PSALM 51#A lament, the most famous of the seven Penitential Psalms, prays for the removal of the personal and social disorders that sin has brought. The poem has two parts of approximately equal length: Ps 51:3–10 and Ps 51:11–19, and a conclusion in Ps 51:20–21. The two parts interlock by repetition of “blot out” in the first verse of each section (Ps 51:3, 11), of “wash (away)” just after the first verse of each section (Ps 51:4) and just before the last verse (Ps 51:9) of the first section, and of “heart,” “God,” and “spirit” in Ps 51:12, 19. The first part (Ps 51:3–10) asks deliverance from sin, not just a past act but its emotional, physical, and social consequences. The second part (Ps 51:11–19) seeks something more profound than wiping the slate clean: nearness to God, living by the spirit of God (Ps 51:12–13), like the relation between God and people described in Jer 31:33–34. Nearness to God brings joy and the authority to teach sinners (Ps 51:15–16). Such proclamation is better than offering sacrifice (Ps 51:17–19). The last two verses express the hope that God’s good will toward those who are cleansed and contrite will prompt him to look favorably on the acts of worship offered in the Jerusalem Temple (Ps 51:19 [20–21]).
The Miserere: Prayer of Repentance
1For the leader. A psalm of David, 2when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba.#a. [51:2] 2 Sm 12.
3Have mercy on me, God, in accord with your merciful love;
in your abundant compassion blot out my transgressions.
4Thoroughly wash away my guilt;
and from my sin cleanse me.
5For I know my transgressions;
my sin is always before me.#b. [51:5] Ps 32:5; 38:19; Is 59:12.
6Against you, you alone have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in your eyes
So that you are just in your word,
and without reproach in your judgment.#c. [51:6] Rom 3:4.
7Behold, I was born in guilt,
in sin my mother conceived me.#In sin my mother conceived me: lit., “In iniquity was I conceived,” an instance of hyperbole: at no time was the psalmist ever without sin, cf. Ps 88:15, “I am mortally afflicted since youth,” i.e., I have always been afflicted. The verse does not imply that the sexual act of conception is sinful.#d. [51:7] Jb 14:4.
8Behold, you desire true sincerity;
and secretly you teach me wisdom.
9Cleanse me with hyssop,#Hyssop: a small bush whose many woody twigs make a natural sprinkler. It was prescribed in the Mosaic law as an instrument for sprinkling sacrificial blood or lustral water for cleansing, cf. Ex 12:22; Lv 14:4; Nm 19:18. that I may be pure;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.#e. [51:9] Jb 9:30; Is 1:18; Ez 36:25.
10You will let me hear gladness and joy;
the bones you have crushed will rejoice.
11Turn away your face from my sins;
blot out all my iniquities.
12A clean heart create for me, God;
renew within me a steadfast spirit.#f. [51:12] Ez 11:19.
13Do not drive me from before your face,
nor take from me your holy spirit.#g. [51:13] Wis 1:5; 9:17; Is 63:11; Hg 2:5; Rom 8:9.
14Restore to me the gladness of your salvation;
uphold me with a willing spirit.
15I will teach the wicked your ways,
that sinners may return to you.
16Rescue me from violent bloodshed, God, my saving God,
and my tongue will sing joyfully of your justice.#h. [51:16] Ps 30:10.
17Lord, you will open my lips;
and my mouth will proclaim your praise.
18For you do not desire sacrifice#For you do not desire sacrifice: the mere offering of the ritual sacrifice apart from good dispositions is not acceptable to God, cf. Ps 50. or I would give it;
a burnt offering you would not accept.#i. [51:18] Ps 40:7; 50:8; Am 5:21–22; Hos 6:6; Is 1:11–15; Heb 10:5–7.
19My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn.
20#Most scholars think that these verses were added to the Psalm some time after the destruction of the Temple in 587 B.C. The verses assume that the rebuilt Temple will be an ideal site for national reconciliation.Treat Zion kindly according to your good will;
build up the walls of Jerusalem.#j. [51:20] Jer 31:4; Ez 36:33.
21Then you will desire the sacrifices of the just,
burnt offering and whole offerings;
then they will offer up young bulls on your altar.
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