Psalm 51: How Do We React to Our Misdeeds?

veronica-mcdonald painting

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׃

A note about NJPS translation here…

1  For the leader. A psalm of David,
2  when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had come to Bathsheba.
3  Have mercy on 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. 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.



Psalm 51: Line-by-Line Analysis

  • 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, it is easy to see why an editor connected it to David (Cf. 2 Sam 12:13 and Ps. 51:6.)
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Taken together, the two trios capture well the basic movement of the psalm from penance to renewal.
  • The last two verses (verses 20-21) are a later addition, which qualify verses 18-19.
  • The verbs “wash…purify…blot out” offer a distinctive conception of sin. Unlike other biblical metaphors for sin (e.g., a burden to be carried/lifted in Leviticus 16 or a debt to be paid in the Lord’s prayer), Psalm 51 conceives sin as a stain to be washed away (Cf. Isaiah 1:18).
  • Within Jewish tradition, pieces of this psalm are commonly used for different occasions. Some communities include Psalm 51 as a special reading for Yom Kippur. Verse 17 serves as the introduction to the Amidah (“Standing” prayer), traditionally recited three times daily.

The Hebrew verb bo can mean “come in” both in the sense of “enter a room” and “come into a woman or man sexually.” Here both meanings are employed. (Specifically, see Bathsheba in II Samuel 11:4 and Nathan Samuel 12:1.) This psalm is a powerful account of a sinning person’s remorse.

– Rabbi Richard N. Levy, Songs Ascending: The Book of Psalms, p. 197, 2019

Nothing is more characteristic of a Christian than mercy. There is nothing that unbelievers and all people are so amazed at as when we are merciful. For we ourselves are often in need of this mercy and say to God, “Have mercy on us according to the greatness of your mercy.” Let us begin first ourselves; yet we do not begin first. For he has already shown his mercy that he has toward us. But, beloved, let us follow second. For if people have mercy on one who was merciful, even if he has committed countless sins, God is much more merciful.

– John Chrysostom (d. 407), Homily on the Epistle to the Hebrews

While David expresses deep remorse for his sins and desperately seeks forgiveness from God, we never find that David sought to heal the wounds that he had caused to Bathsheba, to Uriah, or the violation of the public trust involved in sending Uriah together with other loyal troops into a deliberate suicide mission for David’s own perceived private gain. While he cannot bring Uriah back from the dead, of course, still we might ask: Where does the Bible tell us of David seeking forgiveness from Uriah’s mourning relatives, for example, or reflecting on what Bathsheba may have undergone or was still living with?

When viewed from this perspective, David’s initial declaration to God in Psalm 51 that “against You alone have I sinned!” is highly problematic.

Of course, that we can voice these criticisms and raise disturbing questions is also a testimony to the Bible’s blunt and stark presentation of the whole affair. The Bible allows—or better, demands—that we enter its stories with our imaginations and our moral sensibilities.

(Rabbi David Maayan, PsalmSeason 2020)

David has taken upon himself the person of humankind,…has referred to the origin of iniquity, when he says, “For, behold, in iniquities I was conceived”….

What does he mean when he says he has been “in iniquity conceived,” except that iniquity is drawn from Adam?….No man is born without bringing punishment, bringing the desert of punishment.

– St. Augustine (d. 354), Homily on Psalm 51

Christian interpreters through the ages have understood this verse as a prime expression of the doctrine of Original Sin. Some of the early rabbis register a similar notion—as they put it, David’s father, Jesse, did not have relations with his wife to fulfill a higher obligation but rather out of sheer lust. Such a reading may be encouraged by the fact that the verb attached to the mother, yaham, is typically associated with animals in heat… The speaker of this poem certainly feels permeated with sinfulness… but there is not much here to support the idea that this is the case of every human born.

– Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, p. 181

Purging with the hyssop (a lowly plant) symbolizes submissiveness. David says: “Plant submissiveness in my heart so that I may be conscious of my baseness before you. Then I will merit to turn to you out of love; my willful transgressions will be transformed into merits; And I will be cleansed white. All my stains will be gone.”

-Rabbi Moses Alshekh (d. circa 1593)


The plea in verse 7 to “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” probably refers to a cleansing ceremony for one who has been cured of a skin disease, as described in Leviticus 14:2-9. This ceremony, in which hyssop is dipped into the blood of a sacrificed bird and sprinkled on the person who has been healed, enables that person to be reintegrated into the community. Just as one with leprosy or a similar disease is exiled from community, the psalmist believes that the corruption wrought by sin justifies exile from God’s presence. The speaker is longing to be cleansed, so that communion with God can be restored.
– Elizabeth A. Webb, PhD, Working Preacher

10  Let me hear tidings of joy and gladness; let the bones You have crushed exult.
(Image by Veronica McDonald)

When the psalmist was burning with the desire to receive this Spirit, he providently sought first [to have] the guest chamber of a clean heart in which he could receive him, and so at length [he] sought the entry of so great a guest.

