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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 51

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary


Psalms 51:0


A Contrite Sinner's Prayer for Pardon MT Intro For the choir director. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone to Bathsheba. A Prayer of Repentance A Prayer for Healing and Moral Renewal A Prayer for Forgiveness A Prayer of Contrition
Psalms 51:1-4 Psalms 51:1-2 Psalms 51:1-2 Psalms 51:1-2 Psalms 51:1-2
Psalms 51:3-4 Psalms 51:3-5 Psalms 51:3-5 Psalms 51:3-4b
Psalms 51:4-5
Psalms 51:5-9 Psalms 51:5-6
Psalms 51:6-9 Psalms 51:6-9 Psalms 51:6-7
Psalms 51:7-9
Psalms 51:8-9
Psalms 51:10-13 Psalms 51:10-11 Psalms 51:10-12 Psalms 51:10-13 Psalms 51:10-11
Psalms 51:12-13 Psalms 51:12-13
Psalms 51:13-14
Psalms 51:14-17 Psalms 51:14-17 Psalms 51:14-15 Psalms 51:14-15
Psalms 51:15-17
Psalms 51:16-17 Psalms 51:16-17
Psalms 51:18-19 Psalms 51:18-19 Psalms 51:18-19 Psalms 51:18-19 Psalms 51:18-19

READING CYCLE THREE (see “Guide to Good Bible Reading”)


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.


A. This is one of the penitential Psalms, cf. Psalms 6:0; Psalms 32:0; Psalms 38:0; Psalms 51:0; Psalms 102:0; Psalms 130:0; and 143. Psalms 51:0 may be related to Psalms 32:0, i.e., possibly David's sin; Psalms 32:0 may have been written later in David's life.

B. Although the introduction to Psalms 51:0 in the MT is a later addition, it may accurately reflect the subject matter of this Psalm. For a fuller understanding of the background read 2 Samuel 11:0 and 12.

C. David, as King of Israel, was God's official representative among His people. He betrayed this sacred trust. He does not call God “YHWH” in this Psalm (but this is characteristic of Book II of the Psalms). However, he calls upon God's unchanging character of love and mercy (cf. Malachi 3:6) as he throws himself, without excuse, in God's hands.

There was no OT sacrifice for intentional, premeditated sin (cf. Leviticus 4:2, Leviticus 4:22, Leviticus 4:27; Leviticus 5:15-18; Leviticus 22:14).

1. lusted after another's wife

2. forced her to commit adultery

3. lied to her husband who was a royal soldier

4. had others (i.e., Israeli military duplicity) murder him

5. tried to cover the entire thing up instead of repenting

D. Notice how many different expressions are used to denote “forgiveness.”

1. blot out Psalms 51:1, Psalms 51:9

2. wash Psalms 51:2, Psalms 51:9

3. cleanse Psalms 51:2

4. purify Psalms 51:7

5. hide Your face Psalms 51:9

6. deliver Psalms 51:14

See Special Topic: Words for Forgiveness (OT)

Verses 1-4

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Psalms 51:1-4 1Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; According to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions. 2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity And cleanse me from my sin. 3For I know my transgressions, And my sin is ever before me. 4Against You, You only, I have sinned And done what is evil in Your sight, So that You are justified when You speak And blameless when You judge.

Psalms 51:1-2 Notice the literary flow of this strophe, which deals with a believer's confession of known sin. There are four (possibly five, Qere) imperatives of request.

1. be gracious to me BDB 335, KB 334, Qal imperative; this is a recurrent prayer request (cf. Psalms 4:1; Psalms 6:2; Psalms 9:13; Psalms 25:16; Psalms 26:11; Psalms 27:7; Psalms 30:10; Psalms 31:9; Psalms 41:4, Psalms 41:10; Psalms 56:1; Psalms 57:1 [twice] etc.) to a gracious God (BDB 337, cf. Psalms 86:15; Psalms 103:8; Psalms 111:4; Psalms 116:5; Psalms 145:8; see SPECIAL TOPIC: CHARACTERISTICS OF ISRAEL'S GOD)

a. according to Your lovingkindness (BDB 338, see SPECIAL TOPIC: LOVINGKINDNESS (HESED)

b. according to the greatness of Your compassion (i.e., construct BDB 913 and BDB 933, cf. Psalms 25:6; Psalms 69:16; Psalms 119:156; Psalms 145:9)

