The historical setting for this psalm is stated in the superscription: "For the choir director. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba." See 2 Sam. 11:1-18,26-27; 12:1-18. This psalm describes the nature of conviction, confession, and forgiveness, and the joy that the latter brings. It should be remembered, however, that although David's sin was forgiven, it still produced significant consequences: (1) his denunciation by Nathan and the public shame it brought (2 Sam. 12:1-14); (2) the death of David's son (12:15-23); (3) trouble with Amnon: he raped Tamar, Absalom's sister (13:1-22); (4) the rebellion of Absalom (13:23-18:33); (5) trouble with affairs of state (e.g., the revolt of Sheba in 19:41-20:26). The lesson is that whereas sin is certainly personal, in many cases it is anything but private!
A. Introductory Petition - vv. 1-2
1. David appeals to God on the basis of His loyal love and infinite compassion - v. 1
Note the chiastic structure of his appeal:
"according to Thy lovingkindness"
"according to the greatness of Thy compassion"
"blot out my transgressions"
David makes no claim to deserve forgiveness based on performance or position (as king). He does not expect to be forgiven based on his sincerity or intensity or deep pain for having sinned or fervor of heart or promise not to sin again or his depth of determination to somehow "make it up" to God. His appeal is based on what he knows of God's mercy and compassion and lovingkindness.
2. David appeals to God that He wash and cleanse him from the stain of his sin - v. 2
Here is a perfect example of synonymous parallelism, in which the second line repeats in slightly different terms the meaning of the first.
Note the three words David uses in vv. 1-2 to describe his sin. If nothing else, it indicates on his part an acknowledgment that it is sin, and not just some trivial mistake. He calls it a "transgression" (a willful, self-assertive defiance of God), an "iniquity" (a deviation from the right path), and a "sin" (a missing of the divine mark).
Note also the three words he uses in his plea. He asks God to "blot out" his transgressions (erase it from the record; wipe it away), to "wash" him (scrub clean; he perceives his sin as a deep-dyed stain, like ground-in dirt), and to "cleanse" him (a word used for ceremonial purification in the OT).
B. Confession of Sin - vv. 3-6
1. David confesses that his sin was ultimately against God alone - vv. 3-4
"The sin is not vaguely expressed and in a neutral context but intensely personal ? MINE ? and is so described five successive times in the first three verses. True penitence is not a dead knowledge of sin committed, but a vivid, ever-present consciousness of it. Thus poignantly affected by this fixation of sin and dominated by a feeling of complete submission, the psalmist opens the hidden world of his soul, exposing his guilt-stricken conscience" (104).
David makes no excuses, offers no rationalizations, does not shift blame. My sin, he says, "is ever before me." It is no intermittent flash but a perpetual obsession, a sight from which I can never turn away. It is, as it were, seared on the inside of my eye-lids: I see it all the time. Worse still, it is a sin ultimately against God alone. But how, if he committed adultery with Bathsheba, conspired to kill her husband Uriah, disgraced his own family, and betrayed the trust of the nation Israel? Perhaps David would argue that whereas one commits crimes against people, one sins only against God. More likely still, "face to face with God, he sees nothing else, no one else, can think of nothing else, but His presence forgotten, His holiness outraged, His love scorned" (Perowne, 416). David is so broken that He has treated God with such disregard that he is blinded to all other aspects or objects of his behavior.
David's confession is not simply to "get things off his chest", as if confession were merely a therapeutic release of sorts. His confession is designed to tell everyone that God was in the right all along, that God's judgment was true, just, and that the Almighty is blameless.
2. David confesses his congenital depravity as the root of his sin - vv. 5-6
We learn here that the sinner's fundamental need is not a new lifestyle but a new life, not new habits but a new heart. Being born again is not the adoption of new patterns of behavior but the divine gift through the Holy Spirit of a new nature, a new mind.
C. His plea for pardon and power - vv. 7-12
1. His plea for pardon - vv. 7-9
a. he asks for ceremonial cleansing - v. 7
Again, note the synonymous parallelism of v. 7. David's choice of words is instructive. "Hyssop", an aromatic herb with a straight stalk and a bushy head, was dipped in the blood of the sacrifice and then sprinkled 7 times on the person who was defiled (cf. Lev. 14; Num. 19). The word "purify" = lit., "to de-sin"!
b. he asks to hear a proclamation of forgiveness - v. 8
Cf. 2 Sam. 12:13; Ps. 143:7-8. Here David employs a common figure of speech called metonomy of effect for cause. He literally means, "Make me to experience the joy and gladness that comes from hearing the announcement of forgiveness." David is again probably speaking metaphorically when he refers to his "broken bones" (cf. Isa. 1:5-6; Jer. 30:12,13,15,17).
c. he asks that God turn away his face from his sin - v. 9
I.e., "turn away your face from beholding my sin; don't look upon it any longer." Cf. Ps. 103:12; Isa. 27:9; Jer. 1:20; 18:23; Micah 7:19; Zech. 3:4,9.
