Ps. 51: Entering the Text

Within Christian tradition, Psalm 51 is part of a set of penitential psalms, which also includes Psalms 6, 32, 38, 102, 130, and 143. These psalms were grouped together and designated in this way because they all express contrition and ask God for forgiveness. The superscription of Psalm 51 invites us to imagine this contrition in the mouth of David after the prophet Nathan exposed his violation of Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Samuel 11-12). Although this superscription was a later addition to the psalm, it is easy to see why an editor connected it to David. His confession in 12:13 (“I have sinned against YHWH”) matches the confession in verse 6 the psalm (“I have sinned against you”).  Also, the appeal to God’s “faithfulness” (Heb. ḥesed) in verse 3 calls to mind the ḥesed that was the basis of YHWH’s relationship with the house of David (2 Samuel 7:15).

For these reasons, 2 Samuel 12 is an attractive setting for Psalm 51, but we should not let our imagination stop there. For the psalm’s words of contrition and request for forgiveness apply not only to David but also to us. Like David, we are called to acknowledge the ways we have failed to live out the faithfulness and justice God exemplifies and to ask God to respond to our failures with compassion. It is not easy to admit when we are wrong; it was certainly not easy for David, who had to be tricked by Nathan into recognizing his guilt! But Psalm 51 promises that such contrition can be the basis of renewed relationship with God.  

Structurally, Psalm 51 breaks into two halves; the first (verses 3-11) asks for forgiveness and the second (verses 12-19) describes the effects of that forgiveness. The first half is framed by the repetition of the verbs “blot out (mḥh),” “wash (kbs),” and “purify/purge (ḥṭ’)” in verses 3-4 and 9-11. The second half is framed by repetition of “heart,” “God,” and “spirit” in verses 12 and 19.  Taken together, the two trios capture well the basic movement of the psalm from penance to renewal.  

The last two verses of the psalm (verses 20-21) are usually considered a later addition to the psalm because of the way they qualify verses 18-19. There, the speaker claimed that a contrite spirit is the true sacrifice God desires, but the new ending promises that animal sacrifices will resume when the Temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem. This addendum was probably written in the wake of the Babylonian Exile (586-539 BCE), as returning Judeans looked forward to the restoration of their traditional worship back in Jerusalem. 

The two later additions to Psalm 51 (the superscription and the new ending) are typical of the way biblical texts developed over time. For modern readers this development can be a challenge, and for people of faith it can seem to diminish the inspired quality of the Bible. For me, however, learning about the growth of biblical texts has had the opposite effect because they show us that these texts were part of a living tradition. Communities of faith read these texts, prayed with them, and actualized them in their own lives. To see evidence of this process within the Bible itself is to see the power of the words for generations of Jewish readers and to be invited to a similar engagement in our own reading of these words. 

Key Terms:

  • “Wash…purify…blot out” are three verbs that recur in the psalm and offer insight into biblical conceptions of sin. Unlike other biblical metaphors for sin, which conceptualize it as a burden to be carried or lifted (cf. the scapegoat in Leviticus 16) or a debt to be paid (cf. the Lord’s prayer), Psalm 51 conceives sin as a stain to be washed away. A similar view is found in Isaiah 1:18. As with so many theological concepts, the Bible offers more than one way to think about it. The point is not to choose one to the exclusion of the others but to recognize that complex concepts can be approached from different angles.  

Questions for Reflection:

  • Which words or images in Psalm 51 are most striking to you?

  • What does reconciliation look like in your tradition? How do you repair your relationship with God and neighbors? 

  • What metaphor for sin is operative in your spiritual imagination? What are the advantages and disadvantages of your metaphor?

  • How has the pandemic and other recent social and environmental issues impacted your understanding of sin and contrition—both individually and collectively?

