What does Psalm chapter 51 mean?Psalm 51 is a renowned expression of repentance. David, the greatest of Israel's kings, fell into serious sin and recognized his need to plead with God for forgiveness. This confession was inspired by David's sins of adultery, deception, and even murder in his relationship with Bathsheba.
David's reasons for repentance are explained in 2 Samuel chapters 11 and 12. He noticed a woman, Bathsheba, bathing on her roof, called her into the palace, and she became pregnant by David. At first, David brought her soldier husband, Uriah, back from war, hoping he would sleep with Bathsheba and cover up the illegitimate pregnancy. But Uriah was loyal to his fellow soldiers. He refused to take special privileges while his friends were at war. David even tried getting Uriah drunk, but that failed as well. Finally, David arranged for Uriah to be caught in the midst of a battle maneuver and killed. David then brought Bathsheba into the palace as a wife.
In response, God sent the prophet Nathan to challenge David. Nathan told a story about a rich man stealing a poor man's one and only lamb. Outraged, David said the rich man deserved to die. Nathan simply replied, "You are the man!" He then explained that as a result of this sin, David's family would forever be embroiled in war, conflict, scandal, and violence. The child conceived with Bathsheba would not survive. And David would be humiliated in the presence of the people. These predictions came true: the rest of David's life was spent in turbulence and family controversies. That even included a full-fledged rebellion led by his own son, Absalom.
In this Psalm, David confesses his sins to God, holding back nothing. David does not blame anyone for his errors and makes no attempt to excuse his actions. These words display absolute humility and anguish over sin. David appeals to God's mercy and love, knowing that he can be forgiven. At the same time, David makes no attempt to ask God to spare him from the earthly consequences of his sins. That judgment had already been given and was not going to be rescinded.
Among the Psalms, Psalm 51 is the best-known and most-cited expression of confession. This gives us a model for how to approach God when we've been convicted of sin. The right spirit is one of humility and repentance, without making excuses or blaming others. Even so, we can be confident that God will forgive those who sincerely seek that mercy (Hebrews 4:15–16).