Commentary on Psalms (42 - 89)
© by Francis Foulkes
& Cyril Okorocha


"1. Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
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 alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
5. Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.

6. You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7. Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8. Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9. Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.

10. Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right 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 in me a willing spirit.
13. Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
14. Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation,
and my tongue shall sing aloud of your deliverance.

15. O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16. For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering,
you would not be pleased.
17. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

18. Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
19. then you will delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar."

This is a psalm that expresses the terrible reality of our human sinfulness, the marvellous reality of God's pardon, and then the life of thankfulness and humble but courageous witness that the pardoned sinner should live. The note that came to be attached to the Psalm as its heading links it with King David and his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and the way Nathan the prophet came to him (we read of this in 2 Samuel chapters 11 and 12). We can certainly understand it as expressing what David must have felt then. He came to confess, "I have sinned against the Lord" (2 Samuel 12:13). He had sinned as an adulterer, but he had been guilty of "bloodshed" also (verse 14) in causing the death of Bathsheba's husband, Uriah. All down the ages many a penitent sinner has felt like the writer of this psalm, and it has helped countless people to turn to God for pardon.

The reality of our human sinfulness

There are many ways in which this Psalm helps us to take in the reality of our sin. In verses 1 and 2 it uses three words to describe sin. "Transgression" speaks of sin as rebellion against God. "Iniquity" speaks of sin as turning from the right path, the corrupt inclination of the human heart. The third word for "sin" has the meaning of missing what should be one's aim in life. We are created to serve God and enjoy fellowship with him at all times. When we put ourselves in a position where that fellowship is broken and the "joy of the Lord" forsakes us, then we have 'missed the mark' (see Romans 3:23).

Even when our sin is against other people, it is also always against God (verse 4, and see Genesis 39:9). It is against God's law. He sees it, and it is malicious and insulting in his sight, and he is offended by it. So God is always right when he judges us for the wrong things we do, and when we fail to do the right things (verse 4, which is quoted in the New Testament in Romans 3:4). God wants us to have truth in the very thoughts of our hearts, and he teaches us the wisdom of his ways (verse 6). But we turn aside from that truth. Our trouble is that we have a sinful nature.

When the psalmist says in verse 5, "I was --- a sinner when my mother conceived me", it does not mean that sexual relationships in marriage and conception are evil. Both sexual relationships and conception are gifts from God, and the crown of married love (see Hebrews 13:4). What the psalm means is the because we are human, and from Adam and Eve members of a sinful race, we have an inborn inclination to wrong doing. In Romans 7:21-24 Paul speaks of the sin factor in each of us from which no human effort can free us. Only the blood of Jesus can cleanse us from all sin, and only the power of the Holy Spirit can keep us from the inclination to sin and selfishness (Romans 7:24-8:3).

The blessing of God's forgiveness

Happily the psalmist could speak not only of the reality of sin, but also of the reality of God's forgiveness. We deserve only his judgment, and that he should turn his face from us rather than turn towards us in blessing. But he is willing to "have mercy" on us. He wants to show us his "steadfast love" and "abundant mercy" (verse 1). Notice the six ways in which the psalmist asks that he may know that love and grace and pardon of God.

a. He asks God to "blot out" all his sins (verses 1 and 9). This has the idea of a record of sins written down, but then completely wiped out so that it can no longer be traced. God's great generosity is such that when he forgives he remembers the sins no more. He forgives and forgets. What a Saviour!

b. He prays "wash me", and believes that God is able to make his filthy life clean again, "whiter than snow" (see also Isaiah 1:18).

c. He says, "cleanse me", and uses a word that sometimes speaks of purifying metals, and otherwise is used in connection with ceremonies of purification. In some of these ceremonies the "hyssop" plant (verse 7) was used to sprinkle water or sacrificial blood for ritual cleansing (Leviticus 14:1-7 and Numbers 19:17-18).

d. Those who are burdened with failure and sin know no joy, and the psalmist compares their suffering to that of a person whose bones have been crushed. So he prays, "let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice" (verse 8), and "restore to me the joy of your salvation" (verse 12).

e. He asks God to make him a new person. In verse 10 he uses a word that is only used in the Old Testament for God's work of creation (as in Genesis 1:1), when he prays, "Create in me a clean heart, O God".

f. By the help of God's Spirit (a truly "holy spirit" - verse 11) - he wants to have "a willing spirit" (verse 12). In other words, he wants to be a totally different person from what he has been in the past. Instead of rebelling against God he wants to serve him gladly and willingly. The New Testament, in 2 Corinthians 5:17) says that in Christ a person becomes "a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!"

Our ways of thinking and our values change completely (Romans 12:1-2).

A life of thankfulness

All of the things that the psalmist has prayed for, he knows can only come through the love and goodness of God. So he knows the debt that he owes to the Lord. He wants his lips to be opened to praise God (verse 15), and his tongue to sing aloud of his deliverance (verse 14). Moreover he wants to lead back to God those who are sinners as he has been (verse 13). He knows now what God seeks from his people more than anything else. As Psalm 50 also has said, there is something more important than sacrificial offerings. For us there is something more important than outward religious practices, such as going to church, giving money to the church, serving on church committees and councils. True religion means a heart that is right with God, a humble heart that grieves over sin. The psalmist says, "a humble spirit, O God; you will not reject a humble and repentant heart" (verse 17, Good News Bible).

The last two verses of the Psalm may have been added at a later time, but before the time when all the psalms were brought together in the Book of Psalms. The personal prayers of the Psalm came to be used as prayers for the nation. After Israel had suffered defeat and exile because of their sins, God brought them back to Jerusalem again. Then their prayer was for the rebuilding of the city (as happened in the time of Nehemiah). Then the people with repentant and pardoned hearts would be able to bring offerings that would be acceptable to God.

Prayer: Make verses 10-12 of the Psalm your humble and sincere prayer.

For further thought and study

a. What things are mentioned in this Psalm as the effects and results of sin in a person's life?

b. List the things that the psalmist here asks God to do for him (1) because of his sin, and (2) when he has experienced God's grace and forgiveness?


Verse 11 and Isaiah 63:10-11 are the only two passages in the Old Testament that speak of the "holy spirit" of God. Our translation prints it in this way, rather than as "Holy Spirit" because our knowledge of the personal Holy Spirit depends on the New Testament revelation that we have through the coming of Jesus.