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Matthew Henry's Commentary – Verses 1–6
Verses 1–6

The title has reference to a very sad story, that of David’s fall. But, though he fell, he was not utterly cast down, for God graciously upheld him and raised him up. 1. The sin which, in this psalm, he laments, was the folly and wickedness he committed with his neighbour’s wife, a sin not to be spoken of, nor thought of, without detestation. His debauching of Bathsheba was the inlet to all the other sins that followed; it was as the letting forth of water. This sin of David’s is recorded for warning to all, that he who thinks he stands may take heed lest he fall. 2. The repentance which, in this psalm, he expresses, he was brought to by the ministry of Nathan, who was sent of God to convince him of his sin, after he had continued above nine months (for aught that appears) without any particular expressions of remorse and sorrow for it. But though God may suffer his people to fall into sin, and to lie a great while in it, yet he will, by some means or other, recover them to repentance, bring them to himself and to their right mind again. Herein, generally, he uses the ministry of the word, which yet he is not tied to. But those that have been overtaken in any fault ought to reckon a faithful reproof the greatest kindness that can be don them and a wise reprover their best friend. Let the righteous smite me, and it shall be excellent oil. 3. David, being convinced of his sin, poured out his soul to God in prayer for mercy and grace. Whither should backsliding children return, but to the Lord their God, from whom they have backslidden, and who alone can heal their backslidings? 4. He drew up, by divine inspiration, the workings of his heart towards God, upon this occasion, into a psalm, that it might be often repeated, and long after reviewed; and this he committed to the chief musician, to be sung in the public service of the church. (1.) As a profession of his own repentance, which he would have to be generally taken notice of, his sin having been notorious, that the plaster might be as wide as the wound. Those that truly repent of their sins will not be ashamed to own their repentance; but, having lost the honour of innocents, they will rather covet the honour of penitents. (2.) As a pattern to others, both to bring them to repentance by his example and to instruct them in their repentance what to do an what to say. Being converted himself, he thus strengthens his brethren (Luke 22:32), and for this cause he obtained mercy, 1 Tim. 1:16.

In these words we have,

I. David’s humble petition, Ps. 51:1, 2. His prayer is much the same with that which our Saviour puts into the mouth of his penitent publican in the parable: God be merciful to me a sinner! Luke 18:13. David was, upon many accounts, a man of great merit; he had not only done much, but suffered much, in the cause of God; and yet, when he is convinced of sin, he does not offer to balance his evil deeds with his good deeds, nor can he think that his services will atone for his offences; but he flies to God’s infinite mercy, and depends upon that only for pardon and peace: Have mercy upon me, O God! He owns himself obnoxious to God’s justice, and therefore casts himself upon his mercy; and it is certain that the best man in the world will be undone if God be not merciful to him. Observe,

1. What his plea is for this mercy: “have mercy upon me, O God! not according to the dignity of my birth, as descended from the prince of the tribe of Judah, not according to my public services as Israel’s champion, or my public honours as Israel’s king;” his plea is not, Lord, remember David and all his afflictions, how he vowed to build a place for the ark (Ps. 132:1, 2); a true penitent will make no mention of any such thing; but “Have mercy upon me for mercy’s sake. I have nothing to plead with thee but,” (1.) “The freeness of thy mercy, according to thy lovingkindness, thy clemency, the goodness of thy nature, which inclines thee to pity the miserable.” (2.) “The fulness of thy mercy. There are in thee not only lovingkindness and tender mercies, but abundance of them, a multitude of tender mercies for the forgiveness of many sinners, of many sins, to multiply pardons as we multiply transgressions.”

2. What is the particular mercy that he begs—the pardon of sin. Blot out my transgressions, as a debt is blotted or crossed out of the book, when either the debtor has paid it or the creditor has remitted it. “Wipe out my transgressions, that they may not appear to demand judgment against me, nor stare me in the face to my confusion and terror.” The blood of Christ, sprinkled upon the conscience, to purify and pacify that, blots out the transgression, and, having reconciled us to God, reconciles up to ourselves, Ps. 51:2. “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity; wash my soul from the guilt and stain of my sin by thy mercy and grace, for it is only from a ceremonial pollution that the water of separation will avail to cleanse me. Multiple to wash me; the stain is deep, for I have lain long soaking in the guilt, so that it will not easily be got out. O wash me much, wash me thoroughly. Cleanse me from my sin.” Sin defiles us, renders us odious in the sight of the holy God, and uneasy to ourselves; it unfits us for communion with God in grace or glory. When God pardons sin he cleanses us from it, so that we become acceptable to him, easy to ourselves, and have liberty of access to him. Nathan had assured David, upon his first profession of repentance, that his win was pardoned. The Lord has taken away thy sin; thou shalt not die, 2 Sam. 12:13. Yet he prays, Wash me, cleanse, blot out my transgressions; for God will be sought unto even for that which he has promised; and those whose sins are pardoned must pray that the pardon may be more and more cleared up to them. God had forgiven him, but he could not forgive himself; and therefore he is thus importunate for pardon, as one that thought himself unworthy of it and knew how to value it.

