Grace Theological Journal 5.2 (1984) 247-269
[Cited with permission from Grace Theological Seminary;
digitally prepared for
use at Gordon and
RESTORATION AND ITS BLESSINGS:
A THEOLOGICAL ANALYSIS
OF PSALMS 51 AND 32
Psalms 51 and 32 arose out of the same historical circumstances
but reflect a different time of composition. Both psalms, however, are
highly structured; this is indicated by various features such as paral-
lelism and chiasm, repetition of key terminology, and important
structural markers. These point to a twofold division in each psalm.
The second division of each psalm contains the main thrust in the
flow of thought, so that renewal and praise (Psalm 51) and teaching
sinners God's ways (Psalm 32) are the prominent ideas.
This essay uses structural analysis as a tool for contextual analy-
sis of the two psalms. John Callow's A Semantic Structure Analysis
of Second Thessalonians1 serves as the model for the work under-
taken here. The advantage of structural analysis is its assumption that
human thought is organized; thus, an analysis of the structure of bib-
lical texts should prove very helpful as a tool for biblical theology
* * *
THE task of combining exegesis and theology is one of the most
difficult but also one of the most fruitful challenges in biblical
studies. It requires the interpreter to make the detailed observations
resulting from exegesis yield theological conclusions, while avoiding
the proof-texting method typical of some systematic theologies. I
have therefore endeavored in this study to avoid details which would
distract from the goal of contributing to a biblical theology of sin and
l Ed. by Michael F. Kopesec (Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1982).
248 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
man, while elaborating on those details which support my reconstruc-
tion of the flow of thought in the psalms.
In order to avoid unnecessary detail, a method of contextual
analysis as developed by associates of Wycliffe Bible Translators will
be used.2 Accordingly, the structure of the psalms is analyzed first.
The results of this analysis are presented in an overview chart which
indicates the relationships between the various constituents (that is,
divisions, subdivisions, etc.) of the psalms.
After the structural analysis, the flow of thought of the psalms is
surveyed in order to arrive at an understanding of the meaning. How-
ever, since it exceeds the boundaries of this study to delineate all the
evidence for a proper understanding of the psalms, only evidence
relevant to the biblical theological argument will be adduced. The
results of this analysis of meaning are synthesized in a thematic out-
line. This outline contains constituent titles, which identify the number
of verses concerned, the type of unit these verses represent (division,
section, paragraph cluster, paragraph, etc.; these units do not neces-
sarily conform to the more technical use in Callow's Second Thessa-
lonians, but rather serve here as convenient labels for the hierarchy of
constituents), and the role this constituent plays in the flow of
thought of the psalms, indicated by the term "role." The outline also
describes the contents of each constituent, the "constituent theme."
These themes differ from common phrase outlines in that they repre-
sent both in form and wording the content of the verses; that is, the
themes will consist of full sentences of a grammatical structure analo-
gous to the verses represented. This will in turn provide the appro-
priate basis for a theological analysis of the psalms.
Background of Psalms 51 and 32
These psalms have traditionally been identified as two of the
seven penitential psalms.3 The others are Psalms 6, 38, 102, 130, and
143. Of these, Psalm 51 is perhaps one of the finest examples of a
penitential psalm, while Psalm 32, although more didactic, still fits
the same mold.
Psalm 51, as shown by vv 1-2,4
concerns David's sin with
rebuked by the prophet Nathan in the 12th chapter. Although these
titles may not be original with the composition of the psalms, they at
least represent an early tradition. Assuming an early date for the
2 See Callow, Second Thessalonians, 1-15.
3 Norman Snaith, The Seven Psalms (London: Epworth, 1964) 9,
4 Throughout, the Hebrew verse enumeration will be followed. Thus, the title will
include vv 1-2, while the psalm itself starts with v 3 and runs through v 21.
BARENTSEN: PSALMS 51 AND 32 249
psalm and Davidic authorship, there is no problem accepting the
accuracy of the title.
Psalm 32 is also Davidic, but the title does not include informa-
tion about the setting as does the title of Psalm 51. Most commenta-
tors associate this psalm with the same series of events relating to
David's sin. But there is a clear difference of style and mood between
the two psalms. It seems that Psalm 51 represents the immediate out-
cry of David after Nathan's rebuke, while Psalm 32 was composed
later after more reflection on these experiences.
This connection can be substantiated internally. In Ps 51:15,
David vows to teach sinners God's ways upon being granted the res-
toration of the joy of his salvation. In Ps 32:8 David fulfills this vow
by giving instruction in the way people should walk.5 Other observa-
tions also suggest this. Psalm 32 is more didactic, with its well
thought-out contrasts, while Psalm 51 seems more emotional. This
would indicate that Psalm 32 was written after some reflection upon
the event, while Psalm 51 mirrors David's turmoil in guilt. It is there-
fore reasonable to believe that Psalm 51 is the earlier of the two
On the other hand, it must be noted that the emotional flavor of
Psalm 51 does not imply a lack of reflection. Dalglish, in his monu-
mental work on this psalm, has pointed out many parallels with
other ancient Near Eastern literature, Egyptian as well as Sumero-
Akkadian.6 Thus, it may well be that Psalm 51 belongs in a category
of highly structured literature apparently common throughout the
ancient Near East; this kind of composition used certain traditional
expressions to indicate submission to a superior and repentance on
the part of a subordinate.
But if "the Hebrew psalms of lamentation are indebted to the
Sumero-Accadian, they have in turn contributed their own most de-
finitive creativity in their formulation."7 Thus, none of the theological
biases of the ancient Mesopotamian religions need have influenced
Hebrew common Psalmody. In addition, even if Psalm 51 follows a
traditional pattern, that does not diminish the emotional value of the
poem. Rather, it heightens the genius of the poet who was able to use
certain set forms to convey such deep emotional struggles.
In this study, ancient Near Eastern parallels will not be consid-
ered, not because they may not be valuable, but because they are not
germane to our topic.
