|ESV Translation||Hebrew Translation|
|10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.||12Create for me a pure heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.|
|11Cast me not away from Your presence, and take not Your Holy Spirit from me.||13Cast me not away from Your presence, and take not Your Holy Spirit from me.|
|12Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.||14Return to me the joy of Your salvation, and support me (with) a willing spirit.|
|13Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will return to you.||15I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will return to You.|
|14Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of Your righteousness.||16Deliver me from bloodguilt, O God, O God of my salvation. My tongue shall sing loudly Your righteousness.|
|15O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise.||17O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise.|
|16For You will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; You will not be pleased with a burnt offering.||18For You delight not in sacrifice, or I would give (it). Not with a burnt offering will You be pleased.|
|17The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.||19The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and crushed heart, O God, You will not despise.|
51:12 (10) בְּרָא-לִי (bara li)—”Create for me.” The preposition לְ (luh) more typically means “to, for” rather than “in.” Additionally, “for” better communicates the fact that David himself cannot do this and that it must be done for him, i.e. by God, which gives us a better reading of God’s monergistic efficacy.
לֵב טָהוֹר (lēv tahor)—”A pure heart.” The ESV rendering of this as “clean” is fine. I chose “pure” as it gives a different image than making something “clean” as in a removal of dirt.
וְרוּחַ נָכוֹן (vuh-ruach nakon)—”A right spirit.” How does one translate נָכוֹן (nakon)? Is it “right” in being aligned with God or “firm” as in “firmly established”? Is it “noble” as in honourable? Or is it “willing” as in loyalty to God? Regarding the psalm’s historical significance according to its superscription (vv. 1-2 MT [Masoretic text]), this is a psalm of repentance in which one is made right with God by His gracious will, which David appeals to God’s graciousness at the beginning of the psalm (“Be gracious to me,” v. 3 MT). Thus, “right” is likely closer in meaning, although other translations are acceptable.
51:13 (11) מִלְּפָנֶיךָ (miluhphanēka)—”away from Your presence.” Literally, “from before Your face.” Theologically, “God’s face” is understood as His presence rather than His literal face. For this reason, I have retained the ESV’s rendering of “Your presence.”
51:14 (12) הָשִׁיבָה לִּי (hashivah li)—”Return to me.” As a Hiphil imperative, maintaining the causation of the verb in English is difficult. To literally translate it would be, “cause to return to me,” which is too many words for poetry and it sounds awkward in English. So, what is a good English word that conveys this causation? This is possibly why the ESV translators chose “restore.”
The preposition “with” needs to be supplied in English in order to make sense of the Hebrew.
51:16 (14) הַצִּילֵנִי (hatsilēni)—”Deliver me.” Tate makes the note that the use of נצל (natsal) here is rare because “it usually refers to rescue from enemies or from deathlike situations. There is no mention of violent acts elsewhere in the psalm which would incur blood-guilt” (Tate, 7). Thus, Tate suggests the translation of “deadly guilt” rather than bloodguilt as the result of committing bloodshed (Tate, 26).
However, Tate neglects the superscription’s mention of this being a psalm of events surrounding David’s infidelity with Bathsheba. It is true that the psalm does not specifically mention murder, but the superscription tells the reader that the murder of Uriah is implied. Kretzmann comments on v. 16, “not only that which was resting upon him on account of his murder of Uriah, but that of all severe transgressions, which are like enemies that try to oppress and enslave” (Kretzmann, 112).
תְּרַנֵּן (tuhranēn)—”sing loudly.” Although in the Piel and could be translated as “shall surely praise,” רנן (ranan) is a stronger vocal verb than “praise” (זמר, zamar). While both vocal verbs, רנן is “louder” than זמר, hence “sing loudly.” That is to say, “I sing at the top of my lungs!”
51:18 (16) כִּי (ki)—”For.” It can be argued that v. 18 is not a statement for v. 17, which would give another possible translation that is intensive, such as “yea” or “surely.” However, as Tate notes, “it seems equally probable that the text assumes that the reader/hearer’s repertoire of understanding includes the recognition that joyful freedom of the tongue and mouth to praise God was expected as a result of the acceptance of a sacrifice as a sign of forgiveness. Conventionally, accepted sacrifice would open the mouths of worshipers to praise God” (Tate, 7).
In other words, “My mouth shall declare Your praise because You do not delight in sacrifice but a genuinely repentant heart.” This use of כִּי seems more plausible than the more disjunctive translation of “yea” from the preceding and subsequent verses.
וְאֶתֵּנָה (vuh-etēnah)—”or I would give (it).” As typical of Hebrew poetry, this Qal cohortative of נתן (nathan) is missing a direct object but is assumed; thus, it must be supplied in English.
