Psalm 51: Entering the Psalm
How Do We React to Our Misdeeds?
In Psalm 51 we explore themes of contrition and forgiveness. Before reading, take a few minutes to consider how you process moments of wrongdoing. How does your processing differ when it is your own fault and when it is others’?
Meditate for a few moments about a misdeed you are holding onto. Consider how you would need to apologize to feel at peace with yourself.
Andrew Davis PhD
The psalm’s words of contrition and request for forgiveness apply not only to David but also to us. Like David, we are called to acknowledge the ways we have failed to live out the faithfulness and justice God exemplifies and to ask God to respond to our failures with compassion. It is not easy to admit when we are wrong; it was certainly not easy for David, who had to be tricked by Nathan into recognizing his guilt! But Psalm 51 promises that such contrition can be the basis of renewed relationship with God. Read more
Psalm 51 Text
לַמְנַצֵּ֗חַ מִזְמ֥וֹר לְדָוִֽד׃
בְּֽבוֹא־אֵ֭לָיו נָתָ֣ן הַנָּבִ֑יא כַּאֲשֶׁר־בָּ֝֗א אֶל־בַּת־שָֽׁבַע׃
חׇנֵּ֣נִי אֱלֹהִ֣ים כְּחַסְדֶּ֑ךָ כְּרֹ֥ב רַ֝חֲמֶ֗יךָ מְחֵ֣ה פְשָׁעָֽי׃
(הרבה) [הֶ֭רֶב] כַּבְּסֵ֣נִי מֵעֲוֺנִ֑י וּֽמֵחַטָּאתִ֥י טַהֲרֵֽנִי׃
כִּֽי־פְ֭שָׁעַי אֲנִ֣י אֵדָ֑ע וְחַטָּאתִ֖י נֶגְדִּ֣י תָמִֽיד׃
לְךָ֤ לְבַדְּךָ֨ ׀ חָטָאתִי֮ וְהָרַ֥ע בְּעֵינֶ֗יךָ עָ֫שִׂ֥יתִי לְ֭מַעַן תִּצְדַּ֥ק בְּדׇבְרֶ֗ךָ תִּזְכֶּ֥ה בְשׇׁפְטֶֽךָ׃
הֵן־בְּעָו֥וֹן חוֹלָ֑לְתִּי וּ֝בְחֵ֗טְא יֶחֱמַ֥תְנִי אִמִּֽי׃
הֵן־אֱ֭מֶת חָפַ֣צְתָּ בַטֻּח֑וֹת וּ֝בְסָתֻ֗ם חׇכְמָ֥ה תוֹדִיעֵֽנִי׃
תְּחַטְּאֵ֣נִי בְאֵז֣וֹב וְאֶטְהָ֑ר תְּ֝כַבְּסֵ֗נִי וּמִשֶּׁ֥לֶג אַלְבִּֽין׃
תַּ֭שְׁמִיעֵנִי שָׂשׂ֣וֹן וְשִׂמְחָ֑ה תָּ֝גֵ֗לְנָה עֲצָמ֥וֹת דִּכִּֽיתָ׃
הַסְתֵּ֣ר פָּ֭נֶיךָ מֵחֲטָאָ֑י וְֽכׇל־עֲוֺ֖נֹתַ֣י מְחֵֽה׃
לֵ֣ב טָ֭הוֹר בְּרָא־לִ֣י אֱלֹהִ֑ים וְר֥וּחַ נָ֝כ֗וֹן חַדֵּ֥שׁ בְּקִרְבִּֽי׃
אַל־תַּשְׁלִיכֵ֥נִי מִלְּפָנֶ֑יךָ וְר֥וּחַ קׇ֝דְשְׁךָ֗ אַל־תִּקַּ֥ח מִמֶּֽנִּי׃
הָשִׁ֣יבָה לִּ֭י שְׂשׂ֣וֹן יִשְׁעֶ֑ךָ וְר֖וּחַ נְדִיבָ֣ה תִסְמְכֵֽנִי׃
אֲלַמְּדָ֣ה פֹשְׁעִ֣ים דְּרָכֶ֑יךָ וְ֝חַטָּאִ֗ים אֵלֶ֥יךָ יָשֽׁוּבוּ׃
הַצִּ֘ילֵ֤נִי מִדָּמִ֨ים ׀ אֱֽלֹהִ֗ים אֱלֹהֵ֥י תְּשׁוּעָתִ֑י תְּרַנֵּ֥ן לְ֝שׁוֹנִ֗י צִדְקָתֶֽךָ׃
אֲ֭דֹנָי שְׂפָתַ֣י תִּפְתָּ֑ח וּ֝פִ֗י יַגִּ֥יד תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ׃
כִּ֤י ׀ לֹא־תַחְפֹּ֣ץ זֶ֣בַח וְאֶתֵּ֑נָה ע֝וֹלָ֗ה לֹ֣א תִרְצֶֽה׃
זִ֥בְחֵ֣י אֱלֹהִים֮ ר֤וּחַ נִשְׁבָּ֫רָ֥ה לֵב־נִשְׁבָּ֥ר וְנִדְכֶּ֑ה אֱ֝לֹהִ֗ים לֹ֣א תִבְזֶֽה׃
הֵיטִ֣יבָה בִ֭רְצוֹנְךָ אֶת־צִיּ֑וֹן תִּ֝בְנֶ֗ה חוֹמ֥וֹת יְרוּשָׁלָֽ͏ִם׃
אָ֤ז תַּחְפֹּ֣ץ זִבְחֵי־צֶ֭דֶק עוֹלָ֣ה וְכָלִ֑יל אָ֤ז יַעֲל֖וּ עַל־מִזְבַּחֲךָ֣ פָרִֽים׃
1For the leader. A psalm of David,
2 when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had come to Bathsheba.
