Church Education Resource Ministries


Psalms 51: A Song of Confession


Psalms 51 is one of the penitential (confession) psalms. The other penitential psalms are (6,32,38,51,102,130,143). Many times after I have sinned and the Holy Spirit moves me to confess, I pull out my handy pocket NKJV Bible and read it, confess, and pray. My time alone with God in these contexts greatly refreshes my spirit. Penitential psalms are few in number, but handy to read and meditate on. The pattern shown by the psalmists in responding to God in these psalms is as follows:

(1) They recognized their sinfulness and tendency to do wrong.
(2) They realized that sin was rebellion against God himself.
(3) They admitted their sins to God.
(4) They trusted in God's willingness to forgive.
(5) They accepted his forgiveness.

The main theme of Psalms 51 is that anyone can come to God for forgiveness no matter the degree of sin, and can experience forgiveness. Christians must come to God in meekness & humility, and God will show his compassion and his grace. So often I have sinned greatly against the Lord, and instead of striking me dead he has forgiven me and our relationship was restored (Mark 11:25,1 John 1:9, Jeremiah 3:22). If we fail to go to God, then our relationship with him will suffer. God will still unconditionally love his children, but he demands that we confess our sins to him to restore our relationship, and that disobedience may bring punishment (Hebrews 12:5-6). God is better than any friend, and will forgive any and all that come to him and ask. All scripture quotations unless otherwise indicated will be from the New International version (NIV), and the English Standard Version (ESV).


Outline of Psalms 51

A. Introductionary Prayer (1-2)
B. Confession (3-6)
C. Petition (7-12)
D. Vow of Praise (13-17)
E. Prayer for Prosperity (18-19)

Introductionary Prayer (1-2) (NIV)

[1] Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.

This was written by David after David's sin with Bathsheba had been exposed by the prophet Nathan in 2 Samuel 12. David pleads for the mercy of the Lord after his sin, and gives readers an example to follow for confession.

[2] Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.

When we sin, we need to be cleansed, as David pleads here. The other day I was driving and getting very FRUSTRATED that I was unable to find the place I was looking for. I was upset because of poorly marked roads, bad Map Quest directions, traffic, incompetent and irresponsible drivers, etc. So in response I let out a number of cuss words in the car while driving. When I finally arrived at my destination the Holy Spirit pressed me and I felt guilty and needed to confess and go to God. So I pulled out my Bible to Psalms 51, prayed and meditated upon what I just read. After a while I felt clean and felt my relationship with God was restored. I am not arguing for the doctrine commonly held by non-Calvinists called "Fall from Grace," what I am saying is that, Biblically speaking, when we sin and do not confess, our relationship with God can be damaged. This does not mean we lose our salvation, but we need to confess according to 1 John 1:9 & Mark 11:25.


Confession (3-6) (NIV)

[3] For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
[4] Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are proved right when you speak
and justified when you judge.

Christians who sin will feel guilty and be convicted by the Holy Spirit who lives inside them. If someone claims to be saved, yet feels no guilt and intolerence of sin, then they may in fact not be saved. David knew his sin with Bathsheba, and was repentant of it. David fully submitted to the Lord's will after he was confronted by the prophet Nathan, and he acknowledged that what the Lord decided was just and true. In the same way, Christians who sin must also have a repentant spirit, and confess to God.

 [5] Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
[6] Surely you desire truth in the inner parts;
you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.

A parallel passage is Psalms 58:3 which also teaches that from birth there are early manifestations of sin in the human race. Some Calvinists use these verses to aid their view that babies and children who die before the age of accountability go right to Hell at death, but I do not believe this is what this passage is teaching. David here is simply stating the obvious, and the obvious is that he was sinful at birth and has always been a sinner. At no time in his life has he been without sin, and David's sin ran contrary to God's moral demands. David realized that he had failed, and therefore was repentant. God desires both truth and wisdom, and He desires a productive life. Those who give themselves over to sin and its desires will die, but those who give themselves over to God and righteousness will live. The "inmost place" mentioned in the NIV translation or "inward being" (ESV) is the most secret place--the heart.


Petition (7-12) (NIV)

[7] Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
[8] Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
[9] Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.

