Psalms 51 Summary - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
This Psalm is the first of eighteen Psalms bearing the name of David, which appear to have been taken from some earlier collection by the compiler of the Elohistic Psalter. Eight of them have titles connecting them with historical incidents in the life of David. Most recent commentators find the contents of these Psalms unsuitable to the occasions indicated, and regard the titles as arbitrarily prefixed by the compiler. In some instances this appears to be the case; but it may be doubted whether we are always capable of judging what might or might not have been considered appropriate to a particular occasion. Some of these Psalms may be original Davidic Psalms, altered perhaps in the process of transmission, or adapted for liturgical use by modifications and additions. Others may have been selected as bearing, more or less, upon the events with which they are connected. Others again may have been composed with the intention of illustrating episodes in the life of David. The latter view is sometimes objected to as implying a fraud which is incompatible with inspiration. But the objection rests upon a narrow view of inspiration. Why may not God have used and directed the faculty of poetic imagination, in order to enable us better to understand some particular incident, and more fully to realise the lessons contained in it?
In studying these Psalms it must be remembered that they have a history. The possibility that they no longer lie before us in their original form must be taken into account. Other changes beside the substitution of Elohim for Jehovah may have been made by the editor, or may have crept in by accident in the process of transmission. This is not mere theory. We see what has actually happened in the case of Psalms 53.
Psalms 51 is assigned by its title to that crisis in David’s life when Nathan awoke his slumbering conscience to recognise his guilt in the matter of Bath-sheba (2 Samuel 12). It is then a commentary upon David’s confession, “I have sinned against Jehovah,” and Nathan’s assurance, “Jehovah also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die.” It has generally been thought to contain David’s first heart-felt prayer for pardon, while Psalms 32, written after some interval, when he had had time to ponder upon the past, records his experience for the warning and instruction of others, in accordance with the resolution of Psa 51:13.
Its general appropriateness cannot be denied. Where, save in a character like that of David, uniting the strongest contrasts, capable of the highest virtue and the lowest fall, could we find such a combination of the deepest guilt with the most profound penitence? David had been endowed with the spirit of Jehovah (1Sa 16:13; 2Sa 23:2); he had received the promise that his house should be established for ever before Jehovah (2Sa 7:15-16). Might he not well fear lest the fate of Saul should be his fate; lest, like Saul, he should be deprived of the spirit of God and deposed from his high position of privilege? But it was just this capacity for repentance and trust in the abundance of God’s mercy which distinguished him from Saul, and made it possible for him with all his faults to be called “the man after God’s own heart.” Comp. the well-known passage in Carlyle’s Heroes, p. 43.
The Davidic authorship of the Psalm has however been denied by many critics, chiefly upon the following grounds.
(1) The last two verses imply that Jerusalem was in ruins and that sacrificial worship was suspended. If these verses were part of the original Psalm, they would certainly point to a date in the Exile or in some period of distress such as that which preceded the mission of Nehemiah. It has indeed been maintained that they can be understood as a prayer of David that the still unfinished fortifications of Jerusalem (cp. 1Ki 3:1) may be carried to a successful completion; or, in figurative language, that his kingdom may not suffer for his sin. But the explanation is unsatisfactory. A comparison of similar expressions in Psa 69:35; Psa 102:16; Psa 147:2, makes it almost certain that the words are a prayer for the restoration of Jerusalem and the reestablishment of sacrificial worship there. These verses however do not appear to be an original part of the Psalm. It is indeed argued that “the omission of these verses makes the Psalm end abruptly”: but the abruptness, if it exists, is far less startling than the termination of a Psalm of such surpassing spirituality with the hope of the restoration of material sacrifices. Psa 51:17 forms a conclusion which, if abrupt, is in harmony with the spirit of the Psalm: Psa 51:19 does not. In fact the contrast, if not actual contradiction, between Psa 51:19 and Psa 51:16-17 makes it difficult to suppose that they can have been written by the same poet at the same time. Moreover while Psa 51:1-17 are, at least in expression, strictly individual, Psa 51:19 introduces the people generally (“they shall offer”). These verses then must be excluded in the consideration of the date of the Psalm, as in all probability a later addition.
(2) But further it is urged that the words of Psa 51:4, “against thee, thee only, have I sinned,” are inapplicable to David’s situation, for “however great David’s sin against God, he had done Uriah the most burning wrong that could be imagined; and an injury to a neighbour is in the O.T. a ‘sin’ against him, Gen 20:9; Jdg 11:27; Jer 37:18 ” (Driver, Introd. to Lit. of O.T. p. 367). But surely it is a mistake to demand logical accuracy in words of intense emotion. What is meant is that “the other aspects of his deed its heinous criminality as a wrong done to a fellow-man disappeared for the time, while he contemplated it as a sin against his infinitely gracious Benefactor.” (Kay.) Moreover if the words are inapplicable to David, to whom can they apply? The Psalmist confesses himself blood-guilty ( Psa 51:14), and whether the expression refers to actual murder or only to ‘mortal sins,’ it must refer in the main to offences against man not God. See Eze 18:10-13.
