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Godly Repentance; The Destruction of the Godless (Psalms 51-53) July 23-26

We return now to psalms attributed to David, with Psalm 51 being the first in Book II of the Psalter that bears his name. We read this psalm earlier in conjunction with the event described in the superscription—that of the prophet Nathan confronting David after his sin of adultery and murder (see the Bible Reading Program comments on 2 Samuel 11 as well as 2 Samuel 12:1-13; Psalm 51; 2 Samuel 12:13-31; 1 Chronicles 20:1-3). David immediately confesses, "I have sinned against the LORD" (2 Samuel 12:9, 13). And here in his psalm of repentance, David provides a model of repentant prayer for all of God's people when they sin. It may have been placed here in the Psalter as a response to the calling to account and instruction on sacrifices God gives in Psalm 50.

In Psalm 51, David doesn't justify his actions or try to improve his position. He appeals to God for mercy, hesed—God's unfailing, steadfast love (verse 1). David agonizingly faces what he has done and confesses it to God using all the basic Hebrew words for sin. The word "transgressions" (verse 1) is from the Hebrew pesha, meaning transgression in the sense of rebellion or revolt. "Iniquity" in verse 2 is from awon, meaning perversity, wickedness or fault. The word for "evil" in verse 4 is ra', meaning something bad, wrong or hurtful. And the word for "sin" in these verses, hata, means to miss the mark. All essentially imply deviating from a standard—that is, from God's standard.

In verse 4, David says to God, "Against You, You only, have I sinned." This might seem odd, for David appears also to have sinned against Bathsheba, Uriah, other soldiers who were killed in the battle in which Uriah died, and the nation of Israel, over which David had a responsibility to govern righteously. Jesus later said that one person can sin against another (Matthew 18:15). So what did David mean?

Some take it to be a matter of comparison. That is to say, what he did against these others is nothing compared to what he has done against God. Yet the answer is probably more a matter of nuance in perspective. Sin, we must consider, is the transgression of the law (1 John 3:4, KJV). Since God is the one who defines the law's standards, any violation of the law is against Him. Acting against another person is sin because God has set the rules of conduct forbidding this. The standard we have violated, the mark we have missed, is God's. In this sense, sin itself can only be against God, the Lawgiver. It would certainly be proper to say that one has sinned in acting against another person. And it is easy to see that the statement could be shortened to say that one has sinned against another person. But here we should realize that while the affected person is the object of the action that is sin, he is not the object of the sin (or transgressing) itself, as it was not his law that was transgressed but God's.

David's statement in Psalm 51:5 has caused much confusion: "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me." This does not mean David's mother sinned in conceiving him. Nor does it mean that David was born stained with "original sin," as many maintain. Rather the Hebrew prefixed preposition b', usually translated "in," can also mean "into." As Gesenius' Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament says in one of its definitions of this word, it often occurs "with verbs of motion, when the movement to a place results in rest in it, into." Thus, David is most likely stating that he was brought forth into iniquity and into sin. As with all human beings, sin had characterized his life from a young age.

In verse 6, David says that God desires "truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden part...to know wisdom." It is one thing to know God's truth in an academic sense. It is quite another to also live by it in our inward thoughts and motivations. This, David knew, is what God really wants. And whenever we repent, we must consider what it is that God wants from us. It comes down to an educated change and a lifelong commitment—and that we follow through.

David asks God to "blot out," to "wash" and to "cleanse" him (verses 2, 9)—to thoroughly scrub him clean from His spiritual uncleanness (verses 6-7). In its note on verse 7, The Expositor's Bible Commentary states: "The unclean, such as lepers, used to present themselves before the priest on the occasion of their purification. The priest, being satisfied that the unclean person had met the requirements for purification, would take a bunch of 'hyssop' and sprinkle the person with water, symbolic of ritual cleansing. Here the psalmist [David] petitions the Lord to be his priest by taking the hyssop and by declaring him cleansed from all sin."

In this cleansing, David prays that God would create in him a clean heart and would renew a steadfast, faithful spirit within Him (verse 10). David realized he could not be faithful on His own. He needed God's constant help. So he pleads to remain in God's presence and to continue to have God's Holy Spirit to help him—not himself cast out and that Spirit taken away as he knew he deserved (verse 11).

Guilt over what he had done was always present in David's mind (verse 3). It took the joy and gladness out of life (verse 8). David figuratively refers to God having broken his bones (same verse), meaning that the overwhelming guilt he had from considering his sin in light of God's laws made him feel hobbled or crushed and greatly humbled. He prays to be forgiven and relieved of this guilt (verse 14)—and that His joy would return (verse 12).

David declares what he will do when God restores him. He will teach others God's ways (verse 13), He will sing about God's righteousness (verse 14)—no doubt in public psalms—and he will openly proclaim God's praise (verse 15). David was thinking outwardly, not selfishly about only himself. When we ask God for restoration, an important part of our motivation should be so that we can better serve Him and others.

