1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ps 51:1–2). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
1 In desperate need of divine forgiveness, sinners can do nothing but cast themselves on God’s mercy. The verb “have mercy” (ḥonnēnî) occurs frequently in psalms of lament (cf. 4:1; 6:2; 31:9; 41:4, 10; 56:1; 86:3). The same root (ḥnn) is used in the priestly benediction “and be gracious to you” (Nu 6:25). When sin disrupts a sinner’s fellowship with the covenantal Lord, he or she has no right to divine blessings. But the Lord has promised to forgive, and his forgiveness is based solely on his love and compassion (Ex 34:6–7); therefore, the psalmist appeals to the Lord’s “love” (ḥesed) and “great compassion” (cf. 25:6; Isa 63:7; La 3:32; Lk 18:13; 1 Pe 1:3).
2 Forgiveness is an act of divine grace whereby sin is blotted out and sinners are “cleansed” by the washing away of their sins (vv. 2, 7, 9; cf. Ex 32:32; Nu 5:23; Ps 32:2). The OT sacrifices and ritual washing symbolized the removal of sin and renewal of fellowship with the Lord. The sacrifices by themselves could not effect so great a salvation (v. 16), but God is free to give his grace to whomever he wants. The prayer is for forgiveness and cleansing.
1–2 The psalmist begins with a series of pleas in the imperative voice: have mercy, blot out, wash, make clean, introducing language about cleansing that will run throughout the psalm. The psalmist’s imperatival pleas are grounded in the essential character of God’s being: according to your hesed and the greatness of your compassion (raḥamîm) (v. 1). The psalmist seeks cleansing from my transgressions (pešaʿ), my guilt (ʿāwōn), and my sin (ḥaṭṭāʾt̠). The three are the words used most often in the biblical text to describe acts against God and humanity, and they are often found in parallel construction in Hebrew poetry. In Psalm 51, the words occur in vv. 1, 2, 5, 7, 9, and 13. While each word has a basic root meaning—pāšaʿ means “go against, to rebel,” ʿāwâ means “bend, twist,” and ḥāṭāʾ means “miss a mark or goal,” attempting to define each as a particular kind of action or attitude is not productive. Psalm 51 opens, then, with a piling up of pleas for cleansing and of words describing the past action of the psalmist.
David cries for mercy out of the anguish of his heart. Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion, blot out my transgressions (v. 1). Realising his own great need, he calls for God’s gracious act of mercy towards him. This is a prayer that David uses on various other occasions at the beginning of psalms (see Pss. 56, 57, and 86). The basis for his cry is God’s unfailing love (Hebrew, chésed). This word carries with it the idea of absolute commitment. God had revealed himself to Moses as: ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness’ (Exod. 34:6). He would not go back on that word, and David accordingly pleads for a fresh visitation of mercy for himself. The second part of verse 1 parallels ‘great compassion’ with ‘unfailing love’, and ‘blot out my transgressions’ with ‘have mercy’. Because he was conscious of his ‘great’ sin, he recognises that he needs ‘great’ compassion. The verb ‘blot out’ has the idea of wiping a dish clean, or removing something completely.
The next verse repeats the call for mercy but uses other terms: Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin (v. 2). The verb ‘wash’ is preceded in Hebrew by a form of the verb ‘to be many’, which some think means that David is praying for repeated cleansings. This goes contrary to the context, which suggests a once-for-all act on God’s part, and the verb ‘wash’ is used elsewhere in the Old Testament for the removal of sin (Isa. 1:16; Jer. 2:22; 4:14). Similarly, the word ‘cleanse’ is used of a declaration that the priest made over the cleansed leper (Lev. 13:6, 34). Only God can declare the sinner clean.
The cluster of words in these first two verses is remarkable. It contains a rich vocabulary of language relating to sin and forgiveness. To describe his (and our) relationship to God, David uses:
transgression: rebellious actions against authority;
iniquity: what is crooked or bent;
sin: missing the mark;
have mercy: a request that speaks of graciousness beyond expectation;
unfailing love: the term of covenantal commitment;
compassion: the word describing the tenderest love;
blot out: complete removal;
wash away: used of scrubbing clothes and removing all stains;
cleanse: a ritual term for pronouncing someone clean.
