Ps 51 for Chad
Though you wash yourself [תְּכַבְּסִי] with lye
and use much soap
the stain of your guilt is still before me.
Thus the suppliant desires to be cleansed from sin with the thoroughness used in washing dirty clothes.
The third verb for forgiveness (טהר) is found in 4b (”and cleanse me from my sin”). This verb is used of a physical cleansing: dross from metal (Mal 3:3); clouds from the heaven (Job 37:21); from disease (2 Kgs 5:10, 12–14); unclean things from the temple (2 Chr 29:15, 16; Ezek 31:45). Apart from these references, however, the verb is used of cleansing or purity in a ritual sense (Lev 11:32; 12:7, 8; etc.). The ritual associations are certainly in view here, but probably not to the extent supposed by Leslie when he translates, “And declare me clean of my sin” (399). Dalglish (Psalm Fifty-One, 91, 94) notes that in the case of כבס the sense is not “wash sin from me” but “wash me.” We should see the same emphasis in 4b: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin,” or, as in the translations above, “Wash away my waywardness.” In the OT generally, uncleanness is essentially that which disqualifies from participation in ritual and excludes the worshiper from the presence of God. However, no clear distinction can be made between purely ritual and moral cleanness or uncleanness, and none should be attempted here.
The three verbs for forgiveness are matched by three prime words for sin in vv 3–4. The first of these is פֶּשַׁע, which has been defined in a theological sense as “willful, self-assertive defiance of God” (Dalglish, Psalm Fifty-One, 88). L. Köhler (OT Theology, 170) declares that the word means “… rebellion. It is the disobedience, παρακοή, of Rom 5:19.” Numerous references demonstrate the idea of revolt carried by the verb (e.g., 1 Kgs 12:19; 2 Kgs 3:4–5; Hos 9:1; Isa 1:2; Amos 3:14). However, R. Knierim (Die Hauptbegriffe für Sünde im Alten Testament, 178) thinks the most appropriate expression for the root idea is “to break with” or “to do wrong.” The word represents a rather formalized overall concept of many-sided types of wrongdoing, which vary in different contexts. Ronald Youngblood (“Three Old Testament Roots for ‘Sin,’ ” 201–5) argues that one nuance of פשׁע is that of “deviating” or “straying.” He cites a number of OT references, including Amos 2:4, “For three transgressions [פשׁעי] of Judah, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment … their lies have led them astray [root תעה or טעה], after which their fathers walked.” Also Isa 59:13a, 15b: “… transgressing [פְשׁע, and denying Yahweh, and turning away [root סוג] from following our God … and he who turns aside from evil makes himself a prey”; Hos 7:13a, “… they have strayed [root נדד] from me … they have rebelled [פשׁעו] against me!” (and parallel in 7:14d, “they rebel [root נסור] against me”).
The second word for sin in v 4 is עָוֹן, which is commonly assumed to derive from the root idea of bending or twisting. However, S. R. Driver (Notes on the Hebrew Text and the Topography of the Books of Samuel, 2nd ed. [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913], 170, n. 2) has argued that two roots, distinct in Arabic, have been confused in Hebrew (also Dalglish, Psalm Fifty-One, 91–92). One root means “to bend” and the other “to err, go astray.” Driver argues that עון in the OT is properly “error” or “deviation from the right track.” He cites the versions of Isa 19:14 (where LXX has πνευ̂μα πλανήσεω, “spirit of error,” for MT רוח עועים) and Prov 12:8. Youngblood (“Three OT Roots for ‘Sin,’ ” 204) thinks that “err from the road” is a primary meaning of עון and cites numerous passages in which it is found in the context with “way,” “turns to/from,” “walks,” and “turn aside” or the like: e.g., Lam 3:9, “He has blocked my ways … he has made my paths crooked [עוה]”; 2 Sam 22:22a, 24b, “I have kept the ways of Yahweh.… I have kept myself from iniquity [עון]; Jer 14:10, “They have loved to wander [נוע], they have not restrained their feet … he will remember their iniquity [עון] and punish their sins [חטאת].” Thus the “waywardness” of the translation above cannot be far off the mark.
On the other hand, the idea of bending or twisting seems to appear in some contexts: e.g., Ps 38:7, “I am utterly bowed down [עוה] and prostrate”; Isa 21:3, “I am bowed down from hearing”; Isa 24:1, “and he will twist [עוה] its surface [that of the land or the earth] and scatter its inhabitants.” Thus the word can be understood with either sense. Actually, the idea of bending or twisting is not very different from the idea of deviation or error. L. Köhler (OT Theology, 169) argues that עון “designates a sin that originates in wrong intention and contrasts with חטא and פשׁע.” This approach is reflected also in S. Terrien (The Psalms, 171), who writes that “ ‘iniquity’ designates a state of distortion, bending, or twisting, which vitiates the whole outlook and therefore the subsequent behavior.… It is the disintegration of heart and volition.” But one can argue on the basis of OT contexts that חטאת and פשׁע also carry the ideas of guilt and “state of distortion”—the “disintegration of heart and volition” is characteristic of sin generally, regardless of the word used. In the case of עון, it is especially important to observe that regardless of the root idea adopted, the word refers to deliberate action rather than to innate or accidental wrongdoing.
The third word for sin is חַטָּאת, commonly translated as “sin.” This form of חטא occurs some 155 times in the OT and, along with other forms, is part of the most used complex of words for sin (over 400 times). The root idea of “missing the mark” is often cited, especially using Judg 20:16b, “everyone could sling a stone at a hair, and not miss [חטא]” (also Prov 8:36; 19:2; Job 5:24). The idea of failure is frequently attached to the word. However, it is important to remember that the failure involved is the result of choice or of a clear act of will (A. A. Anderson, 393), although the verb and noun do appear in a few references to unwilling sins, primarily of a cultic nature (e.g., Lev 4:2–3; 5:15–16; Num 15:27–28). Köhler qualifies his treatment of חטא as “failure” by arguing that it is concerned with the violation of commands and prohibitions (OT Theology, 169). He pushes his analysis so far as to contend that פשׁע is less concerned with the violation of “objective commands” than חטא, being essentially concerned with the “revolt of the human will against the divine will” (170). He calls פשׁע “the OT’s most profound word for sin” (also S. J. De Vries, IDB, 4, 361). But numerous uses of חטא occur without any explicit reference to commandments or instruction, as is the case with the much less frequently used פשׁע. At least in Hos 8:1 and Ezek 18:22, 28, 30, 31, פשׁע appears where instruction and commandments are clearly in the context. Any attempt to find greater profundity in one of these three major words for sin than in another seems to be poorly supported. After extensive discussion of the root ideas of פשׁע, עון, and חטא, Dalglish (Psalm Fifty-One, 93) concludes that “although their conceptual motif may differ, there is no great difference of any importance in the use.…” (See also the excursus by Knierim (Die Hauptbegriffe, 229–35) on the connection of פשׁע, עון, and חטא). Youngblood (“Three OT Roots for ‘Sin,’ ” 205) refers to the interpretation of the various roots and concludes that “sin is comprehensively viewed in the Old Testament as the deliberate act of veering off the road that God wants us to travel.”