(3) Of more weight against the Davidic authorship is the consideration that the closest parallels of thought and language are to be found in the later chapters of Isaiah, in particular in the national confession of guilt in Isa 63:7-19, and that the language appears to belong to a later and more developed stage of the religious consciousness. Cp. Psa 51:1 with Isa 63:7; Psa 51:3 with Isa 59:12; Psa 51:9 with Isa 43:25; Isa 44:22; Psa 51:11 b with Isa 63:10-11; Psa 51:17 with Isa 57:15; Isa 61:1; Isa 66:2. The precariousness of this argument is obvious, and the weight attached to it will depend largely upon the view taken of the whole course of the growth of religious ideas in Israel, but it cannot be disregarded.
It must then be taken into account as at least a possibility that the Psalm was written by some deeply devout prophet of the Exile, perhaps even the author of the later chapters of Isaiah, and placed in the mouth of David, to illustrate an episode in his life which presented the most signal instance in history of the fall, repentance, and pardon, of a good and great man: written by inspiration of God to supply to all ages the most profound type of confession, and the most comforting assurance, based upon the experience of David, that God’s mercy to the penitent knows no limit.
By many critics the Psalm is regarded as the utterance not of an individual but of the nation. This view is as old as Theodore of Mopsuestia (a.d. 428) who refers it to Israel in Babylon, confessing its sins and praying for forgiveness and restoration from exile, and it has recently been maintained by Robertson Smith ( O.T. in Jewish Church, 2nd ed., p. 440) and Driver ( Introd. p. 367), who place it in the Exile, and by Cheyne ( Origin of the Psalter, p. 162; Aids to the Devout Study of Criticism, pp. 164 ff.), who places it later, between the Restoration and Nehemiah. “The situation of the Psalm,” writes Robertson Smith, “does not necessarily presuppose such a case as David’s. It is equally applicable to the prophet, labouring under a deep sense that he has discharged his calling inadequately and may have the guilt of lost lives upon his head (Ezekiel 33), or to collective Israel in the Captivity, when, according to the prophets, it was the guilt of blood equally with the guilt of idolatry that removed God’s favour from His land (Jer 7:6; Hos 4:2; Hos 6:8; Isa 4:4). Nay, from the Old Testament point of view, in which the experience of wrath and forgiveness stands generally in such immediate relation to Jehovah’s actual dealing with the nation, the whole thought of the psalm is most simply understood as a prayer for the restoration and sanctification of Isreal in the mouth of a prophet of the Exile … perhaps of the very prophet who wrote the last chapters of the Book of Isaiah.”
Such a view will not appear impossible to anyone who compares the personification of Israel as the Servant of Jehovah in Isaiah 40 ff; and the addition of Psa 51:18-19 points to the use of the Psalm by Israel in exile as the fitting expression of its feelings. But it is difficult to resist the impression that the Psalm is personal rather than national in its original and primary intention.
Its authorship and date and original intention are however questions of minor importance, compared with its profound appropriateness as the voice of the penitent soul in all ages. One generation after another has found by experience that its words “fit into every fold of the human heart,” and supply them with language which the revelation of the Gospel has not superseded, but only deepened in meaning. If any proof of its inspiration is needed, it is to be found here (Rom 8:26). In true repentance, says Luther, a knowledge of sin and a knowledge of grace must combine: it is this double knowledge which inspires this Psalm, and is revealed in a clearer light in Jesus Christ.
A strange testimony to its power is given in the story that Voltaire began to parody it, but when he reached Psa 51:10 was so overcome with alarm that he desisted from his profane attempt.
It is the fourth of the seven Psalms known from ancient times in the Christian Church as the ‘Penitential Psalms’ (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143). According to some Jewish rituals it is recited on the Day of Atonement; and it is appointed for use in the Commination Service on Ash Wednesday.
There is no clearly marked strophical arrangement in the Psalm, but ( Psa 51:18-19 being regarded as an addition outside the scheme of the Ps.) it falls into four stanzas, each, with the exception of the fourth, consisting of two pairs of verses.
i. The Psalmist prays for pardon and cleansing, confessing the greatness of his sins (Psa 51:1-4).
ii. In utter self-abasement he contrasts the corruption of his nature with the sincerity which God desires, and expresses his confident assurance that God can and will cleanse and gladden him (Psa 51:5-8).
iii. Repeating his petition for pardon, he supplicates for inward renewal and for the continuance of God’s favour and support (Psa 51:9-12).
iv. He resolves to employ his regained freedom in grateful service, and to express his thanksgiving by that sacrifice of the heart which God most desires (Psa 51:13-17).
v. A prayer of the congregation in exile that Jerusalem may be rebuilt and the sacrificial worship reestablished, as a visible proof of the restoration of God’s favour (Psa 51:18-19).
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The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges is a biblical commentary set published in parts by Cambridge University Press from 1882 onwards. Anglican bishop John Perowne was the general editor. The first section published was written by theologian Thomas Kelly Cheyne and covered the Book of Micah.
Perowne exercised limited editorial control over the writers of individual commentaries: his aim was "to leave each contributor to the unfettered exercise of his own judgment".