Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 51 (Part 1)

Psalm 51

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 1-5 [1-3]); 4QPsj (vv. 2-6 [1-4])

Psalm 51 is certainly one of the most famous compositions in the Psalter, a prayer-Psalm attributed to David (according to the superscription) on the occasion of his sin with Bathsheba (and his condemnation by Nathan), cf. 2 Samuel 11-12. Most commentators are inclined, at the very least, to doubt this traditional background for the Psalm; the events surrounding the Bathsheba affair happen to be best fit for a such a petitionary prayer in the recorded life of David, so it is natural that scribes and editors would assign that historical background to the Psalm.

It is, indeed, a petitionary prayer, in which the Psalmist asks God to forgive his sin and to renew his heart. Commentators continue to debate whether this petition relates to healing from sickness, a situation that we have already seen emphasized in a number of the prayer-Psalms we have examined thus far. Since, in the ancient mind, disease and illness were often viewed as the result of sin, brought about as divine punishment, the two aspects—forgiveness and healing—can be closely connected.

After the sequence of Psalms attributed to the sons of Korah or to Asaph (cf. the previous study on Ps 50), we return here to David as the ascribed author. It is another musical composition (romz+m!), with no other direction (on performance, etc) given in the superscription. Metrically, a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format dominates, with a few exceptions.

From a structural and thematic standpoint, the Psalm can be divided into two parts or stanzas: the first (vv. 3-11 [1-9]) focuses on forgiveness of sin, while the second (vv. 12-21 [10-19]) emphasizes the new life (renewal) that follows the forgiveness (and expiation) of sin.

This is one of the seven “Penitential Psalms” in the Roman Catholic liturgical tradition, recited (or sung/chanted) especially during the Lenten season. Psalm 51 is certainly the most famous of these, known by its opening words in Latin (Miserere mei Deus, “God have mercy on me”). There have been many wonderful musical settings of the Miserere over the centuries; perhaps the one most widely heard is the two-choir setting by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652).

Part 1 (vv. 3-11 [1-9])

Verse 3 [1]

“Show favor to me, Mightiest, according to your goodness,
according to your many (act)s of love,
may you rub out my (act)s of breaking (faith)!”

This opening couplet has an irregular (extended) 3+4 meter, which I prefer to treat as a 3+2+2 tricolon—an initial 3-beat line followed by a short 2-beat couplet.

The use of <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “[the] Mightiest [One]”, i.e., God) marks this as another ‘Elohist’ Psalm, in which (most) instances of the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH) have been replaced by the plural name/title <yh!l)a$. In all likelihood, the original composition read hwhy here in v. 3 [1].

The verbs are imperatives, by which the Psalmist implores YHWH to show mercy to him and to forgive his sin. The verb /n~j* fundamentally means “show favor”; it is relatively common verb (and religious term) which occurs frequently (32 times) in the Psalms. The second verb (hj*m*) means “wipe out, rub out”, here in the religious sense of wiping away the guilt of sin (and its effects).

The common noun ds#j# means “goodness, kindness”, but often connotes “loyalty, faithfulness” in the context of the covenant bond between YHWH and His people. ds#j# carries this specific meaning often in the Psalms, as indeed it also does here. This relates also to the deep and abiding love (<j^r^) God has for his people, being expressed many different ways, including specific acts of love shown to them. Thus the use of the plural here, qualified by the construct noun br) (“multitude, abundance”), used in an adjectival sense (“many”). YHWH’s acts (and feelings) of deep love are contrasted with the Psalmist’s acts (again in the plural) of breaking faith (uv^P#) with God. The context of the binding agreement (covenant) is in view throughout.

Verse 4 [2]

“Many (times) may you stamp me (clean) from my crookedness,
and from my sin may you make me pure.”

The many (br)) acts of love by YHWH are paralleled here by repeated acts of cleansing, utilizing the modal verb hb*r* (related to br)), “be(come) many”. Probably the written MT is correct in reading an infinitive absolute (hB@r=h^), used here in an adverbial sense, i.e., doing something many times, or repeatedly. The verb sb^K* refers to washing a garment, etc, by stomping or kneading it in water; I have retained the harsh idea of stamping/stomping on something (to make it clean). This repeated and forceful washing results in making the object clean and pure (vb rh@f*).

The noun /ou* literally means “crookedness”, indicating something that is crooked or twisted (in a moral or religious sense). Parallel with this is the more general noun ha*F*j^, basically denoting an error or failure, but almost always in the sense of a moral or religious failure (i.e., sin).

Verse 5 [3]

“For my (act)s of breaking (faith) do I acknowledge—
indeed, my sin is continually in front of me.”

The Psalmist admits and recognizes the times and moments that he has broken faith (i.e., violated the covenant bond) with YHWH. This refers primarily to violations of the Torah regulations, which represent the terms of the covenant. These can be either intentional or unintentional sins—the former being much more serious and beyond the normal ritual means (sacrificial offerings, etc) for correcting the offense. David’s sin with Bathsheba, indicated in the superscription (cf. above) is an example of a grave (intentional) sin that requires a special act of mercy and forgiveness by God to remove its effects.

The verb ud^y` (“know”) is used here in the sense of “acknowledge”. The acknowledgement of sin is necessary before repentance can truly take place. Until YHWH forgives and cleanses him, the protagonist is constantly aware of his sinfulness (“my sin [is] continually in front of me”), suggesting that it is keeping him from having any peace with himself. This may also mean that the effect of his sin, possibly in the form of suffering (from illness, etc), is also continually present, and will not be removed until YHWH removes his guilt. By being “in front of” (dg#n#) him, the Psalmist’s sin may also be functioning in the role of his accuser (cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 12).

