For the music director; a psalm of David, written when Nathan the prophet confronted him after David’s affair with Bathsheba. 2
Cleanse me of my sin! 7
I am forever conscious of my sin. 9
I have done what is evil in your sight.
you are right when you condemn me. 13
51:5 Look, I was guilty of sin from birth,
a sinner the moment my mother conceived me. 14
you want me to possess wisdom. 18
[51:1] 1 sn Psalm 51. The psalmist confesses his sinfulness to God and begs for forgiveness and a transformation of his inner character. According to the psalm superscription, David offered this prayer when Nathan confronted him with his sin following the king’s affair with Bathsheba (see 2 Sam 11-12). However, the final two verses of the psalm hardly fit this situation, for they assume the walls of Jerusalem have been destroyed and that the sacrificial system has been temporarily suspended. These verses are probably an addition to the psalm made during the period of exile following the fall of Jerusalem in 586
[51:1] 5 tn Traditionally “blot out my transgressions.” Because of the reference to washing and cleansing in the following verse, it is likely that the psalmist is comparing forgiveness to wiping an object clean (note the use of the verb מָחָה (makhah) in the sense of “wipe clean; dry” in 2 Kgs 21:13; Prov 30:20; Isa 25:8). Another option is that the psalmist is comparing forgiveness to erasing or blotting out names from a register (see Exod 32:32-33). In this case one might translate, “erase all record of my rebellious acts.”
[51:2] 7 sn In vv. 1b-2 the psalmist uses three different words to emphasize the multifaceted character and degree of his sin. Whatever one wants to call it (“rebellious acts,” “wrongdoing,” “sin”), he has done it and stands morally polluted in God’s sight. The same three words appear in Exod 34:7, which emphasizes that God is willing to forgive sin in all of its many dimensions. In v. 2 the psalmist compares forgiveness and restoration to physical cleansing. Perhaps he likens spiritual cleansing to the purification rites of priestly law.
[51:4] 10 tn Heb “only you,” as if the psalmist had sinned exclusively against God and no other. Since the Hebrew verb חָטָא (hata’, “to sin”) is used elsewhere of sinful acts against people (see BDB 306 s.v. 2.a) and David (the presumed author) certainly sinned when he murdered Uriah (2 Sam 12:9), it is likely that the psalmist is overstating the case to suggest that the attack on Uriah was ultimately an attack on God himself. To clarify the point of the hyperbole, the translation uses “especially,” rather than the potentially confusing “only.”
[51:4] 11 tn The Hebrew term לְמַעַן (lÿma’an) normally indicates purpose (“in order that”), but here it introduces a logical consequence of the preceding statement. (Taking the clause as indicating purpose here would yield a theologically preposterous idea – the psalmist purposely sinned so that God’s justice might be vindicated!) For other examples of לְמַעַן indicating result, see 2 Kgs 22:17; Jer 27:15; Amos 2:7, as well as IBHS 638-40 §38.3.
[51:5] 14 tn Heb “Look, in wrongdoing I was brought forth, and in sin my mother conceived me.” The prefixed verbal form in the second line is probably a preterite (without vav [ו] consecutive), stating a simple historical fact. The psalmist is not suggesting that he was conceived through an inappropriate sexual relationship (although the verse has sometimes been understood to mean that, or even that all sexual relationships are sinful). The psalmist’s point is that he has been a sinner from the very moment his personal existence began. By going back beyond the time of birth to the moment of conception, the psalmist makes his point more emphatically in the second line than in the first.
[51:6] 15 sn The juxtaposition of two occurrences of “look” in vv. 5-6 draws attention to the sharp contrast between the sinful reality of the psalmist’s condition and the lofty ideal God has for him.
[51:6] 18 tn Heb “in the secret [place] wisdom you cause me to know.” The Hiphil verbal form is causative, while the imperfect is used in a modal sense to indicate God’s desire (note the parallel verb “desire”).
[51:6] sn You want me to possess wisdom. Here “wisdom” does not mean “intelligence” or “learning,” but refers to moral insight and skill.
[51:7] 20 tn Heb “cleanse me with hyssop.” “Hyssop” was a small plant (see 1 Kgs 4:33) used to apply water (or blood) in purification rites (see Exod 12:22; Lev 14:4-6, 49-52; Num 19:6-18. The psalmist uses the language and imagery of such rites to describe spiritual cleansing through forgiveness.
[51:8] 24 tn Heb “cause me to hear happiness and joy.” The language is metonymic: the effect of forgiveness (joy) has been substituted for its cause. The psalmist probably alludes here to an assuring word from God announcing that his sins are forgiven (a so-called oracle of forgiveness). The imperfect verbal form is used here to express the psalmist’s wish or request. The synonyms “happiness” and “joy” are joined together as a hendiadys to emphasize the degree of joy he anticipates.
[51:8] 25 sn May the bones you crushed rejoice. The psalmist compares his sinful condition to that of a person who has been physically battered and crushed. Within this metaphorical framework, his “bones” are the seat of his emotional strength.