A fervent prayer for pardon, renewal, and reconciliation with God.
st. 1 = vv. 1-5
st. 2 = vv. 6-9
st. 3 = vv. 10-13
st. 4 = vv. 14-17
st. 5 = vv. 18-19
Tradition ascribes this prayer to David on the occasion "when the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba." No other psalm matches the frankness and fullness with which Psalm 51 faces the problem of human sinfulness. Sin is first of all sin against God, and no animal sacrifice can effect reconciliation. Only a heart "contrite and broken" can expect God's forgiveness. Moreover, sin springs from a heart so defiled that it must be recreated, made new, to be clean.
The psalm offers an unparalleled confession of sin and a fervent plea for pardon (st. 1); a prayer for forgiveness and restoration to joy (st. 2); a prayer for a new, undefiled heart and for reconciliation with God (st. 3); and a vow to praise when God grants pardon to a "contrite and broken" heart (st. 4). Added to this is a prayer that God's mercy will extend to the whole city of Zion (st. 5)–in Christian terms, to the whole church of Christ.
Stanley Wiersma (PHH 25), who prepared this unrhymed versification in 1980 for the Psalter Hymnal, often spoke of this psalm sung to GENEVAN 51 as the "Calvinist Kyrie" (see PHH 258 for information on the Kyrie). Psalm 51 is also one of the traditional penitential psalms (along with 6, 32, 38,102,130, and 143). Other settings of Psalm 51 are at 167 and 255.
Traditionally in the service of confession of sin; also appropriate for the liturgy of the Lord's Supper and during Lent.
--Psalter Hymnal Handbook