Confession of sin (51:5–6b). The confession begins with a forthright statement of personal knowledge in 5a. The force of the “I know” is increased by the addition of the separate personal pronoun. The “I know” should be understood in a personal sense of knowing rather than in the sense of “I acknowledge” or “I confess.” The parallel in 5b is equally strong: “my sin [or, sinfulness] is ever before me.” This expression certainly conveys a sense of continual awareness rather than an occasional consciousness and most probably also the idea of continuing tension because of fear and shame (cf. 32:3–5; 38:18). The “courage to deal impartially” with oneself is a necessary characteristic for true confession.
The heart of the confession is found in 6a: “Against you, you only, I have sinned.” Some commentators (see the summaries in Perowne, 415; Gunkel, 222) have noted the absence of any confession of sin against other human beings and have assumed that such awareness is missing from the confession. But other OT passages make it clear that from an early time in Israel sins against persons were believed to be sins against God (Kraus, 543); see 2 Sam 12:9, 10, 13; Gen 39:9; Prov 14:31; 17:5. Violation of the commandments of God is construed as sin against God himself (Kraus, 544; Weiser, 403).
The parallel statement in 6b is also emphatic: “And I have done evil in your sight.” The expression “evil in your [or his] sight” is the opposite of “what is right [יָשָׁר] or good [טוֹב] in the eyes of Yahweh” (e.g., Deut 6:18; 12:8, 25, 28). Basically, רַע, “evil,” refers to whatever is bad, disagreeable, or unpleasant and may or may not have a specific ethical sense (e.g., worthless or corrupt: 2 Kgs 2:19; Prov 20:14; 25:19; Jer 24:2; Matt 6:23; 7:17; displeasing, ugly, or sad: Gen 21:11–12; 28:8; 41:19–20; Neh 2:3; Eccl 7:3; painful or injurious: Gen 26:29; 31:7; Deut 26:6; 28:35; 2 Sam 12:18; Prov 11:15; Rev 16:21).
The rightness of divine judgment (51:6cd). The לְמַעַן] of v 6c has stimulated a great deal of somewhat perplexed discussion because it most often expresses “in order that” rather than result (“so that”). The idea of purpose results in the translation “in order that you may be in the right [or, justified] when you speak and blameless when you judge.” Such a translation produces an extraordinary tension between 6ab and 6c: “I have sinned against you … in order that you may be justified.…” Some interpreters have accepted this tension and chosen to understand the verse in the sense of “I sinned to the glory of God,” especially in a Pauline sense (e.g., Perowne, Kirkpatrick, Weiser, Dalglish [Psalm Fifty-One, 109–13], Goldingay [Songs, 158]). Weiser cites Rom 11:32–33, “God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all,” though he also argues that “these thoughts on God’s ultimate purpose being made manifest by sin” (405) do not alleviate man’s responsibility or the seriousness of sin (cf. Rom 6:15). Appeal is also made to Rom 3:3–5 where Paul quotes 6c (in its Greek form) and says “But if our wickedness serves to show the justice of God, what shall we say?” Kirkpartick (290) sums up this approach: “Probably … we are meant to understand that man’s sin brings out into a clearer light the justice and holiness of God, who pronounces sentence upon it.”
Another approach to 6c is to assume that the reference goes back to v 5, with v 6ab treated as a parenthesis, or else to conjecture that something like “I confess this so that …” has dropped out (so Dalglish, A. A. Anderson, etc.). This interpretation lends itself to the treatment of 6c as an element borrowed from the so-called “doxology of judgment,” in which the sinner acknowledges the rightness of divine punishment and glorifies the acts of God’s judgment (see Kraus, 544; G. von Rad, Old Testament Theology, tr. D. M. G. Stalker [New York: Harper, 1962] 1:357–59). The best example is Joshua’s counsel to Achan, “My son, give glory to the Lord God of Israel, and render praise to him; and tell me now what you have done” (Josh 7:19). In the “doxology of judgment” the guilty persons confess and praise God by confirming the rightness of a divine judgment.
These difficult explanations are avoided by reading למען as an expression of consequence or result (so Buttenwieser, 193; Kissane, 227; Eerdmans, 273; Dahood, II, 4; N. H. Ridderbos, “Psalm 51:5–6,” 307–9). Actually, examples of the use of למען for consequence or result are fairly numerous. For example, Perowne cites 30:12; Exod 11:9; Deut 29:18; Isa 44:9; Hos 8:4; Dahood cites Ps 68:23 and Prov 2:20. Some of the examples are moot, but the number can be increased: 1 Kgs 8:41; 2 Kgs 13:23; 22:17; Amos 2:7; Joel 3:6; Ezek 21:15, 28 (see H. A. Brongers, “Die Partikel לְמַעַן in der biblisch-hebraischen Sprache,” Oudtestamentische Studiën 18 (1973) 88–89). This approach avoids the theologizing required by the purpose clause and still allows v 6c to reflect an element of the “doxology of judgment.”
Rom 3:4 follows the LXX and takes the זכה, “blameless,” in v 6d as “to be victorious/prevail” in accord with its Aramaic sense. However, the limited usage of the word in the MT (only eight times) points toward the ideas of acquittal or favorable judgment, and seems to reflect legal usage (Dalglish, Psalm Fifty-One, 112–13; Dahood II, 4: “No one can bring a legitimate claim against you”). If the idea of “prevail” is adopted, it should be understood as “prevailing in judgment,” and thus “blameless.”
Confession of sinfulness (51:7–8). The counterpart of v 6 is formed by v 7 and extends the acute present sense of sin into the past. The suppliant’s sinful condition is not merely of recent vintage. The whole of life is involved in the confession of sin: “Indeed I was born in waywardness, and my mother conceived me in sin.” Thus the sin confessed in the present extends back to the very beginnings of the speaker’s life.
This verse has been especially popular with Christian expositors, who have used it in connection with the doctrine of original sin (see Dalglish, Psalm Fifty-One, 118–23; Zink, VT 17  354–61). Some interpreters have understood the sin involved as that of sexual passion or sexual intercourse, and perhaps even adultery on the part of the mother. Attention is focused on יחם, “to be hot/rut/conceive.” Delitzsch (157) flirts with the attraction of this view when he says that the verb “hints at the beast-like element in the act of coition,” though he does not adopt it. This interpretation is augmented by the widespread interpretation of the “knowledge of good and evil” in Gen 3 as sexual intercourse and by references that declare sexual acts, bodily discharges, and birth to be ritually unclean (Exod 21:9; Lev 12; 15; etc.). A modern Jewish scholar, Y. Kaufmann (The Religion of Israel, from Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile, tr. M. Greenberg [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969], 293–94), illustrates this approach when he argues that sexual desire is the archetypical sin in Gen 3, “the characteristic mark of the evil impulse.” Procreation becomes not a blessing (as in Gen 1:28), but the result of sin. “The sexual act … is the child of sin. Offspring was given to man only after he had sinned and became subject to death.… The race was born from sin.” Kaufmann applies this interpretation to Ps 51:5, “Man was created by grace, but is born through sin.” More recently Caquot (RHR 1969  144–45) interprets v 5 as applying to Jerusalem as the “mother” of the Israelites. He suggests that the background is found in the sexual symbolism used in Hos 2:6–9; Ezek 16:3; 23:25 (also note Isa 50:1; 64:1–8; Jer 50:1–12). He notes that the coarseness of the verb with its bestial application would be appropriate if sinful and adulterous Jerusalem is in mind.
