Summary: FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST SEPTEMBER 16, 2001 Psalm 51:1-20 Title: “Confession of sin and prayer for forgiveness.”


Psalm 51:1-20

Title: “Confession of sin and prayer for forgiveness.”

This is the best known of the seven traditional penitential psalms, 6; 32; 38; 51; 102; 130; 143, and one of the most moving prayers in the Old Testament. Unlike Lament Psalms there is no complaint about enemies, no prayer for their defeat or punishment or death, and no appeal to motivate God to act because of his fidelity. There is simply a confession of sin verses three to seven, wherein the problem of evil is internalized and a prayer for forgiveness verses eight to eleven, and restoration of innocence verses twelve to fourteen, so that the renewed one may praise God authentically and acceptably verses fifteen to twenty-one.

The beginning and end of this psalm have presented problems for commentators. The beginning, the Title or Heading, verses one and two, associates the psalm with David and his confrontation with the prophet Nathan after committing adultery with Bathsheba and arranging for the death of her husband, Uriah in 2Samual 12. Titles which appear on many of the psalms, 116 of them in the Hebrew text, are generally accepted as later additions, added at different stages of Israel’s history and liturgy. Thus, the ascription “to David” does not necessarily mean he actually wrote the psalm. Likewise, the historical notes attached to some psalms are not necessarily historically true, but are usually educated or edifying guesses to give the psalm a setting from which the reader can reflect and apply to one’s own life. Such is the case here. There is no doubt that the sentiments expressed in this confession of sin fit David and Bathsheba. There is also no doubt that David himself could not have composed the psalm since most of the theological perspectives come from the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah, long after David, at the time of the Exile. Yet, understanding this psalm in the light of David’s sin helps the reader to identify sin in his or her own life sin, as heinous as David’s, confess it and experience forgiveness and restoration of zeal for God and his house. David’s sin was not only a sexual violation against Bathsheba) or murder against Uriah, but pride against Yahweh, imagining he was autonomous and could live without regard to God’s commandments. David did not write the psalm but he most certainly could have prayed it and identified with it.

The end of the psalm, verses twenty to twenty-one, where the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem and acceptable sacrifice are mentioned, has caused another problem. This one is not about authorship but the dating of the psalm. Most commentators take the anti-cultic statements of verses eighteen and nineteen, to be part of an original psalm whose date of composition is unknown but back as far as Amos in the eighth century and verses twenty and twenty-one, pro-cultic, to be added to correct verses eighteen and nineteen, during the period of return from exile and the rebuilding of the Temple and walls about 538-444BC. While all this may be correct, the thesis is unnecessary. If this psalm were written in the post-exilic period, that is, before, during or after the rebuilding of the Temple, it would be quite possible for a Jew to maintain that God wants moral behavior to back up cultic sacrifices for authenticity sake and at the same time engage in such cultic practices. A sincerely devout Jew always lived with that tension. There is really no need to affirm or assume the existence of these final two verses as being tacked on to an earlier original. The psalm was sung as part of a penitential rite wherein the animal sacrifice was offered after the confession that it was not, in and of itself, sufficient to effect forgiveness. Sung in the liturgy, it was also appropriate to be recited privately, even by a sick person whose sickness has made him or her more conscious of sin, who cannot get to Temple and must be content with “a clean heart and broken spirit” as his or her sacrifice.

In verses one and two, a psalm of David: See the remarks made above.

In verse three, have mercy on me: The verb in Hebrew, hanan, comes from the root meaning, “grace,” undeserved favor from a superior to an inferior.

In your goodness: When a Hebrew praises God he gives the reason for it. When he asks for a favor he does the same. Both use the Hebrew ki, “for,” and this verse is no exception. Thus, it is “because of” or “according to” God’s hesed, covenant love and loyalty, here “goodness,” that the psalmist dares to ask. He has no other claim on God than God himself and the kind of God he knows him to be. There is no appeal to God as such in order to motivate him to act, merely this recognition of God’s character and nature.

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