God of Psalm 51

1.   Introduction

Psalm 51 has been known as one of the seven “Penitential Psalms,” or Psalms of Confession. This is an accurate classification given to this psalm because the poet, King David, composed it after Nathan the prophet rebuked him as he committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. The emotion expressed by the poet, who was deeply troubled by his iniquity, was immense. Psalm 51 is undoubtedly a model psalm for confession, but the poet expressed a few incommunicable and communicable attributes of God, which I argue that they should have been emphasized more. In particular, God’s mercy is also explicitly demonstrated in this psalm.

God’s names and attributes in Psalm 51 are analyzed using the threefold way, namely negation, eminence, and causation.[1] As the transcendent God, He possesses attributes of infinitude, which can only be named in the way of negation. However, the way of negation alone reveals nothing new about God, and it presupposes the way of eminence, by seeing God as the source of all creaturely perfection. Attributes regarding the mercy and love of God stand out in this psalm, given the poet violated at least two of the Ten Commandments, namely murder (6th, Exod. 20:13), and adultery (7th, Exod. 20:14). His sins can be rephrased as, negatively, “forsaking God,” or positively, “seeking for oneself.”[2] (Jer. 2:13) Thus, the way of eminence is undeniably important to view God in this psalm. Last but not least, as the poet pleaded for God’s forgiveness, we shall see more about the immanence of God from the psalm, hence a lot of attributes exhibited are through the way of causation.

2.   Way of Negation

2.1 Immutability

Because Psalm 51 is a psalm of confession, the divine names indicating His infinitude are not explicitly present. Nevertheless, negative attributes of God are not absent. As a man after God’s heart, the poet knew God. At the moment he was reminded he had sinned, he immediately confessed and repented. (2 Sam. 12:13) It is an indication of God’s immutability in a few ways. First, the poet knew about God’s judgment, (Ps. 51:4) which has been God’s unchanging will.[3] Before King David, God had been judging the earth throughout the ancient times that the Israelites knew about, such as Noah’s flood (Gen. 6-8), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19), the death of the Israelites who worshipped the golden calf (Exod. 32), the fall of the Israelites who committed adultery with the Moabites and Midianites, (Num. 25:1-9; 31:16) the repeated decline of Israel due to their national sins at the times of Judges (Judg. 2-21), and most recently, the decline of King Saul. (1 Sam. 15) He knew his act is not right in God’s eyes.

Second, the poet urged for pardoning of his sins. (Ps. 51:4) This presupposes that God forgives if men repent. (1 John 1:9) Although this teaching is more explicit in the New Testament, it is also well known in the Old Testament times. The institution of the feast of atonement (Lev. 16) was a “shadow” of this truth. (Heb. 9:23) The poet knew all these very well. God was willing not to destroy Sodom even if there were only ten righteous men. (Gen. 18:32) Although the Israelites in the desert repeatedly rebelled, God was willing to forgive them, and continued to guide them on the way to the promised land. J. I. Packer said, “God’s way does not change… His aims and principles of actions remain consistent.”[4] In forgiving the king that He chose, the poet was confident that God would forgive him.

Despite the Israelites’ sins, God still kept His promises because of the covenants He made with their father. “I the LORD do not change.” (Mal. 3:6) God, through Malachi, reassured them that they would not be “consumed.” Similarly, the poet knew God that even if he sinned, God kept the covenant with him. “God’s law witnesses His immutable attributes.”[5] He would not be destroyed, but he was deeply distressed by what he had done. His law does not change, so does His policy. This psalm of confession presupposes God’s immutability, which implies His faithfulness. As a man after God’s heart, the poet asked for God’s pardon.

3.   Way of Eminence

The way of eminence concerns the perspective of God as the source of all creaturely perfection. The psalm is full of emotional outpour, the begging of forgiveness, asking for delivery, and seeking for consolations because of the poet’s misery. God definitely has all the things the poet desperately sought. As the poet composed in another psalm: “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” (Ps. 16:2) Unlike the way of negation, divine names and attributes in the way of eminence are mostly God’s communicable attributes.