2. His plea for power - vv. 10-12
Simply asking for pardon isn't enough. One must also have the power by which not to commit the same sin again. Dalglish explains:
"The prayer for forgiveness is complete, but pardon, boon though it be, cannot suffice. Its reference is to the past and to excision of iniquity erstwhile accumulated. But what of the future? Unless something different, something new, is done within the personal life of the psalmist, the future will but repeat the past. The forgiveness of iniquity may grant to the suppliant a clean record, but it is the perpetuation of that purity that deeply troubles the psalmist. This problem forms the burden of the prayer for renewal" (147)
a. he asks for a clean heart and a steadfast spirit - v. 10
b. he asks for continued intimacy and the anointing of the Spirit - v. 11
See Ps. 16:11; 21:6; 73:27-28.
What does David mean when he prays that God would not take His Spirit from him? Does David envision the possible loss of his salvation? Does he envision the withdrawal of divine grace? No.
Aside from the saving activity of the HS in the OT, aside from the indwelling ministry by which believers are sanctified and enabled to live holy lives, the HS was poured out on select individuals to empower and enable them to perform important tasks in the covenant community of Israel. For example:
(1) Craftsmen who worked on the tabernacle/temple (Exod. 31:1-6)
(2) Civil administrators (such as Moses and the 70 elders in Num. 11:16-17,25-26)
(3) Military commanders (such as Joshua; Num. 27:18)
(4) Judges (appointed and empowered to rule over Israel as in Judges 3:10; 6:34)
(5) Samson (Judges 14:5-6,19; 15:14; 16:20)
(6) Prophets (1 Chron. 12:18; Micah 3:8)
(7) Kings over Israel (Saul in 1 Sam. 10:1,6,10; 16:14; and David in 1 Sam. 16:12-13)
Thus there was a ministry of the HS in the OT, unrelated to personal salvation or character, designed solely to empower and enable and equip someone for a task to which God had appointed him/her. Such, I believe, is what David has in mind in Ps. 51:11. His prayer is that God would not withdraw the enabling anointing of the Spirit that empowers and equips him to lead Israel as King.
c. he asks for a renewal of joy and a willing spirit - v. 12
There is a direct link between the experience of forgiveness and the fullness of joy! This "joy" is sustained by obedience (note the connection between v 12a and v. 12b; cf. also John 15:10-11). Says David: "Lord, work in my heart so that I will want to obey you, so that my obedience will flow spontaneously, not forced. I want my obedience to be voluntary. I want to want your commands." We derive joy when what we do is what we want to do.
D. His Vow of Commitment - vv. 13-17
Note three things:
(1) It is possible for the fallen to be forgiven and to again be used of God in ministry to others. David anticipates that after his restoration he will again "teach transgressors [like himself] Thy ways" (v. 13).
(2) Note the relationship between testimony and praise in vv. 13-15. "When God answers our prayers, we respond by telling him how great he is; but we do so in public, and this is of the essence of the matter" (Goldingay, 168). It is as if David says, "My conscience has shamed me into silence. Right now my lips are sealed because of my sin. Forgive me and open my mouth and I will surrender my voice to you!" Often guilt acts like glue: it seals shut the mouth of praise.
(3) We see here the proper relationship between the inner spiritual reality and the outer religious form. God is not rejecting his own appointed sacrifices or saying we can atone for ourselves (in vv. 16-17). David is simply telling us that what matters most to God is the inner spiritual reality of a truly contrite and broken heart. Without it, sacrifices are worthless. With it, sacrifices are a sweet-smelling aroma to God (see vv. 18-19).
E. Epilogue - vv. 18-19
This psalm has a special message for several groups of people.
First, this psalm is for those who have never come to grips with the horror of human sin and the magnitude of divine grace. Often grace becomes meaningless, and certainly less than "amazing", because we lose sight of the depths of our depravity.
Second, this psalm is for those who think some people are too high or holy to fall. Let us never forget that this psalm describes the experience of David, king of Israel, the "man after God's own heart"!
Third, this psalm is also for those who think that once you have fallen you can never get back up again. It is for those who think it is possible to fall beyond the reach of God's grace and forgiveness. No one is so holy that he/she can't fall, nor so fallen that he/she can't be forgiven.
Fourth, this psalm is for those who think that if you have fallen and have actually gotten back up, perhaps even forgiven, you are still useless from that point on both to God and the church.