II. David’s penitential confessions, Ps. 51:3-5.

1. He was very free to own his guilt before God: I acknowledge my transgressions; this he had formerly found the only way of easing his conscience, Ps. 32:4, 5. Nathan said, Thou art the man. I am, says David; I have sinned.

2. He had such a deep sense of it that the was continually thinking of it with sorrow and shame. His contrition for his sin was not a slight sudden passion, but an abiding grief: “My sin is ever before me, to humble me and mortify me, and make me continually blush and tremble. It is ever against me” (so some); “I see it before me as an enemy, accusing and threatening me.” David was, upon all occasions, put in mid of his sin, and was willing to be so, for his further abasement. He never walked on the roof of his house without a penitent reflection on his unhappy walk there when thence he saw Bathsheba; he never lay down to sleep without a sorrowful thought of the bed of his uncleanness, never sat down to meat, never sent his servant on an errand, or took his pen in hand, but it put him in mind of his making Uriah drunk, the treacherous message he sent by him, and the fatal warrant he wrote and signed for his execution. Note, The acts of repentance, even for the same sin, must be often repeated. It will be of good use for us to have our sins ever before us, that by the remembrance of our past sins we may be kept humble, may be armed against temptation, quickened to duty, and made patient under the cross.

(1.) He confesses his actual transgressions (Ps. 51:4): Against thee, thee only, have I sinned. David was a very great man, and yet, having done amiss, submits to the discipline of a penitent, and thinks not his royal dignity will excuse him from it. Rich and poor must here meet together; there is one law of repentance for both; the greatest must be judged shortly, and therefore must judge themselves now. David was a very good man, and yet, having sinned, he willingly accommodates himself to the place and posture of a penitent. The best men, if they sin, should give the best example of repentance. [1.] His confession is particular; “I have done this evil, this that I am now reproved for, this that my own conscience now upbraids me with.” Note, It is good to be particular in the confession of sin, that we may be the more express in praying for pardon, and so may have the more comfort in it. We ought to reflect upon the particular heads of our sins of infirmity and the particular circumstances of our gross sins. [2.] He aggravates the sin which he confesses and lays a load upon himself for it: Against thee, and in thy sight. Hence our Saviour seems to borrow the confession which he puts into the mouth of the returning prodigal: I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, Luke 15:18. Two things David laments in his sin:—First, That it was committed against God. To him the affront is given, and he is the party wronged. It is his truth that by wilful sin we deny, his conduct that we despise, his command that we disobey, his promise that we distrust, his name that we dishonour, and it is with him that we deal deceitfully and disingenuously. From this topic Joseph fetched the great argument against sin (Gen. 39:9), and David here the great aggravation of it: Against thee only. Some make this to intimate the prerogative of his crown, that, as a king, he was not accountable to any but God; but it is more agreeable to his present temper to suppose that it expresses the deep contrition of his soul for his sin, and that it was upon right grounds. He here sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah, against his own soul, and body, and family, against his kingdom, and against the church of God, and all this helped to humble him; but none of these were sinned against so as God was, and therefore this he lays the most sorrowful accent upon: Against thee only have I sinned. Secondly, That it was committed in God’s sight. “This not only proves it upon me, but renders it exceedingly sinful.” This should greatly humble us for all our sins, that they have been committed under the eye of God, which argues either a disbelief of his omniscience or a contempt of his justice. [3.] He justifies God in the sentence passed upon him—that the sword should never depart from his house, 2 Sam. 12:10. He is very forward to own his sin, and aggravate it, not only that he might obtain the pardon of it himself, but that by his confession he might give honour to God. First, That God might be justified in the threatenings he had spoken by Nathan. “Lord, I have nothing to say against the justice of them; I deserve what is threatened, and a thousand times worse.” Thus Eli acquiesced in the like threatenings (1 Sam. 3:18), It is the Lord. And Hezekiah (2 Kgs. 20:19), Good is the word of the Lord, which thou hast spoken. Secondly, That God might be clear when he judged, that is, when he executed those threatenings. David published his confession of sin that when hereafter he should come into trouble none might say God had done him any wrong; for he owns the Lord is righteous: thus will all true penitents justify God by condemning themselves. Thou art just in all that is brought upon us.