5 See F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 1, trans. F. Bolton, in
Biblical Commentary on
the Old Testament
6 Edward R. Dalglish, Psalm
Fifty-One in the Light of Ancient Near
ternism (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1962).
7 Ibid., 277.
250 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Structural Analysis: Divisions of the Psalm
Many expositors of Psalm 51 (as well as of many other passages
in Scripture) fail to account for the structure simply because they do
not recognize it. For instance, Harrison8 states that rigid analysis of
the psalm is difficult because of the emotional upheaval. "David inter-
mingled and repeated the petitions which clamored for utterance." It
is quite true that Psalm 51 is strongly emotional, but this does not
imply that the psalm was "blurted out" as it came to David's mind.
Dalglish takes another approach. Analyzing the literary features
of Psalm 51 in the light of ancient Near Eastern parallels, he develops
a strophic structure based on observations about meter, and on this
builds an outline to describe the logical flow of thought in the psalm.9
Although this approach has a certain validity, a more careful analysis
can be done on the basis of the internal coherence of the text. First,
to build an outline on strophic structure is somewhat hazardous
because of the uncertainties about meter and strophes in Hebrew poe-
try. Instead, an analysis of the parallelisms in the psalm is likely to
yield more accurate results. Second, word repetition within the psalm
is not accounted for in Dalglish's method. But repetition of key terms,
coupled with the use of structural markers such as "therefore," "since,"
"and," and so on, is one of the more obvious tools available to the
There is little doubt that there are three main divisions in the
psalm. Vv 1-2 are recognized as the title and setting, while vv 20-21
are generally seen as material extraneous to the psalm proper. Some
even go so far as to state that the last two verses are a later liturgical
addition;10 even if this is not true, it must be acknowledged that
vv 20-21 manifest a shift in thought from the body of the psalm,
The main body of the psalm rather easily falls into two sections.
The shift of terminology from one section to the other is the clearest
distinguishing feature of the two sections. Vv 3-9 are primarily con-
cerned with sin, purity, and cleansing, while vv 12-19 are more
concerned with restoration and renewal of heart and spirit, as the
following list based on Auffret's analysis shows:11
8 E. F. Harrison, "A Study of Psalm 51," BSac 92 (1935) 29.
9 Dalglish, Psalm Fifty-One, 77-81.
11 Auffret, "Note sur la Structure litteraire de PS LI 1-19," VT 26 (1976) 145.
BARENTSEN: PSALMS 51 AND 32 251
VV 3-9 vv 12-19
fwp -- 3, 5 bl -- 12, 19
Nvf -- 4, 7 Hvr -- 12, 13, 14, 19
xFH -- 4, 5, 6, 7, 9 xrb -- 12
fr -- 6 wdH -- 12
sbk -- 4, 9 bvw -- 14, 15
rhF -- 4, 9
In addition to these differences in terminology, note that vv 12-19
contain another theme (not elaborated by Auffret). Nww (vv 10, 14)
and HmW (v 10) speak of joy and gladness; dml (v 15) and Nnr (v 16)
expand the theme by turning joy into testimony; hlht and hpw (v 17)
further the idea by turning to praise; and NypH and hcr (v 18) with the
negation of hzb (v 19) show how these things are desired by God.
This survey of terminology shows that the movement of the psalm
is from pardon of sin in vv 3-9 to the restoration of the heart in
vv 12-19.12 But the latter section also describes in considerable detail
man's reactions to God's restoration. The theme, then, may be more
appropriately identified as praise resulting from God's restoration of
So far, vv 10-11 have not been considered. These verses seem
out of place, because v 10 already is concerned with joy, the theme of
vv 12-19, while v 11 still cries out for forgiveness, the theme of vv 3-
V 11 uses xFH and Nvf, as in vv 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, and the term hHm, also
found in v 3; v 10 has Nww and hkz, found in vv 14 and 19 respec-
tively.13 It is therefore reasonable to identify vv 10-11 as the hinge of
the psalm. The main sections of the central division are therefore 3-9,
11 and 10, 12-19.
Auffret has pointed out that the unity of the first section is main-
tained by parallelisms between 3-4 and 8-9 on the one hand, and
5-6a and 6b-7 on the other. The relationship between vv 4 and 9 is
shown by the use of the same words--sbk, xFH and rhF. The rela-
tionship between vv 3 and 8 is through similar terms, dsH of v 3 cor-
responding with tmx in v 8, and MmHr in v 3 corresponding with hmkH
in v 8.14 Thus the structure is parallel in an a-b-a-b pattern.
The internal structure of vv 5-7, however, is not parallel, but
chiastic. In vv 5 and 7 the first person singular is prominent in both
independent pronouns and verbal forms, while in 6a-6b, the second
person singular is more prominent (although one verb is still in first
13 Ibid., 145-46.
14 Ibid., 142.
252 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
CHART I: Overview of Psalm 51
person by way of transition).15 The structure here is chiastic in an
a-b-b-a pattern. A key to distinguishing the transition from vv 3-4 to
vv 5ff. is the use of yKi, which is often an indicator of the transition
from introduction to body. Here yKi answers the question "Why?"--
that is, why the forgiveness is necessary.16
The basis of unity in the second section is similar. Vv 12 and 19
have Hvr and bl, in common, while Hvr reoccurs in v 13, and v 18
introduces Hbz, which also occurs in v 19. Thus, vv 12-13, 18-19
form a unit and are arranged chiastically (a-b-b-a).
Vv 14 and 16a share YW', while v 15, with fwP and xFH, uses
antonyms of qdc found in 16b, thus showing a parallel arrangement
These structures with their parallel and chiastic patterns are
shown in Chart I.
15 Ibid., 145.
16 Dalglish, Psalm Fifty-One, 104.
17 Auffret, "Note," 143-44.
BARENTSEN: PSALMS 51 AND 32 253
It is interesting to note the many synonymous parallelisms in
Psalm 51, especially since this feature is different from Psalm 32,
where most terminological relationships are contrastive. This survey
has also shown that the psalm is highly structured, and consequently
that there is no basis for the idea that because the psalm is emotional,
it is unstructured. The task at hand is to show how the meaning is
packaged within this structure.
