Feb 222018

Psalm 51: True Theology – Part 1

“To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”

Psalm 51 is one of the seven Penitential Psalms (or Psalms of Confession). It powerfully and wonderfully teaches the nature of grace – that God favors those who acknowledge their sin.

Psalm 51 juxtaposes the extreme depths of sin and mankind’s innate unworthiness to be loved by God against God who loves just such a person and turns towards him or her with steadfast love and abundant mercy. 

Psalm 51 teaches us to know both God and ourselves, while at the same time it furnishes us with exceedingly fruitful prayer language, which we can use both in public worship and in private prayer. By knowing ourselves, that we are exceedingly great sinners, and by knowing God, that He is the Justifier and Savior of exceedingly great sinners, the burdened conscience is encouraged to turn not away from God in unbelief or despair, but to God “who justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5). This twofold knowledge of God and man constitutes, in the words of Martin Luther, “true theology.”

For organizational purposes I have divided Psalm 51 into four parts as follows:

Part 1 – The Plea for Forgiveness (vv. 1-2)

Part 2 – The Confession (vv. 3-6)

Part 3 – The Plea for Renewal (vv. 7-12)

Part 4 – The Vow to Teach and Praise (vv. 13-17)

If you are so inclined, you may use these divisions as a convenient vehicle to memorize Psalm 51 part-by-part over the course of the next few weeks. There are many verses in Psalm 51 which are very useful for speaking with God in a variety of circumstances.

Part 1 – The Plea for Forgiveness (vv. 1-2)

“Have mercy on me, O God,
     according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
     blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
     and cleanse me from my sin!”

David begins his prayer with a plea for God’s forgiveness: “blot out my transgressions.” It is tempting to flee from God (in self-justification, rebellion or shame) when the awareness of hideous sin is aroused in our conscience, but rather than flee from God, David turns to God in trust that God is merciful to those who believe in Christ the Mediator, as Peter said quoting David: “I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken” (Acts 2:25, quoting Ps 16:8). As terrible as sin is, God’s mercy is more abundant. Therefore, God never despises a broken and contrite heart (Ps 51:17).

David does not base his plea on his own worthiness, sincerity, or the adequacy of his own contrition, but solely on God’s Word, promises and faithfulness: “according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy.” David here may be alluding to God’s promises given to Moses on Mount Sinai:

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Ex 34:6-8)

David is calling on God, not in his hidden majesty, but clothed in His Word and promises, so that we must always include Christ, the Incarnate Word, in our prayers. This Christ was known to David through God’s promises, as Peter proclaimed in Acts: “Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he [David] foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.” (Acts 2:30-31)

For Christ’s sake alone, we have a gracious God whom we may address as Father. When God blots out sin, he cancels them for the sake of the One who paid the ransom for them on our behalf. To be washed from our iniquity and cleansed from our sin is to appropriate through faith the forgiveness of sins which Christ won for us by suffering and dying for our sins on the cross. His blood washes and cleanses us from our sin, as it is written: “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7)

“3 For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
     and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
     and blameless in your judgment.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
     and in sin did my mother conceive me.
6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
     and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
     wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
     let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
     and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
     and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,
     and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
     and uphold me with a willing spirit.

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
     and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
     O God of my salvation,
     and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
     and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
     you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
     a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
     build up the walls of Jerusalem;
19 then will you delight in right sacrifices,
     in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
     then bulls will be offered on your altar.”

Thank you for reading. Next week in Part 2, we will examine David’s confession (vv. 3-6). Amen.


In preparing for writing these articles, I made extensive use of the following works:

Brug, John F. Peoples Bible Commentary: Psalms 1. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005. Print.

Ngien, Dennis. Fruit for the Soul: Luther on the Lament Psalms. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015. Print.

Terrien, Samuel. The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003. Print

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