BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 92 (1935): 26-38

         Copyright © 1935 by Dallas Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.    



                                              Department of

                          Semitics, Old Testament and Archaeology

                EVERETT FALCONER HARRISON, Editor


               A STUDY OF PSALM 51



            David, whether as shepherd, warrior, king or psalmist,

presents a life in keeping with his name. Christian ap-

praisal affirms that he who was "ever a lover of David" had

a well-placed affection. We love him as we see him first,

ruddy and of open countenance, stand wonderingly amidst

his brethren as the holy anointing oil proclaimed him God's

chosen king. We love him as we hear his confession of faith

to Saul. "The Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the

lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of

the hand of the Philistine." We love him as we listen to

his battle hymn of triumph as king, for he has fought a

good fight, his arm ever strengthened and his heart ever en-

couraged by the Lord. Something in this song particularly

attracts our attention. It is the claim that his rise to abso-

lute power has been accomplished without the loss of his

integrity. "The Lord rewardeth me according to my right-

eousness:  according to the cleanness of my hands does he

recompense me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and

have not wickedly departed from my God. For all his judg-

ments are before me, and as for his statutes, I do not depart

from them. And I have been perfect toward him, and I

have kept myself from my iniquity. And the Lord hath

recompensed me according to my righteousness; according

to my cleanness before his eyes" (II Sam. 22 :21-25) . Will

he retain his integrity?

            History has demonstrated that it is easier for men,

whether as individuals or nations, to fight their way to emi-

nence than to retain this position. David the king, now pos-

sessing absolute power over the realm, faced a test more se-

vere than the sorest battle. In a day of rest and relaxation,

it became easy to act for sinful and selfish pleasure and

               A Study of Psalm 51                     27


thereby undo the example of a lifetime. The act with its

succeeding complications calls for no defence: it has none.

But when, after a time, Nathan the prophet came in and

skilfully aroused David's indignation by the story of the

rich man who robbed his poor neighbor of his cherished

pet, and then openly accused the king—who is not amazed

at David's attitude and awed into profounder respect for

Jesse's son? Here is true greatness, the more so when we

reflect that for the lowly as well as the high, confession of

wrong-doing crosses the grain of pride and wounds it.

Whereas the lowly man has no escape and must swallow his

pride, the high has his devices and he will employ them to

the limit to extricate himself. Behold a man, a king, an ab-

solute monarch, pushing aside all defense and saying sim-

ply, "I have sinned." The classic statement of Margoliouth

sets the uniqueness of the act in fine relief. "When David

is rebuked for the crime, he yields the point without argu-

ment; he is told that he has done wrong, and he receives

the prophet in a prophet's name. When has this been done

—before or since? Mary Queen of Scots would declare that

she was above the law; Charles I would have thrown over

Bathsheba; James II would have hired witnesses to swear

away her character; Mohammed would have produced a

revelation authorizing both crimes; Charles II would have

publicly abrogated the seventh commandment; Queen Eliza-

beth would have suspended Nathan. Who has ever acknowl-

edged an error of any magnitude, if it has been in his power

to maintain that he was right? . . . Cain's plan—that of si-

lencing the accuser, and Adam's plan—that of shifting the

responsibility, seem to exhaust the range of human ex-

pedients when an error is brought home. He who escaped

from both, though semustulatus, was a ‘man after God's

own heart.’"1

            Sin, though it be a universal malady, never ceases to be

intensely personal. Certainly the psalm which torrented

forth from David's stricken heart is as intimate a disclosure


            1 D. S. Margoliouth, Lines of Defence of the Biblical Revelation, pp. 209, 210.

28                                Bibliotheca Sacra


as any known to man. We should not have expected to be

auditors while the penitent breathed out his soul to God. It

is but one more token of a frank and lovable spirit that he

gave it without reservation into the custody of the chief

Musician, so that it might bless the world and become the

vehicle of confession for erring saints in all ages. Is this

not in line with the economy of God's providence? He must

allow evil its deadly effect on the race, once it has entered

the world, yet out of it he makes good to grow. On the

dark side, the wrath of men is made to praise Him, and on

the bright side His people come to know the power and ful-

ness of the divine salvation. As we look back over our own

lives, do we not see how wonderfully the perfecting mystery

of grace has reached out to incorporate our very sins, mak-

ing them contribute something to our spiritual development

and usefulness?

            David's sense of justice, too, dictated the publishing of

the psalm. His sin, though carried out with a measure of

secrecy (II Sam 12:13), had become known and furnished

occasion for the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme (vs. 14).

