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Psalm 51[a]

For the music director, a psalm of David, written when Nathan the prophet confronted him after David’s affair with Bathsheba.[b]

51 Have mercy on me, O God, because of[c] your loyal love.
Because of[d] your great compassion, wipe away my rebellious acts.[e]
Wash away my wrongdoing.[f]
Cleanse me of my sin.[g]
For I am aware of[h] my rebellious acts;
I am forever conscious of my sin.[i]
Against you—you above all[j]—I have sinned;
I have done what is evil in your sight.
So[k] you are just when you confront me;[l]
you are right when you condemn me.[m]
Look, I was guilty of sin from birth,
a sinner the moment my mother conceived me.[n]
Look,[o] you desire[p] integrity in the inner man;[q]
you want me to possess wisdom.[r]
Cleanse me[s] with hyssop[t] and I will be pure;[u]
wash me[v] and I will be whiter than snow.[w]
Grant me the ultimate joy of being forgiven.[x]
May the bones[y] you crushed rejoice.[z]
Hide your face[aa] from my sins.
Wipe away[ab] all my guilt.
10 Create for me a pure heart, O God.[ac]
Renew a resolute spirit within me.[ad]
11 Do not reject me.[ae]
Do not take your holy Spirit[af] away from me.[ag]
12 Let me again experience the joy of your deliverance.
Sustain me by giving me the desire to obey.[ah]
13 Then I will teach[ai] rebels your merciful ways,[aj]
and sinners will turn[ak] to you.
14 Rescue me from the guilt of murder,[al] O God, the God who delivers me.
Then my tongue will shout for joy because of your righteousness.[am]
15 O Lord, give me the words.[an]
Then my mouth will praise you.[ao]
16 Certainly[ap] you do not want a sacrifice, or else I would offer it;[aq]
you do not desire a burnt sacrifice.[ar]
17 The sacrifice God desires is a humble spirit[as]
O God, a humble and repentant heart[at] you will not reject.[au]
18 Because you favor Zion, do what is good for her.[av]
Fortify[aw] the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will accept[ax] the proper sacrifices, burnt sacrifices and whole offerings;
then bulls will be sacrificed[ay] on your altar.[az]


  1. Psalm 51:1 sn Psalm 51. The psalmist confesses his sinfulness to God and begs for forgiveness and a transformation of his inner character. According to the psalm superscription, David offered this prayer when Nathan confronted him with his sin following the king’s affair with Bathsheba (see 2 Sam 11-12). However, the final two verses of the psalm hardly fit this situation, for they assume the walls of Jerusalem have been destroyed and that the sacrificial system has been temporarily suspended. These verses are probably an addition to the psalm made during the period of exile following the fall of Jerusalem in 586 b.c. The exiles could relate to David’s experience, for they, like him, and had been forced to confront their sin. They appropriated David’s ancient prayer and applied it to their own circumstances.
  2. Psalm 51:1 tn Heb “a psalm by David, when Nathan the prophet came to him when he had gone to Bathsheba.”
  3. Psalm 51:1 tn Or “according to.”
  4. Psalm 51:1 tn Or “according to.”
  5. Psalm 51:1 tn Traditionally “blot out my transgressions.” Because of the reference to washing and cleansing in the following verse, it is likely that the psalmist is comparing forgiveness to wiping an object clean (note the use of the verb מָחָה (makhah) in the sense of “wipe clean; dry” in 2 Kgs 21:13; Prov 30:20; Isa 25:8). Another option is that the psalmist is comparing forgiveness to erasing or blotting out names from a register (see Exod 32:32-33). In this case one might translate, “erase all record of my rebellious acts.”
  6. Psalm 51:2 tn Heb “Thoroughly wash me from my wrongdoing.”
  7. Psalm 51:2 sn In vv. 1b-2 the psalmist uses three different words to emphasize the multifaceted character and degree of his sin. Whatever one wants to call it (“rebellious acts,” “wrongdoing,” “sin”), he has done it and stands morally polluted in God’s sight. The same three words appear in Exod 34:7, which emphasizes that God is willing to forgive sin in all of its many dimensions. In v. 2 the psalmist compares forgiveness and restoration to physical cleansing. Perhaps he likens spiritual cleansing to the purification rites of priestly law.