However, this influential interpretation is dubious. That sexual desire is the “archetypal sin” of Gen 3 is very doubtful (see commentaries). Dalglish points out that “nowhere in the Old Testament is the legitimate act of coition referred to as sinful” (Psalm Fifty-One, 119). Such passages as Gen 1:28; 9:1, 7; 29:31; 30:22, 23; Ruth 4:13; Job 10:8–12; Ps 139:13–16 make it extremely difficult to maintain any inherent sinfulness in sexual intercourse, conception, and birth. Admittedly, the verb is used elsewhere of animals (Gen 30:38, 39, 41; 31:10; the more common verb is הרה) and one can understand Delitzsch’s “hint.” But it occurs only six times, and too much should not be built on such limited usage. Caquot’s case for Jerusalem is possible, but far from certain. Regardless of the identity of the mother, her sexual passion is not the central focus of the confession. The suppliant is not confessing a mother’s sin. The emphasis is on personal sinfulness: “For my acts of rebellion, I know indeed … against you, you only, I have sinned.”
The passage is more commonly understood today as a confession of the essential human condition of the speaker. “One is a sinner simply as a result of one’s natural human descent” (W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, I, 268). Closely related to this approach is what may be called the social view. “It is the tragedy of man that he is born into a world full of sin” (Weiser, 405; also A. A. Anderson, 395). No particular sinfulness of the mother or the process of conception is involved. The emphasis is on the sin of the speaker, who admits that sin has been “no freak event” (Kidner, 190), but goes back to the roots of personal existence (see Ps 58:3). Thus the psalm reflects acceptance of the understanding that human life always involves sin and guilt (see Gen 8:21; Job 14:4; 15:14–16; 25:4; Ps 143:2; John 3:6; Kraus, 544).
J. K. Zink has taken up the interpretations of various Jewish commentators and argued that 51:5 and Job 14:4 should be understood in the sense of ritual uncleanness. This approach links these verses to laws on uncleanness and purification after sexual intercourse (Lev 15:18). Zink (VT 17  360) points out that the Levitical laws frequently use “sin” and “uncleanness” as synonyms and argues that “iniquity” and “sin” in 51:7 should be understood in the same way (note the “cleanse me” in v 2). Thus the confession is concerned with a birth that occurred in the “sinful” state of disqualification from participation in ritual worship.
The best interpretation seems to be the second discussed above. However, the background of ritual impurity enhances the force of the confession and properly deserves attention. Further, the verse may indeed have been understood with Jerusalem as the mother after the re-interpretation of the psalm by the addition of vv 18–19. A purely ritual basis (as proposed by Zink) is too restricted for the comprehensive confession of sin. Such ritual uncleanness would be, after all, unavoidable on the part of every person (and could be used as an excuse). This is hardly adequate for the emphatically personal confession of rebellion and sin in vv 5–6. It is hardly probable that the ritual uncleanness of the worshiper’s mother at conception and childbirth would be continually before the speaker or that he or she should declare “against you, you only, I have sinned.” The main point is the comprehensive nature of the suppliant’s own sin.
The meaning of v 8 eludes all assurance. The long notes 8.c and 8.d above attempt to set forth a modest rationale for the translation adopted. The interpretation is influenced (a) by linking v 8 with v 7 (v 8 is a continuation of the confession in v 7), and (b) by the Talmudic tradition (Nid. 30b; noted by Dalglish, Psalm Fifty-One, 124–25) that torah was taught to an embryonic person, though it was all forgotten at birth. The involvement of Yahweh with the formation of the fetus seems to be well established in such passages as Ps 139:13–18; Job 10:10–12; Eccl 11:5; Ps 22:9–10; 2 Macc 7:22–23; Wis 7:1–3; see also the Egyptian Hymn of Aton. If this interpretation is correct, the verse means that the suppliant does not claim to be simply a victim of circumstance (v 7) but confesses that no time in his or her existence as a human being has been without the gifting of divine truth and wisdom. Thus the verse serves to strengthen the rightness of God’s judgment of the speaker’s sin in v 6b. The verse is far too uncertain, however, for much confidence in any interpretation.
A wide range of meaning characterizes both אֱמֶת, “truth,” and חָכְמָה, “wisdom,” in the OT (for אמת see A. Jepson, TDOT, I, 309–16; for חכמה see J. L. Crenshaw, IDBSup, 952–56). Jepsen (313) finds that “reliability” is the most comprehensive expression of the idea of אמת. The concept involves relationship, pertains to speech and actions, and represents characteristics that have to be demonstrated. Our word “truth” tends to convey meaning that is too abstract and too self-evident. In Exod 18:4, Jethro urges Moses to “choose [תחזה, “look for/scrutinize”] able men for all the people, such as fear God, men who are trustworthy [אמת] and who hate a bribe” (cf. Deut 1:13). Joseph must test the words of his brothers before he can know that they are אמת (Gen 42:16). God is pleased when אמת is present because it is so often absent. “Truth” is the essential quality of reliability which is necessary for a proper relationship with God. “Yahweh is near … to all who call upon him in truth [אמת]” (also 1 Kgs 2:4; Hos 4:1–2; Jer 4:2; Pss 15:2; 86:11; Isa 38:3; Zech 7:9; Ezek 18:8).
A fully satisfactory definition of “wisdom” is elusive, having been summarized as “the art of succeeding in life, practical knowledge of laws governing the world, based on experience … ability to cope; right deed or word for the moment; an intellectual tradition” (Crenshaw, IDBSup, 952). In general, it is the coping ability to deal with those skills, temptations, responsibilities, and sufferings which are common to human life in ways that enhance the performance of healthy and successful living. Such performance involves the “fear of Yahweh” (e.g., Prov 1:7; 9:10; Job 28:28; Ps 111:10), which can be roughly defined as reverence toward God and thus willingness to obey the divine will. Perhaps the best passage from the wisdom literature to complement Ps 51 is Prov 28:13–14:
He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper,
but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.
Blessed is the man who fears the Lord always;
but he who hardens his heart will fall into calamity. (rsv)
“Wisdom” in this context refers to the abiding endowment of human beings by God (Exod 36:2; Eccl 2:26; Prov 2:6; 14:33), which empowers them with the ability to cope with life in healthy and constructive ways. It has its origin before birth, according to Ps 51:8.
Prayer for forgiveness (51:9, 11). A respectable exegetical tradition contends for a continuation of positive statements in vv 9–10, reading them as expressions of confidence in what God will do (e.g., LXX, Jerome, Perowne, Kirkpatrick, Kidner). But it seems better to read the verbs with jussive or imperative force, and this is strengthened by the literary analysis which links v 9 with v 11, where the imperative is used. It is also strengthened by the emphatic position of ואטהר (“and I will be clean indeed,” see Dahood). The prayer is literally to be “un-sinned with hyssop.” The verb חטא appears a few times in piel (and hithpael) with the meaning “to purify from sin” or more literally “to unsin” or “to de-sin” (so Dahood, II, 5, but long before by John Donne, see Perowne, 419; also Lev 8:18; 14:49, 52; Num 19:19; Ezek 43:20, 22, 23; 45:18).
For “hyssop” (אזוב) see note 9.b*. A hyssop bush was used to sprinkle blood on the doorposts at Passover (Exod 12:22), in rituals for cleansing of a leper (Lev 14:4, 6, 49, 51, 52), and in the purification of a person defiled by contact with a corpse (Num 19:6, 18). Thus the verb reflects a background of cleansing rituals, though the use here may be strongly metaphorical.