51:19 (17) וְנִדְכֶּה (vuh-nidkeh)—”crushed.” From דּכה (dakah) that means “to crush/be crushed.” This gives a better image to what it means for the heart to be “contrite.” Though the ESV’s rendering as “contrite” is fine, it is a theological translation. “Crushed” better relays the weightiness of David’s severe guilt. Poetry is not so much concerned with theological abstractions than it is with physical, image-producing effects. Hence my choosing of “crushed” over “contrite.”
Many commentators question whether David truly wrote this psalm. D. J. Human, among others, seems to think an undesignated psalmist wrote this for David (Human, 121). The Sirach, however, seems to suggest otherwise, “‘The Lord took away [David’s] sins, and exalted his power forever; he gave him a covenant of kingship and a glorious throne in Israel’ (Sir 47:11)” (Gaiser, 383). The Lord taking away David’s sins in the Sirach does not seem to suggest a general forgiveness of sins, but the specific ones we know him for committing, i.e. his infidelity with Bathsheba and the orchestration of Uriah’s murder.
Thus, to honour Hebrew tradition, I believe it is permissible to understand this psalm as one David actually wrote, so I will be referring to Psalm 51 as a psalm of David throughout this paper.
The entirety of the psalm can be structured as follows (MT numbering here and throughout):
- First Prayer for Cleansing (vv. 3-4)
- Confession (vv. 5-8)
- Second Prayer for Cleansing (vv. 9-14)
- Thanksgiving for Absolution (vv. 15-19)
- Third Prayer for Israel’s Repentance (vv. 20-21)
The purpose of this paper will be focusing on the latter portion of the second prayer (vv. 12-14) and David’s thanksgiving (vv. 15-19). It is an odd place to begin, as we are starting at a continuing point of David’s repentance. After using various verbs that convey cleansing language (“blot out” v. 3; “wash me,” “cleanse me,’ v. 4; “purge me with hyssop,” “be clean,” “wash me,” v. 9; and “hide Your face,” “blot out,” v. 11), David continues with this cleansing theme in v. 12 (“create,” “clean heart,” “renew”). I take vv. 12-14 as a second prayer because after praying for cleansing the first time, David begins to confess his sins to show his contrition, then he picks up on praying for cleansing again, hence its being a second prayer.
David’s use of cleansing language is of immediate interest to me, not only for its baptismal overtones but also this language is purposeful. As we read a psalm, Saleska makes note that the reader ought to pay attention to the “verbal ornament (the line) of a psalm [that asks] for your interpretive attention” (Saleska, 7). The “verbal ornament” throughout the entirety of this psalm is the cleansing verbs David uses: blot out, wash, cleanse, purge; and in the verses for the chosen section, creating a pure/clean heart, renewing a right spirit. These verbal metaphors stand out. It is not that David is asking God to give him a bath as in a removal of dirt, but he is asking for a complete and utter change of heart; he wants to be changed into an entirely new person.
Tate makes mention of the fact that in ancient Israel, the heart was considered the centre of a person’s being (Tate, 22). D. J. Human affirms this consensus (Human, 127). Yet the ruach is often used as a distinction from the heart in that it is “the animating factor in mankind and in animals” (Tate, 22). In other words, at times the heart functions as a synecdoche for the person’s whole being whereas the spirit is what gives the person life, as in Genesis 2:7 (Human, 127).
Heart and spirit are not mutually exclusive. If the heart is David himself, the spirit is what gives David animation (life, breath). It is these things—his entire essence—that he relies on God to completely change him into someone totally new. “With the word Create [David] asks for nothing less than a miracle… what God alone can do” (Kidner, 209-210).
Besides the wider biblical context that brings David to call upon the Lord for a new heart and a renewed spirit (2 Samuel 11-12), the immediate context of Psalm 51 also has significance. Gaiser makes mention of “psalm pairs” discussed among Hebrew scholars “that some back-to-back pairs of psalms mutually enforce, play off, and interpret one another” (Gaiser, 387). Psalms 50 and 51 are one of these pairs. Our immediate attention is on the chosen section for study, however (vv. 12-19 MT). The relation between the two psalms is a chiasm of sorts.
Structurally, Psalm 50:7-15 is God speaking on sacrifice and deliverance while David speaks on sacrifice and deliverance in the selected section, 51:12-19. In 50:8 Yahweh says, “Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me,” while David recounts in 51:18, “[a sacrifice] I would give.” In 50:9 Yahweh says, “I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds,” while in 51:18 David recounts, “For You delight not in sacrifice… Not with a burnt offering will You be pleased.”
In 50:15 Yahweh says, “and call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me,” while David proclaims in 51:16, “Deliver me… and my tongue shall sing loudly your righteousness” (see Gaiser pp. 388-389 for the full chiasmic structure of this psalm pair). In Psalm 51, “David becomes the wicked one of 50:16” whom God calls out (Gaiser, 390). David becomes the one who hates disciplines, casts out God’s Word, who keeps company with adulterers, and who forgets God (50:17-18, 22).
