May 5: Psalm 51:10-13

Psalm 51:10-13

In the previous note, in this series exploring the references to the Spirit (j^Wr) of God in the Old Testament, we examined the tradition of the Saul-David conflict as narrated in 1 Samuel, and how it is expressed in terms of the spirit of God. As I have discussed, there was a strong principle of charismatic leadership in early Israel—that is to say, the qualified leader of the people was marked by possession of a divine spirit, their giftedness a product of being specially touched by the spirit of God. This entailed the possession of wisdom and understanding (to guide the people), but also the (physical) strength and skill needed to lead the people in times of battle. From Moses to his successor Joshua, through the Judges and the first kings (Saul and David), this principle of divinely-inspired leadership was maintained. Only with the establishment of a hereditary monarchy did the principle gradually fade; even then, the king was seen as holding a special relationship with YHWH, reflected in the repeated phrase that “YHWH was with him (i.e. with the king)”. Rooted in the ancient concept of covenant loyalty, it came to be a central component of the (Judean) royal theology, focused on the Davidic line—beginning with David (1 Sam 16:18; 18:14; 2 Sam 5:10; cf. also 1 Chron 11:9; 2 Chron 1:1) it was emphasized especially with Hezekiah at the time of the Assyrian crisis (2 Kings 18:7), and underlies the significance of the Immanuel title in Isa 7:14; 8:8, 10.

We saw how, when David was chosen (and anointed) to be the next king, the spirit of YHWH “rushed” to him (1 Sam 16:13); correspondingly, the same spirit that had been upon Saul departed from him (16:14ff), and, in that vacuum, an evil spirit from YHWH came to afflict Saul in its place. This same sort of idea is expressed in Psalm 51, which, according to the superscription, was composed by David after his condemnation by the prophet Nathan (2 Sam 12:1-15) for his role in the Bathsheba/Uriah affair (chap. 11). Certainly it is a penitential Psalm, in which the Psalmist asks for forgiveness from YHWH, vowing to repent and amend his ways, making right the wrongs he may have done.

The motif of the spirit (j^Wr) is introduced in verse 10 [12], at the climax of the Psalmist’s plea to be forgiven:

“Create for me a clean heart, O Mightiest,
and make new (the) firm spirit in my inner (part)s”

Here a clean (rohf*) heart is parallel with a firm/fixed (/okn`) spirit. The passive participle /okn` (from the root /WK) denotes the idea of something being firm, sound, secure (i.e. healthy and whole). If the motif in the first line is that of cleansing, in the second line it is healing and renewal. It may be better to translate j^Wr here in the more fundamental sense of “breath” (i.e. life-breath), but the same use of the word in vv. 11-12 [13-14] clearly indicates that a broader meaning is in view as well.

To the extent that the Psalm genuine comes from David—or at least reflects the Israelite/Judean royal theology—there may well be an allusion here to the tradition of charismatic leadership noted above, whereby the king is touched/possessed by a divine spirit. If so, then the king is praying that he would not share in Saul’s fate, when the divine spirit departed from him. Certainly, the language of verse 11 [13] may be rooted in this idea, at least in part:

“Do not throw me out (away) from your face,
and your holy spirit—do not take (it away) from me!”

The sense of the ancient tradition appears to have been generalized, set in a broader religious and ethical context. The relationship between the Psalmist and YHWH is in danger of being broken, expressed here from both sides: (a) being removed from God’s presence (line 1), and (b) God’s presence being removed from him (line 2). This is one of the only occurrences in the Old Testament of the expression “holy spirit”; it must not be understood here from the later Jewish or Christian standpoint, but simply as reflecting a specific quality or aspect of God’s spirit—namely holiness and purity. Literally the expression is “spirit of your holiness” (;v=d=q* j^Wr), the holiness (vd#q), from the root vdq) of El-Yahweh being a key attribute and central tenet of Israelite religion. The regular/frequent impurity of human beings was fundamentally incompatible with the purity of YHWH; this was realized both in the ritual and ethical sphere of Israelite religious culture, and had to be dealt with accordingly. The Psalmist’s sin threatened the removal of God’s holy presence (and his removal from that presence).

The thoughts expressed in the two couplets of vv. 10-11 [12-13] are combined together, in summary form, within the third (v. 12 [14]), and it brings the Psalmist’s petition to a close:

“Return to me a rejoicing (in) your salvation,
and may you lay hold of me (with) a stimulating spirit!”

The term uv^y#, typically translated “salvation”, in the royal theological context of the Psalms often reflects the idea of the covenant bond between the ruler (as vassal) and YHWH (as Sovereign). This bond means that YHWH is obliged to bring help and assistance to the ruler in his time of need, unless the terms of the agreement have been violated. While such language could easily be broadened to apply to God’s people in a more general sense, the royal/Davidic background in such Psalms needs to be recognized. The breaking of the bond results in the Psalmist being unable to rejoice in the salvation that YHWH, his Sovereign, can provide; he prays that this would be “returned” to him.

The precise meaning of the final line is difficult to determine. The verb Em^s* has the basic meaning “lay (upon)” or “lean (upon)”, often in the specific (ritual) context of the laying on of hands. The prayer is that YHWH will again lay His ‘hands’ upon the Psalmist, by way of a blessing that will restore the covenant bond. Here the place of the noun j^Wr (“spirit”) is ambiguous—is it a spirit from God that comes upon the Psalmist by this “laying on” (par with v. 11), or does it refer to the effect of this in/on the spirit within the Psalmist (par with v. 10)? The word hb*yd!n+ is a bit difficult to translate (it can be a noun or adjective), the root bdn fundamentally indicating an impulse—i.e., something that prompts a person to act, etc. What is being described? There are two possibilities:

    • The spirit of YHWH stimulates the Psalmist to repentance and a newfound loyalty, etc
    • By laying hold of him, YHWH stimulates the Psalmist’s spirit so that, from now on, he will be inclined to act in faithful/loyal manner

Both are valid ways of reading the line, but probably the emphasis is more on the action of God’s spirit.

In the concluding notes of this series, we will explore further the expression “holy spirit” as it came to be used subsequently in Jewish literature and tradition. However, it is first necessary to continue our Old Testament study with a survey of additional references to the j^Wr of God in the Psalms and Prophets. A key aspect of this will focus again on the specific association between the Spirit and prophetic inspiration, and how this developed over time.

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