2. blot out my transgressions BDB 562, KB 567, Qal imperative, cf. Psalms 51:9, usually this word is used of destroying sinners (cf. Psalms 9:5; Psalms 69:28; Psalms 109:13) from life and the book of life (cf. Exodus 32:32-33; see SPECIAL TOPIC: THE TWO BOOKS OF GOD)

This concept of “experienced” forgiveness and restoration to divine fellowship is also found in the NT, esp. Hebrews 9:14; 1 John 1:7, 1 John 1:9.

The same three nouns for “sin” also are found in Exodus 34:7. Interestingly the verb “blot out” is found in Exodus 32:32-33. Maybe the psalmist had the book of Exodus in mind.

The verb is also found in Isaiah 43:25; Isaiah 44:22. It asserts the great truth that when God forgives, God forgetsnote Isaiah 1:18; Isaiah 38:17; Isaiah 43:25; Isaiah 44:22; Micah 7:19. Several different metaphors are used but all suggest “out of sight, out of mind.”

In the ANE ink was acidic. When one wrote on a papyrus page the ink bit into the plant material and could not be erased. To erase something was a miracle of God, just like washing a dyed cloth white (cf. Isaiah 1:18) was also impossible (i.e., no bleach available). Forgiveness is a miracle of God!

3. wash me BDB 460, KB 459, Piel imperative, only here in the Psalms and Piel imperfect in Psalms 51:7; used predominately in Leviticus for ritual purification

4. “thoroughly” (MT has a Hiphil infinitive absolute, but the Masoretic Jewish scholars suggested a changes to another imperative) BDB 915, KB 1176, Hiphil imperative

5. cleanse me BDB 372, KB 369, Piel imperative, only here in the Psalms, and Qal imperfect in Psalms 51:7; used predominately in Leviticus for something pronounced clean.

Psalms 51:1 “transgressions” There are several terms for human rebellion against God found in this strophe.

1. transgression, Psalms 51:1, Psalms 51:3 BDB 833, cf. Isaiah 59:12-13; Amos 5:12; Micah 1:5 (twice),13; its basic meaning is to revolt or rebel against God

2. iniquity, Psalms 51:2, Psalms 51:5, Psalms 51:9 BDB 730, cf. Psalms 32:5 (thrice), used often in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel

3. sin, Psalms 51:2, Psalms 51:9, Psalms 51:13 BDB 308, cf Psalms 32:5 (twice), its basic meaning is to “miss”; the basic root is often used of a “sin offering”

4. evil, Psalms 51:4 BDB 948 II, very common word, cf. Psalms 5:4; Psalms 7:4, Psalms 7:9; Psalms 10:6, Psalms 10:15; Psalms 23:4; Psalms 34:13, Psalms 34:14, Psalms 34:16; Psalms 36:4; Psalms 37:27; Psalms 41:5; Psalms 49:5; Psalms 52:3; Psalms 54:5, etc.

One can tell how important a concept is to a culture/language by how many terms are used to communicate or clarify the concept. Hebrew has many words for sin/rebellion against God.

“sin” This feminine noun (BDB 308) is found in Psalms 51:2, Psalms 51:3, Psalms 51:9, Psalms 51:13. The masculine noun (BDB 307) is in Psalms 51:5, Psalms 51:9. The verb (BDB 306, KB 305) is in Psalms 51:4, Psalms 51:7.

Psalms 51:3-4 These verses reveal the inner consequences of sin and its terrible disruption of fellowship with God.

1. “I know my transgressions” They are not sins of ignorance but of open rebellion.

2. “My sin is ever before me” Guilt cannot be relieved or minimized. It is a constant reminder of the broken fellowship and its consequences.

