In his classic work, Sha’arei Teshuva (1:50), Rabbenu Yona refers to Psalm 51 as “Mizmor ha-Teshuva—The Song of Repentance.” Elsewhere, he depicts this psalm as crucial for teaching the essential lessons of repentance, “yesod mosad le-ikkarei ha-teshuva—a firm foundation for the principles of repentance” (1:23).
Indeed, Psalm 51 is one of the few chapters of Tehillim that begins with an explicit setting, “For the conductor a song by David when Nathan the prophet came to him, when he came to Batsheva,” placing the psalm squarely in the context of one of the most troubling incidents in the life of King David. When confronted by the sharp, stinging criticism of the prophet Nathan, David states simply, “I have sinned against the Lord” and Nathan replies, “the Lord has put away your sin, you shall not die” (I Samuel 12:13).
It is well known that the narrative of King David’s life in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles records events with little elaboration or analysis of feeling or emotion. In contrast, David’s Psalms are replete with expressions of sentiment, of pain and suffering, as well as of joy and exhilaration. For a three-dimensional, in-depth portrait of King David, one must study the accounts in Nakh in tandem with Tehillim.
Pointing out that, in the Masoretic text of II Samuel 12:13, following the words “I have sinned against the Lord,” there is a blank space, Rabbi Elijah Gaon of Vilna commented that, at that time, King David was so overwhelmed by feelings of contrition that he was unable to say anything at all beyond the admission, “I have sinned.” In a sense, then, this psalm fills in the blank space and constitutes the missing part of II Samuel 12—the articulation of the profound soul-searching of King David.
Giving voice to the stages one traverses on the long road to repentance, Psalm 51 movingly conveys the agony of recognition of wrongdoing and error, “my sin is before me always” (v. 5), the need to be cleansed and purified (vv. 4, 9) and, as it were, recreated (v. 12). That acceptance of the penitent is a grace granted by God alone for which constant supplication and prayer is befitting is a central motif. King David notes that mere sacrifice does not suffice: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a heart broken and humbled, O God, You will not despise” (vv. 18-19).
However, following this, the psalm concludes on a different note: “Do good in Your favor unto Zion, build the walls of Jerusalem. Then You will desire the sacrifices of righteousness, burnt-offering and whole-offering; then will bullocks go up upon Your altar” (vv. 20–21).
Many non-traditional scholars find these final remarks a puzzling and even incongruous conclusion. They underscore the somewhat contradictory references to sacrifices and claim that the closing comments are anticlimactic following as they do a verse extolling “a heart broken and humbled.” Accordingly, they are led to suggest that these two verses are an epilogue added by a later editor. Even the traditional commentator Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra cites the view of one of the “sages of Spain” that these two verses were added by a pious individual who lived in Babylon when the latter was reciting this psalm in prayer to the Almighty. Ibn Ezra suggests that the Spanish scholar made this observation because only when King David was aged was Zion recognized as the chosen place for prayer and sacrifice. Ibn Ezra himself, however, adds that one need not take account of this consideration, for it is quite correct to assume that King David was inspired by the Holy Spirit when he composed these prophetic words. Radak offers a different approach to the question of the seemingly anomalous conclusion of the psalm. He observes that King David prays that his contrition be acceptable before God and that God not abandon him and remove His Holy Spirit from him: “And Your Holy Spirit take not from me” (v. 13). The concluding verses demonstrate, states Radak, that even while King David was yet engaged in uttering this prayer he was answered by the Almighty, vouchsafed a prophetic vision, and assured that after the destruction of the First and Second Temples, in the days of the Messiah, our sacrifices would again be acceptable to the Lord.
Perhaps, however, one may offer an alternative resolution to the question of the choice of these sentences as the finale of the psalm. As noted, the psalm delineates many of the aspects of the teshuva process. R. Yosef Albo, in his Sefer ha-Ikkarim (IV:26), notes that the teachings of Psalm 51 correspond to the fundamental elements of repentance as depicted by Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuva (chap. 2), namely, leaving sin, regret for the past, verbal confession in the present, and resolution for correct conduct in the future. There is another teaching regarding repentance emphasized by Rambam: “All the prophets, all of them, commanded regarding teshuva and Israel will only be redeemed by teshuva. And the Torah has promised that ultimately Israel will repent at the end of the exile and immediately they will be redeemed” (Hilkhot Teshuva 7:5). When each of the individuals who collectively constitute Knesset Yisrael will engage in introspection and be spurred to whole-hearted repentance, society will be transformed and we will merit redemption.
In this psalm, King David reinforces the various lessons of teshuva and the manner in which we should engage in the repentance process with contrition, sincerity, and humbled hearts. Then, he concludes, will the final teaching of teshuva also become a manifest reality: “Do good in Your favor unto Zion, build the walls of Jerusalem.
Judith Bleich is a professor of Jewish studies at Touro College and a longtime member of TRADITION’s editorial board.