3 Have mercy upon me, O God, as befits Your faithfulness; in keeping with Your abundant compassion, blot out my transgressions.
4 Wash me thoroughly of my iniquity, and purify me of my sin;
5 for I recognize my transgressions, and am ever conscious of my sin.
6 Against You alone have I sinned, and done what is evil in Your sight; so You are just in Your sentence, and right in Your judgment.
7 Indeed I was born with iniquity; with sin my mother conceived me.
8 Indeed You desire truth about that which is hidden; teach me wisdom about secret things.
9 Purge me with hyssop till I am pure; wash me till I am whiter than snow.
10 Let me hear tidings of joy and gladness; let the bones You have crushed exult.
11 Hide Your face from my sins; blot out all my iniquities.
12 Fashion a pure heart for me, O God; create in me a steadfast spirit.
13 Do not cast me out of Your presence, or take Your holy spirit away from me.
14 Let me again rejoice in Your help; let a vigorous spirit sustain me.
15 I will teach transgressors Your ways, that sinners may return to You.
16 Save me from bloodguilt, O God, God, my deliverer, that I may sing forth Your beneficence.
17 O Lord, open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise.
18 You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings;
19 True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart.
20 May it please You to make Zion prosper; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
21 Then You will want sacrifices offered in righteousness, burnt and whole offerings; then bulls will be offered on Your altar.
1 For the leader. A psalm of David,
2 when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba.
3 Have mercy on me, God, in accord with your merciful love;
in your abundant compassion blot out my transgressions.
4 Thoroughly wash away my guilt;
and from my sin cleanse me.
5 For I know my transgressions;
my sin is always before me.
6 Against you, you alone have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in your eyes
So that you are just in your word,
and without reproach in your judgment.
7 Behold, I was born in guilt,
in sin my mother conceived me.
8 Behold, you desire true sincerity;
and secretly you teach me wisdom.
9 Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
10 You will let me hear gladness and joy;
the bones you have crushed will rejoice.
11 Turn away your face from my sins;
blot out all my iniquities.
12 A clean heart create for me, God;
renew within me a steadfast spirit.
13 Do not drive me from before your face,
nor take from me your holy spirit.
14 Restore to me the gladness of your salvation;
uphold me with a willing spirit.
15 I will teach the wicked your ways,
that sinners may return to you.
