Saturday, November 30, 2013

Psalm 51


Lines Scansion

 

NASB (The Hebrew Bible includes a two-verse superscription that is not part of the Psalm proper. Therefore, the numbering in the Hebrew Bible is two verses ahead of the English Bibles. For convenience, the following discussion will follow the English verse numbers.)


1             Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your
                    lovingkindness;
               According to the greatness of Your compassion blot out
                      my transgressions.
2             Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
               And cleanse me from my sin.
3              For I know my transgressions,
               And my sin is ever before me.
4             Against You, You only, I have sinned
               And done what is evil in Your sight,
               So that You are justified when You speak
               And blameless when You judge.
5             Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
               And in sin my mother conceived me.
6             Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being,
               And in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom.
7             Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
               Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8             Make me to hear joy and gladness,
               Let the bones which You have broken rejoice.
9             Hide Your face from my sins
               And blot out all my iniquities.
 

10           Create in me a clean heart, O God,
               And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
 

11           Do not cast me away from Your presence
               And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
12           Restore to me the joy of Your salvation
               And sustain me with a willing spirit.
13           Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
               And sinners will be converted to You.
14           Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, the God of my
                    salvation;
               Then my tongue will joyfully sing of Your righteousness.
15           O Lord, open my lips,
               That my mouth may declare Your praise.
16           For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give
                    it;
               You are not pleased with burnt offering.
17           The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
               A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.
18           By Your favor do good to Zion;
               Build the walls of Jerusalem.
19           Then You will delight in righteous sacrifices,
               In burnt offering and whole burnt offering;
               Then young bulls will be offered on Your altar.
 
Effects of the Metric Center on the Psalm’s Development
 
Commentators generally agree that Psalm 51 is a Lament of the Individual. According to Westermann, The Psalms:Structure, Content & Message, 55-72, 132, a complete psalm of this type includes the following:
  
Invocation
Lament (I, they, You)
Expression of Confidence
Petition
Oracle-Response
Praise/Vow of Praise
 
A quick perusal of Psalm 51, however, reveals that most of the elements are missing leading Tate, Psalms 51-100, 8, to conclude:
 
The psalm is not easily classified in the usual form-critical categories. It is usually placed in the general classification of the laments of the individual . . . .  However, such characteristic features as complaint about enemies and prayer for their defeat and/or punishment is missing, as well as any protestation of innocence on the part of the speaker in the psalm . . . , and there is not motivational appeal to God for action . . . . On the other hand, there is a full confession of sin which is without parallel in any other biblical psalm.
 
Since the primary focus of the psalm is confession of sin and appeals for forgiveness, some classify Psalm 51 as a Psalm of Penitence or Repentance (Westermann, The Psalms, 132.  Whatever the classification, the background situation underlying its composition indicated in the superscription is debated. Tate, Psalms, 8-12, discusses the issue, as do Bratcher and Reyburn, A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Psalms, 467:
 
The identity of the psalmist and the reason he composed this prayer are given in the Hebrew title as David’s act of adultery with Bathsheba . . . .  Most modern commentators do not believe that the title reflects the actual circumstances in which the psalm was written . . . .  Some, however, strongly defend the traditional view . . . and, like the others, recognize that the last two verses are a later addition . . . , since these verses reflect a situation which did not exist in David’s lifetime. The Jewish commentator Ibn Ezra, of the twelfth century A.D., suggested that they were added by a Jew who was in exile in Babylonia.
 
The psalms generally do not depend upon the actual historical circumstances to make sense out of them. In fact, they remain “historically ambiguous” so that they can apply to a broad spectrum of human experiences and this becomes one major reason for their popularity. “Poetry often develops the intensity of a moment,” writes Ross, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, I, 832.
 
Tate, Psalms 51-100, 12, outlines the “interlocking structure” of Psalm 51 based on two major divisions 1-9 and 10-17 plus an addendum 18-19. The point of division begins at verse 10, and metrically represents the center of the psalm.
 

The center can be isolated by (1) the different contents in verses 1-9 and 10-19, (2) the focus on the “heart” (לֵב) in verses 10 and 17 with the latter passage capturing the essence of verses 1-9, (3) the inclusio in verses 1-9 with “blot out” (מחֵה)  and the semi-inclusio of “wash” (root כבס) in verses 1 and 7 that effectively separate the two major divisions of the psalm, and (4) the emphases of “heart” and “spirit”—לֵב (“heart”) in verses 10 and 17; רוּחַ (“spirit”) in verses 10, 11, 12, 17—found in the latter division only and representing the “solution” to the psalmist’s spiritual dilemma.
 
 
The psalmist’s sin has “crushed” (root דכה verses 8 and 17) his inner soul described as his “heart” and “spirit.” The “spirit” comes . . . to denote the entire immaterial consciousness of man” (Payne, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 836) whereas the “heart” in its abstract meanings, . . . became the richest biblical term for the totality of man’s inner or immaterial nature. . . . either to the inner or immaterial nature in general or to one of the three traditional personality functions of man; emotion, thought, or will (Bowling, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 466). Psalm 51 depicts a man physically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually crushed because of his sin against God. What he needs is a pure heart and a renewed spirit that he pleads for in the central verse (10).
 

Key repetitive terms throughout the first division of the psalm include no less than 12 references to the psalmist’s “sin” (חַטָּאת, 6 times—the verb חטא is also used once referring to “ceremonial cleansing” or “purifying,” perhaps to present seven appearances of the root חטא since the verb root טהר (“pure”) as a synonym was available and already in use at verses 4, 9, and 12; פֶּשַׁע (“transgression”), 3 times; עָוֹן (“iniquity”), 3 times). The terms that cross over into both divisions of the psalm include 4 references to “God” (אֱלֹהִ֣ים, no mention of Yahweh) and 3 references to “clean” (root טהר, also translated “pure”). Obviously the psalmist needs a “pure” heart and only the Almighty God can accomplish such a feat.  
 
 
Summary