Reconstruction of the Meaning: The Unity of the Psalm
The main purpose of this part of the study is to determine how
the two main sections of the psalm (vv 3-9, 11 and 10, 12-19) relate
to each other. But first the content of the sections needs to be
The content of the two sections
The first section consists of three paragraph clusters (vv 3-4,
5- 7, and 8-9). As is evident from the previous analysis paragraph
clusters 3-4 and 8-9 are parallel to each other. In order to establish
the head (that is, main thought) of these verses, we need to discuss the
relationship between 5-7 and 3-4, 8-9.
V 5 begins with yk, which indicates major transition, as already
noted. It makes a logical progression from the statement of vv 3-4 to
what follows and seems to give the reason for the plea for forgive-
ness.18 Thus, vv 3-4, 8-9 seem to be the logical consequence of vv 5-
7. The best way to reconstruct the flow of thought is that vv 3-4
introduce the thesis statement, after which support for the statement
is given in vv 5-7. Vv 8-9 the close with a recapitulation, or rather
amplification, of the thesis statement, implementing some of the con-
cepts of vv 5-7. Therefore, the head of 3-9, 11 is vv 3-4.
This is further substantiated by considering v 11, the verse which
together with v 10 forms the hinge of the argument in the psalm. V 11
repeats the main theme of vv 3-9 as shown in the structural analysis.
This theme consists of a plea for forgiveness. Since v 11 is a transition
verse, it may be thought of as a brief summary of the main theme of
vv 3-9 before the thought of the psalm progresses. Now, if v 11 puts
forth a plea for forgiveness as the main theme, then the key to vv 3-9
must be a statement or plea of the same content. Thus, it becomes
clear that either the opening statement of vv 3-4 or its recapitulation
in vv 8-9 contains the thesis of this section. This is why the outline
below contains as the theme of the section vv 3-9, 11 the words
"Cleanse me from my sin," and also includes in parentheses the rea-
son for this plea, namely "for against you only I have sinned."
18 Dalglish, Psalm Fifty-One, 104; Delitzsch, Psalms, 2. 135.
254 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
The second section also consists of three paragraph clusters
(vv 12-13, 14-17, and 18-19) with the introductory paragraph of
v 10. As in the first section, if v 10 is a transition verse, we may
expect an important clue from its content to the main emphasis of
this section. This verse consists of a plea to God to cause the peti-
tioner to be glad and rejoice. Consequently, we should find in vv 12-
19 a statement dealing with the concept of joy and gladness.
The statement about joy is found in v 14 and again in vv l6b and
17. Thus, it would appear that vv 14-17 constitute the main para-
graph cluster within this section. This is especially revealing in light of
the fact that most often v 12, "create in me a clean heart," is lifted out
as the most central thought of the psalm, while our analysis here
shows that somehow this verse is subordinate to the concepts in
This analysis is also supported by another occurrence of yk, this
time in v 18. Again it seems to introduce a reason for the thesis
statement just given, thereby subordinating vv 18-19 to vv 14-17.
And since vv 18-19 are parallel with vv 12-13, it follows that the
latter verses are essentially subordinate to vv 14-17 as well. Hence,
the outline places the paragraph cluster of vv 14-17 as head of the
section vv 10, 12-19.
The content of vv 14-17, however, needs to be analyzed more
closely. As already indicated, vv 14 and 16a seem to be related to
each other. The same holds for vv 15 and 16b. However, v 17 remains
to be discussed.
The progression of thought from vv 14 to 15, repeated in vv 16a
to 16b, seems to be that God's restoration (or forgiveness) results in a
human witness (or song). V 17, however, does not seem to have this
movement from divine action to human response; instead, it ascribes
both activities to God's working. God has to open the mouth (through
restoration and forgiveness) so that he may be praised. It emphasizes
to a greater degree the sovereignty of God. This in turn prepares the
way for the theme of conformity to God's desires as presented in
vv 18-19 and also vv 20-21. This implies then, that v 17 is the key
portion of vv 14-17, and thereby also of the whole section vv 10,
12-19. So, the outline contains as the theme for this section the
words "cause me to declare your praise" and adds in parentheses the
concepts of vv 12-13 and 18-19, interpreted as means, "by creating in
me a clean heart."
The contents of these two main sections may be summarized as
follows. A prayer for pardon, begun in vv 3-4 and finished in vv 8-9,
encloses the reason for the need for pardon, namely, great sinfulness
as confessed by David.19 From pardon, the psalm moves toward
19 See Auffret, "Note," 143.
BARENTSEN: PSALMS 51 AND 32 255
restoration. A prayer for restoration, begun in vv 12-13 and reformu-
lated in vv 18-19, forms the basis of (or even the means of) a divinely
originated desire to praise God.20
The relationship between the two sections :
In order to identify the main thrust of the psalm, it is necessary
to establish the relationship between the two sections. Auffret indi-
cates some of these relationships as follows. In section one, we find
the request for purification (vv 3-4, 8-9) but in section two a plea for
restoration (vv 12-13): here the confession of sin (vv 5-6a, cf. v 7),
there the witness to convert sinners (v 15); here a just sentence (v 6b),
there a just salvation (v 16, cf. v 14a).21 Thus, Auffret concludes that
the first section is only a prelude to the second.22
But the relation needs to be more clearly specified. V 12, with the
request for restoration, is intimately bound up with the first section.
The latter's emphasis on man's sinfulness from conception contrasted
with God's desire for truth in the inner parts not only implies but
certainly demands a request for inner restoration. In a sense, v 12 is
the natural outgrowth of vv 3-9. However, on the basis of that resto-
ration, the psalmist can vow to testify of God's grace. He knows that
if God restores, he will be able to praise him. The relationship between
v 12 and v 17, then, seems to one of condition and consequence, v 12
being the condition of v 17. This understanding is supported by the yk
which begins in v 18, because it shows that the request for being made
to praise God has its origin in one's spiritual condition. From a
human standpoint one's spiritual condition is the logical condition for
being able to praise God, while from the divine standpoint, this repre-
sents the means whereby God generates praise unto himself. Either
way, the emphasis is on the praise generated for God.
