A Look at Psalm 51:9-15

Psalm 51 is a cry of a repentant heart and a transparent plea for forgiveness. As the psalm’s title explains, this psalm of David takes place after Nathan the prophet came to him because of his affair with Bathsheba. David’s entreaties are sincere and heartfelt, and the language used is direct, intentional, and expressive. In verses 9-15 (11-17 in the BHS), David pleas for cleansing and praises God for his forgiveness. David in hope of forgiveness makes vows to God promising to bring God the glory by bringing sinners to Him. This passage is a look at true repentance – David offers God his broken heart and contrite spirit.

PSALM 51:9 (51:11BHS)

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.”

Here in the middle of the Psalm David is deeply ashamed of his sins. He continues calling out to God in distress. For the one thing that David desires more than anything else is the assurance of the forgiveness of his sins.[1] David already stated in verse three that his sin was ever before him. He now asks God to “hide His face” from his sins. David does this by using the hifil imperative הַסְתֵּ֣ר. In his entreaty of God, David is not asking God to turn away from him, but away from his sins. David is keenly aware of his sin and that it is a sin against God alone (vs. 3-4). It is this confession which enables David to ask God to hide His face from his sin.

David asks God to “blot out” (מְחֵֽה) all of his “iniquities” (עֲוֹ֖נֹתַ). The qal imperative מְחֵֽה is not only seen here, but also in verse 1(v. 3 BHS) when he asks God out of His tender mercies to blot out his transgressions (פְשָׁעָֽ). The word עֲוֹ֖נֹת, here translated as iniquities, is also used in verse 2 (v. 4 BHS) when David asks God to wash him from his iniquity. David is seen repeating his ideas and even words in his fervent pursuit of God’s forgiveness. This verse is chiastic, as is verse two. David here again employs chiasmus as a poetic device in his petition to God to remove all his sins.[2]

PSALM 51:10 (51:12 BHS)

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”

David wants more than a mere cleansing (v. 7), he wants God to create a new clean heart in him. David tells God to בְּרָא a clean heart in him. The word בְּרָא does not mean to make something from nothing. It is used to show that something is far above the ability of man. As God created the heavens and the earth, so God is the only one who can forgive and create a new heart within David.[3]

David also tells God to “renew a steadfast spirit” within him. This ר֥וּחַ is not to be confused with spirit as opposed to body, but rather the attitude of one’s will. David desires a renewed ר֥וּחַ which is נָ֝כ֗וֹן. This word is commonly translated “right,” but can also mean in the Niphal “established” or “steadfast.” Here David uses this participle to show that he wants a fixed and resolute spirit. He desires a spirit which is unmoved by the assaults of temptation.[4] David is asking God for things which he cannot provide for himself.

David desires God not to bring him back to a place of restoration where he has been before with God. He desires something new – a radical change of both heart and spirit.[5] David knows he cannot purify, much less create a new heart within himself, so here he surrenders himself before an all-powerful God who is the only one able to do such great things. Forgiveness is not enough for David. He does not want to be an old person cleaned up; he wants to be a new person.[6]

PSALM 51:11 (51:13 BHS)

“Do not cast me away from before your face, and do not take your Holy Spirit from me.”

After David asked God to hide His face from his sins in verse nine, he here asks God to not hide His face from him. David knew that to be cast away from his presence (תַּשְׁלִיכֵ֥נִי מִלְּפָנֶ֑יךָ) was to be cast out of His covenant, and deprived of his favor.[7] David is fearful. He knew that his sin was great. Perhaps, he thought, it was so great that God would remove (תִּקַּ֥ח – Qal, Juss, 2MS) His Holy Spirit (ר֥וּחַ קָ֝דְשְׁ) from him. This was not an unreasonable fear for David to have. He knew that Saul was removed from kingship due to his sin, and David could very well have the same thing happen to him. The anointing by Samuel to the kingly office upon David marked the beginning of the Holy Spirit’s presence with David and the end of His presence with Saul (1 Kings 16:13). [8] But God had been gracious thus far towards David, and He had not taken His Holy Spirit from him.

The phrase Holy Spirit (ר֥וּחַ קָ֝דְשְׁ) is found only twice in the Old Testament. It is found here and in Isaiah 63:10, 11. Because of this, some argue that it really does not carry the same idea as what we perceive as the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, namely, the third person of the Trinity.[9] They argue that it is God’s power, which is called holy only because it is of God and because it does His will.

PSALM 51:12 (51:14 BHS)

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”

David continues in his petition to God by asking for the joy of His salvation to be restored. He was not praying that his salvation be restored, but the joy of that salvation be restored. Sin had destroyed that joy, but David knows that God is able to reestablish it. There is no assurance of joy when plagued by guilt of sin. There was a time in which David had experienced that joy. David had forgotten what that joy was like. David says הָשִׁ֣יבָה to me that joy. David continues in his string of imperatives. This time he uses the hifil. Literally the word means “bring back.”[10] He has experienced it before, and he wants God to bring it back to him.

