Theme: A Favorite Psalm
In this week’s lessons we see from the life of David the biblical way to deal with our sin, and learn what God’s response is toward us when we do.
Scripture: Psalm 51:1-9
A person who does not have much experience studying the Bible is likely to think that a well-known passage must be easy to elaborate. “It must be easy to teach John 3:16, the twenty-third Psalm or the Christmas story,” he might say. Actually, the well-known passages are the hardest, and some seem almost impossible to expound.
This is true of Psalm 51. “This is the fourth, and surely the greatest, of the penitential psalms,” says Derek Kidner.1 Yet who can properly expound it? Charles Haddon Spurgeon was the prince of expositors. He could get more out of a passage that anyone I have ever heard or read. But in the preface to the second part of his first large volume on the Psalms, Spurgeon tells how he postponed working on Psalm 51 week after week and often sat down to it and got up again without having written a line. He concluded, “It is a bush burning with fire yet not consumed, and out of it a voice seemed to cry to me, ‘Draw not nigh hither, put off thy shoes from thy feet.’ The psalm is very human, its cries and sobs are of one born of woman; but it is freighted with an inspiration all divine, as if the Great Father were putting words into his child’s mouth. Such a psalm may be wept over, absorbed into the soul, and exhaled again in devotion; but, commented on—ah! where is he who having attempted it can do other than blush at his defeat?”2
But to start, a few simple things should be noted.
Psalm 51 is the first of a series of psalms which, in this second book of the Psalter, are ascribed to David. In fact, from this point on in Book 2 all but four of the psalms are ascribed to him.3
Psalm 51 has been a favorite of many well-known historical figures, particularly when they were dying. It was recited in full by Sir Thomas More and Lady Jane Grey when they were on the scaffold in the bloody days of Henry VIII and Queen Mary, respectively. And Henry V had it read to him as he lay on his deathbed. William Carey, the great pioneer missionary to India, asked that it might be the text of his funeral sermon.4
There are six easily noted parts to the psalm: 1) the psalmist’s approach to God, which is a cry for forgiveness (vv. 1, 2); 2) the confession of his sin (vv. 3-6); 3) an appeal for cleansing (vv. 7-9); 4) a desire for inward renewal or the creating of a pure heart (vv. 10-12); 5) a promise to teach others the lessons about forgiveness he has learned (vv. 13-17); and 6) a concluding prayer for the prosperity of Zion (vv. 18, 19).
We will look at the first three parts in this week’s study and the last three parts in next week’s devotional.
Read the entire psalm slowly and carefully. Why do you think Spurgeon found it so difficult to comment on it?
Review the outline of the psalm given in this study. How else might you outline it, and what points of application would you make?
1Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72: An Introduction and Commentary on Books I and II of the Psalms (Leicester, England, and Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1973), p. 189. The others are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 102, 130 and 143.
2C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 1b, Psalms 27-57(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968), p. v.
3Psalms 51-65 and 68-70. Psalms 66, 67 and 71 are unnamed. Psalm 72 is ascribed to Solomon.
4Rowland E. Prothero, The Psalms in Human Life (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1904). The deaths of Sir Thomas More and Lady Jane Grey are recounted on pages 130 and 155, Henry V on page 82, and the use of the psalm by William Carey on page 339.