exegetical note on Psalms 51


This psalm is one of the most moving prayers in the OT; it belongs to the seven[1] so-called Penitential Psalms, which form a subdivision of the Lamentation. The historical note ascribes the psalm to David, but E. R. Dalglish says that this psalm as Davidic origin is doubtful. The usage of “they Holy Spirit” in v. 11 which is a sign of the much later period probably 7th-6th century BCE. He thinks that the psalm should be understood as the royal penitential psalm spoken by or for the king. Hans-Joachim Kraus suggests the period to between Jeremiah and Ezekiel on one hand and that of Nehemiah on the other hand. H. H. Rowley suggests, the psalm could have been modified as Davidic in the later period. Theodore of Mopsuestia thought that the psalm referred to Israel in Babylon confessing its sin and praying for forgiveness and restoration from Exile. This view has been supported by Rudolf Smend. In line with them, H. W. Robinson also argued on the collective interpretation of “I” in this psalm. Though the writer is seem to be using the individual viewpoint, the writer is aware of the group of people that are represented in the text.

Form structure

An analysis of this psalm yields the following structure: vv. 1-2: title, vv. 1-2: the Petition, vv. 3-6: acknowledgement of guilt, vv. 7-9: plea for the deliverance from sin, vv. 10-12: prayer for a clean heart and a wiling spirit, v. 13: a vow to praise and teach; v. 14: a petition v. 15: prayer to make praise possible; vv. 16-17: thoughts about the right offering; vv. 18-19: intercession for Jerusalem. H. Gunkel remarks concerning vv. 18-19: A later, timidly legalistic pious person who was not able to grasp the lofty sense of the Psalmist quietly took offense at the fact that the Psalmist spoke so freely of sacrifices, which after all prescribed by God’s law. Ps. 51 belongs to the form-group, prayer songs, in which the descriptions of distress and petition dominate, but in which the prospect of the hour of thanksgiving is then also entertained (vv. 13, 15f).


The petitionary prayer is customarily presented before Yahweh in the area of the sanctuary. In v. 7, the singer prays for purgation “with hyssop”, rituals of cleans of the cultic site are being referred to. But what is the petitioner’s situation? What distress does he have to suffer? It is explained that the confession of guilt always is connected with the petition for healing from a serious illness. Because the physical suffering always precipitates the question of guilt as the cause and this is a first inducement for a confession of guilt. This fact is further confirmed according to H. Gunkel, the mention of “broken bones” in v. 8. But F. Notscher opines that v. 8 as an expressive illustration of inner suffering and refers the thought to a sickness. We need to be careful in any case that not all psalms of confession should necessarily have the connection between sickness and guilt. But according to J.J. Stamm, v. 8 is concerned more about being feed from his suits rather than the restoration of health.

Concerning the date of the psalm, the title gives no clue about the author and the historical occasion (except the addition of superscription by the composer at a later stage). It is concluded here with the words of Hans-Joachim Kraus, “the psalm is unthinkable for the time of David”. Clues for a time setting of Ps. 51 is to be found in the content itself.

Exegetical Notes

51: 1-2

With regard to the psalm, the choirmaster, David (setting) has been said in the above where nothing accurate is postulated by the scholars. Nathan however was apparently a court prophet, and a contemporary of David and Solomon. ab and awbb (came, went, or enter) occurs twice in the superscription; once it is used in its literal sense, and once in a euphemistic sense ( of sexual intercourse). In vv. 1-2, in his distress the Petitioner and singer of Ps. 51 appeals to the goodness and mercy of Yahweh. The real wrong with which Ps. 51 has to do is “breaking away from God”, the revolt of the human will against the divine will”. This guilt stands between god and man-heavy and burdensome (cf. Ps. 32). In v. 1 b, the underlying conception obviously is that the sin is registered. Are we talking about specific rites of cleansing here by way of saying that the sins are removed by blotting out- (Numb. 5: 23; Isa. 43: 25; Ps. 109: 14)? The Babylonians speak of tablets on which sins are registered, and they ask that these tablets are broken. In v. 2 the concepts for guilt are varied. Wn, has the meaning “perversion”, “distortion”. This word also expressed the intention not in accord with God’s will and other word afj denotes “failure”, “miss”. The word cbk is a very strong verb which can have the meaning “to full”. The petitioner is pleading for a thorough cleansing of his guilt, which is basically represented as defilement, as filth and defect. The guilt is intolerable; it must not only be softened and diminished but must be eliminated completely; blotted out, washed away, made to disappear from the sight of God this act is only possible by God.