51:1–2 / The opening petitions draw attention to the immediate need, using several synonyms for sin: transgressions (rebellion against a norm that defines a relationship), iniquity (crookedness or perversion), and sin (missing a mark, illustrated in Judg. 20:16). The attitude sought from God is mercy, and the actions sought are that he should blot out (as in blotting out a name from a book, see 9:5; 69:28; 109:13–14; Exod. 32:32–33; Deut. 29:20; in reference to “transgressions” see Isa. 43:25; 44:22; cf. Neh. 4:5), wash (the Hb. text adds “frequently” or “copiously”), and cleanse (the same verb used for “pronouncing clean” in priestly literature). Special appeal is made to the divine attributes of love (Hb. ḥesed) and compassion.
51:1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love … blot out my transgressions. God’s “unfailing love” (hesed) is the basis of God’s mercy. Note the structure of the verse, which involves a chiasm, the verbal clauses (A and A′) and the adverbial modifiers (B and B′) appearing in crisscross positions:
A Have mercy on me, O God,
B according to your unfailing love;
B′ according to your great compassion
A′ blot out my transgressions.
51:2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. The verb translated as “wash away” is used of washing clothing and denotes the “treading” that one would do when washing laundry (cf. Jer. 2:22). More often in the Old Testament it refers to sacramental cleansing (Lev. 15). “Cleanse” refers to a sacramental cleansing that turns something defiled into something pure, usually accomplished by ritual washing and/or sacrifice. The three verbs of forgiveness in verses 1 and 2 (“blot out,” “wash,” and “cleanse”) are repeated in reverse order in verses 7 and 9.
1. It is worthy our closest observation, in the very opening of this Psalm, and the subject connected with it, that at least nine months had passed by, after David’s falling into the foul crimes of adultery and murder before any remorse seems to have taken place in his mind; nay, so far from it, that when Nathan came to him with a message from God, because the man of God veiled his discourse in a parable, David’s heart took no alarm, and though alive to punish the man that had taken his neighbour’s lamb, never thought of himself having taken his neighbour’s wife, and having also caused him to be murdered. Alas! how doth sin harden? 2 Sam. 12:5–7. We have here the devout actings of the soul, when awakened by grace to a sense of sin: all that we meet with, verse by verse, serves but to shew the stirrings of a distressed, conscious, guilty soul, in the recollection of his foul ingratitude to God, and his base dishonesty to man.
Ver. 1.—Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving-kindness. It is observable that the whole psalm is addressed to God (Elohim), and not to Jehovah (the “Lord” in ver. 15 is Adonai), as though the psalmist felt himself unworthy to utter the covenant-name, and simply prostrated himself as a guilty man before his offended Maker. It is not correct to say that “loving-kindness implies a covenant” (Cheyne), since God is “good to all, and his tender mercies are over all his works” (Ps. 145:9). According unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. David’s first prayer is for pity; his second, to have his offences “blotted out,” or “wiped out”—entirely removed from God’s book (comp. Exod. 32:32; Isa 43:25; 44:22). He says “my transgressions,” in the plural, because “his great sin did not stand alone—adultery was followed by treachery and murder” (Canon Cook).
Ver. 2.—Wash me throughly from mine iniquity. Wash me, as a fuller washes a fouled garment (πλῦνον, LXX., not υίψον), not as a man washes his skin. And cleanse me from my sin. “Transgressions,” “iniquity,” “sin,” cover every form of moral evil, and, united together, imply the deepest guilt (comp. vers. 3, 5, 9, 14).
