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Psalm 51

Besides separating us from God, our selfish choices can have profound effects on the people and things entrusted to our care. Knowing that, David turns to the only one who can fully redeem him from his sins.

Sinner made new

A David psalm. When the prophet Nathan came to David over his affair with Bathsheba.

1 Have mercy on me
O God, in your unfailing love.
Blot out my offenses
in the overflow of your mercy.
2 Wash away all my guilt
and purify me from my evil
3 for I’m well aware of my offences—
they haunt me day and night.
4 Against you and you alone have I sinned
doing what you clearly marked out as evil.
So your charge against me is right
and your verdict is just.
5 I’m a born rebel
born to rebels as I was.

6 You desire truth in the heart
where no one else can see.
So teach me your wisdom in my heart of hearts.
7 Purify me with hyssop and I’ll be pure.
Wash me until I’m whiter than snow.
8 Fill me with such laughter and song
that the bones you’ve crushed will dance for joy.
9 Look past my sins and wipe away all my guilt.

10 Create a clean heart in me, O God
one that beats with pure and faithful love for you.
11 Don’t banish me from your presence
or withdraw your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and make my heart long to obey you again.
13 Then I’ll teach fellow rebels about your grace
and they’ll come running back to you.
14 Wash this monstrous blood off my hands
O God, my savior!
Save me and I’ll sing for joy
about your forgiveness.
15 Unstop my mouth, Lord
and I’ll tell everyone what you’ve done for me. 

16 Offering a sacrifice to mask my rebellion
doesn’t please you or I could easily give it.
Offering a whole-offering[1]
with just a sliver of my heart
is a scam you won’t accept.
17 The sacrifice God accepts
is a heart broken up over its sin.
A heart that’s broken and contrite, O God
you will never spurn.

18 Do all the good to Zion you long to do.
Rebuild Jerusalem’s walls.
19 Then you’ll be pleased
to receive true sacrifices—
burnt-offerings and whole-offerings.
And young bulls will be offered up on your altar.

Throughout his affair with Bathsheba, David offered ritual sacrifices to keep up religious appearances. But camouflaged or not, sinful self-indulgence brings no joy like that of knowing God. So when Nathan finally confronted him, David confessed his sin against Yahveh.[2] Since all sin is ultimately against God, he goes further here. He implies that his sins against everyone else—including Bathsheba’s supremely loyal husband, whose death he engineered—are nothing next to his sins against God.

Clinging to God’s unfailing love and mercy, David asks God to cleanse and restore him to fellowship with him. Rebel that he is, he also asks God miraculously to give him a pure heart, one that longs to obey.

Only thus remade will David’s joy overflow and God empower him to guide fellow rebels back home. David will tell them that sacrifice, devoid of the broken heart it’s meant to express, doesn’t please God, but also that God welcomes all who renounce their offences and look to him for mercy.

David’s rebellion has ravaged the city he’s guardian of, the city which is God’s earthly home. So David concludes by asking God to right that wrong too, by healing the breach in Zion’s protective walls,[3] enabling his people to worship freely again.

On my own, Lord, I can clean only the outside of my “cup.” But you require purity and truth inside it too. Purify my heart so I can know the joy of unbroken fellowship with you. Only so renewed, can I offer worship that pleases you and represent your gracious rule on earth. Amen.

In your spare moments today, pray this profoundly simple prayer:

Create a clean heart in me, O God!


[1] Fellowship offerings and burnt-offerings (vv. 17, 19) were meant not to seek cleansing from sin, but to show one’s devotion to God. Goldingay (2007) p. 137.

[2] See 2 Samuel 11-12.

[3] Most scholars assume that verse 18 can plausibly refer only to Jerusalem’s post-exilic reconstruction and, hence, that verses 18-19 were added by the Psalms’ later compilers/editors. While that’s certainly possible, it overlooks David’s urgent need to address his sins’ national impact. For nowhere else does he ask for the restoration of Zion, earth’s divinely designated point of access to heaven. Rebuilding the city walls is a perfectly Davidic metaphor for that. Also, the verse has him addressing his sins’ national effects just where we’d expect him to: after addressing his sins’ personal effects. And since Zion’s sacrificial system functions as it should only if God restores the divine-human order David’s sins have disrupted, this prayer naturally leads him to conclude as he does in verse 19.

Why Yahveh?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and occasionally transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Modern translations, likewise, either translate or transliterate it. While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it is more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. I’ve chosen to transliterate it to root it more firmly in the biblical story as the name—meaning the “self-existent One”—that God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. This name set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it in order better to hallow it. In transliterating it, I follow the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard. He advocated transliterating it as Yahveh—pronounced yah·vay—arguing that following the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish than Yahweh.
May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Robert Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.