  1. 3-4

חָנֵּנִי אֱלֹהִים “ have mercy on me O God” or “be gracious to me O God.” The verbs in v. 3 usually express the attitude of a superior to an inferior, and carries with it an idea of unmerited favor. כְּחַסְדֶּךָ “according to our steadfast love” is essentially referring to the covenant word that covers a reliable promise render-able to the guilty. מְחֵה “blot out,” this is one of the three words that the psalmist pictures which uses to describe his separation from God פְשָׁעָי ( my guilt), and his/her deep desire for restoration. The words: “against you, you only have I sinned” in v. 4 has resulted in heated debate. The questions raised here are: has the petitioner of the psalm sinner against Yahweh himself through idolatry or is guilt where against human beings viewed as sin against God? All sin, also all against human beings is only an insult to God, is a distortion of the text. V. 4 is viewed as an element of the so called “court doxology”. He who as committed sin is called on to “give honor to “Yahweh (cf. Josh 7: 19). In a confession of guilt over against God himself, the petitioner submits to the righteous judgment of Yahweh. The basic declaration of the judgment doxology in v. 4 is further expanded by means of a profound insight into man’s fateful deterioration into guilt as it is expressed in vv. 5-6. According to Cohen, the admission of the guilt is straight and the subject very emphatic as offence. Therefore, in his/her distress the petitioner and singer of Ps. 51 appeals to the goodness and mercy of Yahweh.

  1. 4-6:

The second word-picture we find as used by the psalmist is כַּבְּסֵנִי “wash me”, in v. 4 and in line with it אֵדָע כִּי “for I know” in v. 5 psalmist speaks out to confess his guilt giving an emphatic voice of having aware of the rebellious actions and disloyalty. The third word-picture is taken from a very cultic life, a cultic terminology, טַהֲרֵנִי “cleanse me”, where guilt is longed to be done away with as if like certain cultic activities. Vv. 4-5 could suggest not only a continual awareness of sin but also an ever present tension which is the source of fear and shame, hope and despair. This passage is not a proof text for the later development the church doctrine of original sin. On the contrary, the OT emphasizes the total depravity, the degeneracy of guilt of human existence with an altogether different force than the church’s doctrine of original sin.

The statement of v.6 has been called very enigmatic, yet v. 6 could be obviously related to the context of v. 5. According to Anderson, vv. 6-12 is one periscope; it summarizes the prayer for cleansing and spiritual renewal. However, the continuation of v. 6 to v. 5 and its interpretation is difficult, though he says grammatically it is linked. לְךָ לְבַדְּךָ “against you, you alone,” according to Anderson is not enough the sin of the petitioner. H.H. Rowley also supports that the petitioner focuses so much on God would imply personal particular grievous sin against God (could be the idol worship?) because the following words describes the seriousness of the sin committed before God, and that the petitioner with utmost surety upholds the blameless and justified God if God has to pass the word on the plea. In v.6, the relations to OT wisdom is discernible (Job 14: 4; 15: 14f; 25: 4f). And yet the insight into the hidden depths of the degeneracy of guilt is not the result of human contemplation, but a gift of divine communication and revelation (cf. Job 11: 6).

  1. 7-9

In vv. 7-9, the Psalmist prays for absolution and pardon.  Vv. 7-9 deals with many cultic languages. V. 7 refers to an ancient ceremonial cleansing. The word “hyssop” indicates a whisk of hyssop shrubs was made with which water or blood was sprinkled on the Penitent to indicate absolution. Cleansing power was attributed to the shrub as such. In Babylonian prayer to Marduk the sinner prays: “may the tamarisks cleanse me, the….growth cleanse me, the palm pulp blot out my sins; may the basin of holy water of Ea and Asariluchi bring me good luck!” Vv. 8-9 Petitioner would like to hear the exultation and the shouts of joy of the one who has experienced Yahweh’s salvation. But pardon would mean that Yahweh has “let his countenance shine” and “has lifted up”. Yet, for a time God hides his countenance in view of the sins (v.9). In v. 9, most scholars argue that תְּחַטְּאֵנִי “purge me” is comparatively later term.[2] This would mean “to purify from sin.” Hyssop[3], as cited in the footnote, one of these ritual acts may have formed the background of the psalmist’s word-picture, and was employed as a symbol of that inward cleansing which only God could do. Dark and threatening, the guilt stands between Yahweh and the Petitioner. The psalmist imperative addressed to God: purge, wash, hide, blot out, clean, put, cast not, take not, restore, uphold, deliver, and teach wisdom. The psalmist covers the full range of the actions God can take that will bring a new life possible.