3. “Against You, You only, I have sinned” This is a theological statement (cf. Genesis 20:6; 2 Samuel 12:13; Psalms 41:4). Sin is known only when human action is put up against a divine command (cf. Romans 3:20, Romans 3:25; Romans 4:15; Romans 5:13, Romans 5:20; Acts 17:30).

This is not to depreciate the pain of victims but to note that ultimately all sin is against the one and only Holy God!

Psalms 51:4c-d The TEV catches the meaning of these two lines of poetry.

“So you are right in judging me; you are justified in condemning me.”

This is quoted by Paul from the LXX in Romans 3:4. It is introduced by “let God be found true, though every man be found a liar.”

Verses 5-9

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Psalms 51:5-9 5Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me. 6Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, And in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom. 7Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8Make me to hear joy and gladness, Let the bones which You have broken rejoice. 9Hide Your face from my sins And blot out all my iniquities.

Psalms 51:5 This verse may go with Psalms 51:1-4. It is not an excuse but the terrible reality of the fallen human condition (cf. Genesis 8:21; 1 Kings 8:46; Job 14:1-4; Job 15:14; Job 25:4; Psalms 58:3; Proverbs 20:9; Isaiah 48:8; Romans 3:9-18, Romans 3:23; Ephesians 2:3; all express the reality of the fall of mankind in Genesis 3:0. It is true that most rabbis emphasized the origin of sin as Genesis 6:0. The Apostle Paul is the NT author who focuses on Genesis 3:0 as the source of sin and its consequences).

For me the theological issue is the sinfulness of children before the age of moral responsibility. Calvinism has emphasized the total depravity of mankind, in all areas, from birth to death. I am more drawn to the concept of informed human volition. This means that until a child knows he/she is breaking God's laws, they are not! Sin involves open-eyed rebellion! We are sinners in Adam/Eve (cf. Romans 5:12-21) and also we choose to sin. Both are true!

Psalms 51:6-9 The psalmist is asking God to restore him to his previous place/state of fellowship. He has acknowledged his sin (Psalms 51:3-4) and asked for forgiveness (Psalms 51:1-2). This strophe repeats these.

1. acknowledge his sins

a. Psalms 51:5

b. two imperatives

(1) “hide Your face from my sins” BDB 711, KB 771, Hiphil imperative

(2) “blot out all my iniquities” same asPsalms 51:1; Psalms 51:1 (the “book of God” is also mentioned inPsalms 139:16; Psalms 139:16, see note on “secret” below)

2. desires forgiveness

a. God desires “truth in the innermost being” (BDB 711, note the use of “secret” [BDB 712] in Psalms 139:15)

b. God please make that truth known

c. prayer requests (6 imperfects)

(1) purify me BDB 306, KB 305, Piel imperfect

(2) I shall be clean BDB 372, KB 369, Qal imperfect (i.e., result of being purified)

(3) wash me BDB 460, KB 459, Piel imperfect

(4) I shall be whiter than snow BDB 526, KB 517, Hiphil imperfect (i.e., result of being washed, cf. Isaiah 1:18)

(5) make me to hear joy (BDB 965) and gladness (BDB 970) BDB 1033, KB 1570, Hiphil imperfect

(6) let the bones. . .rejoice BDB 162, KB 189, Qal imperfect (“broken bones” were an OT idiom of divine judgment, cf. Isaiah 38:13; Isaiah 38:13; Lamentations 3:4)

The psalmist deeply desires that the intimate fellowship he had known with God, which was damaged by his sin, be restored by God's grace and mercy.

Psalms 51:6 “desires” This verb (BDB 342, KB 339, Qal perfect) is used in Psalms 51:6 of that which God “desires” (i.e., truth in the innermost being) and in Psalms 51:16 of that which He does not desire (Qal imperfect, i.e., perfunctory sacrifices or sacrifices for intentional sins).

Psalms 51:7 “hyssop” The small desert plant (BDB 23) was used in a bunch to sprinkle liquids for ritualistic ceremonies.

