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The context of Psalm 51 is clear:

To the choirmaster. A psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

These events are described in 2nd Samuel 11–12. In summary, David essentially murdered1 Uriah the Hittite in order to cover up an affair with Bathsheba, Uriah's wife. So this verse causes me trouble:

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.

—Psalm 51:4 (ESV)

  1. David did sin against God, but it seems a stretch to say that he sinned against God only. Surely he sinned against at least Uriah, the soldiers who died with him (and their families), Bathsheba, his current wives, and even his unborn child. In addition, he probably sinned against Joab too by abusing his authority to settle a personal matter.

  2. The logical connector "so that" seems out of place. Whatever connection there might be between a person sinning against God and God being blameless in judgment, I can't see how justice could be the purpose or explanation of sin.

Is there some way to understand this Psalm that resolves this conundrum? What am I missing?


Footnote:

  1. I initially wrote "put Uriah in mortal danger", but the more I look at the story, the worse David looks in it. The bit that seals it for me is that Uriah carries his own death warrant à la Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
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5 Answers 5

Not a Hyperbolic Expression

The Text of Psalm 51:4:

 לְךָ לְבַדְּךָ ׀ חָטָאתִי וְהָרַע בְּעֵינֶיךָ עָשִׂיתִי
 לְמַעַן תִּצְדַּק בְּדָבְרֶךָ תִּזְכֶּה בְשָׁפְטֶֽךָ׃

Explanation

1) "Against you alone" (לְךָ לְבַדְּךָ): This is a prayer of David for repentance (a penitential psalm), and while he sinned against many others in the affair with Bathsheba, this is just not where he handles them (possible reasons are many). He says it is "in your [God's] eyes [בְּעֵינֶיךָ] that I have done this" , further indicating that this is a personal prayer (which was later set to music). Interestingly, having looked at most of the "so that" (לְמַעַן ) phrases in the canon to this point, I found at least two where a sin condition was "so that" God would be glorified; and both are instances where enemies are hardened or defeated (Ex.10:1, Dt.2:30). If anything can be drawn from that syntactical similarity, it would be that David see himself who has been completely undone, so that God can be shown victorious (LXX) in his judgements. In any case, this is how he uses the preposition "so that" (לְמַעַן).

2) We should not read the verse with an emphasis on purpose as if David's purpose in sinning was so God would be glorified (cf. Rom.3:5-8). Rather, it is the second part of the verse which dictates the first: it was all against Him alone, "(so) that" God will be victorious. The purpose of this verse in the Psalm is to declare that God will be victorious/justified in His judgement of David's sins. The second line of the verse is the point. In this sense, it is the purpose of the preceding verse. To understand this better, read the second line first. Try and think of it again with the second line first.

Interpretation

In this penitential prayer, there is no sin to be reserved, as if it was not against God, it was all against God. Every bit of it. God is just in judgement in all of it. The same portion against Uriah, was also against God. David must answer to God above all.

Likewise (as is evident in this Psalm) when God pardons David's sins, he washes away all of David's sins - there is no sacrifice to Bathsheba. Davids forgiveness was entirely with God. Whatever else was needed for the personal restoration/reconciliation with those against whom he sinned would also be in primary obedience to God.

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Brilliant answer. Thank you. –  Mike Bull Apr 10 '13 at 22:44
    
Thank you for a comprehensive answer. On point #2: Is there a sense in which God is glorified when He justifies David because David is the king of the people that God intends to use to glorify Himself? Or do you see it as more basic than that: God glorifies Himself by showing mercy? (Or maybe I'm not understanding you somehow?) –  Jon Ericson Apr 16 '13 at 21:02
    
I enjoyed your question. God's response to David surely has both representative (corporate) and individual implications, theologically speaking; but my answer does not (intentionally) address that. Maybe this comment answers yours(?). –  Qoheleth-Tech Apr 17 '13 at 1:00
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First, remember that David was king, and as king he answered to no one but G-d. He could have ordered Uriah killed on whatever pretext and then taken Bat-Sheva. He had that authority. Instead, what he did was rely on the fact that Jewish soldiers going into battle are required to give their wives conditional retroactive divorce papers which in effect say: "I divorce you effective today if I do not return from war by next month." Babyl. Talmud, Shab. 56a. As king, David could order any of his soldiers on a suicide mission without apology. And because of the retroactive divorce given to Bat-Sheva, David technically did not commit adultery with her as she was divorced. But, as Nathan pointed out, whether or not he was legally permitted to do all that he did, G-d had warned him to be better than that. Accordingly, he owed no apology to anyone (and could not apologize to the deceased Uriah) but G-d.

David's realization that he sinned against G-d puts him in a severe funk which we see in Ps. 51 and also II Samuel 13-14. Finally, when his own son, Absalom, starts trying to kill him, David wakes up and gets back on his figurative horse.

