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Historical and Literary Context of the Passage

Before the beginning of the verse, there is a heading which reads, “To the chief musician. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet, came unto him after he had gone into Bathsheba.” This initial heading serves to point to the perspective which should be taken when interpreting the verse. The historical context is presented in 2 Samuel 11 – 12. The story starts from an innocent point of view, a time during spring when kings usually present themselves in battle, but then David decided to stay at home from the battle. Then, it occurred that one evening, when David was taking a stroll outside on his verandah, notices a woman with astonishing beauty taking a dip in the adjacent pool.

David gains interest in the woman, and this causes him to seek to want to know her name. Her name is Bathsheba and it is also revealed to him that her husband was out int battle with the army. What follows is that David calls Bathsheba over to his palace and, together, they share a meal and drinks. They also make love. Afterwards, Bathsheba returns home. A few months down the line, David receives a message from Bathsheba letting him know that she is pregnant. This prompts David to call for Uriah from the battlefront, requesting him to return home to his lovely wife. However, Uriah insists on remaining in the battlefield. Following Uriah’s obstinance, David gives orders to General Joab to place Uriah at the point of the battle where there is heavy fighting. Eventually, news returns that Uriah died in battle and David proceeds to marry the widow.


Later on, the prophet Nathan arrived at David’s palace. Nathan tells David the riddle of a rich man who took captive the only lamb of a poor man and had it slaughtered for dinner. Upon

  1. Craig Broyles, Psalms (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1999)
  2. John Eaton, Psalms (London: SCM, 1967)
  3. hearing this, David becomes enraged and asks Nathan to let him know who that rich man was so that he would receive punishment. Nathan lets David know that it was himself. When David heard the message from prophet Nathan, he became devastated. This devastation leads him to ask for God’s forgiveness for the sin he had committed. David’s prayer to God is presented in Psalms 51.

    Detailed Description of the Text

    Apart from representing David’s prayer, this chapter teaches the readers about repentance. It is a verse recommended for anyone who would want to know about the true form of repentance. In Psalms 51:1-2 reads “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according to unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.” The beginning of this verse showcases David’s plea for forgiveness from God after prophet Nathan told him that he was the rich man that took the poor man’s lamb; that he had committed adultery and arranged for the death of Uriah while in the battlefield. It took Nathan’s bravery to bring King David to the knowledge that he had committed a sin, and this is followed by the sense of brokenness and great honesty from David.

    Psalms 51: 3-4 reads “For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sine is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightiest be justified when thou speakest and be clear when thou judgest.” These verses show that David admits that his sin will not go away, that it will remain before him for a long period of time. In his repentant state, David proceeds to confess and admits that he has sinned against God. By confessing, David seeks to retain the state of being blameless in the sight of God. These verses can hold the meaning that sin which is not confessed remains as sin which is unforgiven. The verses also communicate that God needs people to acknowledge their sins, and forgiveness is guaranteed when a person makes a plea for their iniquities. David recognized that his sin would forever gnaw at him giving him distress and remorse, eventually becoming a burden to him. By confessing, God would remove the sin from his sight so that eventually, he would not be condemned for having done it. Also, he would not die because of wrongdoing. David’s admission to having sinned is a message to Christians that confession is the first step to forgiveness.

    Psalms 51: 5-6 reads, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, thou desirest truth in the inwards parts: an in the hidden part thou shalt make me know wisdom.” This verse illustrates an important truth in theology; that everyone was born a sinner. Verse 5 appeals to the sinful nature of human beings. It is our sinful nature which causes us to engage in more sin and lust even more. The sinful nature of people affects their minds by blinding their understanding and thoughts, to the extent that it becomes hard for them to understand spiritual matters. It is because of the sinful nature of human beings that Jesus Christ came to die for humanity. Even though it may be difficult for people to do away with their sinful quality, the Holy Spirit exists among people so that they can defer from giving in to temptations. Verse 6 tells that it is God who embodies true wisdom – the kind of wisdom where a person can acquire cleansing and acquire God’s favour. The general taking from these verses is that God looks at a man’s heart and examines its condition. David had always set his heart towards God and always wanted to do what is right in the sight of God. When he was with Bathsheba, David fell into the fleshly desires, and this is contrary to what God would have wanted – letting the flesh rule over spiritual desire.