1. blood of the Passover lamb on the doorpost of homes Exodus 12:21-22

2. ceremony for cleansing of the leper Leviticus 14:4, Leviticus 14:6 (for leprous buildings, Leviticus 14:49, Leviticus 14:51, Leviticus 14:52)

3. in connection to the ritual of burning the Red Heifer (i.e., ashes of purification) Numbers 19:6, Numbers 19:18

4. in connection with Moses sprinkling the book of the law Hebrews 9:19, cf. Exodus 24:6-8

Verses 10-13

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Psalms 51:10-13 10Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11Do not cast me away from Your presence And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. 12Restore to me the joy of Your salvation And sustain me with a willing spirit. 13Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, And sinners will be converted to You.

Psalms 51:10-13 This strophe also has several prayer requests (imperatives, jussives) which call for a personal faith renewal. This must be brought about by the sovereign acts of God, but the psalmist must present himself for it to be done.

1. create in me a clean heart BDB 135, KB 153, Qal imperative, cf. Ezekiel 36:26-27; he desires a miracle or recreation (bara used only of God, Genesis 1:1)

2. renew a steadfast spirit within me BDB 293, KB 293, Piel imperative, cf. Psalms 78:37

3. do not cast me away from Your presence BDB 1020, KB 1527, Hiphil imperfect used in a jussive sense, cf. 2 Kings 13:23 and negative in 2 Kings 24:20; Jeremiah 7:15

4. do not take Your Holy Spirit from me BDB 542, KB 534, Qal imperfect used in a jussive sense, cf. Isaiah 63:10, Isaiah 63:11; Ezekiel 36:26-27

5. restore to me the joy of Your salvation BDB 996, KB 1427, Hiphil imperative

6. sustain me with a willing spirit BDB 701, KB 759, Qal imperfect used in a jussive sense to match #3,4

Notice the emphasis on the internal, personal aspect of faith (i.e., Isaiah 26:9). The result of this spiritual renewal will be

1. I will teach transgressors Your ways BDB 540, KB 531, Piel cohortative; note the fellowship and knowledge of God must come first, cf. Ezra 7:10

2. sinners will be converted (lit. “turn back”) same verb as Psalms 51:12a, “to restore,” but Qal imperfect

Psalms 51:10 “heart” See SPECIAL TOPIC: THE HEART. Mankind's unique creation in the image and likeness of God (cf. Genesis 1:26-27) and personally “fashioned/formed” by God (Genesis 2:7), makes him a

1. physical creature, like the other animals on this planet (cf. nephesh, see notes at Psalms 3:2 and Genesis 35:18 online)

2. spiritual creature, uniquely suited for fellowship with God; this spiritual aspect goes by several metaphors/analogies/terms

a. heart, i.e., Psalms 36:1; Psalms 36:1; Psalms 39:3; Psalms 55:4; Psalms 109:22

b. kidneys/bowels, i.e., Psalms 22:14; Psalms 22:14; Jeremiah 4:19; Jeremiah 31:20; Lamentations 1:20; Lamentations 2:11

c. spirit, i.e., Isaiah 57:16; Isaiah 57:16; Zechariah 12:1

d. thoughts, Psalms 94:19

“spirit” The term (BDB 924) is used several times in this Psalm.

1. “a steadfast spirit,” Psalms 51:10

2. “Your Holy Spirit,” Psalms 51:11

3. “a willing spirit, Psalms 51:12

4. “a broken spirit, Psalms 51:17


Psalms 51:11b Many commentators believe this line of poetry is a reference to 1 Samuel 11:6; 1 Samuel 16:14; 1 Samuel 18:12, where Saul initially had the Spirit but after his repeated sins, the Spirit left him and went to David.

My own denomination has used this Psalm, especially Psalms 51:12, to assert that no one can lose their salvation because it says, “restore the joy of Your salvation.” However, Saul's spiritual status is uncertain. I have chosen to at least provide my understanding of these issues by

1. referring you to the SPECIAL TOPIC: APOSTASY (APHISTÇMI)

2. referring you to the SPECIAL TOPIC: PERSEVERANCE

3. inserting the following SPECIAL TOPIC: ASSURANCE

“Your Holy Spirit” In most of the OT, the “Spirit” is a force of God (i.e., Genesis 1:2), not a distinct person (but note Isaiah 63:10-11). However, this concept of the personhood of the Spirit is developed in the NT. Two Special Topics help clarify the point.



