true repentance: and if the wicked were but impressed with these sentiments, their repentance would terminate in genuine conversion. The prodigal comparatively would forget the greatness of his crimes against his parents, being wholly absorbed in that weightier thought, “I have sinned against heaven.”
David, to perfect the knowledge of his sin, traced it back to its source. Behold, I was shapen in iniquity. His birth had all the marks of outward purity and honour which can adorn human nature. His parents were irreproachable, and many of his ancestors were distinguished by heroic acts of faith and virtue; he therefore here speaks only of original sin, then an article of universal belief. This sin is our birth-fault, it is the law in the members, the source of every sin. It is the sin which depraved Adam’s nature, of whose substance we are all conceived. Our will was in his will, and our consent was in his consent. It is the sin which has occasioned death to reign over all; yea over infants, who in a peculiar sense have not sinned after the likeness of Adam’s transgression.
David farther heightened his sin by a striking contrast with the purity of God. He had said, Behold, I was shapen in iniquity. He now says, Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts; but my sin is all gross wickedness, dissimulation, and hypocrisy.
He therefore prays for purity: Purge me with hyssop, with the blood of the covenant, and the bitters of paternal correction. I loathe my foul leprosy, which shuts me out from thee, and thy people. He also entreated the Lord to show him mercy from his peculiar misery and distress. He laid prostrate as a criminal with broken bones; he was overwhelmed with grief and gloom, and entreated for joy and gladness. Hence by a fine sentiment he besought the Lord to hide his face from the singularly provoking circumstances of his crime, while as a father, more willing to cover than expose the follies of a penitent child, he blotted out the enormous debt of all his sins.
But a plenary pardon was only half his request. He solicited purity, and purity without a stain. Create in me a clean heart, oh God, and renew in me a right spirit, a constant, or a faithful mind. Thus pardon and purity, justification and sanctification, are to be asked at once, being everywhere joined in the grand promises of the new covenant. It is a small glory for a man to boast that his body and his character are free from gross sins, while his mind secretly feasts on impurity. We must pray that sin may not merely be cropped, but wholly eradicated, and the whole man, body, soul, and spirit preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the constant application of the Redeemer’s merits to keep us clean, are the surest preservatives from future sins.
As he valued purity above all price, so he deprecated being forsaken above all evils. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy Holy Spirit from me. How much this state is to be dreaded, will appear from twenty passages in the sacred writings. Genesis 4:16. 2 Kings 24:20. Jeremiah 7:15; Jeremiah 52:3. Joh 15:2 .
Long and painfully wearied with grief, he asked next the joy of God’s salvation, and the wonted influx of his free and noble spirit of adoption, that he might once more teach transgressors his way. This cannot be understood of temporal joy, as we too often understand the psalms; for David was now in no temporal trouble. It was a joy flowing purely from the light of God’s countenance, and the comforts of his grace.
But as though he had asked far too much, and prayed in language too assuming for so great a sinner, his abased mind returned again to his grief, and his tears flowed anew. Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, oh God. Thus he brings again to the Lord, who despised hecatombs of burnt-offerings, the pleasing sacrifices of a broken spirit and a contrite heart. And as though his sin had infected the whole land, and obstructed, as in Achan’s case, the course of Zion’s blessings, he besought the Lord to bless his people; and graciously to accept their daily burnt-offerings presented on his altar.
These are David’s sentiments after his sin; this is the washing and healing of his deep wounds; this is the way in which he rose to virtue after vice, and glory after crimes. He married the insulted woman, and repaired his fault to the utmost of his power. May the christian learn to keep free from crimes; and may the wicked who imitate him in sin, imitate him in repentance, and in all its genuine fruits. Forget not, oh base backslider, this most instructive portrait of a sinner’s return to God.
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Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Psalms 51". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent