Biblical Research Monthly, May 1970 — by Dr. David L. Cooper
The background of Psalm 51 is David's sin, as recorded in II Samuel 11:15. This passage reveals the after-growth and outworking of his sin. One committed, unrepented and unforsaken sin leads to another, greater sin; to cover accumulated sins, more are perpetrated. It was so with David. But his heart became crushed because of his sins. Until Nathan the prophet told him the parable of the little ewe lamb (II Samuel 12:1-15), he did not have the moral stamina, nor the courage, to confess and forsake them. At first David flew into a rage; he said that any man in his kingdom who would do such a thing was worthy of death; he would execute anyone perpetrating such a deed. Nathan then pointed his finger at David and said, “Thou art the man!” David then was made aware of the fact that the Lord knew what he had done. Though the Lord forgave David, He punished him. So extensive was the consequence of his sins, all his descendants — to the present time and as long as time lasts — were affected. How terrible, yet true, “The sword shall never depart from thy house.” Psalm 51 is the record of David's prayer, uttered soon after Nathan the prophet faced him concerning his experience with Bathsheba. This is one of the most penitential psalms ever written. In it we see David praying for forgiveness. Psalm 32 is the record of his expressed feelings of joy and gratitude, after having received forgiveness.
51:1 For the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David; when Nathan the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: According to
the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
51:2 Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, And cleanse me from my sin.
51:3 For I know my transgressions; And my sin is ever before me.
51:4 Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, And done that which is evil in thy sight; That thou mayest be justified when thou speakest, And be clear when thou judgest.
51:5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; And in sin did my mother conceive me.
51:6 Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts; And in the hidden part thou wilt make me to know wisdom.
51:7 Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
51:8 Make me to hear joy and gladness, That the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.
51:9 Hide thy face from my sins, And blot out all mine iniquities.
51:10 Create in me a clean heart, O God; And renew a right spirit within me.
51:11 Cast me not away from thy presence; And take not thy holy spirit from me.
51:12 Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; And uphold me with a willing spirit.
51:13 Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; And sinners shall be converted unto thee.
51:14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation; And my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
51:15 O Lord, open thou my lips; And my mouth shall show forth thy praise.
51:16 For thou delightest not in sacrifice; Else would I give it: Thou hast no pleasure in burnt-offering.
51:17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
51:18 Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: Build thou the walls of Jerusalem.
51:19 Then will thou delight in the sacrifices of righteousness, In burnt-offering and in whole burnt-offering: Then will they offer bullocks upon thine altar.
“Have mercy upon me, 0 God, according to thy lovingkindness: according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.” He realized he needed mercy for the past. We learn from Hebrews 4:16 that grace is for the present. “Let us therefore draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help us in time of need.” David cried, “Have mercy upon me, 0 God, according to thy lovingkindness [the Old Testament word for grace]: according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.” The figure of speech in this passage implies a plea for God to blot out — as one would ink — his sins from the record.
“Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” What is the figure here? In verse one he used the simile of blotting out a record. In verse two he likens his soul to a polluted garment — a dirty shirt; he asks God to wash from it all dirt and filth. Notice the words used — iniquity, sin and transgressions — three different terms. What is the difference in meaning? Transgression is to carry across, beyond a limit — there is a limit set, when one carries something beyond that limit, he transgresses. Etymologically, iniquity is inquity (not equal). The word sin literally means “missing the mark”; it is an archery term. We have all sinned, therefore, we are all guilty of having fallen short of the glory of God. The glory of God is the mark toward which man must aim. We have all missed it by falling short of it. With all this in mind, David speaks specifically: he acknowledges his guilt of transgressing, going beyond; of inequality — of wrong-doing; of sinning — having missed the mark.
“For I know my transgressions; and my sin is ever before me.” His sin haunted him like Macbeth's ghost. David knew he was wrong — “I know my transgressions.” His conscience constantly bore witness to the fact that he had sinned — “my sin is ever before me.” If a person has any conscience at all it will continue to alarm him until he repents and the wrong is rectified.
“Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight.” In this phase of his confession he is saying that all evil and all sin, in the final analysis, is against God. We may sin against our neighbor or against a friend, but actually — without exception — the sin is against God. Joseph recognized this fact when he told Potiphar's wife that he could not yield to her seduction — it would be an act of sin directly against God's holiness. He exclaimed, “Can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9b). Considering Joseph's protestation and David's confession, it seems evident that all sin, no matter against whom it may have been committed, is, in the highest and most real sense, against God. The importance of David's confession at this point is evident; it is quoted by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans (3:4).
“Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, And done that which is evil in thy sight;
That thou mayest be justified when thou speakest, And be clear when thou judgest.” (vs. 4)
Note the last two lines: “That thou mayest be justified when thou speakest”; “And be clear when thou judgest.” Here is a purpose clause. What is the connection? I am inclined to believe that the first two lines in Psalm 51:4 are parenthetical. Therefore, I do not hesitate to parenthesize all words from “against” to “sight.” With their omission, we would then read, “According to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions; and my sin is ever before me... that thou mayest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.” In other words, “Do this for me, 0 Lord, wash, cleanse and purge me — get rid of all this sin — so that in the judgment, when Thou dost judge, Thou mayest be known as just and at the same time Thou mayest justify me.”
