September 17, 1998

Guestbook Question About Psalm 51

guestbook message: hello! i have a question regarding psalm 51. i very much like this psalm, very much so, but i am a bit curious about verse 20­21. “Be bountiful, O Lord, to Zion in your kindness by rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem; Then you shall be pleased with due sacrifices, burnt offerings and holocausts; then shall they offer up bullocks on your altar.” why? [maybe it’s an obvious answer, but i ain’t getting it.] okay, back to my reading.

By why, I presume you wonder why King David, to whom this Psalm is attributed, would pray for the walls of Jerusalem to be rebuilt before they had been torn down for the first time (by the Babylonians).This is an anachronism, or what appears to be a mistake of timing (although it isn’t).

By the way, different translations of the Bible assign verses and chapters a bit differently. Don’t be surprised to find these as 18 and 19 in the KJV.

The King James Version has “build the walls of Jerusalem,” rather than “rebuild.” The Revised Standard Version and the New American (Catholic) Bible have “rebuild.” It could be an error in translation, but notice that these verses don’t really fit very well with the theme of the psalm (at first). It appears to be a gloss, or added text, but it is apparently quite old since it is in several Bible translations. The notes in my NAB say these verses were probably added after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 52, 587 B.C.). This would make sense.

We believe that the Scriptures are the inspired Word of God, but we are not required to believe that David wrote all of Psalm 51. At least this is not a Catholic teaching (that David wrote it). We do believe all of Psalm 51 is the Word of God, regardless of when or by whom it was written.

Anyway, picture the person that added these verses during or after the Babylonian captivity. They may have seen the parallel between the sin of David (adultery) and the sin of Israel (idolatry). In fact, these two sins were often mentioned together, with adultery as a metaphor for idolatry. In this case, it appears that the writer/editor/redactor saw the sin of David and his repentance as an allegory for the sin and repentance of Israel.

Sometimes, Scripture has its own commentary attached. This is a little like the meditations we get where there is a reading and then a short meditation based on our current situation.

I’m not a Scripture scholar, but that is how it looks to me. This is one of my favorites, too.

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