What does Psalms 51 mean?
Chapter Commentary:
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. From his roof, he noticed Bathsheba while she was bathing. David called her into the palace, and she became pregnant by him. 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 That judgment had already been given and was not going to be rescinded.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).
Verse Context:
Psalm 51:1–7 is David's plea for mercy and cleansing. He admits he has sinned against God. His approach to confession is to take God's attitude toward sin. He sees his sins as transgressions, iniquity, evil, and the result of his lifelong offensive nature. First John 1:9–10 corresponds to this passage by teaching believers to confess their sins—to agree with God's stance about those sins—with the promise of God's forgiveness and cleansing.
Psalm 51:8–15 express David's prayer for renewed joy, a clean heart, and a renewed spirit. This comes after confessing his sins in the prior passage. David also asks the Lord to restore his testimony so that he might teach transgressors the ways of God and lead sinners back to Him. David wants to praise the Lord joyfully.
Psalm 51:16–19 is the final section of Psalm 51. These verses indicate that God doesn't primarily want sacrifices when someone sins. He accepts and deeply desires a broken spirit and a contrite heart, however. Isaiah 1:18 reinforces David's observation about what is important to God. Isaiah reported that the Lord was tired of hypocritical sacrifices. He refused to accept them, but summoned the people to have a personal relationship with Him, and He would cleanse their sin. David ends his psalm with a prayer for Jerusalem. He recognizes that when the Lord revives Jerusalem, He will accept the people's sacrifices.
Chapter Summary:
This psalm opens with David's plea to God to show him mercy. He asks God to blot out his transgressions, wash his iniquities, and cleanse him from sin. He admits his sinning was against God. He also confesses his human sin nature. David asks God to make him as white as snow by purging him with hyssop. He longs for joy to return to him, but knows he was suffering because God had turned away from him. He pleads with God for a clean heart and a right spirit. He does not want God to cast him aside and remove His Holy Spirit. David longs for a renewal of the joy of his salvation. If cleansing from sin occurred and joy returned to him, David would teach transgressors God's ways, and sinners would be converted. He promises near the end of the psalm to declare God's praise if God would forgive him. He knew it would be futile to offer a sacrifice to God, because God delights in a broken and contrite heart and not in sacrifices offered with an unrepentant heart. David closes the psalm with a prayer for God to bless Jerusalem.
Chapter Context:
Second Samuel 11—12 provides the sad background for Psalm 51. Instead of being out on the battlefield and leading his troops, David was walking on the roof of his palace. A woman named Bathsheba was taking a bath on a neighboring roof. David lusted for her and had her brought to the palace, where he committed adultery with her. Learning later that she was pregnant, David summoned Uriah, her soldier-husband and one of David's mighty men, to come home from the battlefield. He expected Uriah to have relations with Bathsheba so it would appear that Uriah was the baby's father. But Uriah did not touch Bathsheba, so David launched an alternate plan. He arranged for Uriah to be put on the frontline of battle and be killed. The plan worked, but the Lord sent the prophet Nathan to confront David with his sin. Overcome with guilt, David poured out his heart to the Lord in confession. Psalm 51 records his confession, and Psalm 32 reports the forgiveness he received from the Lord. Even though he was forgiven, David's sins still carried life-ruining consequences.
Book Summary:
The book of Psalms is composed of individual songs, hymns, or poems, each of which is a ''Psalm'' in and of itself. These works contain a wide variety of themes. Some Psalms focus on praising and worshipping God. Others cry out in anguish over the pain of life. Still other Psalms look forward to the coming of the Messiah. While some Psalms are related, each has its own historical and biblical context.
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