Grace Theological Journal 5.2 (1984) 247-269

[Cited with permission from Grace Theological Seminary;

digitally prepared for use at Gordon and Grace Colleges and elsewhere]












            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

(see appendix).


                                                            *   *   *





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).




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 Bath-

sheba which is described in 2 Samuel 11 and for which David was

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 (reprint; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970)


            6 Edward R. Dalglish, Psalm Fifty-One in the Light of Ancient Near Eastern Pat-

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,

vv 3-19.

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.

l0 Ibid.,77.

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

the soul.

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


12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., 145-46.

14 Ibid., 142.

252                             GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


Constituent Organization

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

vv 14-17.

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.

22 Ibid.



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

   my sin.


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

good to Zion according to your grace, then you will delight in righteous sacrifices.


      Paragraph Cluster Constituent 20 (Paragraph) (Role: condition of 21) Do good

      to Zion according to your grace.

      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; Naperville, IL:

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 that”30

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.


Human impotence

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


29 Harrison, "A Study of Psalm 51," 32.

30 BDB, 775.

31 J. K. Zink, "Uncleanness and Sin: A Study of Job XIV and Psalm LI 7," VT 17

(1967) 361.

32 John Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian

and Reformed, 1959) 91.



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;

Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949) 2. 299.

36 Harrison, "A Study of Psalm 51," 36.

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 12:14).

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. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1939, reprinted 1981) 485.

39 Harrison, "A Study of Psalm 51," 35.

40 Ibid.

41 Pius Drijvers, The Psalms: Their Structure and Meaning (New York: Herder and

Herder, 1965) 146.

42 Oren G. McConnell, "An Exegetical Study of Psalm 32," unpublished Th. M.

thesis (Dallas Theological Seminary, 1974) 17.



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, 19; Waco, TX: Word,

1983) 269.

44 Ibid., 265.

45 BDB, 262.

46 Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 285.

47 lbid.

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


Constituent Organization

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 4:17-19). 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

      in misery.

      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-



Human responsibility

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.



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.






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.



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