The second point of v 9 (“wash me so that I will be whiter than snow”) uses the symbolism of whiteness for forgiveness (Dalglish, Psalm Fifty-One, 136). Snow does fall in Palestine, though not frequently. Note the contrast between the scarlet of sin and the whiteness of forgiveness in Isa 1:18. Blackness and dark sackcloth are associated with lamentation, sickness, and mourning (Isa 1:3; Ps 35:13, 14; Rev 6:12; also Exod 4:6; Num 11:10; 2 Kgs 5:27; Lam 4:17; Dan 7:9). To be whiter than snow is to be completely clean and prepared for the divine presence.
The prayer continues in v 11, where Yahweh is asked to hide his face from sin and blot out the guilt of waywardness. The hiding of the divine face (in the sense of turning it away?) is a graphic metaphor for forgiving action. In some contexts, God hides his face in displeasure and withdrawal of favor (e.g., 13:2; 27:9; 102:3; 143:7), but here the speaker prays that God will turn his face away from sin. For a treatment of God’s hiding his face, see S. E. Balentine, The Hidden God: The Hiding of the Face of God in the Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1983). See also Pss 22:25; 27:9; 69:17, 18a, 19a; 88:15; 102:3; 143:7. The background of the expression relating to God’s hiding his face seems to be rooted in the idea of a deity turning away in rejection and separation from a suppliant. Balentine (44) points out that “hide the face” was a part of the common religious language of the ancient Near East. The prayer in v 11 is for God to separate himself in a gracious self-alienation from the suppliant’s sins—a startling concept of forgiveness. The “blot out” in the parallel colon of v 11 draws attention back to the same words in v 3.
Prayer for restoration (51:10, 12–14). The first prayer of the second major part of the psalm begins with a request that the suppliant may again hear the joy and gladness of a healthy life, probably with reference to a return to festal gladness with other worshipers (cf. Pss 42:5; 68:6; 105:43; Jer 31:7; Zeph 3:17). Some commentators think in terms of an oracle of forgiveness spoken to the suppliant by a priest (see Dalglish, Psalm Fifty-One, 138–41; Weiser, 406; A. A. Anderson, I, 397, with attention to Pss 38:14–16; 130:5–6; 143:7, 8a; 1 Sam 9:27; Joel 2:17–19).
The “crushed bones” of v 10b may refer to an illness which has made the suppliant acutely aware of personal sinfulness, or it may refer to mental and spiritual distress caused by guilt. The word “bones” (עֶצֶם) occurs with ideas of health and well-being (e.g., Ps 34:21; Job 20:11; Prov 15:30; Isa 66:14) as well as with ideas of sickness or woe (e.g., Pss 6:3; 32:2; 38:4; Job 30:30; 38:4); the plural is used as a collective term for the limbs of the body (Judg 19:29; Pss 31:10–11; 32:3; Job 33:19). The “bones you crushed” may be only a strong statement of overpowering spiritual remorse, though this could certainly involve psychosomatic elements in most biblical contexts. In any case, the speaker is confident that God could make the crushed bones “rejoice” (גִּיל). The neb catches the spirit of v 10b, “Let the bones dance which thou hast broken.”
In v 12, the suppliant prays for a restoration of “heart” (לֵב) and “spirit” (רוּחַ). The לב (and לבב) was regarded as the volitional center of a person’s being (see H. W. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974], 40–58). The intellectual and rational function that we normally ascribe to the mind was located in the heart according to biblical language (Deut 29:4; Isa 6:10; Prov 15:14; Job 8:10; Ps 90:12). Wolff (47) warns against the “false impression that biblical man is determined more by feeling than by reason.” The heart has the capacity for perception, reason, wisdom, and it is the source of the will. It can also represent the person as such (e.g., 22:15; Jer 23:16).
The spirit of a person has much the same meaning as heart, and indeed seems to be a synonym in v 12 (A. A. Anderson, I, 398; for רוּחַ, see F. Baumgärtel, “Spirit in the OT,” TDNT, VI, 359–67; Wolff, 32–39). רוח refers to moving air in a meteorological sense (as in Gen 3:8; 8:1; ?Isa 7:4) and in a physical sense to breath (Gen 7:22; Job 9:18; 19:17; etc.). It is the animating factor in mankind and in animals (e.g., Gen 6:17; 17:15; Ezek 37:6; 8:10, 14). Idols lack the vital force of spirit (Hab 2:19). רוח is also the center of emotions, intellectual functions, and the will (Gen 41:8; Isa 54:6; Prov 14:24; 18:14; Deut 34:9; Dan 6:4; Ezek 28:3; etc.). Yahweh’s רוח can repre-sent his creative power (Ps 33:6) and is the endowment which he gives to persons for special actions (Judg 3:10; 14:6; 1 Sam 10:6; 11:6; Isa 11:2; 42:1; Joel 2:28).
In v 12, the suppliant prays for a “clean heart” and a “steadfast spirit.” The נכון (niphal participle from כון) means “to be firmly established” (used of heart in Pss 57:8; 78:37; 112:7). The idea is that of consistency and loyalty. Is “spirit” here the spirit of the worshiper or the spirit of God? The usual translation of בְּקִרְבִּי is “within me,” and the expression is taken to refer to the establishment of a steadfast inner disposition for the suppliant. However, it should be noticed that בקרבי can mean “over” or “on” when used as a ballast variant for בְּ with spirit (Isa 63:11c; 19:14; cf. 29:10; Ezek 36:27; cf. 37:14), name (Exod 23:21), blood (Deut 21:8), and signs (Exod 10:1). See H. J. van Dijk, “A Neglected Connotation of Three Hebrew Verbs,” VT 18 (1968) 16–30. The most frequent idea associated with the spirit of God is that it comes upon or is poured on a person rather than being put into the inner being. “The communication of the Lord’s Spirit is not a kind of surgical operation, but a rather dynamic event: the prophet and the other men of God are overwhelmed by its onrush” (van Dijk, 19). Thus it is quite probable that the spirit in v 12 is God’s steadfast and firmly reliable spirit, which is given to those who serve him.
The verb “create” in v 12a is the well-known בָּרָא, which always has God as the subject (in qal and niphal forms) and has accusatives which represent the products of the divine actions (see K. H. Bernhardt, G. P. Botterweck, H. Ringgren, TDOT, II, 242–49). In OT usage, the verb refers to divine action which “brings forth something new and astonishing” (W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, II, 104; note Exod 34:10; Isa 48:6–8; Jer 31:22). There is, however, no need to conclude that בָּרָא denotes creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing in a strict sense). The divine activity results in a new order of existence, a new arrangement, or a new emergence of something shaped by the divine power and will. While the prayer in v 12 is not for creatio ex nihilo, it is a bold one for a transformation which could be accomplished only by divine power and a work on the order of the first creation of the world (Gunkel, 224; Kraus, 546; cf. 2 Cor 5:17). “None but God can create either a new heart or a new earth” (Spurgeon, 405).
The verb in v 12b is הַדֵּשׁ, which should be translated in the sense of its regular meaning (in piel and hithpael) as “to renew” (Kidner, 192; e.g., Ps 104:30; Isa 61:4; Lam 5:21; Job 10:17 may be an exception). The renewal of spiritual endowment is made possible by the creation of a clean heart.
