The bible gives us so many beautiful psalms, each a call to arms in its own right. Psalm 51, though, is one of the most action-inducing of any of the psalms.
Psalm 51 is our call for repentance and, essentially, saying sorry. And it is a call-to-arms. The concept of repentance or apologizing seems, on its surface, a passive one, but Psalm 51 turns it into something much more aggressive and pro-active: Under the tutelage of Psalm 51, an individual cannot truly be repentant without having taken several steps to mollify God and earn that repentance.
Psalm 51 takes the story of David and Bathsheba and elevates the concept of repentance to a whole new level.
Psalm 51 asks us to change our lives by constantly reevaluating our actions and following certain steps of repentance to combat our transgressions. Psalm 51 asks us to work harder for our repentance.
Psalm 51's Basic Premises
Psalm 51 is one of the most famous psalms. David wrote Psalm 51 after he had done something very wrong. He saw a woman bathing and he wanted to have sex with her. But she was the wife of Uriah. Her name was Bathsheba and Uriah was away in the army, so David sent his servants to bring Bathsheba to his palace. The palace was the big house where he lived as king and that is where David and Bathsheba had sex together.
Later Bathsheba told David that she was going to have his baby. That's when David began plotting. David brought Uriah home and tried to coax him to have sex with Bathsheba so that Uriah would think that the baby was his. When Uriah refused to do it, David shipped Uriah off to a dangerous battle in the war with the Philistines. The Philistines managed to kill Uriah and David was then free to marry Bathsheba. This he did, but when the baby was born it only lived for a week.
At that point, Nathan the prophet came down to Earth and told David that he had done very wrong. At first, David did not even apologize. This troubled Nathan gravely and that is why David wrote Psalm 32. Later he wrote Psalm 51 as well, expounding on the same themes of repentance and guilt. Today, Psalms 32 and 51 are 2 of the 7 Penitential Psalms that the Church often sings during Lent. "Penitential" means being sorry for your sins, asking God to forgive them, and promising not to commit them again. The other 5 Penitential Psalms are 6, 38, 102, 130 and 143.
There is a space in Psalm 51 between verses 17 and 18. This space is placed there because many Christians think that verses 18 and 19 came much later. They believe that the Jews wrote them when they came back from exile in Babylon. This exile occurred when the King of Babylon took them away from their own country and made them live in Babylon. The prophets told the Jews that God let the King of Babylon exile them because the Jews had not obeyed God. And, according to the story, that is why Tthe Jews desired a psalm that told God that they had indeed sinned. They chose Psalm 51. They put two verses on the end that said:
they wanted the walls of Jerusalem built again (the King of Babylon had destroyed them)
they wanted the Temple in Jerusalem built again so that they could sacrifice animals on its altar
There are several important words and verses in Psalm 51. Three of them are words that we also find in Psalm 32: disobedience (or disobey), sin, and doing bad things. These three are the things that humans do. Then, of course, in sharp contrast, are the things that God does: He washes us, he cleans us, he forgets what we have done and he hides his face from our sins. The other two important words in Psalm 51 are spirit and sacrifice. Both of them mean two things.
either a name for God, as in verses 10-12
or a name for the part of us that lives when our body dies as in verse 17.
either an animal that they burnt and ate part of or an animal that they burnt completely.
Verse 1's "Give mercy" means "do not hurt me although you should hurt me." Another way to say this is simply "have mercy." The word "forget" in this verse and in verse 9 really means "blot out." It is akin to swathing black paint on a picture so that you cannot see it.
In verse 2 David asks God to wash away the bad feeling -- what we call the guilt -- that results when we fail or sin. This washing away on God's part, David believes, will allow him to feel clean.
Verse 3's "Always in front of me" signifies that "I keep on seeing [my sins] so that I know that I have done wrong."
Verse 4 sees the concept of repentance expanded: Though David killed Uriah, it was God's law that he did not obey. So David feels that it is only God against whom he has sinned.
In Verse 5 David says that when he was born he had a tendency to sin. This means that he often wanted to sin even though he knew that it was wrong. We are all born with this tendency, according to the bible, and Psalm 51 expands further upon this concept that Christians call "original sin."
Verse 7 deals with Hyssop. Hyssop was a plant. The Jews used its leaves to paint blood on the wood over their doors when they remembered the Passover. According to the bible, it is the blood of Jesus that makes us clean. "Whiter than snow" is a Jewish way to say "very, very clean." Again we see the theme of God cleansing us to wash away our sins, but first, of course, we must meet the criteria for cleansing.
Verse 8 shows the pain that is so closely allied with sinning. "The bones that you broke" means "my body that you hurt."
In verse 9, "Hide your face" means "look away from." The Jews thought that if God hid his face, he would not see what they did. Here, we can link "forget" to verse 1 quite easily. Forgetting of sins does not occur until the proper path of repentance has been tread.
In verse 10, the word "create" is critical. It means 'make,' but only if God is the maker. The Bible begins by stating "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen 1:1). Only God could make these things happen. And only God can make a new heart for a human. A new heart really signifies, for the purposes of Psalm 51, a new person altogether.
Paul wrote in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: "If anyone is in Christ he or she is a new person" (2 Cor 5:17). "In Christ" means "a Christian." "New person" here signifies "a person that God has *created again" or "a new creature." David wrote Psalm 51 a thousand years before Paul wrote Corinthians. However, Christians understand what David wrote only after reading what Paul wrote. This means that it is not read as the Jews would read it, but as Christians. And Christians are "born again" or become "new people" because God has created them again. According to the psalm and the bible, He does this only when they become Christians. For instance, the spirit in verses 10-12 means the Holy Spirit, another name for God. According to the bible, it is the part of God that he puts in us when we become Christians.
Verse 11 is a bit of a syllogism. Both parts of this verse mean the same thing: David wants to be with God.
Verse 12 The bad feeling (guilt), that David had prevented him from feeling happy. This special feeling that God gives to his people we call 'joy.' Only a new creature (verse 10) has Christian joy. So, joy is an integral part of the repentance process outlined in Psalm 51.
In verse 13, the people that fight against God are termed 'rebels.' In this vein, people who fight against their governments are also rebels. This, of course, seems a foreign though to us today, but we must recall that God is the government for the whole world, so people that fight against him are also rebels; here, God is equated with government. How do we fight God? We fight God when we do not obey him and when we do what we want to do, according to Psalm 51.
Verse 14 is a difficult verse to translate from the Hebrew. The Hebrew words say, "Take away from me blood-guilts." Experts often translate "guilts" as "the bad feeling that I have" and "blood" as "because I…