Psalm 51, continued
As previously discussed, this Psalm may be divided into two parts or stanzas: the first (vv. 3-11 [1-9], cf. last week’s study) 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.
Part 2 (vv. 12-21 [10-19])
Verse 12 
“A clean heart may you create for me, Mightiest,
and a sound spirit make new in my inner (parts).”
The opening couplet of the second stanza has a 4-beat (4+4) meter. It establishes the theme for the second part of the Psalm: the new life (renewal) that follows the forgiveness (and expiation) of sin. Here we may properly refer to the New Testament (Pauline) idiom of a new creation, since the verbs ar*B* (“create”) and vd^j* (“be new,” Piel “make new”) are used in tandem. There is a formal parallelism at work in the couplet:
- A heart | clean | may you create
- A spirit | firm | may you make new
The verbs are imperatives, but when addressing God in this context, they are clearly petitionary: “may you…” The passive (Niphal) participle /okn, used as a verbal adjective, is a bit difficult to translate, since the root /wK has a relatively wide semantic range. The parallel with rohf* in the first line suggests that a purity of spirit is view; however, given the fundamental meaning of the verb /WK, a translation something like “well-founded” would not be far off the mark. For poetic concision, I have rendered it “sound” (= “firm, fixed”) above.
Verse 13 
“May you not throw me out from before your face,
and (the) Spirit of your holiness, do not take it (away) from me!”
The meter in this second couplet is irregular, overweighted as 3+4. In such instances it is often better to treat the verse as a triad, with an initial 3-beat line followed by a short 2-beat couplet; however, here the parallelism of the lines is better served by retaining the longer 3+4 format:
- Do not throw me out from before (you)
- your face (i.e., Presence)
- your holy Spirit
- do not take away from me
- Do not throw me out from before (you)
The same basic petition is being made, but from two different directions or perspectives; the negative particle (la^) governs the two-fold petition, giving it a negative formation. The Psalmist asks that it should not happen:
- that he be removed from God’s presence (His face) /
that God’s presence (Spirit) be removed from him
- that he be removed from God’s presence (His face) /
The “face” and Spirit of YHWH both refer to His manifest presence and power. The literal expression in the second line is “spirit of holiness” (vd#q) j^Wr), but it corresponds precisely (in our idiom) to “holy spirit”. For more on this verse, in the context of Old Testament teaching and tradition on the Spirit, cf. my earlier study.
Verse 14 
“May you return to me (the) joy of your salvation,
and (with) a willing spirit take hold of me.”
This verse builds upon the previous couplet, focusing on the effect of YHWH’s presence and power upon a person. That it has been missing for the Psalmist is indicated by the use of the verb bWv (“turn [back]”), here in the Hiphil, i.e., “make (something) turn back, make (it) return”. What has been missing, specifically, is the joyful experience of the salvation YHWH provides. The noun uv^y# here could also be rendered “safety” or “security”, referring to the protection provided by YHWH according to the binding agreement (covenant) He has established with those faithful/loyal to Him. Sin disrupts the covenant-bond, and removes the obligation for God to protect and deliver His vassal.
A second effect is that God’s Spirit transforms the spirit of His servant, turning it into a willing (hb*yd!n+) spirit—so that the Psalmist might remain faithful to YHWH of his own accord, never again acting rebelliously to break faith with God. Here the Psalmist asks specifically that YHWH would “take hold of” him (vb Em^s*) with His holy Spirit, so that his own spirit might be changed (made new, v. 13 ) and strengthened.
This couplet returns to a 3-beat (3+3) meter, as if poetically resolving the tension (expressed metrically) built into the previous couplets.
Verse 15 
“I will teach your ways (to those) breaking (faith),
and (those) sinning might (then) return to you.”
The vow or promise given here alludes back to the idea of a willing (hb*yd!n+) spirit in the previous verse, since the nouns hb*yd!n+ and hb*d*n+ can be used in the religious context of a voluntary gift or deed offered to God. Here the promise involves teaching the ways of God (as expressed primarily through the regulations and precepts of the Torah) to other sinners, those who are currently acting rebelliously and breaking faith (vb uv^P*) with YHWH. Following the ways of God means being faithful to the covenant bond (the Torah representing the terms of the covenant).
There is a bit of wordplay here that can be lost in English translation. In the previous verse, the Psalmist asked that God “return” the joy of salvation to him; now he promises that he will respond by causing other sinners to “return” to God—the same verb (bWv, “turn [back]”) being used in both instances.
Verse 16 
“Snatch me away from blood, O Mightiest,
(you) Mighty (One) of my salvation,
(and) my tongue will ring out your justice.”
In this verse, the Psalmist makes yet another promise, framed conditionally—on the condition that YHWH rescue him (lit. snatch him away, vb lx^n`) from “(shedd)ing of blood”. The plural noun <ym!D* (“bloods”) is used in the Old Testament as a specific idiom (difficult to translate into English) referring to the shedding of blood. It can be used for violence (and wickedness) generally, even if no blood is actually shed. Here there are two possibilities: (1) it can refer to sin and wickedness, or (2) it can refer specifically to the guilt (from sin) that leads to death. Probably the latter is in view.