  4. John Goldingay, Psalms Volume 2: Psalms 42-89 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007).
  5. Psalms 51: 7-10 reads, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” Hyssop is a leafy plant which, during the context of the writing, was known for its cleansing properties. In the old testament, hyssop would always be commonly used in the ritual of sprinkling water or blood on a person for ceremonial cleansing. Such cleansing would involve the removal of iniquities such as having touched a corpse or leprosy. David wanted to be purged, to be washed, or completely cleansed in order to be as white as snow. David was aware of his moral defilement and it became his request that God takes away his iniquities. Under forgiveness, God takes away a person’s sins.

    Hyssop would be used in the application of blood from the lamb, and it is the blood from God’s precious lamb that would cleanse David to make him whiter than snow. In verse 7, the word purge has been used to refer to an internal cleansing of the man. In verse 8, David requests to hear “joy and gladness” because his soul is terribly wounded, especially after hearing the message from prophet Nathan. David speaks about the way his bones ache as a result of the sin he committed against the Lord. During this moment, gladness and joy were absent from his life. One of the aftermaths of receiving forgiveness and having the knowledge that one has acquired forgiveness is through the extreme happiness a person has during that moment. Verse 9 depicts David as being ashamed of his sins and himself before God. He is not only ashamed of the sin he committed with Bathsheba, but also those others that preceded the moment, and that is why he says, “blot out all mine iniquities.” These verses send out the message to people, that when they have sinned against the Lord, there is nowhere that they can hide that God would not find them.

  6. Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72: an introduction and commentary on Books I and II of the Psalms (Leicester: IVP, 1973)
  7. Psalms 51: 11-13 reads, “Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with thy free spirit. Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.” From this verse, it can be deluded that, while he was in desperate desire to restore his salvation which would result in joy, David remained extremely worried that God would take the Holy Spirit away from him. David did not want to be lost from God’s presence forever. David had acquired God’s holy spirit when Samuel anointed him in his father’s house. What needs to be understood is that David did not have his salvation taken away from him, but the joy of being saved had gone. Without a doubt, David’s sin had angered the Spirit and, in the event where David would have failed to repent of them, he would have withdrawn from himself. However, on the good side, his sin had not wretched the Spirit wholly. Therefore, David prayed consistently that God still grants him His spirit.

    Retrospectively. David acquired God’s holy spirit for a long time, and this occurred during Samuel’s anointing of his father’s house. The guiding spirit of God was also with David during the time he killed Goliath. Also, the holy spirit was with David when he moved far away from Saul. Due to the commitment of the terrible sin, David was very much aware that he deserved being turned away from by God. David’s sin would pave the way for more sin. At fault, David knew very well, was not God, but David himself. In the perspective of ordinary people, it would be completely horrible when God’s spirit is present, only for it to leave one day. David never stopped praying that this scenario did not affect him too.

    From Verse 12, we learn that there is nothing else more desirable to God’s child than when they are in the Lord’s presence. David was about the experience of serious agony in his

  8. Adrian Curtis, Psalms (Peterborough: Epworth, 2004)
  9. Artur Weiser, The Psalms (London: SCM, 1962).
  10. absence. The case of being utterly deprived of God’s presence is similar to the case of those who are damned in hell, where people acquire punishment for the loss of God’s presence that they have acquired. Also, what is correct is that, for those who are in heaven, saints get to enjoy the presence of God wholesomely without any form of interruption. God’s people are never taken far away from his favour, or from the love of his heart. When David pleas that God forgives him one more time, it illustrates how fearful he was for having lost the salvation which he initially had in God. Upon forgiveness, God grants complete restoration.

