Psalm 51 – “Confessional Petition”

Hebrew-English Text
I. Summary
The psalmist confesses his guilt and begs God to be purified.

II. Photo
The psalmist begs to be cleansed of his guilt: “Purge me with hyssop till I am pure; wash me till I am whiter than snow.” (v. 9)

III. Select Verses    
1-2: For the leader. A psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had come to Bathsheba.
4-6: Wash me thoroughly of my iniquity, and purify me of my sin;  for I recognize my transgressions, and am ever conscious of my sin. Against You alone have I sinned, and done what is evil in Your sight; so You are just in Your sentence, and right in Your judgment.
7: Indeed I was born with iniquity; with sin my mother conceived me.
9: Purge me with hyssop till I am pure; wash me till I am whiter than snow.
17: O LORD, open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise.
18-19: You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings; True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart.
20: May it please You to make Zion prosper; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

IV. Outline
1-2. Historical superscription
3. Invocation, initial plea
4. Petition
5-8a. Confession of guilt
8b-16. Petitions
17. Petition for prayer
18-19. Statement about sacrifice and prayer
20-21. Petition for Jerusalem and its sacrifices

V. Comment
Psalm 51 is categorized by many as a “Penitential Psalm.” Tate writes: “This is the best known of the seven traditional penitential psalms (6; 32; 38; 51; 102; 130; 143). However, the psalm is not easily classified in the usual form-critical categories. It is usually placed in the general classification of the laments of the individual. However, such characteristic features as complaint about enemies and prayer for their defeat and/or punishment is missing, as well as any protestation of innocence on the part of the speaker in the psalm (cf Pss 7:4–5; 17:2–5), and there is no motivational appeal to God for action (cf 22:10–11). On the other hand, there is a full confession of sin which is without parallel in any other biblical psalm… The paucity in the Psalms of the confession of sin and pleading for forgiveness is striking. B. W. Anderson treats the “Psalms of Penitence” (6; 32; 38; 51; 102; 130; 143) as a subcategory of individual laments and suggests that they differ in that they tend to internalize the problem of evil (94) and argues that “they agree on the fact that there is no human ground for claiming God’s grace (hΩesed)” (99). Anderson (Out of the Depths, 95) also argues that the confession in 51:3–7 serves as the complaint element of the lament. Westermann (Praise and Lament, 185) contends that in such prayers as that found in Ps 51 (he cites 27:9) “the complaint lies hidden in the petition,” assuming that in later Israelite religion there was a gradual curtailment of the direct complaint to and against God and an increase in petition, with the element of complaint tending to disappear (186). Thus in a broad sense, Ps 51 may be called an individual lament, but it is more specifically an individual confession of sin and a prayer for forgiveness (cf Kraus, I, 58–59).” (19)

Like the psalm before it, Psalm 50 speaks about the purpose of sacrifice: “You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings; True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart.” (vv. 18-19) As Tate points out, this sentiment is primarily found in the prophetic books:

  • Amos 5:21-22: I loathe, I spurn your festivals, I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies. If you offer Me burnt offerings — or your meal offerings — I will not accept them; I will pay no heed To your gifts of fatlings.
  • Hos. 6:6 For I desire goodness, not sacrifice; Obedience to God, rather than burnt offerings.
  • Is. 1:11-13: “What need have I of all your sacrifices?” Says the LORD. “I am sated with burnt offerings of rams, And suet of fatlings, And blood of bulls; And I have no delight In lambs and he-goats.  That you come to appear before Me — Who asked that of you? Trample My courts no more; Bringing oblations is futile, Incense is offensive to Me. New moon and sabbath, Proclaiming of solemnities, Assemblies with iniquity, I cannot abide.
  • Jer. 6:20: What need have I of frankincense That comes from Sheba, Or fragrant cane from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable And your sacrifices are not pleasing to Me.
  • Jer. 7:22: For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice.
  • Jer. 14:22: Can any of the false gods of the nations give rain? Can the skies of themselves give showers? Only You can, O LORD our God! So we hope in You, For only You made all these things.

VI. Works Used
(see “Commentaries” page)
Craigie, Peter C. “Psalms 1-50” Word Biblical Commentary vol. 19 (Waco, Texas: Wordbooks, 1983).
Gerstenberger, Erhard S. “Psalms Part 1 with an Introduction to Cultic Poetry” Forms of Old Testament Literature (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1988).
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