In verses 16-19 we return to a major theme of Psalm 50—the kind of sacrifices God really wants (also touched on in Psalm 40). At the time he wrote, David was required to bring physical sacrifices to the tabernacle. And he no doubt did on this occasion soon after his confession before Nathan. Perhaps Psalm 51 was written as a song to accompany the sacrifice. Verse 16's statement about God not desiring sacrifice "or else I would give it" should not be understood to imply that David would not bring a sacrifice. The point is that he'll give God whatever God wants—he'll do whatever it takes—to be right with Him.

But David knows that God does not desire any physical sacrifices apart from the inner sacrifices of a right heart and mind—"broken," meaning humble, and "contrite," meaning repentant and obedient (verse 17). David used these same terms in Psalm 34:18. And the prophet Isaiah would later use them as well (Isaiah 66:2)—again in the context of the kind of sacrifices and service God is truly looking for. Psalm 51:19 uses the words "sacrifices of righteousness"—showing that it involves living the right way of life.

David concludes by asking God to "do good" to Zion or Jerusalem and to build its walls—meaning to bless and protect the people—including leading them to a right mindset—so that the people and their physical offerings would please Him (verses 18-19). This shows that God is pleased with physical offerings—but only when part of an inward devotion to Him and life of obedience. The holy city is likely here representative of the entire nation—and in a prophetic sense of spiritual Zion, the Church, as well as God's Kingdom in the world to come.

It should be noted that Psalm 51 has, thematically, many points of contact with Psalm 25.

Psalm 52 is a maskil (perhaps meaning instructive psalm or, as the NKJV translates it, "contemplation") of David—the first of four of these in a row. We earlier read this psalm in harmony with the story of the event mentioned in the superscription—when Doeg the Edomite, a servant of King Saul, told Saul of the high priest Ahimelech giving provisions to David and his men (see the Bible Reading Program comments on 1 Samuel 22:6-23; Psalm 52). Recall that Saul then ordered his men to execute Ahimelech and the other priests at Nob—which his men refused to do, whereupon Doeg carried out Saul's order, slaughtering 85 priests plus additional men, women, children, infants and animals living in the city (verses 18-19). To the one son who escaped, David lamented that he was to blame for having put the priests in jeopardy (verse 22).

In Psalm 52, written on that occasion, David questions the intelligence of any "mighty" man that would boast about doing evil since God's love and goodness will not be thwarted. Those who use their tongue for evil—such as in lying and passing on information to hurt innocent people—will be destroyed.

Doeg was apparently a wealthy man (verse 7)—perhaps having his pockets lined through spying and other misdeeds. Saul may have rewarded him handsomely after his massacre of the priests. Yet it is foolish to trust in money and evil accomplishments. This verse connects Psalm 52 with Psalm 49, concerning "those who trust in their wealth and boast in the multitude of their riches" (verse 6). Both psalms show that this is the way to destruction.

In contrast to the wicked, who will be uprooted from the land of the living (52:5), David says that he is like an olive tree (verse 8), which lives for hundreds of years. Indeed, planted securely "in the house of God"—ultimately not the ancient tabernacle but the family and Kingdom of God—he and the rest of the saints will flourish under the attentive care of the Master "forever and ever" (verses 8-9). The picture of the righteous as flourishing green trees ties back to the imagery of Psalm 1.

Psalm 53 is another maskil of David. "To Mahalath" in the superscription, which may be part of a postscript to Psalm 52 (and also found in the superscription of Psalm 88 as part of a longer phrase), could represent the psalm being set to the tune of another song. Yet it might mean something else. The words have been variously interpreted as "On sickness," "On suffering," "To pipings" (on wind instruments) or "To dances" (or some sort of choreography).

Psalm 53 repeats much of Psalm 14 with some minor variation (see the Bible Reading Program comments on Psalm 14). The placement of nearly the same psalm here provides a further commentary on the sort of arrogant godless fool described in Psalms 49 and 52—and thus brings the cluster of psalms beginning with 49 to a close. It also helps to demonstrate that originally the various books of the Psalter were probably separate collections or hymnals.

One noticeable difference between the two psalms is that here the word Elohim ("God") is used throughout rather than Yhwh (the Eternal or "LORD").

The other significant difference occurs in verse 5. As the Zondervan NIV Study Bible notes on this verse, it "differs considerably from 14:5-6, though the basic thought remains the same: God overwhelms the godless who attack his people. Here the verbs are in the past tense (perhaps to express the certainty of their downfall)." As to God scattering the bones of the enemy, it means "over the battlefield of their defeat, their bodies left unburied like something loathsome (see Isa 14:18-20; Jer 8:2...)" (same note). However, it could also be that so many will be destroyed at the end that they will not be able to be buried for some time, such as when the godless army of Gog is destroyed (see Ezekiel 39:11-16).

The closing verse of Psalm 14 and of 53 are identical in expressing a great yearning for salvation, rejoicing and gladness when God restores His people to their land. This speaks prophetically of the future establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth.

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