V13 continues the plea for restoration with the urgent request that God not banish the suppliant from the divine presence. Those denied the presence of God (lit. “from before your face”) lose a source of joy, and indeed of life itself (Ps 42:1–4; 2 Kgs 13:23; Jer 23:39). The suppliant does not want to be like Cain (Gen 4:14, 16), or David (1 Sam 26:20), or Saul (1 Sam 16:14), and be driven from a vital experience of worship.
“Your holy spirit” (רוח קדשׁך) is an unusual expression that is found elsewhere in the MT only in Isa 63:10, 11 (cf. Wis 9:17); though “your good spirit” is in Neh 9:20 (cf. “an evil spirit,” 1 Sam 16:14; “spirit of wisdom,” 1 Sam 11:2). Various connotations emerge when “spirit” is associated with God. The spirit is sometimes God’s creative power (see 33:6; also Job 33:4; Jdt 16:14; Wis 1:7). The life-giving power of the divine spirit is a form of creation (Ps 104:27–30; Job 34:14–15; Ezek 37:9–14). A few texts link רוח so clearly with God that the operation of the spirit is equivalent to the action of God, and the spirit seems identical with the personality of God in some cases. The transcendent realm of God is spirit and not flesh.
The Egyptians are men, and not God,
and their horses are flesh, and not spirit (Isa 31:3, rsv)
See also Isa 34:16 and the operation of the spirit with the mind of Yahweh in Isa 40:13 (cf. John 4:24).
Isa 63:11–14 is of particular interest in the case of “holy spirit.” The holy spirit of Yahweh is parallel with his “glorious arm,” which was with Moses through the exodus experiences (cf. Isa 40:10; 51:9). The spirit of Yahweh gave them “rest,” meaning “rest” in the promised land from attacks by their enemies (Josh 21:44; 23:1; Deut 12:10). Note that “his holy spirit” is parallel with the “angel of his presence” in Isa 63:9 (though the text is sometimes emended to read “it was no messenger or angel, but his presence which saved them”—a reading which would enhance the linkage between spirit and the presence of Yahweh). Israel’s rebellion against Yahweh has “grieved his holy spirit.” “The spirit is depicted as personal—no mere power or influence, but the object of a possible personal relationship” (G. W. H. Lampe, “Holy Spirit,” IDB, II, 629). Thus the appeal in Ps 51:11 seems to be for a continuing experience of the creative, life-giving, and empowering presence of God himself. One cannot experience the presence of God when his holy spirit is taken away.
What is the significance of the qualifying idea of “holy” (קדשׁ)? The biblical ideas of holiness are elusive and involve a wide semantic range (see K. G. Kuhn and O. Procksch, TDNT, I, 88–115; J. Muilenburg, “Holiness,” IDB, II, 616–25). Muilenburg defines it as “the ‘given’ undergirding and pervading all religion; the distinctive mark and signature of the divine” (616). The root idea seems to be that of separation; in a theological sense, it is that which is separated or set apart or belonging to deity or associated with the divine. Holiness is especially evident whenever the divine presence is perceived (e.g., Exod 3:2–3; 19:18; Isa 6). “Wherever God’s presence is felt these men [sic] encounter the wonder and mystery of holiness” (Muilenburg, 617). The range of meaning in the OT is so extensive that Muilenburg uses twelve “associations” of terms with holiness in his attempt to comprehend it, and says that the list could be extended: fire (very pervasive, also in the NT, e.g., Matt 3:11, Acts 2:1–4), jealousy, wrath, fear, remoteness (“the radical cleavage between the human and the divine”), cleanness, majesty, uniqueness, wonderful, great, exalted, and living God. Awe and dread are characteristic of the awareness of the holy, the mysterium tremendum, the perception of “an undefined and uncanny energy … of the imponderable and incomprehensible, an inarticulate feeling of an inviolable potency outside and beyond” (Muilenburg, 616).
The human correlate of the holiness of God is the fear of God. However, the fear of God is not a terror which drains away the vitality of the divine-human relationship. The fear of God and the awareness of the holy presence has “a mysterious power of attraction which is converted into wonder, obedience, self-surrender, and enthusiasm” (Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, II, 270). Thus God’s holy Spirit is his awe-inspiring, empowering, and joy-provoking presence. Perhaps no other word in the entire biblical vocabulary is so characteristic of the divine as “holy.”
The reference to the “holy spirit” of God inevitably raises questions about the relationship to the “Holy Spirit” of Christian theology. Any interpretation of the “holy spirit” in Ps 51 and Isa 63 in terms of the developed understandings of the Holy Spirit in the NT and in Christian thought would be anachronistic. On the other hand, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God, as in the OT. The infrequent use of “holy spirit” in MT should not be allowed to obscure the factthat its substance is rather common in OT passages that deal with רוח. In a profound sense, there is but “One Spirit.”
The suppliant’s prayer for restoration continues in v 14 with an appeal for the return of “the joy of your salvation.” The joyful awareness of God’s saving presence had been lost and was lacking from the relationship disrupted by sin. (For “joy,” שָׂשׂוֹן, see v 10; with the idea of “salvation,” see, e.g., Pss 9:14; 13:5; 21:2; 35:9; 40:16; though none of these use שָׂשׂוֹן or יֵשַׁע; יְשׁוּעָה and תְּשׁוּעָה are used, though note the verb שׂוּשׂ in Pss 35:9; 40:17. יֵשַׁע, יְשׁוּעָה, and תְּשׁוּעָה all seem to have the same meaning.) The meaning of the words for “salvation” is derived from the verb ישׁע, “to give width/freedom to,” thus “to help,” “to deliver,” and so “help” or “deliverance.” As is the case with other comprehensive biblical terms, the range of meaning is quite wide. The nouns, especially, “comprehend a totality which includes not only deliverance or help but also the ensuing state of salvation, though it is impossible to differentiate the ante and post, the cause and effect, since that act and the intended cause cannot be separated” (G. Fohrer, TDNT, VII, 974). The verb is used frequently in the psalter for the invoking and receiving of the help of Yahweh, especially with regard to enemies who are attacking a suppliant (e.g., 3:2; 7:2; 12:2; 18:3, 28; 28:9; 55:17; 86:2; for the nouns see, e.g., 14:7; 53:7; 18:47, 51; 24:5; 27:1; 71:15; 79:9). The physical and the spiritual merge in the concept of “salvation.” A few references refer to the comprehensive help and deliverance which God gives (e.g., Deut 32:15; Isa 17:10; Ezek 34:22; Pss 78:22; 132:16). In Ps 51, deliverance from illness may be involved, but surely the major point of the request in v 12 is an appeal for a joyful freedom from the consequences of guilt, even though the use of ישׁע in verb or noun forms with the forgiveness of sin is rare in the OT. Ezek 36:29 is especially significant: “I will save you from all your uncleanness [טמאתיכם],” followed in the parallel line with a promise of abundant grain and the absence of famine.