1. Have mercy upon me. David begins, as I have already remarked, by praying for pardon; and his sin having been of an aggravated description, he prays with unwonted earnestness. He does not satisfy himself with one petition. Having mentioned the loving-kindness of the Lord, he adds the multitude of his compassions, to intimate that mercy of an ordinary kind would not suffice for so great a sinner. Had he prayed God to be favourable, simply according to his clemency or goodness, even that would have amounted to a confession that his case was a bad one; but when he speaks of his sin as remissible, only through the countless multitude of the compassions of God, he represents it as peculiarly atrocious. There is an implied antithesis between the greatness of the mercies sought for, and the greatness of the transgression which required them. Still more emphatical is the expression which follows, multiply to wash me. Some take הרבה, herebeh, for a noun, but this is too great a departure from the idiom of the language. The sense, on that supposition, would indeed remain the same, That God would wash him abundantly, and with multiplied washing; but I prefer that form of expression which agrees best with the Hebrew idiom. This, at least, is certain from the expression which he employs, that he felt the stain of his sin to be deep, and to require multiplied washings. Not as if God could experience any difficulty in cleansing the worst sinner, but the more aggravated a man’s sin is, the more earnest naturally are his desires to be delivered from the terrors of conscience. The figure itself, as all are aware, is one of frequent occurrence in Scripture. Sin resembles filth or uncleanness, as it pollutes us, and makes us loathsome in the sight of God, and the remission of it is therefore aptly compared to washing. This is a truth which should both commend the grace of God to us, and fill us with detestation of sin. Insensible, indeed, must that heart be which is not affected by it!
51:1, 2. Appeal
The opening plea, have mercy, is the language of one who has no claim to the favour he begs. But steadfast love is a covenant word. For all his unworthiness, David knows that he still belongs; cf. the paradox of the prodigal’s words, ‘Father … I am no more worthy to be called thy son.’ Coming closer still, he appeals to God’s tender warmth, in the second word for mercy, an emotional term, used in, e.g., Genesis 43:30 when Joseph’s ‘heart’, or inmost being, yearned for his brother. It is akin to the New Testament’s visceral word for being ‘moved with compassion’.
1b, 2. But there is more to forgiveness than a tender spirit. The accusing record of the sin remains, and the pollution clings. The plea, blot out, means ‘wipe away’, like the writing from a book (cf. Exod. 32:32; Num. 5:23). Only the gospel could reveal at what cost ‘the bond which stood against us’ could be blotted out (cf. Col. 2:14). The companion metaphor, wash me thoroughly, uses a verb normally connected with the laundering of clothes, as if David is comparing himself to a foul garment needing to be washed and washed. The thought is still primarily of the guilt that makes him unfit for God’s presence or God’s people (cf. the potent object-lessons in Lev. 15). He will dwell on the more inward aspect of cleansing in verses 6–12.
51:1–2. Have mercy on me
The psalmist starts by appealing to God for help. The niv represents the chiastic structure (A B B′ A′) of the first verse. The first and last cola (A and A′) make the appeal, while the middle cola (B and B′) state the basis on which the appeal is made. The psalmist begins by asking God to adopt a merciful attitude towards him, and he ends the verse by requesting a specific action emanating from that attitude, that is, to blot out his transgression. Although the title would identify that transgression as David’s adultery with Bathsheba, the psalm does not specify, because this psalm is a template for others to use David’s prayer as their own. The psalmist grounds the appeal not in anything that he has done, but rather in the character of God, who exhibits unfailing love (ḥesed, a word that could also be translated ‘loyalty’) and great compassion. Both of these characteristics are grounded in the covenant that God made with Israel and are cited in God’s great statement of self-definition found in Exodus 34:6 and elsewhere. Verse 2 continues the appeal for God to remove the psalmist’s transgression, this time using the metaphor of washing. Sin has made him dirty, and he wants to be clean.