It is reasonable that confession should be as public as the sin.

            The heading indicates the occasion which gave rise to

the psalm: "When Nathan the prophet came unto him, after

he had gone in unto Bathsheba." The word rwxk is occa-

sionally used to express time, in which case it might be ren-

dered "as soon as" more accurately than "after." An ex-

ample is found in II Sam. 12:21. But there is a certain

awkwardness in so translating it in the verse under consid-

eration, since approximately a year intervened between

David's sin and Nathan's appearance. The existence of the

child proves this. So we prefer the more common meaning

of the word in question—"as" or "according as," which

shifts the center of thought from time to manner.  Nathan

came in to David as he had gone in to Bathsheba, unre-

quested and with a mission that brought serious conse-

quences. It is true that this interpretation is hardly in line

with the analogy of other headings which describe the cir-

               A Study of Psalm 51                       29


cumstances of composition, but it may well be that the word

was chosen so as to suggest both thoughts to the reader.

            We cannot fail to note that the prophet long delayed his

coming. His courage when he did come suggests that the

delay was in no wise due to timidity. Scripture sets the mat-

ter at rest for us by stating that the Lord sent Nathan (II

Sam. 12:1). Why was he not sent at once? The answer

must be that the interval was needed to teach David the

depths of misery that underlie sin which is not confessed

and put away. He himself tells us what wrack he suffered.

"When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roar-

ing all the day long.  For day and night thy hand was heavy

upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of sum-

mer" (Ps. 32:3, 4). David learned eventually that it is a

false notion of manliness which leads a sinner to bear his

conscience-load defiantly rather than cast it upon his Savior.

But there is more. The Lord deliberately waited until the

child was born, then sent His servant to announce its death.

David loved the child, but God would not allow him to look

longer upon and so root his life more deeply in that which

reminded him of his sin. God's chastening must remove all

the profit and pleasure derived from sin. Then and then

alone will the soul be chaste. How marvelous is the sequel!

When the lessons were learned and the tears dried away,

God gave another son; once again he sent his prophet, this

time to tell of the Lord's love for the babe and to give him

a name memorializing that love, a name that contained

David's own and so served to memorialize him also (II Sam.


            A rigid analysis of the psalm is difficult, because under

the stress of great emotional upheaval, David intermingled

and repeated the petitions which clamored for utterance.

However, we may discern four leading thoughts that con-

stitute the framework. These are his desire for forgive-

ness, for cleansing, for restoration of joy, and for the spirit-

ual welfare of the nation.

            It is natural that the more deeply one has sinned, the

30                                Bibliotheca Sacra


more fervent and persistent will be his prayer for pardon.

At first sight, David appears to give but limited attention

to this phase of his need. Only three verses, one, nine, and

fourteen, have strictly to do with it. The explanation lies

in the fact that God had already spoken the sweet word of

forgiveness. The moment David confessed his guilt to

Nathan, he received the comforting assurance, "The Lord

also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die" (II Sam.

12:13). Then why should he pray at all for something that

the Lord had already granted? Every child of God knows.

Sin is such a grievous thing that even when we have the

clear word of forgiveness, our deliverance seems beyond

credence. "My sin is ever before me." The omission of

any plea for forgiveness in Psalm 32 is a clear indication

that its composition came after that of Psalm 51. There is

an atmosphere of calm and peace which is in contrast with

the disturbed state that belonged to the early stage of con-

fession. So completely was David able to enter into the en-

joyment of pardoning grace that he could describe the for-

given man with the same term he had once used of the un-

contaminated. Both are blessed (Ps. 32:1; 1:1).

            The particular manner in which David besought the Lord

to deal with his sins—"blot out my transgressions," shows

his consciousness of the polluting power of sin. There was

an awful awareness of a stain that nothing under heaven

could remove. The plea for riddance of this stain is the

great burden of his cry. "Wash me thoroughly from mine

iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin." This word "wash"

is used to denote the washing of soiled garments rather than

for bodily ablution. It occurs again in the seventh verse.

"Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and

I shall be whiter than snow." Since the hyssop was used in

the ceremony of cleansing the leper (Lev. 14:49, 52), it may

be that David was thinking of himself in terms of such a

creature, spotted and unclean, unfit for the society of his

fellow-men. If God will do this great thing, His erring child

will be clean, that is, bright and clear. The word is used

              A Study of Psalm 51                         31


in Ex. 24:10 of the clear, unsullied expanse of heaven.