16 Rescue me from violent bloodshed, God, my saving God,
and my tongue will sing joyfully of your justice.
17 Lord, you will open my lips;
and my mouth will proclaim your praise.
18 For you do not desire sacrifice or I would give it;
a burnt offering you would not accept.
19 My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn.
20 Treat Zion kindly according to your good will;
build up the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will desire the sacrifices of the just,
burnt offering and whole offerings;
then they will offer up young bulls on your altar.
1 God, have mercy on me
according to your faithful love.
Because your love is so tender and kind,
wipe out my lawless acts.
2 Wash away all the evil things I’ve done.
Make me pure from my sin.
3 I know the lawless acts I’ve committed.
I can’t forget my sin.
4 You are the one I’ve really sinned against.
I’ve done what is evil in your sight.
So you are right when you sentence me.
You are fair when you judge me.
5 I know I’ve been a sinner ever since I was born.
I’ve been a sinner ever since my mother became pregnant with me.
6 I know that you wanted faithfulness even when I was in my mother’s body.
You taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Sprinkle me with hyssop, then I will be clean.
Wash me, then I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear you say, “Your sins are forgiven.”
That will bring me joy and gladness.
Let the body you have broken be glad.
9 Take away all my sins.
Wipe away all the evil things I’ve done.
10 God, create a pure heart in me.
Give me a new spirit that is faithful to you.
11 Don’t send me away from you.
Don’t take your Holy Spirit away from me.
12 Give me back the joy that comes from being saved by you.
Give me a spirit that obeys you so that I will keep going.
13 Then I will teach your ways to those who commit lawless acts.
And sinners will turn back to you.
14 You are the God who saves me.
I have committed murder.
God, take away my guilt.
Then my tongue will sing about how right you are
no matter what you do.
15 Lord, open my lips so that I can speak.
Then my mouth will praise you.
16 You don’t take delight in sacrifice.
If you did, I would bring it.
You don’t take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 The greatest sacrifice you want is a broken spirit.
God, you will gladly accept a heart
that is broken because of sadness over sin.
18 May you be pleased to give Zion success.
May it please you to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of those who do what is right.
Whole burnt offerings will bring delight to you.
And bulls will be offered on your altar.
Entering the Psalm
By Andrew Davis, PhD
Within Christian tradition, Psalm 51 is part of a set of penitential psalms, which also includes Psalms 6, 32, 38, 102, 130, and 143. These psalms were grouped together and designated in this way because they all express contrition and ask God for forgiveness. The superscription of Psalm 51 invites us to imagine this contrition in the mouth of David after the prophet Nathan exposed his violation of Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Samuel 11-12). Although this superscription was a later addition to the psalm, it is easy to see why an editor connected it to David. His confession in 12:13 (“I have sinned against YHWH”) matches the confession in verse 6 the psalm (“I have sinned against you”). Also, the appeal to God’s “faithfulness” (Heb. ḥesed) in verse 3 calls to mind the ḥesed that was the basis of YHWH’s relationship with the house of David (2 Samuel 7:15).
For these reasons, 2 Samuel 12 is an attractive setting for Psalm 51, but we should not let our imagination stop there. For the psalm’s words of contrition and request for forgiveness apply not only to David but also to us. Like David, we are called to acknowledge the ways we have failed to live out the faithfulness and justice God exemplifies and to ask God to respond to our failures with compassion. It is not easy to admit when we are wrong; it was certainly not easy for David, who had to be tricked by Nathan into recognizing his guilt! But Psalm 51 promises that such contrition can be the basis of renewed relationship with God.
Structurally, Psalm 51 breaks into two halves; the first (verses 3-11) asks for forgiveness and the second (verses 12-19) describes the effects of that forgiveness. The first half is framed by the repetition of the verbs “blot out (mḥh),” “wash (kbs),” and “purify/purge (ḥṭ’)” in verses 3-4 and 9-11. The second half is framed by repetition of “heart,” “God,” and “spirit” in verses 12 and 19. Taken together, the two trios capture well the basic movement of the psalm from penance to renewal.