In summary, the relationship between the two sections is that the
request for pardon is the condition of (or possibly otherwise subordi-
nate to) the request to be caused to praise God. Therefore, the theme
of the outline for the division encompassing vv 3-19 is this idea:
"You cause me to declare your praise."
A note about vv 20-21
A few brief comments about vv 20-21 need to be made. Several
commentators, especially those who date this psalm around the period
of the exile, regard these last verses as later, liturgical additions. The
reason seems obvious, because the statement that God delights in
20 Ibid., 144.
21 Ibid., 145.
256 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Thematic Outline of Psalm 51 *
Psalm 51:1-21 (Psalm) [If you cleanse me from my sin (for against you only I have sinned)],
[then by creating in me a clean heart] you cause me to declare your praise.
Psalm Constituent 1-2 (Paragraph) (Role: setting of 3-19) At the time when Nathan
convicted David of his sin with Bathsheba.
Psalm Constituent 3-19 (Division) (Role: Body of the Psalm) [If you cleanse me
from my sin (for against you only I have sinned)], [then by creating in me a clean
heart] you cause me to declare your praise.
Division Constituent 3-9, 11 (Section) (Role: condition of 10, 12-19) Cleanse
me from my sin [for against you only I have sinned].
Section Constituent 3-4 (Paragraph Cluster) (Role: Head of 3-9, 11) Cleanse
me from my sin.
Paragraph Cluster Constituent 3 (Paragraph) (Role: topic orienter of
3-4) God, be gracious to me in accordance with your lovingkindness.
Paragraph Cluster Constituent 4 (Paragraph) (Role: Head of 3-4) Cleanse
me from my sin.
Section Constituent 5-7 (Paragraph Cluster) (Role: reason for 3-4, 8-9)
Against God only I have sinned.
Paragraph Cluster Constituent 5 (Paragraph) (Role: specific of 6a) My
sin is always on my mind.
Paragraph Cluster Constituent 6a (Paragraph) (Role: Head of 5-7)
Against God only I have sinned.
Paragraph Cluster Constituent 6b (Paragraph) (Role: equivalent of 6a)
Your judgment is just.
Paragraph Cluster Constituent 7 (Paragraph) (Role: amplification of 5) I
was sinful already at my very origin.
Section Constituent 8-9 (Paragraph Cluster) (Role: amplification of 3-4)
Forgive me that I may be clean.
Paragraph Cluster Constituent 8 (Paragraph) (Role: grounds of 9) You
want truth in my innermost being.
Paragraph Cluster Constituent 9 (Paragraph) (Role: Head of 8-9) For-
give me that I may be clean.
Section Constituent 11 (Paragraph) (Role: equivalent of 3-4) Forgive me all
Division Constituent 10, 12-19 (Section) (Roles: consequence of 3-9, II; Head
of the Body) [By creating in me a clean heart] cause me to declare your praise.
Section Constituent 10 (Paragraph) (Role: preview of 12-19) Cause me to
*See Callow, Second Thessalonians, p. 7. His helpful "Chart of Relations Involving
Communication Units" explains some of the terminology in this outline.
BARENTSEN: PSALMS 51 AND 32 257
Section Constituent 12-13 (Paragraph Cluster) (Role: means of 14-17)
Create in me a clean heart.
Paragraph Cluster Constituent 12 (Paragraph) (Role: Head of 12-13)
Create in me a clean heart.
Paragraph Cluster Constituent 13 (Paragraph) (Role: contrast of 12) Do
not separate me from your presence.
Section Constituent 14-17 (Paragraph Cluster) (Roles: result of 12-13; head
of 10, 12-19) Cause me to declare your praise.
Paragraph Cluster Constituent 14 (Paragraph) (Role: condition of 15,
16b) Restore to me the joy of your salvation.
Paragraph Cluster Constituent 15 (Paragraph) (Role: equivalent of 16b)
I will teach sinners your ways.
Paragraph Cluster Constituent 16a (Paragraph) (Role: manner of 12)
Deliver me from guilt.
Paragraph Cluster Constituent 16b (Paragraph) (Role: consequence of
14) I will praise your righteousness.
Paragraph Cluster Constituent 17 (Paragraph) (Roles: summary of 14-16;
head of 14-17) Cause me to declare your praise.
Section Constituent 18-19 (Paragraph Cluster) (Role: amplification of 12-
13) You desire a broken heart and a contrite spirit.
Paragraph Cluster Constituent 18 (Paragraph) (Role: contrast of 19) You
do not delight in sacrifice.
Paragraph Cluster Constituent 19 (Paragraph) (Role: Head of 18-19)
You desire a broken heart and a contrite spirit.
Psalm Constituent 20-21 (Paragraph Cluster) (Role: closing of 3-19) If you do
Paragraph Cluster Constituent 20 (Paragraph) (Role: condition of 21) Do good
Paragraph Cluster Constituent 21 (Paragraph) (Role: consequence of 20) Delight
in righteous sacrifices.
sacrifices seems to contradict directly v 18, which says that God does
not delight in sacrifice.23
However, v 21 adds an important qualifier to "sacrifice," namely
"righteous," implying that these are not empty rituals; they are per-
formed with the right spiritual attitude. Note also that v 20 is an
appeal to God's sovereign grace to show favor to his covenant people.
