Psalm 51 background

History of Psalm 51

Psalm 51 is a penitential psalm, written by King David. It is a psalm of confession and repentance, and is also known as “Have Mercy on Me, O God”. This psalm is mentioned in the New Testament, in the story of David and Bathsheba. Psalm 51 is also one of the seven penitential psalms.


The authorship of Psalm 51 is traditionally ascribed to David, on the basis of its heading: “To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” The superscription reflects an ancient tradition that this psalm was composed by David after Nathan confronted him for his adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12).

However, some scholars have argued that the psalm’s reference to a “broken spirit” and a “contrite heart” (v. 17) suggest that it was written during or after the Babylonian exile, when the Israelites were struggling to maintain their religious and national identity. If this is true, then Psalm 51 would be one of a number of “penitential psalms” that were composed during this difficult period in Israelite history.

Date of Composition

It is generally agreed that Psalm 51 was written by King David after he sinned with Bathsheba. He committed adultery with her and then had her husband killed in battle so that he could marry her. The date of composition is difficult to determine, but it was probably written late in David’s life, possibly around 950 BC.

Occasion and Purpose

The specific occasion for this psalm is not known, but it was probably written by David after he had sinned with Bathsheba and had been confronted by Nathan the prophet (2 Samuel 12:1-14). This would explain why David began the psalm with a confession of sin and a plea for forgiveness.

The broader purpose of the psalm, however, is to provide all believers with an example of how to approach God when we have sinned. We are to come to God with humble hearts, acknowledging our sin and asking for His forgiveness. Only then can we experience His cleansing and restoration.

Literary Context

The superscription to Psalm 51 tells us that it is a “maskil” of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. The historical context of the psalm, then, is David’s repentance after his great sin. This psalm is one of seven penitential psalms in the Bible (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143), and it is considered to be the classic example of repentance in Scripture.

In this psalm, we see David pouring out his heart to God in confession and repentance. He pleads for God’s mercy and forgiveness, acknowledging his sin and begging for restoration. This psalm is a powerful reminder that no matter how far we have fallen, God is always willing to forgive us and restore us to himself.

Overview of Psalm 51

Psalm 51 is a penitential psalm, traditionally ascribed to David. The psalm is categorized as one of the seven penitential psalms. In the superscription, David pleads with God for mercy after Nathan the prophet confronted him regarding his adultery with Bathsheba.


Psalm 51 is a penitential psalm, meaning that it is a prayer for forgiveness. It is attributed to King David, and it likely dates to the time when David was confronted by Nathan the prophet about his adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12). The psalm falls into two main sections: an expression of contrition (vv. 1-17) and a request for restoration (vv. 18-19).

In the first section, David acknowledges his sinfulness and pleads for mercy. He recognizes that his sin is against God and not just Bathsheba or her husband Uriah (vv. 4-6). He also acknowledges that his actions have consequences not just for himself but also for society as a whole (vv. 8-12). In the second section, David asks God to restore him and to use him as an instrument of righteousness (vv. 18-19).

This psalm is significant because it shows the importance of confession and repentance in the life of a believer. It also demonstrates that even great leaders are not exempt from the need for forgiveness.

Key Themes

Psalm 51 is a penitential psalm, a prayer for forgiveness. It is traditionally ascribed to King David, and was likely composed during his period of repentance after his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah (2 Samuel 11–12).

The psalm has 10 verses, and can be divided into two parts. The first part (vv. 1-6) are David’s words of confession and remorse. In the second part (vv. 7-10), David pleads for God’s mercy and restoration.

Key themes in Psalm 51 include:

  • Repentance
  • Forgiveness
  • cleansing
  • Redemption
    Psalm 51 in the New Testament
    Psalm 51 is a follow-up to Psalm 50. In Psalm 50, God had just destroyed the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. The people were in exile, and they were wondering what to do next. In Psalm 51, they are reminded that even though the Temple is gone, they can still worship God.
    References in the New Testament

There are a number of references to Psalm 51 in the New Testament. In the book of Romans, Paul quotes from Psalm 51 when he speaks about justification by faith. In 1 Corinthians 15:3, Paul again quotes from Psalm 51, this time in reference to Christ’s resurrection. In Hebrews 10:5-7, the author quotes from Psalm 51 when speaking about how Christ’s sacrifice was superior to the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament.

Psalm 51 and the Atonement

In the New Testament, Psalm 51 is cited in support of the doctrine of atonement. In this psalm, David confesses his sin and begs for forgiveness. He pleads for God’s mercy and acknowledges that his sin has been a source of grief to God.

Christians have interpreted this psalm to mean that sinners can be forgiven through repentance and confession. This psalm is seen as a model for our own prayers of repentance. It also teaches us that even though we have sinned, we can still be forgiven and experience God’s love and mercy.


In conclusion, Psalm 51 is a beautiful poem that is rich in meaning and Bible history. While it is often read as a simple poem about repentance, it contains a much deeper message about the power of God’s grace and forgiveness. If you have never read Psalm 51, I encourage you to do so. It is a powerful reminder of the goodness of God and His willingness to forgive us no matter how far we may have strayed from Him.

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