Verse 1.—“Have mercy upon me, O God.” I tremble and blush to mention my name, for my former familiarities with thee only make me more confounded at being recognised by thee after my guilt. I therefore say not, “Lord, remember David,” as on a happier occasion; nor as propitiating thee, I used to say, to thy “servant,” or, “to the son of thy handmaid.” I suggest nothing that should recall my former relation to thee, and so enhance my wickedness. Ask not, then, Lord, who I am, but only forgive me who confess my sin, condemn my fault, and beseech thy pity. “Have mercy upon me, O God.” I dare not say my God, for that were presumption. I have lost thee by sin, I have alienated myself from thee by following the enemy, and therefore am unclean. I dare not approach thee, but standing afar off and lifting up my voice with great devotion and contrition of heart, I cry and say, “Have mercy upon me, O God.”—From “A Commentary on the Seven Penitential Psalms, chiefly from ancient sources.” By the Right Rev. A. P. Forbes, Bishop of Brechin, 1857.
Verse 1.—“Have mercy.” The Hebrew word here translated have mercy, signifieth without cause or desert; Psalm 35:19; 69:4; Ezekiel 14:23; and freely, without paying any price, Exodus 21:11. And it is made use of in Lev. 6:8, where Noah is said to have found grace in the eyes of the Lord, that is special favour, such as the Lord beareth to his chosen in Christ Jesus.—Charles de Coetlogon, A.M., in “The Portraiture of the Christian Penitent,” 1775.
Verse 1.—“Mercy,” “lovingkindness,” “tender mercies.” I cannot but observe here, the gradation in the sense of the three words made use of, to express the divine compassion, and the propriety of the order in which they are placed, which would be regarded as a real excellence and beauty in any classical writer. The first, חָנֵּנִי, denotes that kind of affection which is expressed by moaning over any object that we love and pity that στοργὴ, natural affection and tenderness, which even brute creatures discover to their young ones, by the several noises which they respectively make over them; and particularly the shrill noise of the camel, by which it testifies its love to its foal. The second, כְּחַסְדֶּךָ, denotes a strong proneness, a ready, large, and liberal disposition to goodness and compassion powerfully prompting to all instances of kindness and bounty; flowing as freely and plentifully as milk into the breasts, or as waters from a perpetual fountain. This denotes a higher degree of goodness than the former. The third, רַחֲמֶיךָ, denotes what the Greeks express by σπλαγχνίζεσθαι; that most tender pity which we signify by the moving of the heart and bowels, which argues the highest degree of compassion of which human nature is susceptible. And how reviving is the belief and consideration of these abundant and tender compassions of God to one in David’s circumstances, whose mind laboured under the burthen of the most heinous complicated guilt, and the fear of the divine displeasure and vengeance!—Samuel Chandler.
Verse 1.—“According to the multitude.” Men are greatly terrified at the multitude of their sins, but here is a comfort—our God hath multitude of mercies. If our sins be in number as the hairs of our head, God’s mercies are as the stars of heaven; and as he is an infinite God, so his mercies are infinite; yea, so far are his mercies above our sins, as he himself is above us poor sinners. By this that the Psalmist seeketh for multitude of mercies, he would show how deeply he was wounded with his manifold sins, that one seemed a hundred. Thus it is with us, so long as we are under Satan’s guiding, a thousand seem but one; but if we betake ourselves to God’s service, one will seem a thousand.—Archibald Symson.
Verse 1.—“Tender mercies,” or, according to Zanchy in his treatise upon the attributes of God, such a kind of affection as parents feel when they see their children in any extremity. 1 Kings 3:26.—Charles de Coetlogon.
Verse 1.—“Blot out my transgressions.” מְתֵה, mecheh, wipe out. There is reference here to an indictment: the Psalmist knows what it contains; he pleads guilty, but begs that the writing may be defaced; that a proper fluid may be applied to the parchment, to discharge the ink, that no record of it may ever appear against him: and this only the mercy, lovingkindness, and tender compassions of the Lord can do.—Adam Clarke.
Verse 1.—“Blot out my transgressions.” What the Psalmist alludes to is not, as Mr. LeClerc imagines, debts entered into a book, and so blotted out of it when forgiven; but the wiping or cleansing of a dish, so as nothing afterwards remains in it. The meaning of the petition is, that God would entirely and absolutely forgive him, so as that no part of the guilt he had contracted might remain, and the punishment of it might be wholly removed.—Samuel Chandler.