  8. Psalm 51:3 tn Heb “know.”
  9. Psalm 51:3 tn Heb “and my sin [is] in front of me continually.”
  10. Psalm 51:4 tn Heb “only you,” as if the psalmist had sinned exclusively against God and no other. Since the Hebrew verb חָטָא (hataʾ, “to sin”) is used elsewhere of sinful acts against people (see BDB 306 s.v. 2.a) and David (the presumed author) certainly sinned when he murdered Uriah (2 Sam 12:9), it is likely that the psalmist is overstating the case to suggest that the attack on Uriah was ultimately an attack on God himself. To clarify the point of the hyperbole, the translation uses “above all,” rather than the potentially confusing “only.”
  11. Psalm 51:4 tn The Hebrew term לְמַעַן (lemaʿan) normally indicates purpose (“in order that”), but here it introduces a logical consequence of the preceding statement. (Taking the clause as indicating purpose here would yield a theologically preposterous idea—the psalmist purposely sinned so that God’s justice might be vindicated!) For other examples of לְמַעַן indicating result, see 2 Kgs 22:17; Jer 27:15; Amos 2:7, as well as IBHS 638-40 §38.3.
  12. Psalm 51:4 tn Heb “when you speak.” In this context the psalmist refers to God’s word of condemnation against his sin delivered through Nathan (cf. 2 Sam 12:7-12).
  13. Psalm 51:4 tn Heb “when you judge.”
  14. Psalm 51:5 tn Heb “Look, in wrongdoing I was brought forth, and in sin my mother conceived me.” The prefixed verbal form in the second line is probably a preterite (without vav [ו] consecutive), stating a simple historical fact. The psalmist is not suggesting that he was conceived through an inappropriate sexual relationship (although the verse has sometimes been understood to mean that, or even that all sexual relationships are sinful). The psalmist’s point is that he has been a sinner from the very moment his personal existence began. By going back beyond the time of birth to the moment of conception, the psalmist makes his point more emphatically in the second line than in the first.
  15. Psalm 51:6 sn The juxtaposition of two occurrences of “look” in vv. 5-6 draws attention to the sharp contrast between the sinful reality of the psalmist’s condition and the lofty ideal God has for him.
  16. Psalm 51:6 tn The perfect is used in a generalizing sense here.
  17. Psalm 51:6 tn Heb “in the covered [places],” i.e., in the inner man.
  18. Psalm 51:6 tn Heb “in the secret [place] wisdom you cause me to know.” The Hiphil verbal form is causative, while the imperfect is used in a modal sense to indicate God’s desire (note the parallel verb “desire”).sn You want me to possess wisdom. Here “wisdom” does not mean “intelligence” or “learning,” but refers to moral insight and skill.
  19. Psalm 51:7 tn The imperfect verbal form is used here to express the psalmist’s wish or request.
  20. Psalm 51:7 sn “Hyssop” was a small plant (see 1 Kgs 4:33) used to apply water or blood in purification rites (see Exod 12:22; Lev 14:4-6, 49-52; Num 19:6-18). The psalmist uses the language and imagery of such rites to describe spiritual cleansing through forgiveness.
  21. Psalm 51:7 tn After the preceding imperfect, the imperfect with vav (ו) conjunctive indicates result.
  22. Psalm 51:7 tn The imperfect verbal form is used here to express the psalmist’s wish or request.
  23. Psalm 51:7 sn I will be whiter than snow. Whiteness here symbolizes the moral purity resulting from forgiveness (see Isa 1:18).
  24. Psalm 51:8 tn Heb “cause me to hear happiness and joy.” The language is metonymic: the effect of forgiveness (joy) has been substituted for its cause. The psalmist probably alludes here to an assuring word from God announcing that his sins are forgiven (a so-called oracle of forgiveness). The imperfect verbal form is used here to express the psalmist’s wish or request. The synonyms “happiness” and “joy” are joined together as a hendiadys to emphasize the degree of joy he anticipates.
  25. Psalm 51:8 sn May the bones you crushed rejoice. The psalmist compares his sinful condition to that of a person who has been physically battered and crushed. Within this metaphorical framework, his “bones” are the seat of his emotional strength.
  26. Psalm 51:8 tn In this context of petitionary prayer, the prefixed verbal form is understood as a jussive, expressing the psalmist’s wish or request.
  27. Psalm 51:9 sn In this context Hide your face from my sins means “Do not hold me accountable for my sins.”
  28. Psalm 51:9 tn See the note on the similar expression “wipe away my rebellious acts” in v. 1.
  29. Psalm 51:10 sn The heart is viewed here as the seat of the psalmist’s motives and moral character.
  30. Psalm 51:10 tn Heb “and a reliable spirit renew in my inner being.”
  31. Psalm 51:11 tn Heb “do not cast me away from before you.”
  32. Psalm 51:11 sn Your holy Spirit. The personal Spirit of God is mentioned frequently in the OT, but only here and in Isa 63:10-11 is he called “your/his holy Spirit.”