More than experiencing that joy for a fleeting moment, David wants to be upheld by a willing spirit. He wants to desire to do right continually – a sort of disposition to obey Him.[11] The end of this verse is translated differently depending on whether the willing spirit is the power of God or the psalmist’s own inner strength. Many translators see it as being a spirit of God’s strength. But it is probably correct to see it as the spirit of David, rather than that of God. David is asking to be upheld by being given a “free” or “noble” spirit – the opposite of the “spirit of bondage” which Paul discusses in Romans 8:15.[12]

PSALM 51:13 (51:15 BHS)

“I will then teach rebels your ways, and sinners will return to you.”

David here turns from petition to promise. He has asked God for much, but David says that if he is restored to favor, and his spirit is renewed, then he will give back to God in wholehearted service to Him and to others. A truly grateful heart desires to give back to God for his goodness.[13] David is determined to promote God’s glory by bringing others to salvation in Him. He has much that he can teach others, he just needs to be pulled from this nightmare of guilt.[14] He wants to help those who have fallen like him, and he desires to see them return to God and he has returned to God.

The beginning of this verse can be seen as “Let me teach” rather than “I will teach.” The word אֲלַמְּדָ֣ה here is a piel cohortative, 1cp. The promise or request is not what one would expect as the result of the repentant David. Usually one would expect a sacrifice. But here David desires to teach transgressors, rebels, the ways of God. These ways are the requirements of God as expressed in the Torah.[15] He wants to see others experience the return to obedience and to experience the joy of God.

PSALM 51:14 (51:16 BHS)

“Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, God of my salvation,

and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.”

David now asks to be delivered from דָּמִ֨ים (literally “bloods”). There are various ways of rendering this request by David. It could be referring to David’s own death or it could refer to the shedding of the blood of others. Some even alter the Hebrew text to get “deliver me from silence.”[16] It can also be translated “deliver me from deadly sin.” To interpret it this way would leave three options: 1) keep me from offering sacrifices, 2) keep my blood from being shed 3) purify me from the blood I have shed.[17] Perhaps David is thinking of Uriah. Some suggest that “bloods” refers to crimes which the death penalty was appropriate, such as his crimes of adultery and murder (2 Sa 12:5, 13).[18] It seems that in the context here of deliverance and salvation, David is most likely talking about his own life being saved from a violent death.

David calls out to his God – the One who not only created the world, but is the One who can create a new heart within an individual. David promises that he will sing praise of His righteousness if he is delivered from bloodguiltiness. God is indeed righteouswhen He sends judgment, but he is also equally as righteous to remove chastisement.[19]

PSALM 51:15 (51:17 BHS)

Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.”

David’s heart is hopeful of his forgiveness. Here, David says that all that God has to do is to open his lips and his mouth will declare praises of Him. This request of “Lord, open my lips” is a metonymy, where the use of one aspect of an action or thing represents the whole.[20] David is telling God to forgive him so that he can open his mouth and praise. He is once again setting up a condition, that if it is met, David promises to do something. Up to now the guilt of his sin has kept his lips closed. Once he experiences forgiveness, David feels that he will be open to declare God’s praise. As David addresses the Lord, he does not call upon the name of God, Yahweh, but calls upon his אֲ֭דֹנָי. David is not asking the Lord to enable him to praise, but rather is still focused on being forgiven – the one thing his heart longs for more than anything else.

CONCLUSION

In Psalm 51:9-15 David is seen humbly coming before his Lord. He exemplifies what true repentance looks like. He comes to God admitting his own sin and pleads for God to change him. David understands that he has no power of his own to create a new heart within himself. He so longs for the joy which comes from forgiveness and a right standing before God. He appeals to God, making promises that he can win people to Him if He just only forgives him of his sin. He desires to be seen as righteous. If God grants him this mercy, then David promises to be an instrument of praise and song to God.


[1] Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), Ps 51:9.

[2] Robert G. Bratcher and William David Reyburn, A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Psalms, Helps for Translators (New York: United Bible Societies, 1991), 472.

[3] Lawrence O. Richards, The Bible Readers Companion, electronic ed. (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1991), 362.

[4]James E. Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms (Joplin, Mo.: College Press Pub. Co., 1996), Ps 51.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ted Cabal, Chad Owen Brand, E. Ray Clendenen et al., The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), 836.

[7] The Pulpit Commentary: Psalms Vol. I, ed. H. D. M. Spence-Jones (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004), 395.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Bratcher and Reyburn, 473.

[10] William Lee Holladay, Ludwig Köhler and Ludwig Köhler, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. (Leiden: Brill, 1971), 363.

