Psalm 51

Bring Me Close, Lord

How does sin get in the way of relationships?

In John 8:2-11, the Pharisees dragged an adulterer before Jesus. They demanded a judgment from the Lord, but he responded, "Let the one without sin cast the first stone." Why did they all drop their stones and leave? Simply put, they knew they were all sinners, but, more important, they realized that even their slightest of sins still violated the Law and created distance from God.

We are all sinners. Our sin (no matter how small) violates God's law and will for us. Our sin places a distance between us and God. This was the key insight to Paul's theology. We cannot justify ourselves before God, because (with apologies to Gertrude Stein) a sin is a sin is a sin. The only thing we can do is appeal to God for his mercy and a return to his intimacy.

Psalm 51 was an admission of guilt and appeal to God's mercy. While the leader prayed in the first person, the psalm was meant for communal worship. In other words, the leader spoke for the nation in a time of repentance. Especially at these times, the king (or high priest) and nation were as one.

For the Chief Musician. A Psalm by David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

1 Have mercy on me, God, according to your loving kindness.
According to the multitude of your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity.
Cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions.
My sin is constantly before me.
4 Against you, and you only, have I sinned,
and done that which is evil in your sight;
that you may be proved right when you speak,
and justified when you judge.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity.
In sin my mother conceived me.
6 Behold, you desire truth in the inward parts.
You teach me wisdom in the inmost place.
7 Purify me with hyssop, and I will be clean.
Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness,
That the bones which you have broken may rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all of my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a right spirit within me.

World English Bible

In 51:1-9, the prayer can be divided into a prayer for mercy (51:1-2), an acknowledgment of offense (51:3-5) and, again, a prayer for mercy (51:7-9). Thematically, this a very loose "A-B-A" structure, but there is a marked differences, especially in the notion of washing/cleansing. In 51:7, a sprinkling with hyssop (a plant dipped in water, then tossed lightly over the congregation) was far different than the cold water washing implied in 51:2 (clothes rung in a stream and beat against a rock). At the core of 51:3-5 was an intimate knowledge of evil that was at the root of sin. The singer knew his sin because he experienced it. He was always cognizant of his failing, even from his conception. (This was more likely a metaphor for the guilt the signer felt than a slap against the moral integrity of his mother.) 51:6 stood out in this section, as it recognized divine wisdom came to a humble heart; human wisdom implicitly came from a proud heart.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a right spirit within me.
11 Don't throw me from your presence,
and don't take your holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation.
Uphold me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways.
Sinners shall be converted to you.

51:10-13 continued the petition for mercy; it was an extension of 51:7-9. Notice the plea for a clean heart and steadfast spirit both mimicked God's steadfast mercy and depended upon his presence/Holy Spirit (51:11-12); to live the Law (and, hence, a sin-free life) depended upon God. Life in God's presence was a clear definition of salvation and spiritual renewal (51:12). As a result, the leader would have the moral and spiritual authority to teach sinning subjects and facilitate their return to YHWH (51:13).

14 Deliver me from blood guiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation.
My tongue shall sing aloud of your righteousness.
15 Lord, open my lips.
My mouth shall declare your praise.
16 For you don't delight in sacrifice, or else I would give it.
You have no pleasure in burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit.
A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

51:14-17 turned the petition of mercy toward praise. "If you keep me from death, I will praise you." This was not a conditional statement ("If you do this for me, I will do this for you") but a recognition that, for the Jew, only the living can praise the Living God. More important, these verses recognized that only the humble can truly praise God; the haughty and the proud are so full of themselves, they can only offer mere words of praise.

18 Do well in your good pleasure to Zion.
Build the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of righteousness,
in burnt offerings and in whole burnt offerings.
Then they will offer bulls on your altar.

51:18-19 were most likely an addition to the psalm after the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile. These verses were appropriate, however, for the return of the nation had been an act of divine forgiveness for communal sin. In the spirit of the psalm, God had given them a second chance and they meant to use it for true worship in the Temple.

The singer of the psalm spoke for the nation. He seemed to say, "I am a sinner; we are all sinners. Have mercy on us, Lord." His plea, however, was more than a desire for a second chance. It was a heartfelt petition to experience the presence of God again. Let us approach God and seek, not only his forgiveness, but also his intimacy.

How have you sought the Lord's forgiveness and intimacy? How does God's forgiveness help you in your relationships with others?