The movement of thought is remarkably similar to the body of the
psalm. There we saw an appeal to God's sovereign grace for pardon,
23 Dalglish, Psalm Fifty-One, 77, 194.
258 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
on which basis human praise could be offered to God. In vv 20-21 we
see the same appeal on the basis of which (note the twice repeated zx
in v 21) God may delight in the praises of men offered in the form of
The main difference between vv 20-21 and the body of Psalm 51
is that they are spoken within a national context rather than a per-
sonal one. The relationship can be best understood in light of the
ancient Near. Eastern concept of kingship.24 The king, as a divinely
appointed representative, was responsible not only for his own con-
duct and well-being, but also for that of the whole nation. The con-
cepts of covenant and solidarity play an important role. Thus, after
having settled his personal relationship with God, it would be natural
for the king to turn his concerns to his nation. In fact, when this
concept is properly applied, it will be seen that the presence of vv 20-
21 may point to Davidic (because kingly) authorship, rather than late,
possibly exilic editing of the psalm: priests or scribes concerned with
liturgy would have little interest in adding a postscript with royal
Theological Analysis: The Contents of the Psalm
One of the major ideas in the psalm is the dependence of man on
God who forgives and restores. This stands in stark contrast to the
greatness of sin (vv 5-7).
The greatness of sin
The movement of thought in w 5-7 begins with the observation
that man has sinned and that he is aware of it. Then the sin is put in
proper perspective: it is primarily directed against God. Turning his
attention to God, the writer states that God's judgment is just, while
in contrast his own origins are in sin. Considering the contribution of
each paragraph to the development of the thought is helpful.
V 5: The verse opens with the acknowledgment that David knew
his sin; thus, he exposes his guilty conscience.25 It follows that this
was a living awareness of sin.26 The second half of the verse makes
this clear: "before me" here has the connotation of "opposite me,
against me," that is, confrontation.27 The mention of "always" empha-
sizes that sin is not temporary, but continual.28 Thus, David charac-
terizes himself as a person who sins and, by extension, all of humanity
could be characterized that way.
24 See J. H. Eaton, Kingship and the Psalms (SBT 2nd Series, 32;
Allenson, n.d.) esp. 72, 187.
25 Dalglish, Psalm Fifty-One, 104.
26 Delitzsch, Psalms, 2. 135.
27 Snaith, The Seven Psalms, 52.
28 Dalglish, Psalm Fifty-One, 105.
BARENTSEN: PSALMS 51 AND 32 259
V 6a: The prominence of "against you and you only" highlights
the fact that all sin is directed against God. This may seem somewhat
strange since David's sin with Bathsheba also involved the death of
her husband Uriah; nevertheless, this statement is the "only adequate
doctrine of the final bearing of sin.29 All sin is against God.
V 6b: The word Nfml, which usually means "in order that30
indicating aim or purpose is a problem here. Dalglish adds that the
concern here is not that David must acknowledge his sin so that God
might remain righteous, as in a theodicy; instead he sees the phrase as
elliptical, implying that when God judges, then he will be just. But the
argument in either case is that sin, after it is identified as directed
against God, now is contrasted with the nature of God.
V 7: This reflection upon God's nature turns the psalmist to con-
sider his own nature; so he states that he was even conceived in sin.
J. K. Zink enumerates five different interpretations of this verse, but
at least "the corporate solidarity and its propensity toward sin is
clearly recognized.31 The sinful origin of humanity after Adam is
in view as the psalmist's statements transcend his personal realm.
Somehow, "natural generation inevitably produces corrupt human
nature.32 God's just nature and man's sinful origin are set in con-
trast. We have moved from man's and God's reaction to sin in vv 5
and 6a to the underlying reason: God hates sin because he is just, and
man sins because he is a sinner.
Thus, the key to an acknowledgment of sin is first, the admission
that sin is directed primarily against God, and second, that this enmity
has its foundation in the opposite natures of God and man, which are
just and sinful respectively.
In the first section of the psalm the need for forgiveness is shown
by the exhibition of the greatness of man's sin. Thus, man is depen-
dent on God for forgiveness as well as the subsequent restoration of
relationships. This restoration deals first with the heart, both with
regard to cleansing it (vv 12-13) and with regard to directing it toward
God's desires, and second, with the praise that is due to God; having
cleansed the heart, the soul can offer up praise to God.
Vv 3-4, 8-9: The plea for forgiveness is based both on the recog-
nition of man's sin (vv 5-7) and on the fact that God desires truth in
30 BDB, 775.
31 J. K. Zink, "Uncleanness and Sin: A Study of Job XIV and Psalm LI 7," VT 17
32 John Murray, The Imputation of Adams Sin (
and Reformed, 1959) 91.
260 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
man (v 8). The plea for forgiveness is so urgent that it is repeated in
v 11. The terminology used, such as cleansing with hyssop (v 9), has
ritual overtones, but the main thrust of these verses is ethical. The key
observation for our purposes is that the writer constantly appeals to
God's grace. In v 3, the preposition -K; is twice repeated in chiastic
structure so that the focus is on divine grace.33 And it is according to
his grace that forgiveness can be expected or requested. In other
words, although the need for forgiveness is based on man's sinfulness,
the granting of forgiveness is dependent on God's grace, not on how
much man needs it. Thus God's sovereignty is emphasized in the way
he grants forgiveness.
Vv 12-13, 18-19: The plea for a clean heart, contrasted with a
request not to be separated from God, again shows the need for
action on God's part. The heart is one's innermost being. The verb
xrb, of which only God is agent,34 shows the necessity of divine
action. Says Calvin:
He does not merely assert that his heart and spirit were weak, requiring
divine assistance, but that they must remain destitute of all purity and
rectitude till these be communicated from above.35
It may appear that v 19, with its emphasis on a broken and contrite
heart, shows the possibility for human initiative. But note that 'con-
trite' is translated from the same root as 'broken' in v 10; the concept
is one of being bruised or crushed.36 Thus, both rbwn ('broken') and
hkdn ('contrite') describe one suffering an action rather than acting;
both are semantically passive concepts. Thus, being broken and being
bruised is not a result of human initiative, but depends on divine
action; it is God's task. David leaves no doubt that only by divine
initiative can we possess a clean spirit.
Vv 14-17: As argued earlier, the request for a clean spirit forms
the basis for the request to have one's mouth opened to praise God.