Verses 14-17

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Psalms 51:14-17 14Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation; Then my tongue will joyfully sing of Your righteousness. 15O Lord, open my lips, That my mouth may declare Your praise. 16For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. 17The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.

Psalms 51:14-17 This strophe continues the thought of

1. deliver BDB 664, KB 717, Hiphil imperative, the psalmist was sinful and needed to be forgiven. Psalms 51:14 may link to David's murder of Uriah (lit. “bloods,” BDB 196, assumed to refer to “bloodguiltiness,” that is, “murder of an innocent person”).

2. the “teach transgressors” (BDB 540, KB 531, Piel cohortative) of Psalms 51:13a is explained/defined

a. my tongue will joyfully sing (David was a singer) of Your righteousness (this key term [BDB 842] basically means a standard, ruler, straight edge. All the words for “sin” are a deviation from the standard; in this context it has the connotation of “vindication” or “just actions,” cf. Psalms 71:2, Psalms 71:15; see SPECIAL TOPIC: RIGHTEOUSNESS).

(1) open my lips

(2) my mouth may declare Your praise

The new thought is begun in Psalms 51:16-17. There was no sacrifice listed in Leviticus 1-7 that dealt with intentional, premeditated sin (cf. Leviticus 4:2, Leviticus 4:22, Leviticus 4:27; Leviticus 5:15-18; Leviticus 22:14; Numbers 15:27-28). If there were he would give it (BDB 678, KB 733, Qal cohortative), but there was not, so he threw himself on the mercy of God. He trusted/believed that God would not reject (both Niphal participles)

1. a broken heart over sin (BDB 990, cf. Psalms 34:19; Isaiah 61:1; Jeremiah 23:9)

2. a contrite heart (lit. “crushed, BDB 194, cf. Isaiah 57:15)

This refers to a Romans 12:1-2 kind of worshiper. Repentance has an effect on God (cf. Psalms 34:18)!

Psalms 51:15

NASB (1970)”Lord” NASB (1995)”Lord”

The MT has Adon, not YHWH. The covenant name for Israel's God is not found in Book II of the Psalter as frequently as in Book I. Some scholars speculate that the compiler of Book II changed many of the references of YHWH to Elohim.

Verses 18-19

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Psalms 51:18-19 18By Your favor do good to Zion; Build the walls of Jerusalem. 19Then You will delight in righteous sacrifices, In burnt offering and whole burnt offering; Then young bulls will be offered on Your altar.

Psalms 51:18-19 The Psalm closes with a seemingly separate thought. There is an unexpected switch from an individual to a national prayer for God's blessing (“do good,” BDB 405, KB 408, Hiphil imperative) on Jerusalem. The prayer implies that Jerusalem had problems.

1. build her walls

2. restore her sacrificial system

Many commentators have used Psalms 51:16 to depreciate sacrifice, but because of Ps. 51:23, it is best to see it as emphasizing the difference between “intentional” and “unintentional” sin.

Also notice that at no time would these two verses fit David's life. There is no MSS evidence they were added after the compositions or compilation of the Psalm.


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought provoking, not definitive.

1. The psalmist gives two reasons for God to be gracious to him. What are they and why are they significant?

2. List the different words used to describe forgiveness in this Psalm.

3. Explain Psalms 51:4 in your own words.

4. What does Psalms 51:5 mean in an OT setting?

5. Does God take the Holy Spirit away from sinners?

6. Explain Psalms 51:16-17's relationship to Psalms 51:19. Explain the difference between an “intentional sin” and an “unintentional sin” in relation to the sacrificial system.

7. How is Psalms 51:18-19 related to the rest of the Psalm?

Bibliographical Information
Utley. Dr. Robert. "Commentary on Psalms 51". "Utley's You Can Understand the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ubc/psalms-51.html. 2021.
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