David's high faith in the power of God to renew him is seen

in the declaration that he will come out whiter than the

snow. A remarkable parallel to David's experience is found

in Dan. 11:35, relative to a trying time in the history of

the nation. "And some of them of understanding shall fall,

to try them, and to purge, and to make them white, even to

the time of the end: because it is yet for a time appointed."

Whiter than snow! How it speaks to us of divine purity.

The story is told of a pastor who loved to visit one of the

poor of his flock, a woman who took in washing for a living.

One day he passed along and noticed her hanging out the

washing, so he stepped into the yard for a moment's chat.

Knowing her well, he ventured to remark that the clothes

did not seem as white as usual. She gave him a reproving

look, then said, "My clothes are always white, but today you

see them against a background of new-fallen snow and they

look dirty; nothing can stand against the whiteness of the

Almighty." The writer once listened to a native evangelist

in the heart of China as he explained how infinitely superior

was God's standard of holiness to man's. He said that the

foreigners who come to China from Europe and America

claimed to be white men, but that they were wrong, since

the white man lived in Peiping, his native city. Everyone

in the audience grew solemn with mystery and expectation.

Then he said, "In Peiping we have the snow man. Put one

of our foreign friends alongside him and see for yourself

which is the white man."

            Between the second and seventh verses, which we have

considered, lies a section in which the psalmist turns to in-

trospection in a thorough-going manner. "For I acknowl-

edge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me."

This was the abnormal thing, to have sin, as a thick cloud,

thrusting itself between the soul and God, so that when he

looked away to God, there it was, ever before him, where the

Lord should have been (Ps. 16:8). Yet he must win his way

through to God, for there alone can his case be tried.

32                                Bibliotheca Sacra


"Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil

in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou

speakest, and be clear when thou judgest." Here we have

the only adequate doctrine of the final bearing of sin. It

transcends the human relation; it strikes at the throne of

God. Nathan charged David on this same high plane when

he delivered his rebuke. "Wherefore hast thou despised the

commandment of the Lord, to do evil in His sight? thou

hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken

his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword

of the children of Ammon. Now therefore the sword shall

never depart from thine house; because thou hast despised

me, and hast taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be thy

wife" (II Sam. 12:9, 10). There would be less sinning if

men realized fully that their offences would reach to the

very heavens. Hengstenberg comments, “This manner of

considering sin, which everywhere discovers itself where

there is true knowledge of sin, must infinitely heighten the

pain connected with it.”2 How great is the anguish wrung

out of the soul when one understands that he has grieved

the Highest and Best, the One who is dearer than life itself,

the One who has reposed confidence in His earthly child for

a life testimony in harmony with his high calling. Yet even

this grief is not without its balm, as the aforementioned

writer observes. “What besides immediately serves to

deepen the pain connected with sin, has also at the same

time a consolatory aspect. If David had sinned against God

alone, it is with him also alone that he has to do in regard

to forgiveness, and therefore he must not consume himself

in inconsolable grief that he cannot make restitution to

Uriah, who has been long sleeping in his grave, or seek for-

giveness from hire.”3

            Some uncertainty gathers around the connection in

thought between David's having sinned against God alone

and the subsequent statement—"that thou mightest be justi-


            2 E. W. Hengstenberg, Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. II, p. 194.

            3 Ibid.

                                    A Study of Psalm 51             33


fied when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest."

The conjunction Nfml means "in order that" or "to the end

that." It seems that David intends to link his sin to the

divine purpose in such a way as to make it the occasion for

the manifestation of the righteous judgment of God. To

quote Hengstenberg once more, "If we will only grant to

the declarations of Scripture, and the facts of experience,

their due weight, we shall be obliged to lay aside the aver-

sion of imputing to God every kind of participation in sin,

which has also in many other passages given rise to mani-

festly false expositions. The sin, indeed, belongs to man.

At any moment he may become free from it by repentance.

But if he does not repent, the forms in which it is to appear

are no longer in his power, they are subject to God's disposal,

and God determines them as it pleases him, as it suits the

plan of his government of the world, for his own glory, and

at the same time also, so long as the sinner is not absolutely

hopeless, with a view to his salvation."4

            Whatever interpretation be put upon these words, they

cannot possibly be thought of as an effort on David's part to

excuse himself by shifting the responsibility to God and

making himself a puppet in His hands. The same must

surely be said of the following statement, for when David

declared, "Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did

my mother conceive me," he is not casting about for a human

scapegoat in case his effort to lay the blame on God miscar-

ries. That would be totally unlike the David we know. The

writer recalls a Sunday morning twelve to fifteen years ago,

when in a Bible class for young men, the teacher dwelt at

some length upon this verse; at the end of the period, a

young man who was visiting the class came forward and

took serious exception to this passage of Scripture. Loving

his own mother dearly, he could not bear to think that in

bringing him into the world she had been implicated in sin.