The last two verses of the psalm (verses 20-21) are usually considered a later addition to the psalm because of the way they qualify verses 18-19. There, the speaker claimed that a contrite spirit is the true sacrifice God desires, but the new ending promises that animal sacrifices will resume when the Temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem. This addendum was probably written in the wake of the Babylonian Exile (586-539 BCE), as returning Judeans looked forward to the restoration of their traditional worship back in Jerusalem.
The two later additions to Psalm 51 (the superscription and the new ending) are typical of the way biblical texts developed over time. For modern readers this development can be a challenge, and for people of faith it can seem to diminish the inspired quality of the Bible. For me, however, learning about the growth of biblical texts has had the opposite effect because they show us that these texts were part of a living tradition. Communities of faith read these texts, prayed with them, and actualized them in their own lives. To see evidence of this process within the Bible itself is to see the power of the words for generations of Jewish readers and to be invited to a similar engagement in our own reading of these words.
Painfully shy as a child, artist Jen Norton was unable to communicate with anyone outside her family except through drawing. Visual language was her first language and she never lost her passion for its ability to communicate her emotion. Jen creates artwork that celebrates the joy of her Catholic faith.Learn more
Rabbi David Maayan
“Although we have no way of reconstructing the precise instruments or melodies invoked by the text, they remind us that the text we see before us is not complete in its quiet and motionless form on the page. The text invites us to bring instruments to it, in order to bring it to life…” — Ps. 51: Seeking Openings by Rabbi David MaayanRead more
Activities & Reflection
- Based on your tradition and spiritual experiences, what does the word ‘sin’ mean to you? How has it been defined in your life?
- How would you define reconciliation? How would you define forgiveness? How do you think the Psalm defines reconciliation and forgiveness?
- Think about a time when you forgave someone else. What was that process like? Does the Psalm reflect your experience of forgiveness? How is it similar or different to your own?
- How is asking for forgiveness from the Divine different than asking for forgiveness from a person in your community? How is it similar?
“Lev Tahor” by Dan Nichols
As you read and listen to Dan Nichols version of the psalm below, consider these questions:
- How does the repetition of lines from the Psalms impact your experience of the Psalm? Does it change how you experience the Psalm?
- The song begins with a soloist and then transitions to multiple voices during the chorus – What is the impact of alternating between the single voice and a more collective one?
- In Jewish tradition, the line “adonai s’fai tiftach / ufi yagid tihelatecha” / Gd, open up my lips / let my mouth declare your praise is spoken just before the recitation of the Amidah, a central prayer full of blessings, requests, and praise for the Divine. Why do you think this line would be used before such an important prayer? What impact do you think it has on the prayer experience?
Verse 1: Create for me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Chorus: Do not cast me away from Your presence.
Your holy spirit do not take from me.
Verse 2: Restore unto me the joy of Your salvation,
and let a willing spirit uphold me.
Chorus: Do not cast me away from Your presence.
Your holy spirit do not take from me.
Verse 3: God, open my lips and my mouth will declare Your praise.
About Dan Nichols
Dan is a product of the Union for Reform Judaism’s camping movement. He has toured Jewish summer camps across North America for the last 15 years. A classically trained singer, Dan received his Bachelor of Music degree in vocal performance from the University of North Carolina. In 1995, realizing the potential of music to make powerful connections with Jewish youth, Dan established the Jewish rock band Eighteen. Since that time, Dan and Eighteen have released 11 albums. Several of their songs have become Jewish communal anthems throughout North America. Dan tours over 180 days each year, where he often serves as artist-in-residence and teacher for congregations and camp communities. He has been featured at conferences and conventions of nearly every major Jewish movement. Dan lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with his wife Elysha and his daughter Ava.
Psalm 51: The Whole Truth
By Rev. Tom Reid
When I first reread this psalm in preparation for this writing assignment, I was immediately transported back to Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kansas City, Missouri where I was once a chorister in the youth choir. If memory serves me correctly, when we would line up to process into the sanctuary the choir director would lead us in prayer by chanting “O God open thou our lips.” And the choir would joyously respond in an expanding four-part harmony, “and our mouth shall show forth thy praise!” It was glorious and clearly left an impression on my teenage self.
