Psalm 51 – Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God
SummaryThe psalm recognizes that all sin is ultimately against God, and prays for forgiveness and renewal.
The title connects this psalm to David's sin with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:1-15)--a horrendous sin matched by the depth of confession and remorse in the psalm. By placing the psalm after "the prophet Nathan came to him," the title reminds the reader that confession and renewal are made possible by hearing God's word of judgment and hope.
The psalmist (David) prays for mercy, acknowledging that, although he has brought harm to Bathsheba and himself and death to Uriah, ultimately his sin is against God, who is totally justified in whatever sentence David deserves. Unlike the typical lament psalms, this one contains no accusation of God or the enemies, recognizing that the fault is David's alone (vv. 1-5). The confession that "I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me" (v. 5) is not a statement about original sin, a doctrine that was developed only later, nor does it mean that conception and birth are inherently sinful. Rather, the poet confesses that he, like all humans, is totally involved in a compromised and sinful world. The first stanza (vv. 1-9) begins and ends with a prayer for cleansing and blotting out the psalmist's transgressions.
"Create in me a clean heart, O God," prays David (v. 10), because only new creation will do. There is no hope for merely "patching up" what he has done. Not even the traditional practice of animal sacrifice, given by God for expiation of sin, will be effective in this case (v. 16). David needs a new heart, a new spirit, and only God can provide that. Because of this insight, Psalm 51--and especially this part of it--has frequently been used in Christian worship, either in the confession of sin or as an offertory prayer. Like the psalm, Christian worshipers recognize that, though their regular offerings have a good purpose, ultimately they can come before God only with "a contrite heart" (v. 17).
The final verses look beyond the life of David and pray for God to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, apparently after the destruction of the city in 587 B.C.E. That, too, say the prophets, has been the result of Israel's sin, so confession is a necessary prelude to the petition for God to rebuild and restore. Once the city and its people have been made right by God, then normal sacrificial worship can be reinstituted (vv. 18-19).