His fears were groundless. No sin attaches to the mother

in the sense of wrong-doing. But the nature of sin which


            4 Ibid.

34                                Bibliotheca Sacra


is in her, common to all the race, is communicated to the

child in the very beginning of his existence.

            The connection with the sixth verse is on the following

order. God insists on truth in the inward parts. Outward

conduct means something, but of far greater import is the

well-spring of conduct—the inner life. He is not pleased,

of course, with the man who openly turns aside to sin, but

He is also not satisfied with one who claims to be living the

victorious life and is yet smothering wrong desires to keep

them from finding expression. God must have truth in the

inward parts; but David cannot produce it. At the very

fountain-head of life, when as yet it was altogether hidden

from the sight of men in his mother's womb, there was the

taint of sin. He can no more alter that than he can undo

the wrong he has committed. Where, then, can he turn?

Where is there hope? "O wretched man that I am! who

shall deliver me from the body of this death?"

            Out of this gloom of utter hopelessness there rises a mag-

nificent appeal. "Create in me a clean heart, O God; and

renew a right spirit within me." What is impossible with

man is possible with God. The Hebrews reserved the word

"create" for a divine operation, whether in the realm of

matter or spirit. The English version hardly does justice

to the original. David did not ask for a creation that should

take place within him, where the hidden depths could never

furnish material for such a change. The Hebrew expression

ylxrb is literally, "create for me." It carries the thought of

a divinely ordered and prepared gift brought to David and

bestowed on him, a special bounty provided for his need.

            The companion prayer is for the renewal of a right (fixed

or steadfast) spirit within him. In the days of his youth,

David had consistently stayed himself upon His God. But

recent failure had shaken all confidence, and he feels the

need of a fixing of his life purpose so that he will never

again turn out of the way.

            The prayer continues. "Cast me not away from thy

presence; and take not thy Holy Spirit from me." We need

            A Study of Psalm 51                         35


care in expounding this verse, for both the context and the

historical background must contribute to the understanding

of it. The petition follows one which has in view the stabi-

lizing of his character. It was a serious matter for a king,

normally revered and followed by his people, to be unde-

pendable. And with that thought, there rises before his

mind, like a spectre, the figure of Saul sitting uneasily on

this throne, his fingers tightened about his javelin, his face

clouded and morose as the evil spirit swept in to take com-

mand where once the Spirit of God had ruled. David knew

something of the horror of rejection, for time and again

he had summoned all the soothing charms of song and lyre

in order to quiet the restless and unhappy Saul. Must he

share Saul's fate? Must he lose his favored position as the

anointed of the Lord? It is an error to think of the removal

of the Spirit as equivalent to the loss of salvation. The

Spirit came upon David when he was anointed by Samuel

(I Sam. 16:13); but he knew the Lord before that, as a mere

lad among the sheep. The taking away of the Spirit would

indicate that God's choice had fallen upon another.

            That David had no fear of losing his salvation is evi-

denced in the succeeding verse. "Restore unto me the joy

of thy salvation." This can hardly be a pleonasm for sal-

vation itself. The word for joy—NvWW, speaks of exultation

and exuberant feeling. It is sometimes translated "mirth."

The verb is found in Ps. 19:5, where the sun is likened to a

bridegroom coming forth from his canopied couch, rejoicing

as a strong man to run a race. David would fain dance

once more before the Lord for sheer joy. In fact, he has

already prayed that such gladness may be his portion that

the bones which the Lord has broken may rejoice (vs. 8).

Bone is the strength of the human body. When the bone

structure is crushed, the body is crippled and helpless. So

real has been the chastening through which David had

passed that he cannot rise up to praise and adore his God.

But he has hope that when the Lord has freed him from

the dreadful sense of guilt, the higher powers of the soul

36                                Bibliotheca Sacra


will be released for their wonted service. The sinner has

reached the end of his own resources when he cries, "O Lord,

open thou my lips; and my mouth shall show forth thy

praise." When one is under a cloud, it is far better to be

still than to venture upon a praise that must be only half-

hearted. But let God release the prisoner from the toils of

his groaning, and there will be a new song ascending to

heaven. And this song of praise is pleasing to God, for it

glorifies Him (Ps. 50:23).