Yet, when reading the rest of the psalm, the sense of joy and praise so vividly associated in my mind with verse 15 is nowhere to be found. It is, in fact, a text of deep anguish, of brutal honesty about one’s shortcomings, and a recognition of our utter dependence on God. As an aspiring pastor who is, God willing, nearing the end of my journey toward ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), such an emphasis feels very much on point, especially since the superscription that introduces the text connects it to King David, one of the legendary leaders in the Bible and in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thought.
Psalm 51 makes it clear that all human beings fail—including monarchs and simple folk. Hard as we might try, we will make mistakes and it is crucial to be honest with ourselves and others about this fact. Some of these failings are bigger or more severe than others, all of them require us to take responsibility for our actions. It is, therefore, important to name this common human trait. This psalm, as with many within the Psalter, is also intensely personal: “Have mercy on me, O God,” “I know my transgressions,” “Do not cast me away from your presence.” It invites each reader to reflect on her own life situation openly. Yet, it is not exclusively focused on the individual in relation to God. The psalmist is also conscious of her connection to the broader community. The poet implores God to cleanse her heart and to fill her with a renewed, steadfast, and willing spirit so that she can help other transgressors—i.e., all people—to return to God. Hearkening back to the blessing God bestowed upon Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “And by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice” (Genesis 22:18), this psalm helps us understand that only by being truthful with ourselves and with God can we support others on their journeys (including future generations). We must each do our own internal work if we wish to be a “blessing” to others.
In this light, the connection to King David becomes even more important. What does it mean to lift up such a flawed human being as God’s “anointed one” and for God to remain steadfastly committed to this King and his progeny even when he has committed egregious sins? According to the text in 2 Samuel 12, while David needed to be prodded into repentance, he quickly admitted that his behavior was repugnant, declaring that he should be subject to severe punishment. This preamble to the psalm (a later literary addition) offers us an important lesson about our leaders: even one as exalted as King David did both great and terrible things. Neither the psalmist nor other narrators in the Hebrew Bible try to hide or deny that fact. That does not mean we should excuse or emulate such bad behavior. All people must be held accountable for their actions, regardless of rank or station. But it also means we cannot erase the good things flawed leaders do. It is damaging both to the individual and to the community to construct a simple narrative about a person when a more complex one is necessary. This leads to the creation of a warped, cartoon-like culture in which there are only heroes and villains, with little room for honest and hard-working people to strive, to falter, and to grow. As the Book of Psalms demonstrates in its totality, real life includes joy, anger, regret, longing, and praise.
This is a lesson that we need to internalize in our own time and place. We should be careful not to hold too tightly to mythologies that flatten and overly simplify the complicated story of our nation, past or present. As King David and the psalmist remind us, we must be honest in telling our personal and collective stories. What can we celebrate and what must we lament (often we need to do both together)? To achieve a “clean heart” and a “renewed spirit” we must weigh and measure our successes and our failures as transparently as possible and take responsibility for our actions. The founders of the United States, for example, were deeply flawed human beings, just like each one of us. The origins of this country include a bold liberatory vision, but also the unconscionable trafficking of human beings and the horrors of slave labor. To forget, deny, or minimize these facts is to sin, like David did, against God and against our fellow human beings. Cultivating a more holistic view of life invites us to hold more appropriate measures of humility and pride, challenging us to be both compassionate and critical in our assessment of our forebears, leaders, neighbors, and selves.
Tom Reid is the associate director of the Miller Center for Interreligious Learning & Leadership of Hebrew College. A graduate of Boston University School of Theology (MDiv, 2019), he is currently a candidate working toward ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Previously, Tom spent over ten years working in cleantech, innovation, environmental and green building consulting, and business education.
The author notes, “we must do our own internal work in order to be a blessing to others”? Is there a time in your life when you realized that something you did to improve yourself had communal impact? Alternatively, thinking about your current internal work, can you think of ways it would more broadly impact the community?