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics. The information from the Babylonian Talmud is interesting, but I see nothing in Nathan's parable that lets the rich man off the hook. As David himself said, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” (2 Samuel 12:5b-6 ESV) Certainly he could not restore what he took from Uriah, but that doesn't remove the moral debt, does it? At any rate, +1 for an interesting answer and I look forward to reading more like it. –  Jon Ericson Apr 16 '13 at 21:17
    
Vis a vis G-d, David was not off the hook (for that sin), which is why he was depressed. Still, he had no obligation vis a vis his subjects, per se. He answered only to G-d. You should compare David's pleading with Lev. 26:41-42 where it shows that real humility must come upon the sinner, not just "I'm sorry" before he can be forgiven. –  Bruce James Apr 18 '13 at 23:51
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Are you saying that because he wasn't legally accountable, he didn't sin agains other people (but only against God)? Are sins bein adam v'chaveiro (between a man and his fellow) resolvable that way? –  Gone Quiet Apr 25 '13 at 19:46
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One possible way would be to assume a difference in the semantics of the original word(s). As far as I see: This is always true and has to be taken into consideration. (He did not write for us and our time and our understanding. But since this text is so well supported by even the earliest translation up to the latest, it could prove worthwhile to remain with these words as they are given.)

David comes to the realization: Against God he has wronged the most. He is the living, the compassionate, the one feeling more and closer than any man. David's crime hurt Him. So David is not making small his erring against man, but realizing that in all this wrong he has hurt the very heart of his own living, God. God is not to be compared with man, and if so, then neither is sin against man to be compared to the wrong that one did to God. Because man lives in and by and through God who is above all and is deeper and more discerning and knowing all and everything of us.

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Hi hannes and welcome to the site. I appreciate the answer and agree that part of the reason David phrases it the way he does is the emphasize the immensity of sin against God. I encourage you to continue thinking about the question. You might be interested in reading What are we looking for in answers? Don't forget, you can always come back and edit this answer. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. –  Jon Ericson Apr 9 '13 at 15:55
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The most obvious answer is that David is indeed using hyberbole in his desire to acknowledge to God that he understands that he has transgressed His law and offend Him.

However, it is possible that David was also using precise legal terminology in describing his sin as being only against God. Consider that it was not Uriah's death that was problematic, but that it occurred in the breaking of God's law (murder). If Uriah had died in battle simply as a result of David's order to attack(minus the order to withdraw and leave him exposed), then there would not have been am offense to Uriah and no sin against God. Likewise, if David had taken the widow Bathsheba as his wife, without the adultery and deceit, then there would have been no sin and no offense.

My point is that sin is a violation of God's law. The offense is to the law-giver. A person does not stand condemned simply because another person was harmed by their actions. It is only in transgressing the law that a person is guilty and that guilt is because of the violation of the law, regardless of whether another person was harmed. We see this in our legal system in America (not a perfect example) that when a person is tried for a crime it is the state that is the prosecuter. They are the offended party. The injury to another may, in fact, be the offense. But, it is an offence only because that injury occurred in the breaking of a law.

So, in a strict legal sense, David sinned only against God. His sin was Adultery with Bathsheba and murdering Uriah. But, his debt is to the law-giver and it is to Him that he appeals for forgiveness. The law-giver may require restitution to the victims, but the sin remains a matter between the transgressor and the law-giver.

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! This is an interesting analogy and a useful perspective. The one reservation I have is that I don't know if that way of looking at the law might be anachronistic. Do you have a reference, by any chance? –  Jon Ericson Jun 11 at 23:00
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The NET Bible tackles both of these statements in their translation and notes.

51:4 Against you – you above all – I have sinned;

I have done what is evil in your sight.

So you are just when you confront me;

you are right when you condemn me.

*1. They state the phrase "against you only" is hyperbole as the word used here for sin is indeed used in the sense of "X sinned against Y" (with Y being a human being) in 1 Samuel 19:4 and 24:11. To avoid this potential confusion, they use the sense of "especially."

1 Samuel 19:4 So Jonathan spoke on David’s behalf to his father Saul. He said to him, “The king should not sin against his servant David, for he has not sinned against you. On the contrary, his actions have been very beneficial for you.

1 Samuel 24:11 Look, my father, and see the edge of your robe in my hand! When I cut off the edge of your robe, I didn’t kill you. So realize and understand that I am not planning evil or rebellion. Even though I have not sinned against you, you are waiting in ambush to take my life.

*2. They state that while the Hebrew term לְמַעַן (lÿma’an) traditionally translated "so that" normally indicates purpose, doing so here makes theological problems. That would mean that David purposefully sinned so that God's justice would be seen as righteous. That's absurd. David clearly felt no guilt before he was confronted by Nathan. However, the phrase can be used to indicate the second clause is the logical result/consequence of the first. This can be seen in the following verses:

2 Kings 22:17 This will happen because they have abandoned me and offered sacrifices to other gods, angering me with all the idols they have made. My anger will ignite against this place and will not be extinguished!’”

Jeremiah 27:15 For I, the Lord, affirm that I did not send them. They are prophesying lies to you. If you listen to them, [as a consequence] I will drive you and the prophets who are prophesying lies out of the land and you will all die in exile.”

Amos 2:7 They trample on the dirt-covered heads of the poor; they push the destitute away. A man and his father go to the same girl; in this way they show disrespect for my moral purity.

For the Jeremiah verse, they did not translate the Hebrew word into English as English allows the writer to drop the "then" from an if-then statement. I have placed it in brackets where it would go in English. In Hebrew, it actually starts the clause so that it reads: "as a consequence, if you listen to them, I will drive you..."

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