            Such praise, rising up out of a contrite heart, means

more than any amount of sacrifice which is offered in cold

detachment as a formal religious duty. Note that in the

seventeenth verse it is said, "The sacrifices of God are a

broken spirit"—not "broken spirits." The one heart that

makes itself an altar is the equivalent of all sacrifice. Yet

even this fact does not void the sacrifices, as the nineteenth

verse demonstrates, for the reason that they must continue

until their work is done, until they have culminated in the

death of the Lamb of God.

            "A broken and a contrite heart, 0 God, thou wilt not

despise." In modern usage, "contrite" has come to mean

"repentant" or "full of regret for sin." But the word, like

that in the original, contains the thought of bruising or

crushing. It is God's own task, frequently resented at first

but cherished afterward, to take in hand that hard and un-

profitable lump that sin has formed and pound it small as

the dust, that from this lowly vantage point, where He began

with man, He may again by the Potter's touch produce a

man—a man remade.

            So wonderful are the ways of God that in the process of

cleansing and renewing His saints He not only brings out

of the fires that refine a nobler specimen than that which

entered in; He makes capital of it and uses it to extend His

kingdom. David the restored is anxious to teach transgres-

sors the ways of God, so that sinners may return to Him.

David can tell them more than he ever knew before of the

destructive power of sin and of the richness of God's mercy.

               A Study of Psalm 51                       37


A glance at the life of Simon Peter confirms this truth.

Through failure at the very time which self-confidence had

sought for itself to prove its loyalty to the Christ, Simon

went down to the dust. But he came up again, sobered and

strengthened, now a dependable instrument for spiritual

work. Who can fail to see the wisdom back of Simon's fall?

Out of it came Peter the rock, upon which the early church

in its human organization could safely rest. Whether they

were aware of it or not, it meant something to the thousands

who heard him at Pentecost and were pricked in their hearts

at having denied the Lord of life and glory, that the man

who addressed them had passed that way himself.

            God knew that David would sin and fail Him, yet in ad-

vance of it He made a covenant with David and bound Him-

self to continue David's seed and throne until, as later

prophecy revealed, His own Son should come as that Seed

and as King to sit upon that throne. This is the same God

of all grace who has chosen us in Christ before the founda-

tion of the world, before the advent of sin, before our own

complete and utter failure to obey His holy will became


            The great difference between the natural and the super-

natural lies in their contrasted ability to handle destructive

forces. It is said that nature loses nothing, that when catas-

trophe pelts her bosom, she merely concedes a loss in form,

not in matter. That may be so, but she cannot restore: she

can only revise. When a tree falls, nature may turn it into

peat or fertilize the soil, but the process involves decay.

She cannot set the tree in place again and give it a more

abundant life than it had before. David was as a tree, a

mighty cedar of Lebanon, the greater its height the more

impressive its fall, the more thunderous its reverberations,

the more impossible its restoration. But what is impossible

with nature and with man is possible with God.

            Let all the household of faith take heart, whether or no

they have sinned after the similitude of David's transgres-

sion. It may be that one powerful factor which is hindering

38                                Bibliotheca Sacra


the revival of the church and the spread of the gospel is the

presence within her of multitudes of people who have stum-

bled and fallen and are a dead weight in any forward move-

ment. Has the church been aware that her first obligation

is to minister to these? Let them be told that their wound

is not incurable. Let them learn that "before honor is hu-

mility" and that if they will confess their sins, God will be

faithful and righteous to forgive their sins, and to cleanse

them from all unrighteousness.

            It is a strange thing how we can rejoice in the reclama-

tion of degraded sinners so that the deeper one has gone

down the more glorious is his salvation, and at the same

time treat our erring brethren in Christ as though they no

longer belonged to the company of the elect. Is not restor-

ing grace as much a part of the gospel as redeeming grace?

Let us not fear that the door will be opened to license. David

the beloved, in spite of the bitter lessons learned through his

first disobedience, sinned yet again, for he sought to number

the people and thus delight himself in the greatness of his

domain. He knew full well that there would have to be some

judgment upon his sin, but he has learned one thing. He

need not waste days and months before coming to God. His

cry deserves to be written upon our hearts, for it is at once

a magnifying of divine grace and a condemnation of human

prudishness—"Let us fall now in the hands of the Lord; for

his mercies are great: and let me not fall into the hands of



                                                            EVERETT F. HARRISON.

                                                                        Dallas, Texas.




This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204


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