The second part of the plea in v 14 is for a “willing spirit” to sustain the suppliant in the new condition for which he or she prays. The word נְדִיבָה is a feminine adjectival form derived from נדב, which carries the idea of “willing/voluntary,” and “generous,” though its most basic idea is “to urge” or “to impel.” In some contexts, the meaning is “noble one” or “prince” (e.g., Num 21:18; 1 Sam 2:8; Pss 47:9; 83:11). The thrust of meaning in v 12 may be similar to that in Exod 35:5, 22: “Take from among you an offering to the Lord; whoever is of a generous [נְדִיב] heart, let him bring the Lord’s offering.… So they came, both men and women; all who were of a willing [נְדִיב] heart …” (rsv). The ideas of an enthusiast and volunteer are suggested by the word (Kidner, 192). However, the idea of “noble” or “princely” can be defended (supported by LXX’s ἡγεμονικός, the “guiding” of a prince or governor). So S. Terrien (Elusive Presence, 325): “A knight is not a knave. He helps and respects others with the ease, elegance, and style of a prince. The new being is a moral aristocrat, not of birth but of service. Freedom to be oneself implies the power to serve willingly.” Perhaps the two ideas complement one another (cf. 1 Sam 32:8) though it is doubtful that a somewhat romantic idealization of knighthood would have been intended by the psalmist.
The question of the nature of the spirit in v 14 arises. Is this the holy spirit of God (v 11)? Or a new spirit in man? Dahood (II, 7) argues that the suffix on “salvation” in 14a does double duty and translates 14b as “by your generous spirit sustain me.” Certainly, the suffix could have double duty, and the verb “sustain” (סמן) tends to support the understanding of the spirit as that of God because of its usage for the divine work of support and help (e.g., Pss 37:17, 24; 54:6; 71:6; 119:116; 145:14). The LXX reading of “your guiding spirit” also supports this interpretation. Neve argues that the presence of the holy spirit in 13b should be understood in terms of moral guidance rather than of communion with God (ExpTim 80  265). He thinks that the pattern of thought in vv 9–13 is found in Ezek 36:25–27; 39:29. Cleansing from sin is anticipated in Ezek 36:25, while v 26 (note the similarity with 51:10) has the promise of a new heart and a new spirit, and v 27 tells of the guidance in obedience to be provided by the internalized spirit; in Ezek 39:29, Yahweh will not hide his face anymore (cf. Ps 51:11) after he pours out his spirit on Israel. If this is correct, it would strengthen the interpretation of רוח in v 14b as the guiding spirit of God (note also the guiding function of the “good spirit” of God in Ps 143:10). Thus it is probable that רוח in vv 12, 13, and 14 refers to the spirit of God in each case.
Vow to teach sinners (51:15). The purpose for restoring forgiveness and charismatic endowment is followed by a commitment to teaching and praise. The suppliant promises to teach rebellious sinners the “ways” of God. The etymology of דרך (“way”) is not certain (see Ps 1:1; G. Sauer, THAT, I, 457–59; J. Bergman et al., TDOT, III, 270–93), but it is the most common word in the OT for the ideas of “road/way/street” or “path” (though several other words are also used). In a physical sense, דרך can mean “road” (e.g., Gen 38:14; Deut 2:27; Josh 2:7; Ezek 21:21). In a metaphorical sense it can mean the course of life and the conduct characteristic of it. When used of God, it can mean either the divine course of action (e.g., noun in Deut 8:2; Isa 55:8–9; Nah 1:3; Pss 103:7; 145:17; verb in Amos 4:13; Mic 1:3; Hab 3:15) or the behavior which God requires of human beings in terms of his will and commandments (e.g., Exod 32:8; Gen 18:19; Deut 5:33; 11:28; Isa 48:17; Pss 25:4; 32:8) or ways approved by God (Isa 53:6; Jer 10:2). “Your ways” in v 15 may certainly include the ways God intends for the guidance of his people as expressed in commandments and teachings. In the context, however, the ways of God in dealing with sinners must be included. Instruction in God’s gracious, forgiving restoration of sinners would be an integral part of the teaching.
Prayer for the ability to praise God (51:16–19). These verses resume the prayer in vv 10, 12–14. V16 begins with the controversial expression, “Deliver me from blood-guilt/bloodshed” (see note 16.a.* above). On the surface, at least, neither blood-guilt nor bloodshed seems to fit the context in Ps 51. References to enemies or violence are missing from the psalm. The use of “bloods” could, of course, be the result of the composition of the psalm with David in mind (see above; and note the concern of David for the removal of blood-guilt in 2 Sam 3:28–29; 1 Kgs 2:31–33; also 2 Sam 16:7, 8). A better approach may be along the line of “bloods” as a figurative expression which does not require reference to actual bloodshed or even to “bloodthirstiness” (see the study by N. A. Van Uchelen, “אנשׁי דמים in the Psalms,” Oudtestamentische Studiën 15 , 205–12). See Prov 12:6; 29:10; Pss 5:7; 26:9–10; 55:22, 24; Lev 19:19 (cf. Ezek 22:6–12; also Acts 20:26–27).
Perhaps the best interpretation in 51:16 is that of “deadly guilt”—guilt for which one could be held responsible unto death (as in Ezek 3:17–19; 33:7–9; the prophet is made answerable for the “blood”—life/death—of his people; cf. Pss 9:13; 30:10). This meaning fits well with the emphasis on the inadequacy of sacrifice in v 18. The murderer cannot be ransomed except by his or her own blood, according to Num 35:30–34 (because bloodshed pollutes the land). Also, see the discussion below of sin with a “high hand” in Num 15:30. Thus the guilt confessed in Ps 51 reaches its climax in the deadly guilt of v 16. No actual bloodshed may be involved at all, but the guilt is too great for normal means of atonement. God must deliver and loose the tongue, lips, and mouth to sing out praise of the divine power and grace.
The verb רנן in v 16c indicates a joyful expression, an exuberant cry (Dahood, “loudly cry”; nab, “my tongue shall revel”; cf. Pss 5:12; 67:5; 90:14; etc.). The “righteousness” (צְדָקָה; also צֶדֶק) of God is a word with polyvalent meaning. A forensic element is present in a number of places, where Yahweh functions as a judge to set matters right and to uphold the justice of his ways (Pss 9:5, 9; 50:6; 96:13; 99:4; Isa 58:2; Jer 11:20). This meaning cannot be ruled out of v 16c entirely (note v 4bc). However, the context of praise and testimony suggests that it should be understood here in a salvific sense (Pss 22:32; 31:8; 69:28; 103:17; 143:1, 11, etc.; Dalglish, Psalm Fifty-One, 181). The sense is that of Ps 40:10–11
I have told the glad news of deliverance [צֶדֶק]
in the great congregation. …
I have not hid thy saving help [צִדְקָתְךָ] within my heart
I have spoken. … (rsv)
Righteousness with this emphasis is understood as God’s willing intervention to deliver and/or to give victory on behalf of his people. These are his “saving” deeds and judgments, his “power which brings salvation to you” (see G. Klein, IDBSup, 750; E. R. Achtemeier, IDB, IV, 87).
The prayer continues in v 17 with an appeal to God to open the speaker’s lips and to allow his or her mouth to declare the praise of God. Two ideas are conveyed. First, the suppliant prays to be released from the restrictive results of guilt, the condition of “one whose conscience has shamed him into silence” (Kidner, 193) and who has been cut off from freedom to worship (cf. Ezek 16:13). God’s forgiveness would break the seal of guilt and give new joy (cf. 30:11–13; Ezek 3:26–27; 33:22). Second, the prayer is for an empowerment of speaking ability in order to teach and give testimony, which cannot be done adequately without divine help (cf. Jer 1:4–10). A somewhat parallel idea is that of God putting a new song in the mouth of one who has been delivered (40:4; also, Balaam’s ass in Num 22:28; cf. Dan 10:16; Jer 1:9).