(2.) He confesses his original corruption (Ps. 51:5): Behold, I was shapen in iniquity. He does not call upon God to behold it, but upon himself. “Come, my soul, look unto the rock out of which I was hewn, and thou wilt find I was shapen in iniquity. Had I duly considered this before, I find I should not have made so bold with the temptation, nor have ventured among the sparks with such tinder in my heart; and so the sin might have been prevented. Let me consider it now, not to excuse or extenuate the sin—Lord, I did so; but indeed I could not help it, my inclination led me to it” (for as that plea is false, with due care and watchfulness, and improvement of the grace of God, he might have helped it, so it is what a true penitent never offers to put in), “but let me consider it rather as an aggravation of the sin: Lord, I have not only been guilty of adultery and murder, but I have an adulterous murderous nature; therefore I abhor myself.” David elsewhere speaks of the admirable structure of his body (Ps. 139:14, 15); it was curiously wrought; and yet here he says it was shapen in iniquity, sin was twisted in with it; not as it came out of God’s hands, but as it comes through our parents’ loins. He elsewhere speaks of the piety of his mother, that she was God’s handmaid, and he pleads his relation to her (Ps. 116:16; 86:16), and yet here he says she conceived him in sin; for though she was, by grace, a child of God, she was, by nature, a daughter of Eve, and not excepted from the common character. Note, It is to be sadly lamented by every one of us that we brought into the world with us a corrupt nature, wretchedly degenerated from its primitive purity and rectitude; we have from our birth the snares of sin in our bodies, the seeds of sin in our souls, and a stain of sin upon both. This is what we call original sin, because it is as ancient as our original, and because it is the original of all our actual transgressions. This is that foolishness which is bound in the heart of a child, that proneness of evil and backwardness to good which is the burden of the regenerate and the ruin of the unregenerate; it is a bent to backslide from God.

III. David’s acknowledgment of the grace of God (Ps. 51:6), both his good-will towards us (“thou desirest truth in the inward parts, thou wouldst have us all honest and sincere, and true to our profession”) and his good work in us—“In the hidden part thou hast made,” or shalt make, “me to know wisdom.” Note, 1. Truth and wisdom will go very far towards making a man a good man. A clear head and a sound heart (prudence and sincerity) bespeak the man of God perfect. 2. What God requires of us he himself works in us, and he works it in the regular way, enlightening the mind, and so gaining the will. But how does this come in here? (1.) God is hereby justified and cleared: “Lord, thou was not the author of my sin; there is no blame to be laid upon thee; but I alone must bear it; for thou has many a time admonished me to be sincere, and hast made me to know that which, if I had duly considered it, would have prevented my falling into this sin; had I improved the grace thou hast given me, I should have kept my integrity.” (2.) The sin is hereby aggravated: “Lord, thou desirest truth; but where was it when I dissembled with Uriah? Thou hast made me to know wisdom; but I have not lived up to what I have known.” (3.) He is hereby encouraged, in his repentance, to hope that God would graciously accept him; for, [1.] God had made him sincere in his resolutions never to return to folly again: Thou desirest truth in the inward part; this is that which God has an eye to in a returning sinner, that in his spirit there be no guile, Ps. 32:2. David was conscious to himself of the uprightness of his heart towards God in his repentance, and therefore doubted not but God would accept him. [2.] He hoped that God would enable him to make good his resolutions, that in the hidden part, in the new man, which is called the hidden man of the heart (1 Pet. 3:4), he would make him to know wisdom, so as to discern and avoid the designs of the tempter another time. Some read it as a prayer: “Lord, in this instance, I have done foolishly; for the future make me to know wisdom.” Where there is truth God will give wisdom; those that sincerely endeavour to do their duty shall be taught their duty.