One must recognize that the restoration of the soul is not the final
goal. It is absolutely necessary, but the final goal of restoration is to
restore to God the praise that is his due. Thus, a request for forgive-
ness and restoration must, according to biblical example, be followed
by a request to have a tongue, lips, and mouth (vv 16b-17) to praise
God. It is not human initiative that accomplishes God's praise; it is
God who must open our mouths if we are to praise him.
33 Dalglish, Psalm Fifty-One, 84.
34 Henry C. Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology, rev. by V. D. Doerksen
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979) 116, citing Davis, Paradise to Prison, 40-41.
35 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. J. Anderson (reprint;
BARENTSEN: PSALMS 51 AND 32 261
In summary, the whole process of dealing with sin, from forgive-
ness through restoration to praise to God, is ultimately and utterly
dependent on God. Man is completely impotent, or at least passive,
in making any step toward restoring the relationship with God.
Effects of Sin on Man
The three different words for sin vv 3-4, fwp, Nvf, and xFH, usu-
ally have different nuances, but here in parallel they indicate the total-
rity of sin in which man is involved. Similarly, the three different
words used for forgiveness indicate the complete forgiveness requested.
Both observations show that sin is not a superficial characteristic of
man but rather goes to the core.
It is worth repeating that sin soils one's conscience (v 5) and that
it stains man from his very beginnings (v 7). Although v 10 does not
necessarily imply physical effects of sin,37 it clearly shows that one's
emotional state suffers from it.38 Even so, the psychomatic effects of
sin should not be ruled out. V 13 highlights how sin may affect one's
relationship with God. Though never losing one's salvation,39 the fel-
lowship could be severed. God restores to us not only the cleanness of
heart but also the praises that are his due. This implies that sin has
dishonored God in taking away praise from him.40 In fact, David's sin
with Bathsheba had caused others to blaspheme God (2 Sam ).
The sacrifices had apparently degenerated into empty ritual, which is
why God would not be pleased with them. Still, they soothed many a
conscience, thinking that this deed corrected one's standing before
As with Psalm 51, varying purposes have been proposed for
Psalm 32. Drijvers holds that it is a psalm of "thanksgiving for a cure
from illness.41 McConnell believes that David's purpose was "to
demonstrate the importance of confession/forgiveness in one's rela-
tionship with Yahweh.42 Craigie suggests various translations of the
term lykWm: "to teach; meditation; psalm of understanding; or skillful
37 Cf. Dalglish, Psalm Fifty-One, 145.
38 See Louis Berkhof,
Systematic Theology, 4th ed. (
1939, reprinted 1981) 485.
41 Pius Drijvers,
The Psalms: Their Structure and Meaning
Herder, 1965) 146.
42 Oren G. McConnell, "An Exegetical Study of Psalm 32," unpublished Th. M.
thesis (Dallas Theological Seminary, 1974) 17.
262 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
psalm.43 He recognizes the presence of elements of thanksgiving as
well as wisdom motifs, so he identifies it as a psalm of thanksgiving
with literary adaptations to wisdom.44 Yet almost all suggestions lack
enough information to be sure of the purpose of the psalm. Let us
consider first the divisions of the psalm and then its unity.
Structural Analysis: Divisions of the Psalm
Psalm 32, like Psalm 51, divides into two sections. Notice the
differences in terminology: vv 1-5 contain words like fwp, NVf, xFH,
and concepts like groaning, confessions, and misery; vv 6-11, on the
other hand, deal with concepts like teaching, counseling, trust, rejoic-
ing, and praying.
In addition, v 6 starts with the strong logical construct txz-lf,
"on this account.45 This certainly indicates major transition between
two divisions, vv 1-5 and vv 6-11.
However, v 7 seems to upset this pattern. V 6 starts out clearly
with the idea of exhortation in mind, but v 7 returns to the sphere of
a relationship with God. In vv 1-5, the dialogue is carried on between
the psalmist and God, and the same is true for v 7. But in vv 6-11,
with the exception of v 7, the dialogue is not with God but rather
with the reader. Thus it appears that v 7 belongs with vv 1-5 instead
of with vv 6-11. Now we have the following divisions: vv 1-5, 7 and
vv 6, 8-11, a situation similar to Psalm 51. Vv 6 and 7 may thus be
transitional, although the presence of the strong conjunction in v 6
suggests that the verses may be more than just a transition.
The unity of the divisions can also be demonstrated internally by
the literary feature of inclusion. Both vv 1 and 5 contain fwp, xFH,
Nvf, and hsk.46 VV 6 and 10 both contain the words dsH and Mybr.47
V 7 is a transitional verse and contains the word bbs, which recurs in
v 10, although the general form of v 7 corresponds closer to vv 1-5.
Within the first division the movement of thought is as follows.
Vv 1-2 represent an exclamation of blessing in the third person singu-
lar. This marks them off from vv 3f. which are written in the first
person singular. In addition, vv 3 and 4 start with the conjunction yKi,
which indicates a transition. The yKi of v 3 may be interpreted as a
time indicator, "when,48 rather than an expression of cause or result.
But the recurrence of the conjunction at the beginning of v 4 shows
43 P. C. Craigie,
Psalm 1-50 (Word Biblical Commentary,
44 Ibid., 265.
45 BDB, 262.
46 Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 285.
48 BDB, 473.
BARENTSEN: PSALMS 51 AND 32 263
that the relationship also has logical components. Thus, vv 1-2 appear
to stand at the head of the first division.
The rest of the division, vv 3-5, 7, can be subdivided into two
sections. This is mainly done on the semantic level. There is a clear
contrast between vv 3-4 and vv 5 and 7. Vv 3-4 mention concepts
like silence, judgment, and misery, while vv 5 and 7 contain the
opposite concepts, those of confession, forgiveness, and deliverance.
Thus, the first division is made up of three sections: vv 1-2, 3-4, and
5 and 7.
The second division is structured differently. V 6 mentions the
theme of deliverance and includes an exhortation to pray. Vv 8-11
also contain an exhortation to turn to God and mention the benefits
thereof. V 6, then, is the introduction to vv 8-11.