Verse 6 [4]

“Against you—against you alone—have I sinned,
and (what is) evil in your eyes have I done.
(This is) so that you be (considered) just in your speaking,
and clear (of wrong) in your judging.”

The relation of these two couplets to each other is problematic. The meaning of the first couplet is straightforward enough: the Psalmist acknowledges that, in his failure, he has sinned against YHWH Himself. This involves a tacit recognition of sin in terms of the covenant bond with YHWH—violation of the bond means breaking faith with YHWH. What is “evil in God’s eyes” is expressed fundamentally through the regulations of the Torah.

More difficult is the sense of the second couplet. It would seem to be dependent on the Psalmist’s confession/admission of sin. He is fundamentally admitting that YHWH, in rendering judgment against him (in the form of disease, illness or other suffering?), has acted justly/rightly and is clear of any (judicial) wrongdoing Himself.

Syntactically, the difficulty lies in the opening particle—the prefixed conjunction /u^m^l=, used in something of an adverbial sense. This expression is notoriously difficult to translate in English. Here it would seem to summarize the Psalmist’s confession in vv. 3-5, indicating purpose: i.e., “this is so that…” —I say all of this so that you will be considered right/just in how you have judged me. This right judgment by YHWH is expressed verbally, using the verbs qd^x* (“be right/just”) and hk^z` (“be clear, clean, pure”).

Verse 7 [5]

“See, in crookedness I was twisted (into shape),
and in sin did my mother become warm (with) me.”

The two verbs—lWj and <j^y` —which I here translate quite literally, in their fundamental sense, both refer to a woman giving birth. The “twisting” (vb lWj) alludes to the writhing of the mother in childbirth, but also relates conceptually to the idea of “crookedness” (/ou*) and of being ‘twisted’ into shape (i.e. born as a human being). The Psalmist’s sinfulness, however, goes back even to the moment when his mother became pregnant (lit. became warm/hot, vb <j^y`) with him. This is one of the few Old Testament passages that suggests something akin to the later doctrine of ‘original sin’.

Verse 8 [6]

“See, you delight in firmness in the covered (part)s,
and in the closed up (part)s you make me know wisdom.”

There is a certain parallelism of thought between this couplet and the one preceding (v. 7 [5]), contrasting the sinfulness in which the Psalmist was born (outwardly) with the faithfulness of the heart that is established (within). The “covered (part)s” (hj*f%, plur.) and the “closed up (part)s” (passive participle of the verb <t^s*) essentially refer to the same thing: the innermost part of the person—in Pauline terms we might refer to the contrast between the “inner man” and the “outer man”.

Even though a person may be ‘born in sin’, one is still able to follow God, being faithful and loyal to Him, in one’s heart. The “firmness” (tm#a#) of one’s intention is manifest through action—that is, a willingness to fulfill the requirements of the covenant bond, the regulations, etc, in the Torah. At the same time, such a person is also receptive to being taught (lit. made to know) wisdom by God in the heart. It is thus possible to have wisdom and understanding, and to think and act in a way that is pleasing to God, despite being ‘born in sin’.

Verse 9 [7]

“Purge me of sin with hyssop, and I will be pure;
stomp me (clean), and like snow I will be made white!”

Hyssop (boza@) was used in several different ritual contexts; most notably, it was part of the cleansing rituals outlined in Leviticus 14 (vv. 4, 6, 49, 51-52), and also the ‘Red Heifer’ purification rite in Numbers 19 (vv. 6, 18). There, it was a question of ritual purity (for the physical body), while here, in the Psalm, the sinfulness is of a moral (and/or religious) kind. Yet, the Psalmist asks God to perform a similar kind of ritual act (as with the hyssop) in order to cleanse him of sin. This is further described in terms of washing a garment (by stomping or treading on it), using the same idiomatic verb (sb^K*) as in v. 4 (cf. above).

This ‘washing’ will make the Psalmist clear (of sin) and thus clean and pure (vb rh@f*). This also expressed through the idiom of whiteness (vb /b^l*, “be [or make] white”), like that of freshly fallen snow (cp. Isa 1:18). The prefixed /m! (“from”) on the noun gl#v# is an example of the preposition used in a comparative sense (i.e., “like” or “more than”). This can be difficult to render in English; to preserve a smooth poetic line, I have translated it as “like” above, but one could also say, “…and even more than snow will I be made white” (i.e., “I will be made whiter than snow”).

Verse 10 [8]

“Let me hear (again) joy and rejoicing,
and may (the) strong (limb)s you crushed spin (for joy)!”

This verse is cited by those who believe that the Psalmist is suffering from some form of illness or disease, viewed as punishment by God (for his sin). The mention of the crushing (vb hk*D*) of his once-strong limbs (or “bones”) would certainly seem to suggest this, as in previous Psalms we have examined (cp. 6:2; 22:14, 17; 31:10; 32:3; 38:3). Similarly, the desire to be able to “hear” joy and happiness again, and to dance (“twirl, spin”) for joy, suggests that he has been experiencing suffering. The removal of his sin (and its guilt) will also remove any suffering that had been imposed by God as punishment for it.

Verse 11 [9]

“May you cover up your face from my sins,
and all my crooked (deed)s may you rub out!”

At the close of this section (or stanza), the Psalmist repeats his plea from v. 3 [1], asking YHWH to “rub out” (vb hj*m*) his sins and “crooked” deeds. He also asks God to “cover up” (vb rt^s*) His face so that He cannot see the sin. The covering of the face is parallel with the act of wiping away—these are two different aspects of the same process of forgiving/removing sin; in classical theological terminology, we would describe these as propitiation (God’s favorable view of the sinner) and expiation (the removal of the actual guilt).

References above marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

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