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51. Psalm 51

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.

2Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

3For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.

4Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.

5Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.

6Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.

7Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

8Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.

9Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.

10Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.

11Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.

12Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.

13 Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.

14Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.

15O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

16For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.

17The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

18Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.

19Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.

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.


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