V 8 starts with the declaration that David will teach sinners
about the mercies of God. The rest of this section appears to be the
content of the teaching. V 9 metaphorically warns those who do not
turn to God; v 10 uses the format of a proverb to state the basic
principle on which the exhortations are based; and v 11 repeats the
principles of v 9 in a positive manner. Thus, this second division is
structured around David's desire to teach others about God's for-
Psalm 32, then, much like Psalm 51, turns out to be highly struc-
tured. However, there is a marked difference in the prominence of the
contrast in Psalm 32, namely between vv 3-4 and 5 and 7, and be-
tween vv 9 and 11. Such prominent contrasts are absent from Psalm
51 as a major feature of the structure (which is not to say that the
psalm contains no contrasts). This analysis is presented in Chart II.
Reconstruction of the Meaning: The Unity of the Psalm
The theme or thesis statement of the first division is found in
vv 1-2. As previously mentioned, vv 3ff. are linked with the first two
verses by a logical connective, which at its first occurrence takes on a
temporal meaning. The reasoning seems to be that vv 3ff. explain the
grounds of the statement of vv 1-2. Given the contrast between vv 3-4
and vv 5 and 7, this suggests that the grounds are considered in a
twofold manner, negatively and positively. Hence, the theme for this
division reads "happy is the man whose sin is forgiven."
The theme of the second division is found in v 11. As stated, v 6
embodies the introduction to this division, while v 8 gives the division
its major structural feature. But though v 8 structures the division, it
is not the key statement; the content of what David desires to teach
takes precedence over the desire.
Vv 9 and 11 stand in contrast to each other, with v 10 supplying
the basis for the exhortation of vv 9 and 11. V 10 almost functions
264 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
DC = Division Constituent
P = Paragraph
PC = Psalm Constituent
PCC = Paragraph Cluster Constituent
PCl = Paragraph Cluster
S = Section
SC = Section Constituent
CHART II: Overview of Psalm 32
like a summary and for that reason may appear to be the most prom-
inent. But in this case, v 10 functions more like a transition from the
negative exhortation (warning) to the positive exhortation. Since the
declared intent of these verses is to teach and since the teaching
focuses on action more than knowledge ("the way which you should
go," v 8), the final positive exhortation is best identified as the thesis
statement of this division. Hence, the phrasing of the theme of the
division is "rejoice in the Lord you righteous ones," with its contrast
added in parentheses.
The general flow of thought in the psalm moves from the origi-
nal statement "happy is the man whose sin is forgiven" to the exhor-
tation for the righteous to rejoice in the Lord. It is remarkable that
the man who needs forgiveness in vv 1-2 is identified with the righ-
teous and upright one in v 11. How does this transition take place?
Two factors determine the relationship between the divisions.
The most obvious one is the strong conjunction txz-lf beginning v 6.
This indicates that a logical conclusion is being drawn from what
precedes. The relationship is one of grounds on which a conclusion is
BARENTSEN: PSALMS 51 AND 32 265
based. The conclusion is then the prominent part and functions as the
head of the body.
Second, an exhortation usually has more force than the expe-
rience on which the exhortation is based. Now, vv 3-5, 7 mainly
relate David's experience before and after his confession, so this is
not the primary focus of the psalm. Rather, the declaration of the
intent to teach dominates the psalm and focuses the attention on v 11.
This line of evidence also supports the prominence of the second
Thus, the first and second divisions are related to each other as
grounds and conclusion, experience and exhortation. The experience
is only mentioned as support for the exhortation, so that the goal of
the psalm is the teaching of sinners about the way they should go--to
rejoice in the Lord.
Theological Analysis: The Contents of the Psalm
The main thrust of the psalm consists of its teaching on the need
for confession. But two other areas are significant elements.
The need for confession
The psalm describes life as a path to walk, as the way in which
we should go (v 8). In this path there are two contrasting options.
The use of contrast shows the pedagogical genius of the psalmist,
because the options are either to remain in one's sin, separate from
God, or to confess one's sin and have fellowship with God. The
choice is either/or; no other option is given. The purpose is, of course,
"to point out the path of true happiness to sinners.49
Option 1 is to remain silent about one's sin and not to acknowl-
edge it to God. This results in a "roaring" all day long (v 3). This is
soon recognized as judgment from God, and again the sorrow is
described, but this time more vividly. The vitality of the sinner is
compared to the earth, cracking under the heat of the summer. Thus,
Option 1 is clearly understood as undesirable because it incurs God's
But in the exhortation, this is still elaborated. Here the sinner is
compared with the stubborn horse and mule. The sinner's silence is
not due to ignorance, but to rebellion. On the other hand, these
beasts are also animals which have no understanding. So although
the sinner may be in rebellion against God, he also has to cope with
unclear thinking (cf. Eph -19). However, the horse and the mule
49 Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 268.
266 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Thematic Outline of Psalm 32
Psalm 32: 1-11 (Psalm) [Happy is the man whose sin is forgiven. Therefore,] [do not be
stubborn, but] rejoice in the Lord you righteous ones.
Psalm Constituent 1-5,7 (Division) (Role: grounds of 6,8-11) Happy is the man
whose sin is forgiven.
Division Constituent 1-2 (Paragraph) (Role: Head of 1-5, 7) Happy is the man
whose sin is forgiven.
Division Constituent 3-4 (Section) (Role: grounds [neg.] for 1-2) I was silent so
[because of judgment] I was in misery.
Section Constituent 3 (Paragraph) (Role: Head of 3-4) I was silent, so I was
Section Constituent 4 (Paragraph) (Role: grounds of 3) [Because of my
silence] God judged me, so that I was in misery.
Division Constituent 5, 7 (Section) (Role: grounds [pos.] for 1-2) God forgave
my sins [because of confession]. [As a result, God is my Deliverer.]
Section Constituent 5a (Paragraph) (Role: grounds of 5b) I confessed my
Section Constituent 5b (Paragraph) (Roles: Head of 5, 7; condition for 7)
God forgave my sins [because of confession].
