Psalm 51


Scholars’ Positions

Exegesis dominated by genre criticism classifies the psalm as an individual song of lament and is not in agreement whether it is to be interpreted as “the psalm of a sick person” or as a “penitential psalm.” Often both dimensions are so closely connected that it is said to be both: a “penitential psalm and for use in sickness,” inasmuch as sickness is here regarded as the consequence of sin and only to be healed through divine pardon.

Psalm of a Sick Person?

As an indication that this is about sickness, and therefore in favor of his interpretation of Psalm 51 as a “sick person’s psalm,” Würthwein observes:

  1. Many interpreters regard v. 10 as an indication of sickness. Thus Gunkel says: “From the wish that ‘the bones you have crushed may rejoice’ when they have become healthy again it appears that the poet, like many of the singers of the songs of lament, suffers from an illness …; it is this physical suffering that has shown him that he is sinful.”
  2. In addition, the petitions in vv. 12 and 13 for the renewal of the spirit or not to lose the divine Spirit point to illness. … Whether someone possesses more or less life force can be expressed by speaking of the presence or absence of the רוח. … “Do not take your Spirit from me” (v. 13...)—this is not only a plea for strength to live a moral-religious life pleasing to God, but is the petition of a person who is in fear of his very life. Also the petition for a constant spirit (life force) in v. 12 and for the support of a strong spirit (v. 14b) make good sense in the situation of a sick person whose life force (spirit) is broken (v. 19).
  3. The petitions for purification are also indications of sickness. … The verbs טהר and חטא in Piel are both technical terms in cultic language (as is, in part, כבס) and refer to liberation from an impure status, especially that of a sick person (Leviticus 13 and 14).
  4. … it follows that the petitioner for whom this psalm is written finds himself in a condition of impurity as a result of his illness and the sinful state that can be deduced from it. This also explains the frequently cited and misinterpreted statements about bringing sacrifices. … This is not about a general rejection of sacrifices, but the refusal of the sacrifices of a person who apparently suffers from such a severe illness that he is judged to be unclean. And here it is the case that “uncleanness excludes one from participation in the cult,” as is still the case in Islam today.

Thus in the opinion of Würthwein Psalm 51 is the expression of an idea “that all sickness is the result of personal sin.” In order properly to adjudge Psalm 51 and recognize “the limitations of this psalm for Christian understanding,” he believes, we must note “that in this case it is not a question of the poetic expression of the experience of a pious layperson, but of instruction for prayer, the agenda of a theologically oriented circle governed by the belief that illness is the consequence of sin and therefore can only be healed by divine pardon.” “For those who wrote Psalm 51 references to the trespasses that led to illness were especially important. Hence these confessions emerge so strongly that one has the impression that this is a penitential psalm. But that is a false impression. It is primarily a psalm in sicknessthat becomes a penitential psalm because of the dogmatic connection between illness and sin.” This concept behind Psalm 51, that illness is (always) the consequence of sin, says Würthwein, “led ultimately to the protest recorded in the dialogue and divine speech in the book of Job, and that should also be kept in view in judging Psalm 51.”

Arguments against the Psalm-in-Sickness Hypothesis

The following observations in particular speak against this way of interpreting Psalm 51:

1. Even if we could accept the “indications of sickness” listed by Würthwein, at the level of the text there would remain an unmistakable imbalance between the extent of the development of the topics of sickness and sin. But before that there are already serious doubts about these “references” themselves. This is even true of the principal argument: “The crushed bones (v. 10b) scarcely indicate a real illness, especially since there is no plea for recovery; the expression is probably not to be taken literally, but rather points through its imagery to the situation of the individual (cf., e.g., Ps 103:3).”

2. The psalm’s petition for forgiveness of sins and a new creation of heart and spirit are undoubtedly inspired by Ezekiel 36, and therefore cannot be minimalized as references to an illness. On the contrary, we must emphasize that just as sinful Israel could be brought out of the “death” of its sins and enabled to live in community with God by a new creation (Ezekiel 36) and a profound renewal (Jeremiah 31), so also the petitioner of Psalm 51, who “from birth” has been subject to sin (see the Exposition below). In this perspective Seybold’s interpretation also falls short when he reads the psalm as the “prayer of a sick person who after recovery seeks cultic purity and social rehabilitation.” The theme of the original psalm, which only became a “prayer of penitence for everyone” after editing, was “liberation from sin and guilt and the renewal and rebirth that the petitioner expects in connection with the cultic rite of atonement.”