Vv 18 and 19 continue the prayer by giving a reason for it. These verses also correspond to the opening plea for mercy and forgiveness in vv 3–4. The merciful action of God will not be received on the basis of sacrifice alone. The sacrifice sure to be accepted is that of a broken and contrite heart. Indeed, according to v 18, God is not receptive to sacrifices in the usual sense. The verbs חפץ and רצה both mean “to take pleasure in” or “to accept” (חפץ has already appeared in v 8 and will again in v 21; חפץ is related to sacrifices in Ps 40:7, Isa 1:11; רצה in Ps 119:108; Jer 14:12; Lev 1:3; etc.). Two common words for animal sacrifices are used (זֶבַח and עוֹלָה). The first generally refers to a sacrifice in which the flesh of the animal is eaten by the worshipers, and the second to a sacrifice entirely consumed on the altar (see J. Milgrom, IDBSup, 763–71). The suppliant declares a willingness to give sacrifices if God would be willing to accept; however, God is not willing.
The nature of the statement in v 18 has given rise to considerable discussion. Is this statement designed as an absolute rejection of animal sacrifices? Is the intent to say that God will not accept a sacrifice at all? Some interpreters have linked this statement with a number of passages that express a secondary or negative evaluation of sacrifices (Pss 40:7; 50:13–14; 69:31–32; Prov 27:3; Isa 1:11–17; Jer 7:21–23; Hos 6:6; Amos 5:21–24, 25; Mic 6:6–8). These statements can be read as emerging from groups, especially prophets, which categorically rejected sacrifice as an essential part of worship. If this is the case, the speaker in Ps 51 seems to be repudiating the concept of animal sacrifice.
However, other writers are concerned with the difficulties of such a sweeping view and assume that a total rejection of sacrificial rites is not intended (see Dalglish, Psalm Fifty-One, 192–94; H. H. Rowley, “The Meaning of Sacrifice in the Old Testament,” in From Moses to Qumran: Studies in the Old Testament [New York: Association Press, 1963], 67–107). Variant interpretations are possible along this line. We may adopt the view that the confession in the psalm involves sin of such a nature as to exclude the effective use of sacrifice. Appeal can be made to the sin with a “high hand” for which no ritual atonement is provided (Num 15:30). The high-handed sins may be those committed because they express the sinner’s real nature, “arising out of the essential purpose of his heart” (Rowley, 94), not sins primarily of a ritual nature. Sins such as adultery or murder are not provided for in sacrificial instructions, and the execution of the adulterer or the murderer is required. If Ps 51 was composed with David in mind (which is certainly possible), the writer may have had the nonsacrificial situation of David in view (note that in 2 Sam 12:13 forgiveness is given to David without mention of sacrifice, on the basis of his confession). If this is the case, v 18 is postulated on the assumption that the sin confessed is beyond ritual atonement.
Another approach is simply to assume that the absolute statement in v 18 actually has a relative meaning. “Though the expression of condemnation is unconditional it should be taken in a relative sense” (Vaux, R. de, Ancient Israel : Its Life and Institutions, tr. J. McHugh [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961] 454). The contexts of the prophetic critiques make it difficult to assume absolute opposition to sacrificial ritual (Rowley, “The Meaning of Sacrifice,” 83–100). In some cases, at least, the force of the sayings is comparative, rather than absolute; as in Hos 6:6, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, and knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (reading the מִן in v 6b as comparative rather than privative, and assuming that v 6a has the same force) and in 1 Sam 15:22: “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken is better than the fat of rams” (again reading מִן as comparative). It should be recognized that both Hos 6:6 and 1 Sam 15:22—as well as Prov 21:3—are forms of the so-called better-proverbs, which may appear without the טוב element (see G. S. Ogden, “The ‘Better’-Proverbs (TOB-Spruch), Rhetorical Criticism, and Qoheleth,” JBL 96  493). Taken in this way, v 18 is a powerful statement of the subordination of sacrifice to confession and those personal qualities that are acceptable to God and necessary for forgiveness. The verse leaves no room for any automatic effectiveness for forgiveness by ritual means. Further, sacrifices were intended to correlate with the appropriate spiritual condition of the worshiper and in turn to strengthen right attitudes and patterns of behavior (Rowley, “The Meaning of Sacrifice,” 86). Rowley (Worship in Ancient Israel: Its Forms and Meaning [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967] 136–38) suggests that the recitation of psalms like 51 helped to make worshipers aware of the significance of confession and the spiritual condition necessary for forgiveness.
The suppliant is sure that the sacrifices of a “broken spirit” and a “contrite heart” would be acceptable to God (v 19). The reading, “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit” has its attractive aspects and conveys the idea that the worshiper turns away from burnt offerings and the like to present a personal spiritual condition as a sacrifice to God. But it is better to let the verse stand as a generalizing statement regarding the absolutely acceptable sacrifice. The worshiper who offers this sacrifice, accompanied by burnt offerings or not, can be sure of divine acceptance (Ps 34:19; Isa 57:15; 61:1). The “broken spirit” (cf. Pss 34:19; 147:3; Prov 15:4, 13; Jer 23:9) and “contrite heart” (lit. “crushed,” דכה—used for bones in v 10; cf. Pss 38:9; 90:3; Isa 3:15; 53:5) describe the condition of profound contrition and awe experienced by a sinful person who becomes aware of the divine presence (cf. Isa 6; Job 42:1–6). “The sacrifice that God demands is a sacrifice of man’s self-will and self-importance; in other words, it is the surrender of man’s own self to God” (Weiser, 410; Rom 12:1).
Addendum (51:20–21). The last two verses of the psalm were added by a later reviser who wanted to interpret the psalm in terms of Israel’s corporate experience and also to correct any absolutely anticultic interpretation of vv 18–19. The form is that of a prayer for the restoration of Jerusalem so that sacrifices could be made on the altar in the temple. God is asked to “do good to Zion” in his “good pleasure” (רָצוֹן, which means “will” when used of God, Pss 40:9; 103:21; 143:10; Ezek 10:11, and of men, Dan 8:4; 11:3, 16, 36; Neh 9:24; Esth 1:8; 9:5). However, it can also be used of God with the nuance of “favor” or “grace” (Pss 5:12; 30:6, 8; 89:18; 106:4; Prov 8:35; 12:2; 18:22), and in this verse it should be understood as something like “in your gracious will.”
God is asked to “do good” (הֵיטִיבָה, hiphil imperative cohortative from יטב) to Zion (cf. Ps 125:4; Jer 18:10, 11; 32:40, 41; Job 24:21; Josh 24:20). In some passages the imperative form of the verb has the connotation of “change” or “make better” (see Jer 7:3; 18:11; 26:13; 35:15, all references to changes of behavior). Possibly, the use of the verb in v 20 carries the nuance of a change in God’s action toward Zion, i.e., a change from judgment to restoration, and this is supported by v 20b: “rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.” The verb בָּנָה means either “build” or “rebuild” according to the context. In this case, it probably means “rebuild” and expresses the exilic Israelite hope for the restoration of Jerusalem (cf. Isa 26:1; 33:20; 62:6–7; Jer 31:38; Pss 102:13, 16; 147:2).