[11] Bratcher and Reyburn, 473.

[12] Spence-Jones, 396.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Andrew Knowles, The Bible Guide, 1st Augsburg books ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 2001), 239.

[15] Bratcher and Reyburn, 473.

[16] Bratcher and Reyburn, 474.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Smith, Ps 51:14.

[19] Spence-Jones, 397.

[20] Cabal, 836.

Woe to you, Chicago! Woe to you, L.A.!


20
Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”

Powerful words of Jesus Christ. Jesus had done many signs and wonders among the people of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. Yet these people were unrepentant and they were not changed by Jesus Christ’s declaration of “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Jesus says to the people of these unrepentant cities that if the same mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon, two pagan cities that they would have been well aware of, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.

Jesus goes on by saying that it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgement for that reason. This is a mind blowing statement. This assumes two things:

  1. There are different degrees of punishment1
  2. God knows not only all things in the past, present, and future reality. But God also knows all things possible in the past, present, and future.

Let me begin with number one. As Jesus said in Matthew 11:22, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment. This infers that there are different degrees of punishment at the judgment. It seems to be linked to the amount of revelation revealed to and the response of the individual to what has been revealed unto him. So the more truth we have been exposed to the more we are held accountable in the eyes of Christ at the judgment. The ultimate destination is the same for all unbelievers, but the amount of punishment is seemingly determined by how much truth they were exposed to.

Along with this understanding comes with the understanding that God owes salvation to no one. Yes, Jesus Christ died for all mankind, but only those who humble themselves, repent, and believe who He is (the LORD and Savior of all mankind) are given gift of salvation. God owes this gift to no one. This is why missions is so important. The only way people will be exposed to the truth of the Gospel is if we tell them. As Paul put it in Romans, “How will they hear without a preacher? How shall they preach except they be sent?”2 Understanding this aspect helps us understand this whole discussion.

Jesus even goes on to tell them them that because they would not repent that is shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for them. It was well known that Sodom was a land and of people of gross sin and immorality. Yet, Jesus says that if Sodom had seen the mighty works that these unrepentant cities had seen, Sodom would still be around because even they would have repented. This to me seems very powerful.

This brings us to number two. Not only does God know all realities past, present, and future. He knows all possible realities past, present, and future. This to me is phenomenal. God knows that if Sodom would have had the same things preached and had the same mighty works done in it, they would have not been unrepentant as were Chorazin, Betsaida, and Capernaum. Does this mean that God does not judge Sodom? No. He still judges them based upon reality. But this passage does seem to infer that he keeps in account all possible realities. Sodom finds themselves utterly demolished here on earth, and its inhabitants in hell. But perhaps the degree of their punishment is influenced by the possible realities.

One again, this brings back to understanding that God owes salvation to no one. So God is not doing any kind of injustice by judging Sodom for their sin even in light of the reality of not having these mighty works done within it. He judges them fairly based upon their reality of living in sin and immorality.

This helps us understand the role of missions in the world. If we do not tell the lost world about God, they will die and go to hell because they are natural born sinners. Without the hearing of the Word, then there can be no faith in the Gospel. For faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. There cannot hear the word except it be preached, for God has chosen preaching as his method for spreading the Gospel across this world to all peoples of all cultures of all countries. It is the duty of mankind to tell the world of God’s Gospel. If we do not then the lost die without hope of the Gospel of Christ and go to an eternal hell. If we preach to them the gospel, then they are now accountable to Gospel and they are given the opportunity to accept God’s message and experience life and salvation from hell. They will be given the privilege of an eternal, personal relationship with the Creator of the universe. We must go out and tell those who have not heard!

It is not the responsibility of the preacher/missionary to make sure that everyone he proclaims the Gospel to believes. Jesus Himself did mighty works and preached His word, and yet people still were unrepentant. Those who reject the message will be held more accountable and therefore will be punished more severely. It is not the fault of the preacher. The preacher is to do all that he can to encourage them to repent and believe, but ultimately it is a decision that every individual in this world has to make for himself.

So to bring things back home, how does this relate to us? Well, I look around me and I look to our history (Anglo-Saxon) and I see the Gospel presented fairly consistently. There were some high points and some low points in our history, but overall the Gospel can be found. There are thousands upon thousands of recourses such as books and websites which explain the gospel. There are thousands upon thousands of churches which proclaim the Gospel every week. And perhaps you can hear God say, “

“Woe to you, Chicago! Woe to you, Los Angeles! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Calcutta and Beijing, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Lima and Beijing than for you. And you, New York, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Bangkok, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Bangkok than for you.”


1. I believe that it can also be assumed through other passages that there are differing degrees of reward as well. (Rev. 22:12; 2 Tim. 4:7-8; 1 Cor. 3:12).

 

2. Rom.10:14-15