There are seven penitential Psalms, but this seems to be the chief one of the seven. The language of David is as suitable to us today as it was to him, and though much was lost to the cause of righteousness by David’s sin, yet the Church is enriched for all ages by the possession of such a Psalm as this. It is a marvellous recompense. Surely here the Lord reigneth, bringing good out of evil, blessing generation after generation through that which in itself was a great evil.
1. Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Observe he appeals to mercy, and mercy only–to mercy, abounding mercy in its tenderest and kindest aspect. “According to thy tender mercies.” Note here David does not use his name. He does not say, “Lord remember David”: he is ashamed of his name. And he does not seem to want God to remember that, but to remember mercy: and to have pity upon this nameless sinner. He does not say, “Save the son of thine handmaid,” or “Deliver thy servant,” as he was wont to do; he just appeals to mercy, and that is all. And observe it is not “Have mercy upon me, oh! my God.” He is far off now: he has lost the comfortable assurance of the covenant of grace, and so it is rather more like the cry of the prodigal when he returned and said, “I am not worthy to be called thy son”: have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving-kindness–according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out–(or as more correctly it might be rendered, “wash out”–“wipe out”)–my transgressions. The allusion is rather to a dish–wipe it out, turn it upside down, and turn out all that is in it, sweep it away–wipe out all my transgressions. Or it may be as a withdrawal of a record in court when the indictment is withdrawn, “Lord be pleased to quash the indictment against me; blot out all my transgressions.”
2. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
Nothing about the punishment observe–he does not mention that. The true penitent, though he dreads punishment, much more dreads sin. It is sinfulness–sin that he would be delivered from. “Wash me.” Thou must do it; no other washing will suffice. Wash me thoroughly, till I am perfectly cleansed: cleanse me from my sin–my sin. I do not lay it on anyone else; cleanse me from it.
3. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
Unless sin is before us, we shall not be likely to spread it before God; but when we have knowledge of it, then we shall make acknowledgement of it to God. “My sin is ever before me.” He was in such a state of heart that the remembrance of sin seemed painted on his eyeballs. Even in his dreams he remembered it: he was never free from the dread remembrance of it.
4. Against thee only have I sinned.
Yet he had sinned against many more; but just now the thought of his sin against God swallowed up all else. All his offenses against his fellow-men were trivial compared with the high treason which he had committed against his God. This is the virus of sin, that it is sin against God.
4. And done this evil in thy sight.
Whilst thou wast looking on. For a thief to steal in the presence of the Judge is impudence indeed, but yet in thy presence, O my God, I have done this evil.
4. That thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.
As much as to say, “I make this confession of sin, which is so black, that if thou shouldest judge me, however severely, or sentence me to however exemplary a punishment, thou wilt be quite clear and quite just. I could put in no plea against whatever thou shouldest command. I richly deserve all thy wrath can bring upon me.”
5. Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin, did my mother conceive me.
The black stream leads him to look at the black fountain. How can we expect from parents who have sinned that there should be born unto them pure and spotless children. No! the tendencies in us all towards evil are there at the very first. He does not at all venture to excuse himself, but rather to aggravate his sin, that he had been a sinner from his very birth.
6, 7. Behold thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean:
He had seen the leper pronounced clean when the hyssop was dipped in blood and sprinkled on him; but then the leper had to be clean beforehand before this could make him ceremonially clean. He is leaping through the first process and coming to the closing one, his soul anxious to be accepted with God at once.
7. Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Yet what can be whiter than snow? Snow is not like a whited wall that is but white on the surface: it is white all through. And yet when God washes the believer, he makes him whiter than snow, for the snow soon becomes tainted, soon loses its purity; but we never shall if God shall wash us. There was no provision made for the cleansing of an adulterer under the law. David, therefore, had to look beyond all the sacrifices of the law to the cleansing power of the great coming sacrifice, and he so believed in it that with a brave faith–(I know no more brave expression in all Scripture than this)–he says, “Wash me, filthy as I am, and I shall be whiter than snow.”
8. Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.
The original expression is “bones cracked,” or, as one puts it, smashed. His sense of sin had been so great that he felt as one might feel whose very bones had been smashed by some terrible blow. So he seems to say that, as there may be a delightful pleasure in having every one of these broken bones restored, such would be his pleasure if God would pardon his sins.
9. Hide thy face from my sins,
If we set out sins before our own faces, then God will turn his face away from our sins. If we hide our sins from our faces, God will set them before his face, but when they are ever before us they shall be never before him.
9, 10. And blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God:
It is a creation: the very word is used which is employed concerning the creation in the first chapter of Genesis. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
11. Cast me not away from thy presence: and take not thy holy spirit from me.
I have put thee away from my presence by forgetting thee, but put me not away from thy presence. I have been filled with an unholy spirit, but oh! take not thy Holy Spirit from me.
12. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation and uphold me.
He feels how much he needs it. The burnt child dreads the fire. “Uphold me with thy free spirit.”
13. Then will I teach transgressors thy ways: and sinners shall be converted unto thee.
And David has been doing that ever since, for this Psalm has been a continual sermon to sinners, teaching them God’s ways in pardoning sin; and many, I doubt not, have been converted unto God by his Spirit through the language of this Psalm. When you and I find Christ, let us tell of our blessed finding. Hast thou honey? Eat it not all thyself: go, tell thy fellow-men. Art thou saved? Tarry not, but go and spread the news that others may be saved too.
14. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation;
His faith is growing. He has humbled himself. It is the way to rise. Weaken thyself before God, and thou shalt grow strong. Empty thyself, and thou shalt be filled; bow low, and he will lift thee up. “Thou God of my salvation.”
14. And my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
Those tongues that confess sins are the best tongues to sing with. That tongue which has been salted with the brine of penitence is fitted to be sweet with the honey of praise.
15. O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
You know the leper when he was unclean–what did he do? He covered his lips, as much as to confess that he was not fit to speak. So here the unclean David, with the covering over his lips, will not venture to speak until the Lord has taken away his sin, and opened his mouth for him. It was this that Isaiah meant when he said, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips”; but when it was said concerning the live coal, “Lo, this hath touched thy lips,” then he spake right eloquently. “Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise.”
16. For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
Here we have what God does desire, and what he does not. If you turn to the sixth verse, you will see what he does desire. “Thou desirest truth in the inward parts.” Now here he does not desire the mere outward and external worship rendered by sacrifice. It was not the type alone that satisfied him.
17. The sacrifices of God are a broken Spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
There are some spices that are never perfect in fragrance till they are pounded with the pestle in the mortar, and so is a broken heart. If it be made to suffer and to smart, yet there is sweet pleasure to the Lord when he perceives in his people the smart concerning sin–when they hate and loathe it.
18, 19. Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem. Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.
Gratitude ascends when sin is forgiven, and when God appears to bless his church, then she blesses her God.
Exposition on Psalm 51 Charles Spurgeon