Text and Translations Psalm 51

לַמְנַצֵּ֗חַ מִזְמ֥וֹר לְדָוִֽד׃ 

בְּֽבוֹא־אֵ֭לָיו נָתָ֣ן הַנָּבִ֑יא כַּֽאֲשֶׁר־בָּ֝֗א אֶל־בַּת־שָֽׁבַע׃ 

חָנֵּ֣נִי אֱלֹהִ֣ים כְּחַסְדֶּ֑ךָ כְּרֹ֥ב רַ֝חֲמֶ֗יךָ מְחֵ֣ה פְשָׁעָֽי׃ 

הרבה [הֶ֭רֶב] כַּבְּסֵ֣נִי מֵעֲוֺנִ֑י וּֽמֵחַטָּאתִ֥י טַהֲרֵֽנִי׃ 

כִּֽי־פְ֭שָׁעַי אֲנִ֣י אֵדָ֑ע וְחַטָּאתִ֖י נֶגְדִּ֣י תָמִֽיד׃ 

לְךָ֤ לְבַדְּךָ֨ ׀ חָטָאתִי֮ וְהָרַ֥ע בְּעֵינֶ֗יךָ עָ֫שִׂ֥יתִי לְ֭מַעַן תִּצְדַּ֥ק בְּדָבְרֶ֗ךָ תִּזְכֶּ֥ה בְשָׁפְטֶֽךָ׃ 

הֵן־בְּעָו֥וֹן חוֹלָ֑לְתִּי וּ֝בְחֵ֗טְא יֶֽחֱמַ֥תְנִי אִמִּֽי׃ 

הֵן־אֱ֭מֶת חָפַ֣צְתָּ בַטֻּח֑וֹת וּ֝בְסָתֻ֗ם חָכְמָ֥ה תוֹדִיעֵֽנִי׃ 

תְּחַטְּאֵ֣נִי בְאֵז֣וֹב וְאֶטְהָ֑ר תְּ֝כַבְּסֵ֗נִי וּמִשֶּׁ֥לֶג אַלְבִּֽין׃ 

תַּ֭שְׁמִיעֵנִי שָׂשׂ֣וֹן וְשִׂמְחָ֑ה תָּ֝גֵ֗לְנָה עֲצָמ֥וֹת דִּכִּֽיתָ׃ 

הַסְתֵּ֣ר פָּ֭נֶיךָ מֵחֲטָאָ֑י וְֽכָל־עֲוֺ֖נֹתַ֣י מְחֵֽה׃ 

לֵ֣ב טָ֭הוֹר בְּרָא־לִ֣י אֱלֹהִ֑ים וְר֥וּחַ נָ֝כ֗וֹן חַדֵּ֥שׁ בְּקִרְבִּֽי׃ 

אַל־תַּשְׁלִיכֵ֥נִי מִלְּפָנֶ֑יךָ וְר֥וּחַ קָ֝דְשְׁךָ֗ אַל־תִּקַּ֥ח מִמֶּֽנִּי׃ 

הָשִׁ֣יבָה לִּ֭י שְׂשׂ֣וֹן יִשְׁעֶ֑ךָ וְר֖וּחַ נְדִיבָ֣ה תִסְמְכֵֽנִי׃ 

אֲלַמְּדָ֣ה פֹשְׁעִ֣ים דְּרָכֶ֑יךָ וְ֝חַטָּאִ֗ים אֵלֶ֥יךָ יָשֽׁוּבוּ׃ 

הַצִּ֘ילֵ֤נִי מִדָּמִ֨ים ׀ אֱ‍ֽלֹהִ֗ים אֱלֹהֵ֥י תְּשׁוּעָתִ֑י תְּרַנֵּ֥ן לְ֝שׁוֹנִ֗י צִדְקָתֶֽךָ׃ 

אֲ֭דֹנָי שְׂפָתַ֣י תִּפְתָּ֑ח וּ֝פִ֗י יַגִּ֥יד תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ׃ 

כִּ֤י ׀ לֹא־תַחְפֹּ֣ץ זֶ֣בַח וְאֶתֵּ֑נָה ע֝וֹלָ֗ה לֹ֣א תִרְצֶֽה׃ 

זִֽבְחֵ֣י אֱלֹהִים֮ ר֪וּחַ נִשְׁבָּ֫רָ֥ה לֵב־נִשְׁבָּ֥ר וְנִדְכֶּ֑ה אֱ֝לֹהִ֗ים לֹ֣א תִבְזֶֽה׃ 