“Create a clean heart in me, O God,” he said, “renew an upright spirit in my inmost parts.”

He entreated that first a clean heart be created in him and then that an upright spirit be renewed in his inmost parts, because he knew that an upright spirit could have no place in a defiled heart

– Venerable Bede (d. 735), Homilies on the Gospels

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.

We need to do this both individually and collectively.

The founders of the United States, for example, were deeply flawed human beings, just like each 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.

The editor of this psalm helps us to engage in such a reckoning by setting this prayer-poem in the context of the life of a great and deeply flawed  biblical figure.

– Tom Reid, PsalmSeason 2020

 

 

It was during these years of intense depression that I learned a song that brought me to Psalm 51. I was especially intrigued by the second verse, which attempts to situate King David’s cry for healing within the narrative arc of his life…

Still, I was disturbed by the implication that God’s “holy spirit” (verse 13) might have been removed from me not because of my misdeeds, but because of brain chemistry… Throughout the darker periods of my illness, I felt lost and unable to access God’s presence. Like the psalmist, I longed to “rejoice” in God’s helping presence.

At roughly the same time I came upon a teaching in Genesis Rabbah about the life of the patriarch Jacob that provided me with a measure of solace and hope in its understanding of the holy spirit. Commenting on Jacob’s state of being after his son Joseph was stolen from him, the midrash states that “the holy spirit disappeared” from before Jacob’s eyes and ears. The emotional and physical dimensions of the patriarch’s broken heartedness, what I would call his depression, felt immediately familiar to me. I knew the physical manifestations of Bipolar disorder that were constant companions to my emotional trauma. Reading about Jacob allowed me to feel accompanied in my mental illness; my ancestor was with me even when I could not access God’s presence.

– Rafi Ellenson, PsalmSeason 2020


“Ruah Nedivah” with Yoni Battat & Hebrew College rabbinical student Leah Carnow, PsalmSeason, 2020

The Singer [King David] brings proof that a broken spirit is superior to a sacrificial offering:

Whereas an offering when flawed is rendered unfit, “God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart.”

– R. Eliezer Ashkenazi (d. 1586), cited in Meam Lo’ez

bookofpsalmsThe single word “just” might stretch to harmonize this concluding verse with 18 and 19, but it seems more likely that an editor, uneasy with the outright rejection or at least downgrading of sacrifices expressed in the psalm, added this line at the end to reaffirm the idea that God desires sacrifices, at least if they are just ones.

– Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, p. 183

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.

Additional Commentary

Leonard Cohen

This article from the Jewish periodical, The Forward, discusses Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah”—another song that features David and Batsheva as a superscription in the second verse. How might this song relate to the themes of Psalm 51?

Read more

Paul O. Myhre

What are the specificities from Psalm 51 that can be broadened to refer to our lives? What tools for purification does Psalm 51 explicitly mention and what is implicit? (via workingpreacher.org)

Read more

Activities

  1. What are some ways that the Psalmist intends to rid themselves of sin? What will make the Psalmist whole again?
  2. Read and listen to Dan Nichols version of the psalm below. Why would he choose the words, “Do not cast me away from Your presence / Your holy spirit do not take from me” as the chorus? What other parts of the Psalm might be the “Chorus” of this psalm?

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.

 

Write your own superscription for the Psalm.

Set a timer for 15 minutes. Either in a letter, drawing, or in music, express an apology to:

    • Yourself; and/or
    • Your community; and/or
    • God

Set a timer for 15 minutes. Either in a letter, drawing, or in music, express acceptance of the apology to:

    • Yourself; and/or
    • Your community; and/or
    • God

  • Which words or images in Psalm 51 are most striking to you? Why?
  • Do you find the inter-textual introduction—the superscription—to the psalm helpful in engaging it?
  • What does return and/or reconciliation look like in your religious tradition(s) and in your life?
  • What metaphors for sin and/or “missing the mark” are operative in your spiritual imagination? Are these (still) helpful to you?
  • How has the pandemic and other recent social and environmental issues impacted your understanding of sin and contrition—both individually and collectively?
  • If you were to facilitate a study session of this text with a Jewish, Christian, or interreligious group, what would you want participants to leave knowing and questioning?

Additional Musical Resources

 


Copyright 2022 Hebrew College. Lesson Plan by Rafi Ellenson, Hebrew College Rabbinical School student.