With Psalm 51 paired with Psalm 50, we understand that 51:18-19 is not a statement that God does not desire, per se, what He has established for His people. Rather, this immediate context helps the reader/hearer understand, “In Ps 50 sacrifice provided the proper basis, from Israel’s side, for the establishment of the covenant with God (v. 5). As such, it retains a proper place (vv. 8-9) and remains the proper response of the penitent believer (v. 23). God, however, will not be controlled by manipulative sacrifice (vv. 9-15), and ritual sacrifice will not easily cover ongoing transgression (vv. 16-22). Sacrifice will lead to salvation only by way of remembrance and repentance (v. 22)” (Gaiser, 391).
In other words, “God is not rejecting his own appointed offerings… What he is emphasizing is that the best of gifts is hateful to him without a contrite heart” (Kidner, 211). This is why David can write in 51:18-19, “For You delight not in sacrifice, or I would give it. Not with a burnt offering will You be pleased. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and crushed heart, O God, You will not despise.”
Because of the inauthenticity involved with sacrifices, God requires a sacrifice of thanksgiving and a vow (50:14). So, David does just that (51:16-17, 19). In other words, “The true sacrifices You desire, O God, are a broken and crushed heart. Therefore, I give You mine, and I shall sing loudly the praise due Your name.” As Human says, “The realisation that God has guided him from the power of death to the joy of life makes him thankful to God. He has a new lease on life because God has averted his bloodguilt, which deserves the death penalty [cf. Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22; Numbers 35:30-31]. He has been freed from the sentence of death. This is his motivation for bringing a sacrifice of thanksgiving and to be part of the struggle against the fatal power of sin” (Human, 128).
Historically among God’s people, Psalm 51 has been used as a prayer of penitence and thanksgiving. In traditional use, Psalms 6, 32, 28, 51, 102, 130, and 143 have been grouped together as the seven penitential psalms. Cassiodorus was the first to group these together. The superscription says this is given to the choirmaster, which shows the psalm has been used for liturgical, musical purposes for thousands of years. During the Middle Ages, Psalm 51 was recited during fasting practices and it is still known as the famous and beautiful Miserere by Gregorio Allegri in 1638 (Human, 120). Psalm 51 is still prayerfully sung in our congregations today during the Offertory of Divine Service Setting Three just before we enter the Prayers of the Church and the Service of the Sacrament (LSB, 192).
And so, as the worshiper today reads and sings this prayer, we, too, become the wicked one in Psalm 50:16 alongside David. David’s prayer becomes the prayer of Zion, and Zion’s prayer becomes our prayer (51:20). “This possibility of multiple readings (it’s about David; it’s about Israel; it’s about me) empowers and enriches the understanding and use of these psalms” (Gaiser, 390). We begin to sympathise with David because we begin to see ourselves as the wicked one too; thus, we also call upon God in the day of trouble (50:15).
More importantly than myself, however, I see Christ in this psalm. I mentioned earlier the baptismal overtones inherent in this psalm. Through Baptism, God answers this prayer for me. Being baptised into Christ, God creates for me a pure heart and a renewed spirit (Romans 6:3-4). Christ has given me the joy of His salvation (Romans 6:5-11). I do not think we can see Christ as the one praying this psalm since He has no sins to repent, but perhaps He is the speaker in 51:15, “I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will return to You.” The Lord teaches and shows us who God the Father is, and we come to the Father through Him (John 14:6). Nevertheless, I can likely see Christ praying this psalm as “the wicked one” hanging on the tree of the cross as the one who is bearing all my wickedness.
In Christ, God has delivered me from bloodguilt because Jesus took that guilt upon Himself and saved me by His blood (Romans 5:6, 10; Hebrews 9:27-28). Therefore, the Lord opens my mouth and I “rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Every day, I present myself to God as a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1), giving thanks that He uses me for the gifts of His Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4-7) so that others may know Him.
Gaiser, Frederick J. “The David of Psalm 51: Reading Psalm 51 in Light of Psalm 50.” Word & World 23, no 4 (Fall 2003): 355-464.
Human, D. J. “God accepts a broken spirit and a contrite heart – Thoughts on penitence, forgiveness and reconciliation in Psalm 51.” Verbum et Ecclesia 26, no 1 (2005): 1-325.
Kidner, Derek. Psalms 1-72. Kidner Classic Commentaries. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
Kretzmann, Paul E. Old Testament. Popular Commentary of the Bible. Vol. II. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1924.
Saleska, Timothy E. Psalms 1-50. Concordia Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2020.
Tate, Marvin E. Psalms 51-100. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word Books, 1990.