Psalm 51 is an ancient song of sin and sorrow, repentance and restoration.
It was written in United Israel, probably inspired by Old Kingdom Egypt, and has shaped Jewish, Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican liturgies for millennia. It begins with one of the most memorable, plaintive prayers in the entire Old Testament: “Have mercy on me, O God.”
It is timeless.
One of seven psalms referred to as “the Penitential Psalms,” a designation that dates to at least the 6th century CE, Psalm 51 is a response to the most disastrous mistake of the monarch’s entire reign: the premeditated murder of Uriah the Hittite and compulsory courtship of his former wife, Bathsheba.
The words of Psalm 51 evoke several different faith traditions. There are striking parallels between the psalm’s structure and that of the Ancient Egyptian “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony, a ritual for the dead that dates to c. 2500 BCE (roughly 1500 years before the reign of King David). Followers of the Jewish rabbi Arizal (c. 1570) recite Psalm 51 in its entirety each weeknight; the psalm also forms part of Tikkun Hatzot prayers (a midnight lament in a style traditionally ascribed to King David). Likewise Early Christians also incorporated Psalm 51 into their rituals, and the psalm was customarily sung at the conclusion of each weekday service.
In the Roman Catholic Church, Psalm 51 is referred to as the “Miserere,” for its Latin beginning: “Miserere mei, Deus.” For nearly 500 years, Psalm 51 was also known in English common law as the “neck verse,” a passage of scripture whose proper reading or recitation in Latin assured an accused person of “the benefit of clergy,” the right to trial in an ecclesiastical court (rather than a civil one). In these ways the words of Psalm 51 have moved the hearts of many hearers, or many faiths, and across many centuries.
“To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”
Since ancient times this penitential psalm has been ascribed to David, written after the prophet Nathan’s rebuke of the king’s murderous, lecherous conniving. Nathan was sent by God to convince King David of his sin, and the prophet’s powerful statement, “Thou art the man,” is perhaps the most moving example of telling truth to power in the entire Old Testament.
On one hand, David clearly has much to repent of. He arranged the death of a faithful soldier, at best to coercively seduce his widow (and at worst to rape and forcibly wed her). It was clearly the greatest blunder of the king’s entire life. 1 Kings recounts: “David did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and did not turn aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite” (to say nothing of Bathsheba and their lifeless child).
On the other hand, it’s worth noting that for an Ancient Near Eastern king to express remorse over a lone soldier’s death (however unjust) or repent of taking a woman – any woman – to his bed (however involuntarily) is nothing short of remarkable. Yahweh is clearly still at work amongst God’s peculiar people, even in the midst of such deathliness and destruction.
Thus chastened, the heartbroken poet-king repents:
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.”
In two simple sentences, David employs virtually every word for “sin” in the Old Testament lexicon. He confesses and laments breaking God’s law (“transgressions”), giving in to his own brokenness (“iniquity”), and failing to hit the target God had laid out for him (“sin”). The psalmist uses similarly broad legal, sacramental, and ceremonial language to plead for forgiveness. “Blot out” refers to a debt that must either be paid or forgiven; “cleanse” describes ritual purification; and “wash” refers to laundering (as of a dirty garment).
David knows he has committed a deep and far-reaching wrong, one whose undoing will require a power far beyond himself. The psalmist does not argue his case nor offer to make restitution on his own merits. Instead his prayer is strikingly similar to one quoted in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
“For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.”
At first glance, it’s difficult to discern if this statement is hyperbole or hypocrisy.
David has clearly sinned against Uriah and perhaps doubly or triply so against Bathsheba (much less their deceased child). But in doing so, the king also betrayed himself, his existing family, his army, his kingdom, and – most importantly – his God. Once more David’s confession is echoed in the Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.”
“Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.”
Original sin is a tricky thing to describe, much less to define.
But David here seems adamant that something about his humanity has been twisted up since birth. Despite his apparent closeness with God, the psalmist sometimes made selfish, violent choices. And even when it seemed the king had (literally) gotten away with murder, in his heart of hearts, David still knew better. What’s more, he acknowledged that only God could do the kind of transformative inner work necessary to effect lasting change.
“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.”
Here David returns to the language of ceremonial cleansing. Hyssop is a shrub with fibrous stems that Israelite priests would dip in blood or water to sprinkle on penitents seeking ritual cleansing; it was also used to smear the blood of a sacrificial lamb on the doorposts and lintels during Passover. In evoking these liturgies, the psalmist both confesses his individual sin and acknowledges its consequences for the entire worshipping community.
“Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.”
The psalmist repeats here the same “blot out” language that refers either to a debt’s payment or forgiveness. In some senses, David’s story contains some of both: Uriah is killed, but his widow is betrothed to his killer; the king lives, but the child dies. In the midst of self-inflicted tragedy, David does not deny his sin, but rather pleads for divine mercy and a chance to start again. And while God forgave David, the king (and those around him) still suffered the awful consequences of his actions.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”
Verse 10 is the heart of Psalm 51, and speaks to both the root of David’s sin and the seed of his restoration. As demonstrated elsewhere, the psalmist is keenly aware of his human frailty and the necessity of divine restoration. Only the One who formed David in his mother’s womb could wholly redeem and re-create him.
“Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.”
Here David gives voice to what must have been a crippling fear rooted in his personal history: that God would withdraw God’s spirit from David in response to his great sin. The Hebrew word translated here “to cast,” “taslekini,” suggests a violent motion (not unlike the time King Saul cast a spear at David). Likewise, the psalmist knew both what it was to receive the Holy Spirit (as he did when Samuel anointed him) and what it was to have the same spirit withdrawn because of sin and selfishness (as he witnessed happen to Saul).
David knows precisely how much he had to lose, but still trusted God’s willingness to forgive, uphold, and empower. He does not pray for the consequences of his actions to be wiped away, but rather for the strength to endure them faithfully. And the end, he trusts God’s redemptive work even more than his ability to grasp it on his own:
“Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.”
These are the words of the LORD.
Executive Pastor, Oklahoma City First Church of the Nazarene