In this prayer David made the same request that he did in 1-2 but in reverse order. The order is cleanse, wash, and blot out. When David mentioned hyssop he was referring to a plant with hairy leaves and branches used in a cleansing ceremony (Leviticus 14:6, Numbers 19:6). David knew the ceremonies and wanted to be right with God again. David did not want God to look or dwell upon his sin. In the context of the Old Testament, whenever God is said to hide his face from someone it means that God will no longer look upon that person with favor. David wanted God to completely blot out his sins. Just like David, you can be assured that God will forgive you of your sins and cleanse you from them. God does not dwell on your sins, and desires to forgive you, if you will only ask for forgiveness.

[10] Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
[11] Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
[12] Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

These verses are used in a common song that I remember singing as a youth. The beauty of that song still is in my memory, even though unfortunately I have not heard it in a church in more than 10 years. David is asking God for a heart change. Saul was previously removed from service as a king because of his sin, and the Holy Spirit left Saul. David didn't want this to happen to him, so he pleaded with God for the Holy Spirit to remain with him.

In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit would come and go. In the New Testament every believer gets the Holy Spirit upon salvation and He does not leave them but indwells them (John 14:16, Romans 8:9). However, Christians who are disobedient and do not repent of their sin may lose their ability to be effective in Godly service (1 Corinthians 9:27). This does not mean that disobedient Christians can lose their salvation (as some teach), but it means that they can lose their testimony and effectiveness for Christ, which could mean a loss of heavenly rewards. Sadly, in the church today are there many, many disobedient believers who do not engage in soul winning, do not know their Bibles, and engage in all kinds of impurity, greed and wickedness common to unbelievers. Christians must be the light of the world and let their light shine before men (Matthew 5:16). David pleaded for God's inner spiritual renewal and God gave it to him.


Vow of Praise (13-17) (ESV)

[13] Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
[14] Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
[15] O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
[16] For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
[17] The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

In verse 13 David is speaking of those of the household of faith who do not fully embrace and trust in God. David wishes to teach the ways of the Lord to sinners but he wants God to forgive him of his own sin first. In verses 14-15 David refers back to the slaying of Uriah whom he had murdered. David confesses his sin more plainly in verse 14 and offers to sing praises to God. All too often when we sin we do not confess to God and, making matters even worse for ourselves. God loves us and disciplines those that are his (Revelation 3:19). David did not hold his sin to himself in this Psalm but confessed it openly to God. We should follow his example and confess our sins before God as the scriptures command us (1 John 1:9). When we go to bed at night, or sometime in our prayer life, we should confess our sins and ask God for forgiveness and he will purify us from all unrighteousness. In verses 16-17 David knows that God is not just looking for a plain animal sacrifice, but a sacrifice of a broken and crushed heart, a humbled spirit that is fully penitent for its sins. In the same way today God does not desire one who repents of their sin whose heart is not in it. God wants a changed heart (v.10, Ezekiel 36:26) and someone with a changed heart is his servant. I know of Christians who worship God in tradition and culture, but sadly may never have experienced regeneration. They were born in a ńChristian homeî, were raised ńChristianî and think they are Christian as well, but may never have confessed and turned to God, and may not be one of his. David was one of his and this Psalm assures us of this. If we are indeed truly his then we will repent and turn from our wicked ways.


Prayer for Prosperity (18-19) (ESV)

[18] Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of Jerusalem;
[19] then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Some commentators believe that these verses are an addition to Psalms 51 and therefore are not original because in the opinion of some they do not relate to the psalm's theme. However verse 19 is closely related to the theme in verses 16-17 on sacrifices made to God. David's prayer for prosperity in verse 18 could be literal or figurative. Figuratively it could be speaking of God strengthening the moral walls of the nation which would be good for King David. Moral prosperity does usually follow righteous worship. When we love God and seek to serve him, then we will usually have good morals and not falter in this area. So many Christians today could use their moral walls being strengthened as many have weak defenses. Pornography, deceitfulness, racism and the like are big problems for many Christians today, and therefore many have lost their testimony for God. So pray to have the heart of David and learn from this psalm and the lesson it teaches on confessing sins to God, for God will bless those that turn to him, and those that are his and do not repent can expect rebuke and discipline (Revelation 3:19), so be earnest and repent!


Sources Used

Zondervan NIV Study Bible
Crossway ESV Study Bible
Bible Knowledge Commentary
Life Application Study Bible Notes
; accessed Nov 28, 2009.

© Church Education Resource Ministries

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in anyway other than to correct minor spelling and grammar errors. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred. And exceptions to the above must be explicitly approved by Church Education Resource Ministries.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Wolf © Church Education Resource Ministries. Website Email: