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Psalm 51:3-6

3. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is continually before me. 4. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done evil in thy sight; that thou mayest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest. 5. Behold, I was born in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. 6. Behold, thou hast desired truth in the inward parts, and hast shown me wisdom in secret.

 

3. For I know my sins 259259     As if he had said, “I confess and acknowledge that I have sinned, nor do I say as Cain did, ‘I know not,’ (Genesis 4:9.) What I formerly shamefully and foolishly excused and extenuated, I now acknowledge before thee and thy prophet, and the whole Church, in this penitential psalm.” The verb is in the future, I will know or acknowledge, to intimate that he would continue to retain an humble sense of his guilt. He now discovers his reason for imploring pardon with so much vehemency, and this was the painful disquietude which his sins caused him, and which could only be relieved by his obtaining reconciliation with God. This proves that his prayer did not proceed from dissimulation, as many will be found commending the grace of God in high terms, although, in reality, they care little about it, having never felt the bitterness of being exposed to his displeasure. David, on the contrary, declares that he is subjected by his sin to constant anguish of mind, and that it is this which imparts such an earnestness to his supplications. From his example we may learn who they are that can alone be said to seek reconciliation with God in a proper manner. They are such as have had their consciences wounded with a sense of sin, and who can find no rest until they have obtained assurance of his mercy. We will never seriously apply to God for pardon, until we have obtained such a view of our sins as inspires us with fear. The more easily satisfied we are under our sins, the more do we provoke God to punish them with severity, and if we really desire absolution from his hand, we must do more than confess our guilt in words; we must institute a rigid and formidable scrutiny into the character of our transgressions. David does not simply say that he will confess his sins to man, but declares that he has a deep inward feeling of them, such a feeling of them as filled him with the keenest anguish. His was a very different spirit from that of the hypocrite, who displays a complete indifference upon this subject, or when it intrudes upon him, endeavors to bury the recollection of it. He speaks of his sins in the plural number. His transgression, although it sprung from one root, was complicated, including, besides adultery, treachery and cruelty; nor was it one man only whom he had betrayed, but the whole army which had been summoned to the field in defense of the Church of God. He accordingly recognises many particular sins as wrapt up in it.

4. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned 260260     From the confession which David makes in this verse, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned,” Horsley is of opinion that the title of the psalm is not authentic, and that it could not have been composed on the occasion to which the title refers. “It ill suits the case of David,” says he, “who laid a successful plot against Uriah after he had defiled his bed.” But there seems to be no force in this objection. The prefix ל, lamed, translated against, sometimes means before, in the presence of, and is so rendered in Genesis 23:11, and 45:1. The Hebrew words לך לברך, lecha, lebaddecha, may, therefore be rendered, “before thee, before thee only.” If this reading is adopted, then, David alludes to the clandestine manner in which he committed the sin, intimating that it was a secret sin witnessed by God only, and known in the first instance only to him, God says of it, “For thou didst it secretly,” (2 Samuel 12:12.) There is, however, no need to alter the translation to meet the objection of Horsley. By these words, “Against thee, thee only,” David does not mean to say that he had not wronged Uriah, whose wife he had dishonored, whom he had caused to be made drunk, and afterwards to be slain; for he acknowledges in the 14th verse that “blood-guiltiness” lay heavy upon him, and he prays for deliverance from it. They are an emphatic declaration of the heinousness of his guilt — that he had sinned chiefly against God — more against him than against man. “My offense,” as if he had said, “against Uriah, and against society at large, great as it has been, is nothing compared to that which I have committed against thee.” It is the opinion of some that he here adverts to the circumstance of his sin, although it was committed against man, being concealed from every eye but that of God. None was aware of the double wrong which he had inflicted upon Uriah, nor of the wanton manner in which he had exposed his army to danger; and his crime being thus unknown to men, might be said to have been committed exclusively against God. According to others, David here intimates, that however deeply he was conscious of having injured men, he was chiefly distressed for having violated the law of God. But I conceive his meaning to be, that though all the world should pardon him, he felt that God was the Judge with whom he had to do, that conscience hailed him to his bar, and that the voice of man could administer no relief to him, however much he might be disposed to forgive, or to excuse, or to flatter. His eyes and his whole soul were directed to God, regardless of what man might think or say concerning him. To one who is thus overwhelmed with a sense of the dreadfulness of being obnoxious to the sentence of God, there needs no other accuser. God is to him instead of a thousand. There is every reason to believe that David, in order to prevent his mind from being soothed into a false peace by the flatteries of his court, realised the judgment of God upon his offense, and felt that this was in itself an intolerable burden, even supposing that he should escape all trouble from the hands of his fellow-creatures. This will be the exercise of every true penitent. It matters little to obtain our acquittal at the bar of human judgment, or to escape punishment through the connivance of others, provided we suffer from an accusing conscience and an offended God. And there is, perhaps, no better remedy against deception in the matter of our sins than to turn our thoughts inward upon ourselves, to concentrate them upon God, and lose every self-complacent imagination in a sharp sense of his displeasure. By a violent process of interpretation, some would have us read the second clause of this verse, That thou mayest be justified when thou speakest, in connection with the first verse of the psalm, and consider that it cannot be referred to the sentence immediately preceding. 261261     This is the opinion of R. Abraham and other Jewish commentators. They say that these words are not to be joined to the immediately preceding part of this verse, but either to the prayer in the first verse, or to what is stated in the third verse, “I acknowledge my transgressions;” and they put the beginning of the fourth verse, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done evil in thy sight,” within a parenthesis. But there is no just ground for such an interpretation. Green reads the last clause of the verse, “So that thou art just in passing sentence upon me, and clear in condemning me.” And it is not uncommon for למען, le-maan, to be used in the sense of so that, as in Psalm 30:12; Isaiah 28:13; and Jeremiah 50:34. According to this reading, the words are a part of David’s confession; — he not only confesses his sin in the first part of the verse, but also here acknowledges the divine righteousness should God condemn him. This is the sense in which Calvin understands the passage. But not to say that this breaks in upon the order of the verses, what sense could any attach to the prayer as it would then run, have mercy upon me, that thou mayest be clear when thou judgest? etc. Any doubt upon the meaning of the words, however, is completely removed by the connection in which they are cited in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans,

“For what if some did not believe? Shall God be unjust? God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mayest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.” — Romans 3:3, 4

Here the words before us are quoted in proof of the doctrine that God’s righteousness is apparent even in the sins of men, and his truth in their falsehood. To have a clear apprehension of their meaning, it is necessary that we reflect upon the covenant which God had made with David. The salvation of the whole world having been in a certain sense deposited with him by this covenant, the enemies of religion might take occasion to exclaim upon his fall, “Here is the pillar of the Church gone, and what is now to become of the miserable remnant whose hopes rested upon his holiness? Once nothing could be more conspicuous than the glory by which he was distinguished, but mark the depth of disgrace to which he has been reduced! Who, after so gross a fall, would look for salvation from his seed?” Aware that such attempts might be made to impugn the righteousness of God, David takes this opportunity of justifying it, and charging himself with the whole guilt of the transaction. He declares that God was justified when he spoke — not when he spoke the promises of the covenant, although some have so understood the words, but justified should he have spoken the sentence of condemnation against him for his sin, as he might have done but for his gratuitous mercy. Two forms of expression are here employed which have the same meaning, that thou mayest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest. As Paul, in the quotation already referred to, has altered the latter clause, and may even seem to have given a new turn to the sentiment contained in the verse, I shall briefly show how the words were applicable to the purpose for which they were cited by him. He adduces them to prove that God’s faithfulness remained unaffected by the fact that the Jews had broken his covenant, and fallen from the grace which he had promised. Now, at first sight it may not appear how they contain the proof alleged. But their appositeness will at once be seen if we reflect upon the circumstance to which I have already adverted. Upon the fall of one who was so great a pillar in the Church, so illustrious both as a prophet and a king, as David, we cannot but believe that many were shaken and staggered in the faith of the promises. Many must have been disposed to conclude, considering the close connection into which God had adopted David, that he was implicated in some measure in his fall. David, however, repels an insinuation so injurious to the divine honor, and declares, that although God should cast him headlong into everlasting destruction, his mouth would be shut, or opened only to acknowledge his unimpeachable justice. The sole departure which the apostle has made from the passage in his quotation consists in his using the verb to judge in a passive sense, and reading, that thou mightest overcome, instead of, that thou mightest be clear. In this he follows the Septuagint, 262262     There does not appear to be any substantial difference between the reading of the Septuagint, which the apostle follows, and that of the Hebrew text. Calvin says that Paul uses the verb to judge in a passive sense, whereas it is here used actively. But this is a mistake. Street, after giving the words of the Septuagint, which are, Νικησης ἐν τω κρινεσθαι σε, says, “The verb κρινεσθαι is in the middle, not in the passive voice, and the phrase ἐν τω κρινεσθαι σε, signifies cum tu judicas,” [i e when thou judgest.] “I take notice of this the rather, because the passage being cited by Paul, Romans 3:4, (and the Septuagint version of it having been inserted instead of the Hebrew, which the apostle quoted,) our translators seem to have mistaken the sense of it; for they render it, ‘That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.’ But who shall judge the Almighty?” In the other instance which Calvin mentions, the difference between the apostle’s reading and that of the Hebrew text is more in appearance than in reality. “The word זכה,” says Hammond, “is ordinarily rendered mundus fuit, clean, or clear, or pure But this, as the context evinces, must be understood in a forensic sense, as pure is all one with free from guilt; and so there is a second notion of the word for overcoming, meaning that sort of victory which belongs to him that carries the cause in judicature.” After stating that this is the rendering of the Septuagint, he observes, “That is very reconcilable with the notion of mundus fuit; for he that doth overcome in the suit is fitly said to be cleared or quitted by the law.” Thus Hammond, with Chrysostom, supposes the meaning to be, that should God proceed against David, should he indite and arraign him at the bar of justice for his sins, demanding vengeance to be inflicted upon him, God would be justified and cleared, and would overcome in the suit. and it is well known that the apostles do not study verbal exactness in their quotations from the Old Testament. It is enough for us to be satisfied, that the passage answers the purpose for which it was adduced by the apostle. The general doctrine which we are taught from the passage is, that whatever sins men may commit are chargeable entirely upon themselves, and never can implicate the righteousness of God. Men are ever ready to arraign his administration, when it does not correspond with the judgment of sense and human reason. But should God at any time raise persons from the depth of obscurity to the highest distinction, or, on the other hand, allow persons who occupied a most conspicuous station to be suddenly precipitated from it, we should learn from the example which is here set before us to judge of the divine procedure with sobriety, modesty, and reverence and to rest satisfied that it is holy, and that the works of God, as well as his words, are characterised by unerring rectitude. The conjunction in the verse, that-that thou mayest be justified, denotes not so much cause as consequence. It was not the fall of David, properly speaking, which caused the glory of God’s righteousness to appear. And yet, although men when they sin seem to obscure his righteousness, it emerges from the foul attempt only more bright than ever, it being the peculiar work of God to bring light out of darkness.

5 Behold, I was born in iniquity, etc He now proceeds further than the mere acknowledgement of one or of many sins, confessing that he brought nothing but sin with him into the world, and that his nature was entirely depraved. He is thus led by the consideration of one offense of peculiar atrocity to the conclusion that he was born in iniquity, and was absolutely destitute of all spiritual good. Indeed, every sin should convince us of the general truth of the corruption of our nature. The Hebrew word יחמתני, yechemathni, signifies literally, hath warmed herself of me, from יחם, yacham, or חמם, chamam, to warm; but interpreters have very properly rendered it hath conceived me. The expression intimates that we are cherished in sin from the first moment that we are in the womb. David, then, is here brought, by reflecting on one particular transgression, to east a retrospective glance upon his whole past life, and to discover nothing but sin in it. And let us not imagine that he speaks of the corruption of his nature, merely as hypocrites will occasionally do, to excuse their faults, saying, “I have sinned it may be, but what could I do? We are men, and prone by nature to everything which is evil.” David has recourse to no such stratagems for evading the sentence of God, and refers to original sin with the view of aggravating his guilt, acknowledging that he had not contracted this or that sin for the first time lately, but had been born into the world with the seed of every iniquity.

The passage affords a striking testimony in proof of original sin entailed by Adam upon the whole human family. It not only teaches the doctrine, but may assist us in forming a correct idea of it. The Pelagians, to avoid what they considered the absurdity of holding that all were ruined through one man’s transgression, maintained of old, that sin descended from Adam only through force of imitation. But the Bible, both in this and other places, clearly asserts that we are born in sin, and that it exists within us as a disease fixed in our nature. David does not charge it upon his parents, nor trace his crime to them, but sists himself before the Divine tribunal, confesses that he was formed in sin, and that he was a transgressor ere he saw the light of this world. It was therefore a gross error in Pelagius to deny that sin was hereditary, descending in the human family by contagion. The Papists, in our own day, grant that the nature of man has become depraved, but they extenuate original sin as much as possible, and represent it as consisting merely in an inclination to that which is evil. They restrict its seat besides to the inferior part of the soul and the gross appetites; and while nothing is more evident from experience than that corruption adheres to men through life, they deny that it remains in them subsequently to baptism. We have no adequate idea of the dominion of sin, unless we conceive of it as extending to every part of the soul, and acknowledge that both the mind and heart of man have become utterly corrupt. The language of David sounds very differently from that of the Papists, I was formed in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me He says nothing of his grosser appetites, but asserts that sin cleaved by nature to every part of him without exception.