3.1 Mercy

The first attribute in the way of eminence is mercy, as stated in the first verse of this psalm: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.” (Ps. 51:1) “Mercy” is a divine attribute, as stated in Scripture, “a God merciful and gracious” (Exod. 34:6), and “for the LORD your God is a merciful God.” (Deut. 4:31) The word “mercy” in Psalm 51:1 is also translated as “gracious” in NASB.[6] It is known to be one of the God’s communicate attributes,[7] because Christ commanded us to be merciful in His Sermon on the Mount: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful,” (Luke 6:36) and as the mercy was also shown by the good Samaritan to robbed Jewish man. (Luke 10:37) The fact that the poet cried for mercy at the beginning of this psalm indicates that it is the most important attribute of God presented in this psalm.

What is mercy? Or what is being merciful? It was stated by à Brakel that “mercy, being the merciful God Himself, is an essential attribute whereby God is inclined to come to the aid of a creature in his misery.”[8] In other words, mercy is God’s goodness shown to the people in misery.[9] The poet cried for the mercy, because he was deeply distressed by his sins, and saw God’s judgement. (Ps. 51:4) While God actually took away the Holy Spirit from Saul, (1 Sam. 16:14) the poet asked God not to do so. (Ps. 51:11) He was in need of mercy because of the depth of his sins, which seems to be matched by the depth of his confession in this psalm.[10] He cried out for mercy, also because he had always known that God is a merciful God.

It is known that indeed God showed the mercy to the poet. Despite the depth of his sins, God forgave him. (2 Sam. 12:13) Moreover, interestingly, Solomon, his next son with the same woman, was loved, (2 Sam. 12:24) and chosen by God to be the successor to his throne. (1 Kings 1:30) It demonstrated that God’s mercy is indeed great, and beyond imagination.

3.2 Steadfast Love

Another attribute in the way of eminence closely related to God’s mercy is His steadfast love. (Ps. 51:1) “Steadfast love” is the ESV translation, but “lovingkindness” in NASB and KJV, and “unfailing love” in NIV. It is the kind of love that God had been showing to the poet. God has been walking with the poet through all the sufferings before the poet became the King of Judah and Israelites. God made a covenant with the poet. (2 Sam. 7:7-16) The poet knew very well about His steadfast love, which is covenantal in nature. Because of this attribute, God befriended the poet.[11] As the God of the steadfast love, He chose to forgive the poet, showing His mercy. Hence, it is not surprising that some biblical scholars suggest that mercy and steadfast love are virtually synonymous.[12]

3.3 Salvation

The third divine name in the way of eminence is salvation, which appears twice in this psalm. (Ps. 51:12, 14) The poet committed a few big sins, and he needed a deliverance from the punishment. In the psalm, he said, “deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation…” (Ps. 51:14) This salvation was not a literal deliverance from a physically dangerous situation, but the salvation in the theological sense: the salvation of the poet from the eternal wrath of God,[13] followed by the imputation of righteousness[14] to him. Besides the term “salvation,” the poet mentioned a lot about the salvation, for example, the cleaning of his sins using hyssop so that he could be “whiter than snow,” (Ps. 51:7) the creation of a new heart in the poet, (Ps. 51:10) the cancellation of all his iniquities, (Ps. 51:9) and making the poet capable of teaching people and praising God in the right way. (Ps. 51:13, 14) With God’s salvation, not only were his sins forgiven, but also was he able to stand in front of God on the judgement day. With God’s salvation, the poet enjoyed “the joy of salvation.” (Ps. 51:12)

4.   Way of Causation

The attributes of infinitude in the way of negation and that of fullness in the way of eminence account for two important aspects of God. However, without the way of causation which indicates His firstness, God has no dealings with the human being. Our God is an immanent God, who is deeply involved in human history.[15] God is the source of all creaturely perfection, and the poet experienced spirit renewal, (Ps. 51:10) and was taught His wisdom (Ps. 51:6) according to the psalm.