  1. 10-12

In psalms 10-12 the psalmist prays for new creation in the depraved inner self. Incomparable bold is the use of the verb בְּרָא “to create” in v. 12. This word in OT is most relevant only in God’s creative action. The לֵב טָהוֹר “clean heart” one cannot provide for oneself; no rite can bring it to life. Only God’s independent, creative at can renew a person’s heart. This is the knowledge of the petitions of psalm 51, which tower so steeply in the OT. But the psalmist also prays for the וְרוּחַ נָכוֹן ‘right spirit” within. To the Hebrew’s knowledge bbl “heart” is the center of human life and that the וְרוּחַ נָכוֹן “right spirit” is the wheel to a righteous life. תָּגֵלְנָה עֲצָמוֹת דִּכִּיתָ “the bones that you have crushed rejoice” in v.10 refer either to the distress of the psalmist caused by his consciousness of sin and guilt, and to the illness which had made him/her aware of the transgressions (H. Gunkel). The term “bones” may denote ones personality or self, so that the writer may simply mean “let me whom you have afflicted (rightly so), rejoice. V. 11, describes in two different but picturesque ways the same basic thought: forgiveness. הַסְתֵּר פָּנֶיךָ “to hide one’s (your) face” usually means to “withdraw one’s favor, show displeasure, but in the present context it is applied to the plea that God would disregard the Psalmist’s sins so that they would no longer separate him/her from God. But the pardon would mean that the “joy of salvation” returns again (cf. v. 8a). In v. 12b, the psalmist prays to God for “supporting spirit of willing obedience” (cf. Jer. 24: 7; 31: 33; Ezek. 36: 25f). However, Jeremiah and Ezekiel believe that Yahweh himself will put the word (instruction) in to the heart of a person and thus create joyous, willing obedience through his “spirit”.  But here the psalmist awaits a support to consolidate his life. Thus the psalmist goes beyond the prophets even while using their categories.

Purpose and application

At the time of reformation Ps. 51 was among the influential biblical texts to which Luther appealed in his doctrine of justification. But, this is “over interpretation” of the Psalm, however, the essential statement in the Psalm was rightly grasped by Luther and Calvin. The Psalmist knows that he is entirely dependent on the merciful activity of God. Only God can eliminate the threatening, dark wall of separation, sin that separates God and human beings and blot out what is intolerable. Only but God’s creative, renewing power can the heart be cleansed and led to a new obedience. Also the future is in the hands of God alone. If God sends the spirit of willingness and constancy, then the Psalmist is saved from fickleness and unfaithfulness. No gift, no condition comes between God and human beings. No sacrifice has an effect on Yahweh. Only the pleading and trusting human being is the sacrifice, he who with body and life surrenders himself to God, who has nothing else to offer but a heart that is bruised and broken. The human being presents himself to God as what he is. For him nothing remains except to plead for forgiveness and to confess his guilt. In its extreme of knowledge and wisdom (v. 6) which has been won from the prophetic word of the OT, Ps. 51 stands out in the Psalter. Its peak statements are unique. And its fullness of insight is incomprehensible. According to H. Gese, based on form criticism and an analysis of structure, the ontology presented in this psalm distinguishes very sharply between an outward world of appearances and an inner, true existence that is hidden.


Anderson, A.A. The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms (1-72), edited by Ronald E.   Clements and Matthew Black, vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Wm.B. Eerdmans Publication Company, 1972.

Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of The Psalms: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984.

Jesurathnam, K. Introducction to the Poetic & Wisdom Literature. Chennai: SS Graphics.

Kraus, Hans-Joachim. Psalms 1-59: A Commentary, trans., Hilton C. Oswald. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988.

Koehler, Ludwig and Walter Baumgartner. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Vol. 1. (a-j ) New York: E. J. Brill, 1995.

Koehler, Ludwig and Walter Baumgartner. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Vol. 2. (uf-[) New York: E. J. Brill, 1995.

Koehler, Ludwig and Walter Baumgartner. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Vol. 3. (p-c) New York: E. J. Brill, 1995.

[1] Other Penitential Psalms are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 102, and 143.

[2] The Qal form of the Hebrew verb here would mean “to miss the way,” or “to sin,” or “to miss the goal.” But in the intensive form it signifies “to purify from sin” ( Lit. “to de-sin” of “to un-sin.” Cf. Anderson, 398).

[3] Hyssop is a small bushy plant, where a bunch of this plant was used in the cultic Passover celebration (Exod. 12: 22) for the purpose of sprinkling of the lintels in the door-posts of the Hebrew homes. In the later tomes it was used for the cleansing of the leper (Lev. 14) as well as in the purification of one defiled by contact with a corpse (Num. 19), and It the rite of the Red heifer (Num. 19: 6). See. A.A. Anderson, The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms (1-72), 396-397.

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