הֵיטִ֣יבָה בִ֭רְצוֹנְךָ אֶת־צִיּ֑וֹן תִּ֝בְנֶ֗ה חוֹמ֥וֹת יְרוּשָׁלִָֽם׃ 

אָ֤ז תַּחְפֹּ֣ץ זִבְחֵי־צֶ֭דֶק עוֹלָ֣ה וְכָלִ֑יל אָ֤ז יַעֲל֖וּ עַל־מִזְבַּחֲךָ֣ פָרִֽים׃

New Jewish Publication Society Translation (NJPS)

1 For the leader. A psalm of David, 

2 when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had come to Bathsheba.

3 Have mercy upon me, O God, as befits Your faithfulness; in keeping with Your abundant compassion, blot out my transgressions. 

4 Wash me thoroughly of my iniquity, and purify me of my sin; 

5 for I recognize my transgressions, and am ever conscious of my sin. 

6 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. 

8 Indeed You desire truth about that which is hidden; teach me wisdom about secret things. 

9 Purge me with hyssop till I am pure; wash me till I am whiter than snow. 

10 Let me hear tidings of joy and gladness; let the bones You have crushed exult. 

11 Hide Your face from my sins; blot out all my iniquities. 

12 Fashion a pure heart for me, O God; create in me a steadfast spirit. 

13 Do not cast me out of Your presence, or take Your holy spirit away from me. 

14 Let me again rejoice in Your help; let a vigorous spirit sustain me. 

15 I will teach transgressors Your ways, that sinners may return to You. 

16 Save me from bloodguilt, O God, God, my deliverer, that I may sing forth Your beneficence. 

17 O Lord, open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise. 

18 You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings; 

19 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. 

21 Then You will want sacrifices offered in righteousness, burnt and whole offerings; then bulls will be offered on Your altar.

New International Reader's Version (NIRV)

For the director of music. A psalm of David when the prophet Nathan came to him. Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.

1 God, have mercy on me

    according to your faithful love.

Because your love is so tender and kind,

    wipe out my lawless acts.

2 Wash away all the evil things I’ve done.

    Make me pure from my sin.

3 I know the lawless acts I’ve committed.

    I can’t forget my sin.

4 You are the one I’ve really sinned against.

    I’ve done what is evil in your sight.

So you are right when you sentence me.

    You are fair when you judge me.

5 I know I’ve been a sinner ever since I was born.

    I’ve been a sinner ever since my mother became pregnant with me.

6 I know that you wanted faithfulness even when I was in my mother’s body.

    You taught me wisdom in that secret place.

7 Sprinkle me with hyssop, then I will be clean.

    Wash me, then I will be whiter than snow.

8 Let me hear you say, “Your sins are forgiven.”

    That will bring me joy and gladness.

    Let the body you have broken be glad.

9 Take away all my sins.

    Wipe away all the evil things I’ve done.

10 God, create a pure heart in me.

    Give me a new spirit that is faithful to you.

11 Don’t send me away from you.

    Don’t take your Holy Spirit away from me.

12 Give me back the joy that comes from being saved by you.

    Give me a spirit that obeys you so that I will keep going.

13 Then I will teach your ways to those who commit lawless acts.

    And sinners will turn back to you.

14 You are the God who saves me.

    I have committed murder.

    God, take away my guilt.

Then my tongue will sing about how right you are

    no matter what you do.

15 Lord, open my lips so that I can speak.

    Then my mouth will praise you.

16 You don’t take delight in sacrifice.

    If you did, I would bring it.

    You don’t take pleasure in burnt offerings.

17 The greatest sacrifice you want is a broken spirit.

    God, you will gladly accept a heart

    that is broken because of sadness over sin.

18 May you be pleased to give Zion success.

    May it please you to build up the walls of Jerusalem.

19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of those who do what is right.

    Whole burnt offerings will bring delight to you.

    And bulls will be offered on your altar.


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