We refer now to Romans 3:21-26. All sin, as we see in verses 19 and 20, is being held accountable and will be brought under the judgment of God:
Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it speaketh to them that are under the law; that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may be brought under the judgment of God: 20 because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight; for through the law [cometh] the knowledge of sin.
21 But now apart from the law a righteousness of God hath been manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them that believe; for there is no distinction; 23 for all have sinned, and [literally rendered] fall short of the glory of God; 24 being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: 25 whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in his blood, to show his righteousness because of the passing over of the sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God; 26 for the showing, I say, of his righteousness at this present season: that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus.”
Provision was made by God whereby He could pass by all sins committed at that time and not have to bring summary judgment upon the sinners. This was done by God in order that He might justify each one who believes in Christ; that He might be just while at the same time be able to pronounce the sinner just, or justified. The same thought is expressed by Paul, who is simply amplifying the passage in Psalm 51. For this reason, I feel quite certain that I am right in this interpretation. “Have mercy upon me, 0 God... according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions; and my sin is ever before me.” David's plea to God is “that thou mayest be justified when thou speakest.” Does not God have to be just when He justifies man? God cannot say, “Well, I'll just forgive those poor, wretched, miserable sinners, they are in a terrible predicament.” He must be just in order to give one a fair and square deal. Why did David commit this act of sin? The answer is, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (vs. 5). In explaining the reason behind this overt act, David as much as said, “That is why I took Bathsheba; that is why I tried to be nice to Uriah by covering up my sin, although I found I could not. I then plotted his murder and tried to brush it aside with a shrug of the shoulders. 0 God, this is the reason I did all that: 'Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.'” Did David mean to say that he was an illegitimate child? No, he was talking about his inherited sinful nature. This goes back to Genesis 5:1: “This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; male and female created he them, and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created. And Adam lived a hundred and thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness, after his image.” Adam's image and likeness had become sinful and corrupt before that point in time. Any system of theology that does not recognize the fall of man is anti-Biblical. That is exactly what one finds in all heathen religions; in them, the fallen nature of man is not taken into consideration. David admits that he inherited Adam's fallen nature from his parents. Those of every generation of mankind inherit a sinful, fallen nature from their parents. However, to say that one is so totally depraved that he cannot thirst after God, is to make the matter too strong. Man is depraved; that fact in itself is enough!
Another picture of the depravity of the human heart is found in Psalm 58:1-3:
Do ye indeed in silence speak righteousness? Do ye judge uprightly, 0 ye sons of men? Nay, in heart ye work wickedness; ye weigh out the violence of your hands in the earth. The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies.”
In these words, the Psalmist describes the condition of the heart of the wicked, a statement which is in accord with our text, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” One of the proofs that the Bible is true, and that it is a revelation of God, lies in the fact that in it man's basic trouble is found to be correctly diagnosed — men's consciences bear witness to that fact. Herein lies proof that those who wrote the Bible were made to understand the truth of the facts as they are. They were inspired by God Himself!
“Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts; and in the hidden part thou wilt make me to know wisdom” (vs. 6). God desires truth to be in the innermost recesses of one's being. He desires that men be honest with themselves. Comparatively speaking, there are very few who really are. God desires truth to permeate one's very being. In Hebrews 7:26 reference is made to Christ's being holy, without guile and undefiled. Truth permeated and saturated His hidden part (a Hebrew parallelism). “In the hidden part, thou wilt make me to know wisdom.” How and where does God make one to know wisdom? It is in the hidden part, in the very depth of one's being. “But if any of you lacketh wisdom, let him ask God, who giveth to all liberally and upbraideth not.” (James 1:5)
“Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (vs. 7). David uses language descriptive of the ceremony of defilement, especially that of the cleansing of the leper. Sin is thought of as leprosy — leprosy of the soul! It was as though David cried, “Lord I have a disease, the leprosy of sin. You will have to cleanse me with hyssop, only then shall I be clean. Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” We are reminded of Isaiah 1:18, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith Jehovah: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” According to the language ofto I John 3:15, one can be a murderer and yet not so much as lift up his hand against another. One who actually hates another is called a murderer. David did not hate Uriah; it was in desperation that he ordered the “accident” of war to cover his own sin.
“Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice” (vs. 8). David had covered up his sins for months; but he had no joy nor feeling of satisfaction — a guilty conscience plagued him. Since joy is in the heart and does not depend upon external circumstances, he petitions God in these words: “Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.” What happened to his bones is explained in Psalm 32:3: “When I kept silence, my bones wasted away through my groaning all the day long.” David testifies that when he refused to admit and make bare his sins that he suffered spiritual distress, mental anguish and physical pain. “When I kept silence, my bones wasted away through my groaning all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture was changed as with the drought of summer” (32:4). His bones and entire nervous system were thrown out of balance — nothing in his body functioned properly. He likened this to his bones having been broken. “Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice” (vs. 8).
“Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, 0 God; and renew a right spirit within me” (vss. 9 and 10). There has been much debate concerning this one particular phase of David's prayer, “Create in me a clean heart, 0 God.” Was David a regenerated man at the time he took Uriah's wife and sinned? Some answer in the affirmative, others in the negative. If he was not, at this point he must be praying for regeneration. My personal opinion is that he was already a regenerated man. Can one lose his regeneration? I do not think so. What then does he mean by, “Create in me a clean heart”? David's heart was contaminated. It will require a miracle of grace to cleanse and purge it from all the sins it has accumulated. Then an additional plea pours forth from his lips, “And renew a right spirit within me.” It has been said that the Spirit of God was with him, but had departed. Some hold the opinion that one can be saved today, but can be lost and go to hell tomorrow. There are those who get “saved” at every revival meeting. They are sincere and honest people and I do not mean to speak lightly of them or of anyone's belief, but I do think they are absolutely wrong. I believe that David had quenched the Spirit and that he is here asking for restoration and for the fullness of the joy of salvation.
“Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy Spirit from me” (vs. 11). He knew that if he got what was deserved the Holy Spirit would withdraw from him; however, there is no intimation that the Spirit had departed. In Ephesians 1:13,14 we read these words of assurance:
in whom ye also, having heard the word of the truth, the gospel of your salvation, — in whom, having also believed, ye were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, which is an earnest of our inheritance, unto the redemption of God's own possession, unto the praise of his glory.”
Whenever one is regenerated (saved) he is sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise. That seal is on him and assures him of his salvation, even to the very end — unto the day of redemption. I believe that David was regenerated and that the Spirit of God dwelt in his heart, but at this time he was under deep conviction for his terrible sins. He felt that if he got his proper punishment, he would be cast into hell. He therefore prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, 0 God; and renew a right spirit within me... Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation.” He had been without joy for months. Now he wants the “joy of thy salvation,” and restored fellowship. “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee” (vss. 12 and 13). David was as much as saying, “Lord, I have learned my lesson; I have been a stumblingblock to ever so many people; I have lacked this joy for months, now I want it restored. Shed abroad the love of God in my heart. Restore this joy. When that is done I can go, give my testimony and teach transgressors thy ways. My having had the experience of falling and seeing the pitfalls — to have the joy restored I would then be able to give a complete testimony in the power of the Holy Spirit. I could teach transgressors thy ways; sinners would be converted to Thee.” At this point we might ask, “What do these words in Psalm 23 mean, 'He leadeth me beside still waters. He restoreth my soul'?” The answer is, he had backslidden and lost the joy of his salvation; that the joy God intended he should have has been restored. His prayer (recorded in Psalm 51) has been answered. The joy of salvation has been restored.
“Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, 0 God, thou God of my salvation; and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness” (vs. 14). David knew he had plotted the death of Uriah and that he was a guilty person. From that bloodguiltiness, he seeks deliverance at the hand of the God of his salvation. The words “and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness” expresses his ultimate hope.
“0 Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall showforth thy praise” (vs. 15). He asks for the ability, the proper words and thoughts that would enable him to magnify God's wonderful grace — that favor which brings forgiveness and pardon to man. “My mouth shall show forth thy praise!”
“For thou delightest not in sacrifice; else would I give it: thou hast no pleasure in burnt-offering” (vs. 16). The bringing of many offerings and sacrifices to God is not what He really wants. He wants the heart to be right and He wants praise, the fruit of man's lips. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, 0 God, thou wilt not despise” (vs. 17). A similar thought is found in the Book of Isaiah: “For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isaiah 57:15). What condescension on God's part, that He Who inhabits all eternity — universal space will come and dwell in the heart of an individual in response to his humbleness and contrition of heart!
Thus far we have David's prayer for forgiveness, his pledges and promises to God — that he would praise the Lord aright, if only He would restore the joy and make him abound in praise. There is a break here and it is properly indicated in the American Standard Version, 1901.
David's Enlarged Prayer for Israel
“Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem. Then wilt thou delight in the sacrifices of righteousness, in burnt-offering and whole burnt-offering: then will they offer bullocks upon thine altar.” Is there any connection between the first seventeen verses and verses 18 and 19? Applying the Law of Double Reference we understand that God blends David's prayer for personal sins with what will be the future prayer of the Jewish nation in the year (1970+x+7). The whole nation is to be brought under Messiah's protection. It is out of fellowship and bloodguilty, is it not? Whose blood? That of the Lord Jesus Christ. David prays, realizing that mere sacrifices and offerings amount to nothing. Then he looks forward to the time when God will return to Zion and there do His good pleasure. He will build up the walls of Jerusalem. He will introduce the Millennial Age. Then the people of Israel will offer sacrifices that are acceptable in the sight of God. There is a blending of David's prayer with that future prayer of the whole nation of Israel; the remnant being under conviction, looks forward to His coming and lifting the curse from the earth, and the re-establishing of Zion as the capital of the whole world.