The adverb “then” (אָז) is repeated twice in v 21, in emphatic positions, and has a temporal quality. The redactor probably interpreted the psalm as applying to Israel during the time of the exile. The unsuitable nature of sacrificial ritual in v 18 is taken as relative and as referring to the period shortly before and during the exile. Whenever God restores Jerusalem and renews its worship, sacrifices on the altar there will be acceptable to him again. “Righteous sacrifices” (זבחי־צדק; cf. 4:6; Deut 33:19) may mean legitimate and proper sacrifices, i.e., according to appropriate ritual prescriptions (see Dahood, II, 10; D. W. Thomas, TRP, 19, “sacrifices in their appointed seasons”), or sacrifices that are appropriate because they are offered in the right spirit and right relationship with God (cf. Kraus, I, 170–71). Perhaps the best interpretation is that of sacrifices that will be “rightfully due” because they will be an appropriate response to what God will do (B. A. Levine, In the Presence of the Lord: A Study of Cult and Some Cultic Terms in Ancient Israel [Leiden: Brill, 1974], 135–37).
“Whole-burnt-offering” (כָּלִיל) is apparently a synonym of עוֹלָה (“burnt-offering”; 1 Sam 7:9; cf. Lev 6:22; Deut 33:10). The root idea is that of wholeness and completeness (Dalglish, Psalm Fifty-One, 191; Milgrom, 769) and thus a sacrifice not eaten at all by the worshiper. פָּרִים, “young bulls,” is used frequently in the OT in sacrificial contexts. These animals were prime sacrificial victims (note the priority given to them in such references as Num 28:11, 12; 29:2, 3–5, 12–16).
While this interpretation of the addendum seems to be essentially correct, A. R. Johnson (CPIP, 430–31) provides an appropriate caveat against reading vv 20–21 as a rather crude addition to tone down the language of the primary psalm and to involve no more than a return to traditional sacrifices offered along ritually correct lines:
When the redactor refers to “sacrifices of the right kind” (lit. “sacrifices of righteousness”), it is far more likely that he or she has in mind sacrifices which will be offered, not merely along lines which are right according to cultic law even though the Hebrew certainly permits such a conclusion, but primarily in what Yahweh will find to be the right spirit and thus truly symbolic of the worshiper’s complete dedication; and thus he is promising that, if only Yahweh will consent to the rebuilding of Jerusalem, He can be sure that sacrifices will be offered with penitent and obedient hearts and so may approve of their being renewed.
These are words of wisdom.
The first part of this psalm focuses on confession of sin. Genuine confession has two fundamental aspects. First, it must be directed to God, accepting the rightness of his judgment and his power to cleanse and forgive. Such confession presupposes full dependence on God and a gracious nature on his part. It also presupposes the divine power to cleanse from guilt. Human guilt may become so pervasive as to block the sinner away from forgiveness unless there is the will to turn to the Divine Presence and seek cleansing. Guilt may be so strong that cleansing seems impossible from any source. The courage to lay claim to the grace of God is imperative. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loyal-love.”
Second, confession places on the sinner the necessity, often painful, of honest confrontation with his or her own sin (vv 5–8). More than a passing mood of reflection is involved. “I know my transgressions and my sin is before me always.” “This is not the fleeting mood of a depressed conscience, but the clear knowledge of a person who, shocked by that knowledge, has become conscious of his or her responsibility … and sees things as they really are” (Weiser, 403). Confession which has this quality constitutes the inner essence of sacrifice acceptable to God (vv 18–19).
True confession encloses the multiple dimensions of guilt. Guilt is personal: “I know my transgression.” Guilt is social and extends back along the entire trail of life: “I was born in iniquity, and my mother conceived me in sin.” The threads of human existence are woven through intricate and interlocking patterns from conception till death. The sensitive conscience accepts the absence of purity, but does not despair because of it. Guilt arises from sin against God, even when the transgression may have seemingly involved only other human beings or the world in which we live. It can be a shocking revelation to discover that what we considered to be sins against others are really sins against God: “Against you, you only, I have sinned.” But this revelation is the key that unlocks the real secret of wisdom, for the essence of wisdom is the “fear of the Lord.”
The second part of the psalm focuses on restoration. The sinner cannot be self-restored. A divine work of re-creation and endowment is essential. Forgiveness involves a creative work: “Create in me a pure heart.” This is not a creative work in the sense of creation-out-of-nothing, but a creative work in the sense of bringing order and peace where chaos and hopeless turbulence were before. As in Gen 1, light is created to overcome darkness; days emerge from what had been endless night; life emerges where there had been only surging matter; purpose and blessing are given to human beings, themselves created into an order of life that had not existed before; the ceaseless roaring of the primeval sea gives way to the ordered world, and God and man pause for a sabbath to celebrate its completion. The creative work of God is the prelude to his blessing. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17, niv; cf. Gal 6:15; John 3:3, 6; 1 Pet 1:23).
The spirit of God empowers the creative work of forgiveness (cf. Gen 1:2; Ps 104:30). A threefold presence of the spirit is prayed for in Ps 51. I have argued for the interpretation that the spirit in all three references (vv 12, 13, and 14) refers primarily to the spirit of God. However, no sharp division should be drawn between the qualities ascribed to the spirit and the qualities effected by the spirit in human beings. The “steadfast spirit” of God produces a “firmly rooted, enduring power in man” (S. Terrien, The Psalms, 176). The “holy spirit” is the animating Presence which activates the will of the human being with whom it abides to seek the divine will. The “willing spirit” is that aspect of the divine Presence which endows with the freedom to serve willingly and is a mark of deliverance from the bondage of guilt. The spirit of God “imparts in the creature some holiness of the divine; the energy of God himself transforms the unstable, fluctuating, self-centered human animal into a steadfast and willing servant” (Terrien, 176; also Elusive Presence, 324–25).
Restoration naturally leads to ministry. The worshiper makes a commitment to teach transgressors and sinners the “ways” of God (v 15). The psalm expresses the powerful urge to minister which is stirred into life by confession and divine forgiveness. Testimony and praise flow from the new creation and the presence of the spirit. Confession and forgiveness are always necessary as a prelude to mission. However, confession without mission is abortive and ends in an apathetic spiritual state.
The confidence of the worshiper is placed in that which God will certainly accept, “a broken and contrite heart” (vv 18–19). We should avoid the conclusion that these verses point to a repudiation of cultic worship and that they encourage a kind of spirituality wholly detached from sacrifices. Rather the point is that burnt offerings or other sacrifices which God will accept must express the sacrificial reality of the “crushed” heart of the worshiper. It is possible that one use of this psalm was for recitation at the time of sacrificial offerings. The psalm expresses the real meaning of sacrifice: confession, forgiveness, ministry, total dependence on a merciful God, and a joyful new life that emerges from that process. The depressing awareness of personal sinfulness can result in a debilitating frustration and despair. The sinner needs to know that there is a grace and power which frees “from the fear of failure, from a perverse sense of inferiority or superiority, and above all, from the insidious suspicion that life is a boredom or a fruitless, insane, and sometimes sadistic adventure” (Terrien, The Psalms, 180). Shakespeare’s Macbeth desired “some sweet oblivious antidote” which would “cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart.” The antidote is the broken spirit and the contrite heart offered to God.
The last two verses of the psalm are probably an addition added to give a new interpretation (see Comment). However, they should not be dismissed as theologically worthless on this basis. They express a very important corrective of any tendency to interpret the original psalm in hyper-personal and individualistic ways. The personal experience of the original psalm must not be understood as negating the significance of corporate worship. The context for the most personal and private religious experience is usually in the context of the worshiping community. In turn, the worshiping community must be nurtured by personal spiritual life like that expressed in the original psalm. Neither can thrive without the other.