    Verse 13 emanates from David’s gratitude to God, following the painful experience he has been through, of bitterness and evils of sin. David would show God’s people the painful consequences which have to always follow due to sin. As a result, David would encourage people to resort to the almighty Father who had given him forgiveness. He would illustrate to them the true nature of repentance; show them the real requirements for the forgiveness of sins. Sinners would benefit from David’s experience by knowing where they can obtain God’s mercy. They would have to leave from the wrath, which is yet to come upon them. David’s offering to win souls to the Lord would serve as a deep personal connection to the dangers of sin and the experience of guilt. It would also serve to show God’s mercy and forgiving nature. For a man to be successful, they ought to have experienced salvation in their souls.

    Psalms 51: 16-17 reads “For thou desirest not sacrifice; else I would give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart. O, God thou wilt not despise.” From this verse, real repentance can be found. People can learn that God favour not burnt offerings more than he does obedience from the people. The message from these verses is that “a broken and contrite heart” are the best kinds of sacrifices

  11. Marvin Tate, Psalms 51-100 (Dallas: Word, 1990).
  12. which God requires from people. More specifically, verse 16 communicates that God’s principle sacrifices are not the kind of burnt offerings, which were highly regarded for a divine appointment during that time. What God considers most attractive was a person’s humble feeling of having sinned, spiritual obedience, merciful acts, and sacrifices of thanksgiving and praise. David shows awareness that there exists no other form of sacrifice which would appease God.

    Psalms 51: 18-19 reads “ Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem. Then, shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.” At this point, King David came to realize that apart from failing as a husband, a father and, as a man of God, he failed as a King over his people. Therefore, he makes a humble request to God to restore favour to his kingdom. This verse showed that by failing as a king, his kingdom would fail as well. Also, he had knowledge that God would still accept animal sacrifices from his people, as that is why he concludes in verse 19, saying that “they shall offer bullocks upon thine altar.”

    Key Themes of the Passage

    This verse speaks deeply towards humanity concerning the recognition of sin, being honestly broken by the acts of sin, and seeking repentance from God. Repentance would reward an individual with God’s grace. The following are some of the key themes in the passage. Punishment of sins

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    When a person sins, they are moving further away from the presence of God. They are deprived of the Holy Spirit and they will eventually get cast into eternal damnation. Sin is a transgression of God’s laws. David had committed adultery and committed murder, breaking two

  13. Artur Weiser, The Psalms (London: SCM, 1962).
  14. of the 10 commandments set out by the Lord. It is God’s spokesman, Nathan, that spoke to David of his transgression that he realized with great devastation that he had gone against the Lord.


    A crucial teaching of repentance is evident from this chapter. The lesson is that as soon as one has transgressed against the Lord, it is required that they come to the Lord with a contrite and broken heart, so as to seek forgiveness. God is merciful, and the best sacrifice which he prefers for the purpose of forgiveness is praised Him, worship Him and remain obedient to Him. One does not need to provide any form of burnt offering in order to acquire forgiveness from God. Repentance is the key to averting from the wrath that awaits a sinful being. It ensures complete restoration of God’s presence. Repentance grants the people of God salvation, such that they remain confident that their transgressions are forgiven


    The verse shows that one needs to recognize their sin and bring it to God through confession and seek repentance in order to acquire God’s forgiveness. Once David was aware of his sin, he sought God’s forgiveness. This shows the extent of seriousness that is accorded to the element of sin. Sin separates people from God and leads them into a dark abyss. For people who are God’s followers, it is crucial to confess sins regularly and sought forgiveness, in a similar way taught by King David. Also, people need to rejoice in their forgiveness. From Psalms 51, David does not experience “joy and gladness” until he acquires confidence in the faithfulness of God in forgiving him for his sins.

  15. Sam O’Neil, Psalm 51: A Picture of Repentance.


Broyles, Craig, Psalms (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1999).

Curtis, Adrian, Psalms (Peterborough: Epworth, 2004).

Eaton, John, Psalms (London: SCM, 1967)

Goldingay, John Psalms Volume 2: Psalms 42-89. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007).

Kidner, Derek,Psalms 1-72: an introduction and commentary on Books I and II of the Psalms. (Leicester: IVP, 1973).

O'Neal, Sam, Psalm 51: A Picture of Repentance. (2008).

Tate, Marvin Psalms 51-100. (Dallas: Word (WBC 20), 1990).

Weiser, Artur, The Psalms (London: SCM, 1962)

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