Psalm 51 is an individual lament and one of several psalms of repentance, in which the speaker is not the victim of sin but its perpetrator. James L. Mays suggests that “it may have been composed for use by the congregation, and individuals as part of it, in connection with the Day of Atonement (see Lev. 16:30).” Tradition connects the psalm with David’s affair with Bathsheba and Nathan’s subsequent conviction of the king’s sin (2 Sam. 11-12). In that case as well as in this, the sinner’s reaction was to cry out, “I have sinned against the LORD!” For David, the immediate result was forgiveness. Taking his cue from David, the psalmist is audacious in approaching God, firm in his belief that God can redeem him, wants to redeem him, and desires a relationship so personal that forgiveness and grace not only are certain to come, but also will exemplify God’s sovereignty and power by coming in abundance.
While the psalm begins in a place of desperation, it moves swiftly to absolute certainty that the God who acted in the lives of such fallen heroes as David will act again in the psalmist’s own life and will restore it to wholeness. Brutal honesty is the first item on the psalmist’s agenda, for he knows that this is necessary for a fresh start. A cry for mercy leads to an announcement that the psalmist has sinned against God and deserves judgment. Whatever unnamed commandment he has broken, he admits that he is guilty as charged and that God has every right to judge him severely. Nevertheless, he fully expects a merciful response from God, for this is his understanding of what God does: “as befits Your faithfulness; in keeping with Your abundant compassion” (vv. 3-4). Neal H. Walls points out that this is covenant language and implies that this means God has a responsibility to forgive the penitent:
Psalm 51 shares much of its vocabulary with God’s self-revelation in Exodus 34:6-7, which describes the LORD as “merciful and gracious” (וְחַנּוּן רַחוּם), “abounding in steadfast love [חֶסֶד] and faithfulness [אֱמֶת],” and “forgiving iniquity and transgression of sin.”
Furthermore, the psalmist calls out, “wash me thoroughly,” translated in the Anchor Bible as “wash me again and again.” According to Mitchell Dahood, “The psalmist seems to suggest that the number of washings should equal the number of God’s mercies.” If God is as merciful as scripture and tradition teach, and if God is faithful to the covenant established with Israel, then the psalmist knows he can fully expect that mercy to become available to him.
It is commonly remarked by preachers that justice means getting what we deserve, mercy means not getting what we deserve, and grace means getting what we don’t deserve. The psalmist deserves justice and pleads for mercy, but he fully expects grace. He claims that his sin is deep enough to be inherent: “Indeed I was born with iniquity; with sin my mother conceived me” (v. 7). Even this bleak assessment, however, will not hold him back from his pleas. He implores God to do things that only God can do. How can anyone “un-sin” (תְּחַטְּאֵנִי) the sinful (v. 9)? How can bones that have been crushed exult again (v. 10)? How can the sinner’s iniquities be deleted from the divine bookkeeping (v. 11)? Yet God’s grace can bring righteousness out of sin and joy out of pain, and God can even change the basic mathematics of sin. He has done so before, so the psalmist expects him to do it again.
This expectation culminates in verse 12: “Fashion [create] a pure heart for me, O God; create [renew] in me a steadfast spirit.” Here the psalmist invokes the most powerful of God’s creative powers. If a heart is so corrupt that it cannot be redeemed, God can create (בְּרָא) a new one from scratch, in the same way that God created (בָּרָא) the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1)! Edwin McNeill Poteat adds, “And [the psalmist] even dares to insist that such response as his contrition evokes from God shall—much or little—be ungrudging.”
Indeed, there is nothing stingy about God’s grace. Dahood interprets the finer points of Hebrew word order to translate “till I am pure” as “I’ll indeed be purer than gushing water,” and “till I am whiter than snow” as “I’ll be much whiter than snow” [italics mine]. The psalmist is certain not of a sufficient outcome, but of an abundant outcome. And what of “the bones You have crushed” (v. 10)? Dahood is uneasy about this translation, as it seems to accuse God of having done wrong, either physically or spiritually, to a man who is confessing his own wrongdoing. He suggests an alternate verb, “purify,” which is one letter off from “crush,” but even Dahood admits the argument for it is weak. Perhaps the shock of the suggestion that God has crushed the psalmist’s bones reveals the extremes of God’s power: God will even restore that which He Himself has destroyed—and not only restore, but bring back to the point of rejoicing!