The author asks us to consider what it means that such a flawed human, King David, is the anointed one of the Divine. What do you think it means that the “anointed one” is someone who makes a lot of mistakes?
After reading this piece, where do you see joy in this Psalm? Where do you see anguish?
How does honesty help us “cultivate a more holistic view of life”?
What are places in your life where you feel like you could be more honest? Does the Psalm help you see a pathway for how to be more honest? Why or why not?
Psalm 51:1-12 Create in Me A Pure Heart
Inspired by the words of the psalmist, with an air of musical melody… I sought to combine personal imagery—reflecting on my own sinfulness but also asking to be able to hear joy and gladness once again (forgiveness of my sins)—with the application of colors and materials that contrast yet compliment. The image of the heart is in part connected with my recent physical health, but also the past health issues of my father… along with the typical and traditional ideas of the heart being associated with love and affection. Seemingly detached here visually, the heart is the focus of the request to be made pure once again.
About the Artist
John Bergmeier is an American artist who received his BA in Studio Arts from
Hastings College, Hastings, Nebraska, and his MFA in Printmaking and Drawing
from Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas. Bergmeier has been employed
as a Commercial Designer and Design Manager in the decorative films industry
since 1992, and has continued to create artwork throughout this time in his home
studios. He has exhibited internationally and has also taught studio art and
graphic design classes at various colleges. He is currently working on prints and
mixed media pieces in the studio space shared with his wife Carla in Waxhaw,
- What feelings or emotions does the image invoke? How are they similar or different to those of Psalm 51?
- Reviewing the picture and the artist statement, how does the image of the heart relate to Psalm 51? How does the imagery of a heart relate to sin? How does it relate to reconciliation?
- How does the artist use texture in his work? How do the many textures relate to the themes of Psalm 51?
- The work juxtaposes the image of a heart with many technical, science images. Why do you think the artist chose these scientific images? How do they relate to the themes of the Psalm?
Music by Yoni Battat and Leah Carnow
Words from Psalm 51:13-14 (JPS translation)
אַל־תַּשְׁלִיכֵ֥נִי מִלְּפָנֶ֑יךָ וְר֥וּחַ קָ֝דְשְׁךָ֗ אַל־תִּקַּ֥ח מִמֶּֽנִּי׃
Do not cast me out of Your presence, or take Your holy spirit away from me.
הָשִׁ֣יבָה לִּ֭י שְׂשׂ֣וֹן יִשְׁעֶ֑ךָ וְר֖וּחַ נְדִיבָ֣ה תִסְמְכֵֽנִי׃
Let me again rejoice in Your help; let a vigorous spirit sustain me.
Leah Carnow is a rabbinical student in her second year of school at Hebrew College. Originally from Los Angeles, Leah has lived in the Boston area for ten years, where she also teaches yoga and works as the Rabbinic Intern and Vocalist at Temple Sinai in Brookline. Prior to beginning rabbinical school, Leah worked in regional and fringe theater as an actor and director. During the summer of 2020, she served as the rabbinic intern for the PsalmSeason project.
Yoni Avi Battat is a Boston-based multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, and composer specializing in contemporary and traditional Jewish music from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He has performed around the world with artists such as Yair Dalal, Shai Tsabari, and Nava Tehila. Yoni received his Bachelor’s from Brandeis University and Master’s from Boston University, studying classical viola performance and composition alongside Yiddish and Arabic language. He also studied oud and violin extensively in Jerusalem, where he focused on Arabic maqam (mode systems) and piyutim (Jewish liturgical poems). He performs regularly with his Yiddish Jazz band “Two Shekel Swing.”
To hear more of the music Leah and Yoni have created together, visit https://leahandyoni.bandcamp.com.
- What emotions does the music invoke? How do these emotions relate to the words of the Psalm?
- How does the musical interpretation of the Psalm use repetition? Why do you think these lines are repeated? How does the repetition shape your experience of the Psalm?
- How do the musicians use solo singing versus communal singing? Why do you think some lines are sung together? Why some separately?