A 3-beat couplet (lines 1 and 3 above) has been expanded into a triad, including a short 2-beat middle line, emphasizing the Psalmist’s praise of God, the very thing that he promises to do if YHWH delivers him from death (“my tongue will cry/ring out [vb /n~r*] your justice”).
According to one line of interpretation, the Psalmist has experienced illness, which he understands as punishment for sin that he has committed. This generally fits the context, though the specific sense of physical suffering (from illness or disease) is not as prominent in this Psalm as it is in other prayer/petitionary Psalms we have studied. If he is praying to be delivered from death (cf. on the use of the word <ym!D* above), this would give some added weight to the idea that the Psalm involves a prayer for deliverance (healing) from sickness.
Verse 17 
“My Lord, may you open (up) my lips,
and my mouth will bring out front a shout (to) you.”
This verse (another 3-beat couplet) builds upon the idea of giving praise to YHWH in v. 16 . If God delivers him (from death), then the Psalmist promises to praise Him; yet, even so, he asks further that YHWH “open up” his lips (i.e., inspire him) so that he will be able to present a proper “shout” (hL*h!T=) of praise. The verb dg~n` (in the Hiphil stem) literally means “put in front, bring out front”. This is one of numerous references or allusions in the Psalms to the idea of musical/poetic inspiration, with the source of the inspiration being God Himself (His Spirit).
Verse 18 
“For you do not delight (at all) in (ritual) slaughter,
and should I give (you) rising (smoke) you would not be pleased.”
The rhythm of this (slightly irregular) 3-beat couplet is a bit difficult to render into English. However the poetic parallelism of thought is clear and direct enough. It repeats some of the prophetic themes we saw expressed in Psalm 50 (cf. Parts 1 and 2 of that study), downplaying the importance of the sacrificial offerings. This message does not necessarily mean that one can (or should) forego the performance of the sacrificial ritual; rather, it emphasizes that the heart and intention of the person making the sacrifice is far more important. Simply fulfilling the ritual duty, while one’s heart remains unfaithful and rebellious, actually makes a mockery of the Torah regulations. This is clearly stated in the next verse.
Verse 19 
“(The) slaughterings of (the) Mightiest (are) a broken spirit—
a heart broken and crushed, Mightiest, you will not despise.”
The powerfully concrete language used in this couplet tends to be lost in conventional English translation. It is important to preserve the fundamental meaning of the noun jb^z#; typically translated “sacrifice,” it literally refers to the slaughter of an animal (in a religious/ritual context). But what the Psalmist states here, most strikingly, is that the kind of slaughtering YHWH truly wants is not the cutting up of an animal, but the breaking apart of one’s spirit. That is to say, one should offer up one’s own spirit—one’s very own life and being—as a sacrificial offering. Two passive participles are used (as verbal adjectives) to express this, from the verbs rb^v* (“break [apart]”) and hk*D* (“crush”).
A broken and crushed spirit (j^Wr = heart [bl@]) refers both to an attitude of repentance and the experience of suffering. YHWH treats the animal sacrifices, in and of themselves, as worth nothing; however, the sacrifice of one’s own heart and spirit—that He does not treat as nothing (vb hz`B*, i.e., belittle, despise). On the contrary, a faithful/loyal heart is of the utmost importance to God, and part of this faithfulness is the willingness to make right the covenant bond when it is broken by sin. The process of making things right involves both repentance and the endurance of punishment (i.e., suffering) at times.
The expression “slaughterings [i.e. sacrifices] of the Mightiest” means: sacrifices that one should offer to God, that are acceptable to Him.
Verses 20-21 [18-19]
“May you do good, by your pleasure, (to) ‚iyyôn,
(when) you build (the) walls of Yerushalaim;
then you shall delight (in) slaughterings of justice—
(the) rising (smoke) and (the) whole (offering)—
then they shall offer up bulls upon your place of slaughter.”
The Psalm comes to a close, somewhat curiously, with this pair of couplets (the second couplet being expanded into a triad), focusing rather abruptly on the city of Jerusalem. Commentators tend to regard it as an editorial appendix, whereby the original Psalm came to be adapted into a wider communal context. A number of Psalms show similar signs; once these compositions came to be utilized, on a regular basis, in a communal and ritual setting, it is not surprising that such minor additions would develop within the text.
The individual petition has shifted to a petition by the entire community of Jews (or Judeans) longing for a restoration of their holy city and its Temple. This clearly indicates an exilic (and probably post-exilic) setting. While this focus on communal and national restoration is secondary, it is not at all inappropriate from the standpoint of the Old Testament and Israelite religious tradition. Indeed, there is a close connection between individual sin and that of the community, and also between individual and national repentance.
It was, after all, the sins of individuals which led to the guilt and punishment of the entire community (of Judah and Jerusalem), culminating in the Exile and destruction of the Temple. Correspondingly, repentance will lead to the rebuilding of the city and Temple; once that happens, ritual sacrifices can again be offered to YHWH. The expectation is that, after the experience of suffering, the people will come to offer these sacrifices with a new and transformed heart, loyal to the covenant with YHWH, and thus the offerings will be acceptable to Him.