Question: "What did David mean when he asked God to "restore to me the joy of your salvation" (Psalm 51:12)?"
Answer: There was a time when King David asked God to restore to him the joy of his salvation. That time came after the incident recorded in 2 Samuel 11 of David committing adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his loyal soldiers. The sordid story involves not only adultery but Bathsheba’s pregnancy, an attempted cover-up, and David’s eventual murder of Bathsheba’s husband. David then marries Bathsheba and believes that no one will ever know of his misdeeds. But the last part of verse 27 contains this ominous declaration: “But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.”
In 2 Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan confronts David with his sin, and David confesses (verse 14).
Psalm 51 is a song that David penned after this confrontation as noted in the title: “For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.”
Psalm 51 is a prayer of forgiveness and cleansing. Verses 1–9:
“Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.”
Verses 10–12 are perhaps the most famous of Psalm 51:
“Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.”
In verse 11 David asks that the Holy Spirit not be removed from him. In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit usually came upon a person to enable the performance of a certain task. If the Holy Spirit were removed from David, it would mean that he would be rejected by God as king in the same way that God had rejected Saul and removed His Spirit from him (1 Samuel 16:14).
Next, David asks God to restore the joy of his salvation. The time between David’s sin and Nathan’s confrontation was some months because the child had already been born. During that time, David suffered inner torment, as he describes in Psalm 32:3–4:
“When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.”
Despite all the steps David had taken to suppress the news of what he had done, he did not experience joy in the cover-up. However, once he confessed his sin to God, he received forgiveness, and his joy returned. Psalm 32 begins this way:
“Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit.”
Psalm 32 ends with “Rejoice in the LORD and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart!” (verse 11).
When David pleads with God to “restore to me the joy of your salvation,” he is asking that he would again have the fellowship with God that he once knew and enjoyed. David could not enjoy God’s fellowship while he had unconfessed sin.
Even today, we can lose the joy of our salvation. We will not lose salvation—sin will not separate the believer from God—but it can rob us of joy and the enjoyment of close fellowship with our Savior.