  33. Psalm 51:11 sn Do not take…away. The psalmist expresses his fear that, due to his sin, God will take away the Holy Spirit from him. NT believers enjoy the permanent gift of the Holy Spirit and need not make such a request nor fear such a consequence. However, in the OT God’s Spirit empowered certain individuals for special tasks and only temporarily resided in them. For example, when God rejected Saul as king and chose David to replace him, the divine Spirit left Saul and came upon David (1 Sam 16:13-14). An alternative understanding of this verse is that the term Holy Spirit is simply metaphorical for the Lord’s presence, but this is unlikely given the other use of the term in Isa 63:10, where the Holy Spirit is personal and distinct from God himself.
  34. Psalm 51:12 tn Heb “and [with] a willing spirit sustain me.” The psalmist asks that God make him the kind of person who willingly obeys the divine commandments. The imperfect verbal form is used here to express the psalmist’s wish or request.
  35. Psalm 51:13 tn The cohortative expresses the psalmist’s resolve. This may be a vow or promise. If forgiven, the psalmist will “repay” the Lord by declaring God’s mercy and motivating other sinners to repent.
  36. Psalm 51:13 tn Heb “your ways.” The word “merciful” is added for clarification. God’s “ways” are sometimes his commands, but in this context, where the teaching of God’s ways motivates repentance (see the next line), it is more likely that God’s merciful and compassionate way of dealing with sinners is in view. Thanksgiving songs praising God for his deliverance typically focus on these divine attributes (see Pss 34, 41, 116, 138).
  37. Psalm 51:13 tn Or “return,” i.e., in repentance.
  38. Psalm 51:14 tn Heb “from bloodshed.” “Bloodshed” here stands by metonymy for the guilt which it produces.
  39. Psalm 51:14 tn Heb “my tongue will shout for joy your righteousness.” Another option is to take the prefixed verbal form as a jussive, “may my tongue shout for joy.” However, the pattern in vv. 12-15 appears to be prayer/request (see vv. 12, 14a, 15a) followed by promise/vow (see vv. 13, 14b, 15b).
  40. Psalm 51:15 tn Heb “open my lips.” The imperfect verbal form is used here to express the psalmist’s wish or request.
  41. Psalm 51:15 tn Heb “and my mouth will declare your praise.”
  42. Psalm 51:16 tn Or “For.” The translation assumes the particle is asseverative (i.e., emphasizing: “certainly”). (Some translations that consider the particle asseverative leave it untranslated.) If taken as causal or explanatory (“for”, cf. NRSV), the verse would explain why the psalmist is pleading for forgiveness, rather than merely offering a sacrifice.
  43. Psalm 51:16 tn The translation assumes that the cohortative is used in a hypothetical manner in a formally unmarked conditional sentence, “You do not want a sacrifice, should I offer [it]” (cf. NEB). For other examples of cohortatives in the protasis (“if” clause) of a conditional sentence, see GKC 320 §108.e. (It should be noted, however, that GKC understands this particular verse in a different manner. See GKC 320 §108.f, where it is suggested that the cohortative is part of an apodosis with the protasis being suppressed.)
  44. Psalm 51:16 sn You do not desire a burnt sacrifice. The terminology used in v. 16 does not refer to expiatory sacrifices, but to dedication and communion offerings. This is not a categorical denial of the sacrificial system in general or of the importance of such offerings. The psalmist is talking about his specific situation. Dedication and communion offerings have their proper place in worship (see v. 19), but God requires something more fundamental, a repentant and humble attitude (see v. 17), before these offerings can have real meaning.
  45. Psalm 51:17 tn Heb “a broken spirit.”
  46. Psalm 51:17 tn Heb “a broken and crushed heart.”
  47. Psalm 51:17 tn Or “despise.”
  48. Psalm 51:18 tn Heb “do what is good for Zion in your favor.”
  49. Psalm 51:18 tn Or “Build.” The imperfect verbal form is used here to express the psalmist’s wish or request.
  50. Psalm 51:19 tn Or “desire, take delight in.”
  51. Psalm 51:19 tn Heb “then they will offer up bulls.” The third plural subject is indefinite.
  52. Psalm 51:19 sn Verses 18-19 appear to reflect the exilic period, when the city’s walls lay in ruins and the sacrificial system had been disrupted.