“In Psalm 51, it appears that David is praying for forgiveness after having committed fornication with Bathsheba (as indicated in the superscription). How then could he have said to God, ‘Against thee, thee only, have I sinned’ (v. 4)?”
The solution to this problem is to be found in the sense in which Israel’s great king is using the language.
There is no question that, in reality, David’s transgression was encompassing in its damage. He had sinned against the woman with whom he committed this act of vileness. He had sinned against Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. He had sinned against his family. He had sinned against his own body (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:18). David had sinned against his men, who had a right to expect fidelity from their leader; similarly, in an even broader sense, he has betrayed the nation he led. These are facts beyond dispute.
However, the king’s confession must be taken in the larger context of his disposition on this occasion. It is a psalm of penitence that is saturated with agony. This broken-hearted man, who once had served the Lord so devoutly as the brave shepherd lad, had horribly violated the law of the God he loved so dearly. It was a crushing moment in his life.
A careful examination of the psalm reveals that it abounds in hyperbole. This is the explanation, for example, of his affirmation that he had been in sin since the time of his conception (v. 5)—a confession that was not true literally. It is, therefore, in this light that the expression “only thee” is to be viewed.
David’s remorse over having disappointed his Creator was so great that the offense, with reference to all others, paled into insignificance. One must ever remember that the psalms are poetry, and considerable literary license is employed therein. Viewed from this vantage point, then, there is no problem with the inspired writer’s language.