Penitential Psalms: Psalm 51–A Personal God of Love


It happens to be Maundy Thursday and tomorrow is Good Friday. Psalm 51 is an Easter Song if there ever was one. Psalm 51 is difficult for me and for everyone who strongly feels that Christ is the primary speaker in David’s psalms. The speaker in this psalm unquestionably confesses his personal guilt and sin. And Christ is sinless and holy. How can the speaker be Christ? And yet, that is my position.

Craig C. Broyles writes that of the seven penitential psalms (Pss. 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143), Psalm 51 is unique in its exclusive focus on sin (Broyles, p226). He also writes that among the psalms as a whole, it is “unrivaled … for its interest in inner transformation” (Ibid.). While Broyles in no way claims Christ as speaker, he states that within the psalm itself there is no reason to see David as speaker (Ibid., p 226-227). The superscripts were written by an ancient editor after the fact. None of the superscriptions above the psalms is to be considered Scripture.

Why is it so difficult to receive Christ as speaker in Psalm 51? Consider these words:

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 only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. 5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. (Psalm 51:1 ESV)

Turn away thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. (Psalm 51:9 LXE)

I must speak personally here, but I think I speak for many. To attribute the above words to Christ stirs up uncomfortable feelings of shame that are difficult to deal with. If Christ the sacrificial lamb speaks these words upon the painful cross, then that means that he the sinless one is speaking these words for me. It’s extremely humbling to go before the throne of grace knowing that He knows. It’s humbling to agree with him that yes, I did do these things. But what is most humbling is to see the big problem for God that my sin caused and to watch, childlike, as he himself pays the cost to fix the damage my sinful actions brought about. Yes, it’s very childlike. Come on, folks, admit it. God went to a lot of trouble to fix the problem humanity’s sin caused and it cost him a great deal. Because he is who he is, we in our puniness will never be able to possibly imagine what it was like for God’s Son, God himself, our creator, the all-powerful one, to become one of us and to take upon himself our sin.

Psalm 51 can be a great blessing for everyone whose sin is great. So often we hear about those who feel that God could never forgive their sin because of its excessive nature. “God can forgive others,” they may think, “but he could never forgive me.” Yes, he could! And he did! The actual words of the psalm itself don’t say what the sin was.  When Israel’s high priest used to lay his hands upon the head of the scapegoat, he wasn’t just symbolically giving up the low-level sins of the people, but all their sins (Leviticus 16:7-10). God knows. Jesus on the cross knew what the sins were. He confessed them as his own.  

What might the following words mean when translated into the actual experience of the One hanging on the cross?

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2Corinthians 5:21 ESV)

Might such a person, who has himself become sin, be able to confess the words of Psalm 51? For the sake of all who might ever believe in him, I say yes (1).


1 Because Scripture calls for a witness of at least two, “Where two or more are gathered in my name…” “…take one or two others along…,” I’d like to bring along with me John Barclay. He writes:

… there is no blasphemy (as many have most blasphemously alleged there is) in this manner of interpretation [Christ as the sole speaker in all of Psalm 51]; which must either be admitted, or the New Testament made void! (Barclay, page 218)

While Barclay in his preface has multitudes of arguments to support his attributing all of Psalm 51 to Christ as speaker, one of his main arguments is the existence of parallel passages: Psalm 51:16-17 is parallel to Psalm 40:6. Psalm 40:6-8 is quoted in Hebrews 10:5-7. There the words are attributed directly to the mouth of Christ, “Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said…” (Ibid.). Barclays’s logic is mathematical: If A = B and C = B, then A = C. Since the New Testament in Hebrews attributes Psalm 40:6 to Christ as speaker, then a parallel passage in another psalm (Psalm 51:16) must also be attributed to Christ (Barclay, page 47). It also follows that since there is one speaker throughout all of Psalm 51, if one portion is spoken by Christ, then the whole psalm, by the rules of plain English, must also be spoken by Christ (Ibid., page 42-43).