4.1 Renewal of Spirit

Because of his sins, the poet’s inward being had been crooked. The time between his going into Bathsheba and his repentance was, by reasonable estimation, approximately ten months, which is a long period of time. He intentionally committed to the sins until Nathan the Prophet rebuked him. During repentance, his heart needed to be renewed. It is unclear whether this spirit was the substance of soul of a man,[16] or the inner being of a man in general. However, it is clear that “renew a right spirit…” echos “create… a new heart” in Ps. 51:10.[17] This right spirit, renewed by God, restored the poet’s original vocation as a king leading out Israel’s troop.[18] This spirit has also to be a “disciplined” spirit, “of uprightness and integrity, in opposition to dissimulation and hypocrisy,”[19] but “prepared to do every good work.”[20] Even though the poet was a man after God’s heart, as a human being, he was weak as Jesus said to his disciples at Gethsemane, “the spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matt. 26:41)

4.2 Wisdom

While the spirit renewal regards the poet’s emotions and will, there is wisdom, (Ps. 51:6) another divine attribute in the way of eminence which regards his rationality and intellect. “Wisdom” in Hebrew literally means simple technical skills,[21] but when it comes to living, it means “following God’s design and thus avoiding moral pitfalls.”[22] Until the poet was rebuked by Nathan the Prophet, he thought everything had been a hidden secret. He might think he was clever in stealing Uriah’s wife, and plotted his death in a “smart” way. However, he was a fool as he obviously violated God’s commandments. The poet prayed that God taught him “wisdom in the secret heart.” These were all struggles in his inner life. But wisdom, as a divine power, changed his understanding.[23] If the poet was able to read the wisdom in Prov. 5 and Prov. 7, he might have more determination to say “no” to adultery, and avoiding being “the simple,” or the “young man lacking sense” in Prov. 7:7.

5. King David’s Plea and God’s Merciful Response

Given the threefold way of naming God, it can be clearly seen that His attributes exhibited in Psalm 51 by the poet. In addition to the verses, the evidences of these attributes can be supported by the historical narratives in the Old Testament. The poet was a man pleasing to God (1 Sam. 13:13-14, 1 Sam. 16:1-13), who was after God’s own heart, and knew who God is. He knew God was the one whom he asked for forgiveness for his iniquity with his “broken spirit” (Ps. 51:17). Hence, he was not “slow, ashamed, or afraid to voice out in prayer [his] own bitterness and lament before God.”[24] Christians should be quick and determined to confess their sins like the poet.

In fact, God did forgive the poet as we have seen from Scripture (2 Sam. 12:13), despite some negative consequences of his sins, including the death of his baby, (2 Sam. 12:14) and the chaos within his royal family. (2 Sam. 13-18) God did “create in [him] a clean heart,” and “renew a right spirit” (Ps. 51:10) and, evidently, did not take away the Holy Spirit, (Ps. 51:11) or the poet could not even compose the psalm.

6.   Conclusion

With the threefold way, the attributes of God are richly demonstrated in Psalm 51 by the poet, King David. As a psalm of confession, the poet poured out his emotion, as God did not despise a broken heart. (Ps. 51:17) It shows God’s mercy in the way of eminence, as God was good towards the poet in a miserable situation. God’s steadfast love, and salvation were also important attributes in the way of eminence too. God also renewed the spirit of the poet, and taught the poet wisdom, as, in the way of causation, God is the source of creaturely perfection. Lastly, what is really comforting is, in the way of negation, His immutability. As one confesses and repents, God forgives as He is faithful. (1 John 1:9)


[1] Timothy Smith, Thomas Aquinas’ Trinitarian Theology: A Study in Theological Method (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 204; Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 129.

[2] Timothy Lin, What is the Kingdom of Heaven in the Bible? The Truth of the Kingdom, ed. Karis Hui and Karen Li, trans. George Shen (Hong Kong: China Alliance Press, 2011), 165.

[3] Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Bartel Elshout (Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications. 1992), 101.

[4] J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Madison, WI: Intervarsity Press, 1977), 71.

[5] Zhiyong Wang, Modern Christian Covenantal Worldview (Taipei, Taiwan: Christian Arts Press, 2013), 102.