3. The statements about God’s “justification” (v. 6c-d) or “righteousness (v. 16), which are found in both major parts of the psalm (vv. 2-11 and 12-19), and which must be understood also within the horizon of the experience of God’s “steadfast love” and “mercy” petitioned in v. 3 positively exclude the “sickness dogma” that Würthwein has introduced into the psalm.

4. The comparison of Psalm 51 with genuine “psalms in sickness” such as Psalm 38 makes the important differences evident.

Psalm of Penitence

Thus one should classify and interpret our psalm, with the majority of exegetes, as a “penitential psalm” or as “prayer petitioning for forgiveness of sins and new creation.” , 93), “confession of repentance” (E. Haag, “Psalm 51, ” 179), “prayer song” (Kraus, 1.500).

With its very first words, “Be merciful to me!” Psalm 51, the Miserere, expresses its real intention, which it proceeds to develop. Thus petitions to God dominate. The genre of individual song of lament or of focused petition can be clearly discerned in the threefold or fourfold division of appeal, lament, and petition, with concluding vow of praise. However, there emerges an essential alteration of the basic form: while the sequence of the individual parts is preserved, the second, the lament or description of a concrete situation of distress, is replaced by a confession of sin. Correspondingly, the subsequent petition refers to forgiveness and new creation. It is true that we may indeed encounter a confession of sin in a song of lament, so that there are bridges to the subgroup of “penitential psalms,” but only in Psalm 130does this emerge so dominantly or even exclusively.

With this in mind, the psalm is generally divided as follows: appeal to God and introductory petition (vv. 3-4), confession of sin as description of the condition of distress (vv. 5-8, or vv. 5-6 : sin as deed, vv. 7-8 : the sinfulness of the human being), petition for forgiveness andrenewal as plea for an end to distress (vv. 9-14, or [corresponding to vv. 5-8 ] vv. 9-11 : forgiveness of sin as deed, vv. 12-14 : renewal as end to sinfulness), and vow of praise (vv. 15-19).

Continuation in Verses 20-21

The petition for the rebuilding of Jerusalem that follows in vv.20-21 is usually, and rightly, understood as a secondary liturgical appendix, or better as an eschatologizing and collectivizing continuation of the originally individual prayer of petition in vv. 3-19. It is true that on the one hand the theological perspective of the vision of the perfection of Jerusalem here projected follows very well after vv. 3-19 (see below), but on the other hand vv. 3-19 are not constituted either semantically or structurally with a view to vv. 20-21 as their climax. On the contrary, Jerusalem (and Zion) were nowhere in the picture before this, and the statements in vv. 18-19, critical as they are of sacrifices, are rather in tension with the sacrificial theology in v. 21. Still, this may not be reduced to a “correction” of vv. 18-19 —a misunderstanding that Christian exegetes wrongly (see below) quite often introduce into the text and into which even “great” commentators like Gunkel have fallen: “A later, anxious, and legalistic devotee, unable to comprehend the high sensibility of the psalmist, was quietly outraged that he spoke so freely of sacrifices that are prescribed by God’s holy commandment. Therefore he tried to improve it with an addition: now, indeed, he thinks, God cannot be pleased byany sacrifice in his city defiled by the Gentiles, on which his wrath still rests; and the old poet may well have held that opinion. But one day, when God again bestows favor on Zion and its walls have been rebuilt … and when at that time people will bring to God’s altar the gifts that are right, that is, according to the Law, then the sacrifices will again be pleasing to God. Most of the newer [exegetes] agree with this explanation of the verses.” Eduard König demonstrates a complete lack of understanding: “Thus the one who appended vv. 20-21 became a type of that portion of the Jews whose eyes are covered by a veil (2 Cor 3:14) when they read the OT.”