While I agree with this “head” explanation, I also fully agree with Barclay elsewhere, when he states that seeing Christ as our intercessor and mediator in Psalm 51 is mostly a matter of heart. Christ fully and consciously washed our sins away in his own blood. Why would anyone want to maintain that Christ our mediator did not stand in for us and acknowledge our sin as his own? If this were not so, Barclay asks, then how can we have confidence that the righteousness of Christ is ours? In other words, “How could sinners call his righteousness theirs, if he had not called their sin his?” (Ibid., page 71). And if our theology permits Christ to call our sin his, then in honesty, we cannot forbid him from confessing it. Yes, to see Christ as the speaker of Psalm 51 is to see what substitutionary atonement meant for the Lamb of God.

Many blessings upon you all; may this Easter be among the happiest you have ever known.





2 thoughts on “Penitential Psalms: Psalm 51–A Personal God of Love

  1. Hello Christina, thank you for doing these posts on the Psalms. We share a very similar perspective regarding Christ as the speaker of the Psalms, it seems, which is always rewarding to find. There are not that may of us!

    I wonder, though, why you dismiss the superscriptions if they were added by an editor? They are present in all the manuscripts that we have and there’s evidence that the entire Psalter was edited (e.g. the doxologies). Given that the Psalter may be thoroughly edited, we cannot really peel back the book to find an earlier form. That could include the superscriptions too. In my view, the church receives the *edited* Psalter as scripture, not just individual psalms. Each psalm has its own context: other psalms and the broader Psalter. In fact, I think the fact the Psalter was edited actually supports a Christological reading. Adjacent Psalms build upon each other in painting a portrait of the speaker and his situation.

    All that to say though, I’m not sure what that means for the superscriptions in interpretation. The NT authors certainly seem to see David as the author of the “of David” Psalms, but that doesn’t prevent them from seeing Christ as speaker. Psalm 16 in Acts 2 makes that clear: Peter sees David as author, but Christ as speaker. What does that mean for the superscriptions that include “historical” referents, though? I’m not sure. Psalm 51 is an interesting one, since Paul quotes it in Romans and seems to attribute the words to David, not Christ.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts and I’m open to email correspondence too.

    1. Hi Lindsay,

      Thanks for writing! As you mentioned, we are few in number and I receive very few comments or other feedback. For some reason, your email wound up in spam, and I just now saw it.

      You do ask an interesting question. I think the short answer is that I’m just not that interested in David as a man when I read the Psalter. Hearing the Father and Son speaking together in the Psalms was so overwhelming for me, that I’ve never moved away from it. And the Holy Spirit has communed with me in a most personal, real way through the Psalms often enough to impress me greatly. What he communicates to me is Christ the man, as in human, just as I am human, as well as Christ the Son, God himself. It all boils down to love. What I get out of the Psalms and what I wish to convey is the unfathomable love of God–God for his Son, the Son for God, and both for us. David the man? Who’s he? I hope you see what I’m saying. It’s just that the superscriptions, especially the ones that give a historical situation in the life of David, simply don’t add that much to my appreciation of Christ, my Savior. Christ is who I am after in the Psalms.

      I see that you wrote in response to the Penitential Psalm series. It might interest you that in my current series, “Psalms 56-60: A Packet,” I did devote the first two articles to discussing the superscriptions of these five psalms, because in the Greek, they are unique in the occurrence of two particular phrases. These superscriptions in the Septuagint I believe do point to Christ: “for the end,” and “for a memorial,” or a “memorial stone.”

      So in answer to your question, the short answer is, Why look at David when I can look at Christ?
      You say that you find Christ as speaker in the Psalms. Can I ask you if you are aware of any authors who share that viewpoint? I’ve been pursuing this vigorously for some ten years now. My bibliography of Christ in the Psalms ( shows pretty much the only books I’ve found that really expand this topic. I generally quote Bonar, Bates, Horsley, Hawkins, Barclay, and Reardon, because I haven’t found others, especially more recent authors. What about you? Thanks and blessings! Christina

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