Here the question has been started, How sin is transmitted from the parents to the children? And this question has led to another regarding the transmission of the soul, many denying that corruption can be derived from the parent to the child, except on the supposition of one soul being begotten of the substance of another. Without entering upon such mysterious discussions, it is enough that we hold, that Adam, upon his fall, was despoiled of his original righteousness, his reason darkened, his will perverted, and that, being reduced to this state of corruption, he brought children into the world resembling himself in character. Should any object that generation is confined to bodies, and that souls can never derive anything in common from one another, I would reply, that Adam, when he was endued at his creation with the gifts of the Spirit, did not sustain a private character, but represented all mankind, who may be considered as having been endued with these gifts in his person; and from this view it necessarily follows that when he fell, we all forfeited along with him our original integrity. 263263     Our Author’s views on the doctrine of original sin are more fully stated in his Institutes, Book II. chap. 1.

6. Behold, thou hast desired truth, etc. This verse confirms the remark which we already made, that David was far from seeking to invent an apology for his sin, when he traced it back to the period of his conception, and rather intended by this to acknowledge that from his very infancy he was an heir of eternal death. He thus represents his whole life to have been obnoxious to condemnation. So far is he from imitating those who arraign God as the author of sin, and impiously suggest that he might have given man a better nature, that in the verse now before us he opposes God’s judgment to our corruption, insinuating, that every time we appear before him, we are certain of being condemned, inasmuch as we are born in sin, while he delights in holiness and uprightness. He goes further, and asserts, that in order to meet the approval of God, it is not enough that our lives be conformed to the letter of his law, unless our heart be clean and purified from all guile. He tells us that God desires truth in the inward parts, 264264     The word טחות, tuchoth, which is rendered inward parts, and which is derived from the verb טוח, tuach, to spread over, means the reins, which are so called, because they are overspread with fat. “Once more it is used in Scripture, Job 38:36, where, as here, our English Bible renders it inward parts, somewhat too generally. The Chaldee expresses it more particularly by reins, and these, in the Scripture style, are frequently taken for the seat of the affections, the purity whereof is most contrary to the natural corruption or inbred pollution spoken of in the preceding verse. The word אמת, emeth, truth, ordinarily signifies sincerity, uprightness, and integrity; and so truth in the reins is equivalent to a hearty sincere obedience, not only of the actions, but of the very thoughts and affections to God; and so, in things of this nature, wherein this psalm is principally concerned, denotes the purity of the heart, the not admitting any unclean desire or thought, the very first degree of indulgence to any lust. And this God is said to will, or desire, or delight in, and so to command and require of us.” — Hammond intimating to us, that secret as well as outward and gross sins excite his displeasure. In the second clause of the verse, he aggravates his offense by confessing that he could not plead the excuse of ignorance. He had been sufficiently instructed by God in his duty. Some interpret בסתום, besathum, as if he here declared that God had discovered secret mysteries to him, or things hidden from the human understanding. He seems rather to mean that wisdom had been discovered to his mind in a secret and intimate manner. 265265     The word is explained in the first of these senses in the Septuagint: “Τὰ ἄδηλα καὶ τα κρύφια τὢς σοφίας εδήλοσίς μοι;” — “Thou hast manifested to me the secret and hidden things of thy wisdom.” Viewed in this light as well as in the other, the language expresses the aggravated nature of David’s sin. He had sinned, although God had revealed to him high and secret mysteries. The one member of the verse responds to the other. He acknowledges that it was not a mere superficial acquaintance with divine truth which he had enjoyed, but that it had been closely brought home to his heart. This rendered his offense the more inexcusable. Though privileged so highly with the saving knowledge of the truth, he had plunged into the commission of brutish sin, and by various acts of iniquity had almost ruined his soul.

We have thus set before us the exercise of the Psalmist at this time. First, we have seen that he is brought to a confession of the greatness of his offense: this leads him to a sense of the complete depravity of his nature: to deepen his convictions, he then directs his thoughts to the strict judgment of God, who looks not to the outward appearance but the heart; and, lastly, he adverts to the peculiarity of his case, as one who had enjoyed no ordinary measure of the gifts of the Spirit, and deserved on that account the severer punishment. The exercise is such as we should all strive to imitate. Are we conscious of having committed any one sin, let it be the means of recalling others to our recollection, until we are brought to prostrate ourselves before God in deep self-abasement. And if it has been our privilege to enjoy the special teaching of the Spirit of God, we ought to feel that our guilt is additionally heavy, having sinned in this case against light, and having trampled under foot the precious gifts with which we were intrusted.


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