The psalmist does not expect to get something for nothing, what some call “cheap grace.” Indeed, that kind of transactional language is not appropriate, for just as he is certain God will redeem him no matter what, the psalmist is intent on praising God no matter what. But he cannot do so from within his state of sin: he needs God to restore him first, and now is the time for that to happen. After that, “I will teach transgressors Your ways” (v. 15), “I may sing forth your beneficence (v. 16),” “let my mouth declare your praise” (v. 17).
Verses 18 and following present and wrestle with a radical idea for postexilic Israel. The psalmist is so close to God that he even sees through the futility of the temple sacrifice system to remit sins. William R. Taylor writes:
It is consonant with his spiritual temper that [the psalmist] considers no offering of thanks for the answering of his appeal acceptable to God except that of a broken and contrite heart. Such a point of view is so revolutionary in its implications for the traditional sacrificial system that a later editor, fearful of its influence, sought to qualify it by the addition of vss. 18-19 [20-21].
While there is no indication that the psalmist condemns the system of temple sacrifice, he most certainly does not deem it necessary in order for God’s grace to function. Perhaps it came as a welcome relief to Jews living in exile to imagine that one’s relationship with God might require no intermediary.
Even from a poetic perspective, Psalm 51 focuses on the personal relationship between the psalmist and God. No wider community is acknowledged, nor does such a community seem relevant to the situation until the final two verses which Taylor mentions above. Like many other psalms, this one revels in parallelism, but Psalm 51’s poetic cadence also relies on the first person object “-ni” ending for a series of imperative verbs that begin in verses 3-4: חָנֵּנִי (have mercy on me), כַּבְּסֵנִי (wash me), טַהֲרֵנִי (purify me). In verse 6 we see a shift from imperative pleas to recognition of God’s role in the situation, and when this happens, many verbs end with the “-kha” second person singular form, creating a new cadence: לְךָ (against you), לְבַדְּךָ (against you only), בְּדָבְרֶךָ (when you speak), בְשָׁפְטֶךָ (when you judge). Verse 9 restores the progression of imperatives: תְּחַטְּאֵנִי (purge or “un-sin” me), תְּכַבְּסֵנִי (wash me), תַּשְׁמִיעֵנִי (make me hear). In verses 13-14, the two styles alternate without a break: אַל-תַּשְׁלִיכֵנִי (cast me not away) מִלְּפָנֶיךָ (from your presence), קָדְשְׁךָ וְרוּחַ (and do not take away) מִמֶּנִּי תִּקַּח-אַל (your holy spirit from me). The two endings continue to appear throughout the remainder of the psalm. The speaker knows whom he addresses, and he expects God to act in a way that will produce abundantly positive results in his life—all for the purpose of reasserting and showing forth God’s glory.
James Mays writes, “Many of the prayers for help say, ‘Change my situation so I may praise you.’ This one says, ‘Change me; I am the problem.’” Also, he notes that Psalm 51 “is not merely an expression of human remorse or preoccupation with failure and guilt; it looks beyond self to God and lays hold on the marvelous possibilities of God’s grace.” The Psalmist knows that not only can God do amazing, life-restoring things, but God wants to do them and is so inclined at every available opportunity.
One year on the first Sunday in Lent, I told the members of my youth group, “Lent is a great time to work on things about yourself that need to change.” A 14-year-old boy named Adam piped up, “Or you could let God work on changing you.” I was totally called up short. I told Adam so on the spot, and I quoted him in a sermon the very next week. Adam’s comment reminded me of a simple, basic premise of our faith: God is always at work in our lives, but we get to decide how much of this work to allow. This psalmist felt the same way, and it was on that faith that he staked his ability to approach his creator with bold confidence and ask for salvation—even from within the depths of sin.
 James L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 199.
 The translation cited throughout this paper is the Tanakh (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985). Consequently, I am using the verse numbering scheme that treats the superscription as verses 1-2.
 Neal H. Walls, “Psalm 51:1-17, Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 13.
 Mitchell Dahood, S.J., The Anchor Bible: Psalms II (51-100) (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1968), 3.
 Ibid. See also William R. Taylor, “Psalm 51 Exegesis” in The Interpreter’s Bible Volume IV: Psalms, Proverbs (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1955), 270.
 Dahood, 3; his language refers specifically to v. 3.
 Dahood, 5.
 Dahood, 7.
 Taylor, 267.
 Mays, 202.
 Ibid, 199.