Verse 1.—“Blot out,” or, as it is used in Exod. 17:14, utterly extirpate, so as that there shall not be any remembrance of them for ever. Isaiah 43:25; 44:22.—Charles de Coetlogon.
Verse 1.—“My transgressions.” Conscience, when it is healthy, ever speaks thus: “My transgressions.” It was not the guilt of them that tempted you: they have theirs; but each as a separate agent, has his own degree of guilt. Yours is your own: the violation of your own and not another’s sense of duty; solitary, awful, unshared, adhering to you alone of all the spirits of the universe.—Frederick William Robertson.
Verses 1, 2.—“Transgressions” … “iniquity” … “sin.” 1. It is transgression, פֶּשַׁע, pesha, rebellion. 2. It is iniquity, עָוֹן, avon, crooked dealing. 3. It is sin, חַטָּאת, chattath, error and wandering.—Adam Clarke.
Verse 2.—“Wash me.” David prays that the Lord would wash him; therefore sin defiles, and he was made foul and filthy by his sin; and to wash him much, and to rinse and bathe him, to show that sin had exceedingly defiled him and stained him both in soul and body, and made him loathsome, and therefore he desireth to be washed, and cleansed, and purged from the pollution of sin. Hence we may learn what a vile, filthy, and miserable thing sin is in the sight of God: it staineth a man’s body, it staineth a man’s soul, it maketh him more vile than the vilest creature that lives: no toad is so vile and loathsome in the sight of man, as a sinner, stained and defiled with sin, is in the sight of God, till he be cleansed and washed from it in the blood of Christ.—Samuel Smith.
Verse 2.—“Wash me,” etc. כִּבֵס is peculiarly applied to the washing and cleansing of garments as fullers wash and cleanse their cloths. 2 Kings 18:7; Exod. 19:10; Levit. 17:15.—Samuel Chandler.
Verse 2.—“Wash me throughly from mine iniquity.” No other washing will do it but lava tu, wash thou; so foul, as it will need his washing throughly.—Samuel Page, in “David’s Broken Heart,” 1646.
Verse 2.—“Wash me thoroughly.” Heb. multiply to wash me; by which phrase he implies the greatness of his guilt, and the insufficiency of all legal washings, and the absolute necessity of some other and better thing to wash him, even of God’s grace, and the blood of Christ.—Matthew Pool.
Verse 2.—“Wash me … cleanse me.” But why should David speak so superfluously? use two words when one would serve? For if we be cleansed, what matter is it whether it be by washing or no? Yet David had great reason for using both words; for he requires not that God would cleanse him by miracle, but by the ordinary way of cleansing, and this was washing; he names therefore washing as the means, and cleansing as the end: he names washing as the work a-doing, and cleansing as the work done; he names washing as considering the agent, and cleansing as applying it to the patient; and indeed, as in the figure of the law there was not, so in the verity of the gospel there is not any ordinary means of cleansing, but only by washing; and therefore out of Christ our Saviour’s side there flowed water and blood.—Sir Richard Baker.
Verse 2.—“Cleanse me from my sin.” Observe, it is from the guilt, and not from the punishment, that he thus asks deliverance. That the sword should never depart from his house; that the sin, begun, not only secretly even in its full accomplishment, but far more secretly in the recesses of David’s heart, should be punished before all Israel and before the sun; that the child so dear to David should be made one great punishment of his offence; these things, so far as this Psalm is concerned, might, or might not be. It is of the offence against God; of the defiling, although it were not then so expressly declared, God’s temple by impurity, that David speaks.—Ambrose, in J. M. Neale’s Commentary.
Verse 2.—“Sin.” The original word signifies to miss an aim, as an archer does who shoots short of his mark, beyond, or beside it. It is also used for treading aside, or tripping, in the act of walking. In a spiritual sense it denotes deviation from a rule, whether by omission or commission.—Thomas T. Biddulph, A.M., in Lectures on the Fifty-first Psalm, 1835.
Verse 2.—Sin is filthy to think of, filthy to speak of, filthy to hear or, filthy to do; in a word, there is nothing in it but vileness.—Archibald Symson.
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