Section Constituent 7 (Paragraph) (Role: consequence of 5b) [As a conse-
quence] God is my Deliverer.
Psalm Constituent 6,8-11 (Paragraph) (Role: Head of the Body) [Do not be stub-
born, but] rejoice in the Lord you righteous ones.
Division Constituent 6 (Paragraph) (Role: introduction to 8-11) Pray to God
and be safe.
Division Constituent 8-11 (Section) (Role: Head of 6, 8-11) [Do not be stub-
born, but] rejoice in the Lord you righteous ones.
Section Constituent 8 (Paragraph) (Role: orienter to 9-11) I will teach you
what to do.
Section Constituent 9-11 (Paragraph Cluster) (Role: Head of 8-11) [Do not
be stubborn but] rejoice in the Lord you righteous ones.
Paragraph Cluster Constituent 9 (Paragraph) (Role: Head! [neg.] of
9-11) Do not be stubborn.
Paragraph Cluster Constituent 10 (Paragraph) (Role: summary of 9, 11)
He who trusts God receives his lovingkindness.
Paragraph Cluster Constituent 11 (Paragraph) (Role: Head2 [pos.] of
9-11) Rejoice in the Lord you righteous ones.
BARENTSEN: PSALMS 51 AND 32 267
can be brought near by bit and bridle--if this is the right interpreta-
tion of v 9c.50 Likewise, God can use sorrows, which are the lot of the
wicked (v 10), to draw the sinner to himself.
Option 2 is to acknowledge one's sin and confess it before God.
The concept is repeated three times in v 5. This shows that it is not a
formal rehearsal of a list of sins, but a thorough exposure of one's sin
before God. God responds with forgiveness, and thus deliverance is
experienced (v 7).
In the exhortation, this too is expanded. Here, confession is
identified with trust in the Lord, highlighting the importance of a
right heart attitude in confession. As a result, the sinner is now called
a righteous and upright person who may delight in the mercies of the
Lord (v 11). Option 2 is the desirable one because it is the proper
response to God's dsH.
Universality of sin
In presenting the options, the psalmist does not leave the reader
with any choice but to be silent or to confess. The fact that each
reader has sin about which to be silent or vocal is assumed. All need
Just as in Psalm 51, the three most frequent words for sin here
are, fwp, Nvf and, xFH (vv 1-2; 5). In vv 1-2 these words indicate that
man's life is involved in all kinds of sin, and that sin stains all of his
life. In v 5 these words show that all kinds of sin are subject to God's
forgiveness; there is no sin which cannot be forgiven. Sin may be
universal, but there is always hope in God's all comprehensive for-
The exhortation in this psalm is a plea for human action: one
must turn to God. Thus, man's responsibility is emphasized, in con-
trast to Psalm 51, where God's sovereign grace was emphasized. But
God's sovereignty is not left out of the picture here. The fact that a
forgiven person can be counted blessed (vv 1-2) implies that God has
been at work in that person; judgment in v 5 testifies to God's sover-
eignty. Similarly, the following concepts indicate aspects of God's
sovereign grace: God is a hiding place (v 7); he surrounds the psalmist
with songs of deliverance (v 7); he surrounds those who trust him
with lovingkindness (v 10); trusting in the Lord implies that he is sov-
ereign (v 10); and God sovereignly uses misery to lead people to him-
self (vv 3a, 4a, 9). So human responsibility is set in the context of
40 Ibid., 40.
268 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
divine sovereign grace. Therefore, this responsibility is not autono-
mous, but must be exercised in dependence upon God, submitting to
him and acknowledging that his judgments are just. This is a respon-
sibility of faith, not of works.
Four propositions summarize the main theological points drawn
from these two psalms: (1) Man is utterly, always, from conception,
and in every aspect of his relationship to God, sinful. (2) Man is
wholly dependent on God for forgiveness and restoration before he
can enjoy an undisturbed relationship with God. (3) Man's responsi-
bility is humbly and in faith to confess his sins to God and to ack-
nowledge that his judgments are just. (4) Man, once forgiven and
restored, is to be happy about what the Lord has done for him, and
to extol his virtues.
THE NEED FOR STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS
Human thought is structured; the human mind cannot function
in utter chaos or at random--although admittedly it is not always
flawlessly organized. It follows that human writings will usually evi-
dence a certain structure, which will vary according to the language
and culture of the writer. The exegete should consider such structure
in his interpretation of the Bible.
Part of this task can be accomplished by grammatical and syn-
tactical observation. But since writings consist of more than a ran-
dom series of grammatical or syntactical phrases, there is a wider
field of analysis. This wider field may be called "paragraph" or "sec-
tion," depending on the size, but if a whole document is analyzed it is
convenient to speak about a discourse (a more technical title for a
larger unit of communication, not for the common concept of dia-
logue). Analyzing the structure of such a discourse may be called
"structural analysis." Thus structural analysis accomplishes on a
broader level what grammatical and syntactical analysis accomplishes
on a more detailed level.
The concerns of this method are to reconstruct the flow of the
argument by an objective methodology which recognizes structural
devices such as chiasm, repetition of key terms, and important struc-
tural markers. Unfortunately, the importance of discourse structure
BARENTSEN: PSALMS 51 AND 32 269
for the understanding of the Bible has not been as fully understood
and used by exegetes as it might be. Thus, help on the structure of a
passage is rarely available in the standard exegetical and critical com-
mentaries,51 though the value of the method is being increasingly
This method can be very useful. It gives the exegete a more
objective tool to help him understand the flow of thought in a par-
ticular document. Such an objective tool in my judgment, is sorely
needed since the task of contextual analysis is often approached rather
intuitively. And even though our intuitions may sometimes be right, a
more objective method is needed to bridge the linguistic, cultural, and
religious chasm between the ancient world and our own, and to make
certain that our reconstruction of the meaning is extracted from the
text, not imposed upon it.
51 Callow, Second Thessalonians, 15.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Grace Theological Seminary
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: firstname.lastname@example.org