[6] In other parts of Scripture, “mercy” is also translated as “loving-kindness” or “compassionate” in other English translations. See: W. L. Walker, “Mercy; Merciful,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online, accessed March 10, 2016, http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/M/mercy-merciful.html.

[7] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: an Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Intervarsity, 1994), 200.

[8] à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1, 125; “a’ Brakel on General Mercy,” Calvin and Calvinism (WordPress), September 16, 2007, accessed Jun3 23, 2016, https://calvinandcalvinism.wordpress.com/2007/09/16/a-brakel-on-general-mercy/.

[9] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, 213.

[10] Patrick D. Miller Jr., “Trouble and Woe: Interpreting the Biblical Laments,” Interpretation 31, no. 1 (1983): 37.

[11] Kenneth L. Barker, ed., [Pss. 6:4, 51:1] Zondervan NASB Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 746.

[12] W. L. Walker, “Lovingkindness,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online, accessed April 26, 2016, http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/L/lovingkindness.html.

[13] R. C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian: an Introduction to Systematic Theology (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2014), 215.

[14] Burston Scott Easton, “Salvation,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online, accessed March 30, 2016, http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/S/salvation.html.

[15] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: a Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1987), 13-15.

[16] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 473-474.

[17] Stanley D. Walters, “I Talk of My Sin (to God) (and to You): Psalm 51, with David Speaking,” Calvin Theological Journal 50, no. 1 (2015): 102-103.

[18] Ibid., 102.

[19] John Gill, “Psalm 51:10,” John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible, accessed April 30, 2016, http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/psalms-51-10.html.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Burston Scott Easton, “Wisdom,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online, accessed March 30, 2016, http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/W/wisdom.html.

[22] Barker, ed., [Prov. 1:2] Zondervan NASB Study Bible, 894.

[23] Walters, “I Talk of My Sin (to God) (and to You),” 100.

[24] Gabriel Mendy, “The Theological Significance of the Psalms of Lament,” American Theological Inquiry 8, no. 21 (August 2015): 71.

  • à Brakel, Wilhelmus. The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1. Edited by Joel R. Beeke. Translated by Bartel Elshout. Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications. 1992.
  • Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation. Edited by John Bolt. Translated by John Vriend. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2003.
  • Frame, John M. The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: a Theology of Lordship. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing. 1987.
  • Gill, John. John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible. Accessed April 30, 2016. http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/.
  • Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: an Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Intervarsity. 1994.
  • International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online. Accessed April 30, 2016. http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/.
  • Lin, Timothy. What is the Kingdom of Heaven in the Bible? The Truth of the Kingdom. Edited by Charis Hui and Karen Li. Translated by George Shen. Hong Kong: China Alliance Press. 2011.
  • Mendy, Gabriel. “The Theological Significance of the Psalms of Lament.” American Theological Inquiry 8, no. 21 (August 2015): 61-71.
  • Miller, Patrick D. Jr. “Trouble and Woe: Interpreting the Biblical Laments.” Interpretation 31, no. 1 (1983): 32-45.
  • Packer, J. I. Knowing God. Madison, WI: Intervarsity Press. 1977.
  • Smith, Timothy. Thomas Aquinas’ Trinitarian Theology: A Study in Theological Method. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2003.
  • Sproul, R. C. Everyone’s a Theologian: an Introduction to Systematic Theology. Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust. 2014.
  • Walters, Stanley D. “I Talk of My Sin (to God) (and to You): Psalm 51, with David Speaking.” Calvin Theological Journal 50, no. 1 (April 2015): 91-109.
  • Wang, Zhiyong. Modern Christian Covenantal Worldview. Taipei, Taiwan: Christian Arts Press. 2013.

Featured Image: Peter Frederick Rothermel, “Thou Art The Man.” (image link: http://blogs.iac.gatech.edu/unreliable/files/2013/10/pfrothermel081.jpg); More information about the artwork: http://americanartgallery.org/artist/details/view/sshow/id/475/pictureId/4844.


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