Further research on the “holy spirit” in Psalm 51:11 reveals that the first English Bibles, Wycliffe, Coverdale, Great, Bishops did not capitalize “holy spirit.” However, the Geneva Bible 1560, and KJV 1611 have “holy Spirit” in verse 11 as well as “free Spirit” in verse 12.
In the 1769 edition of the KJV the capitalization was removed from “spirit” and the expression has remained without capitals in the KJV proper until today. However, in the 1873 Cambridge edition of the KJV, the American Standard Version 1901, the RSV 1952 and the NKJV, the capitalization has returned.
The first English Bible which I could find to capitalize both words as “Holy Spirit” was the Young’s Literal Translation
Among more recent Bibles, the NEB, JB, NEB and NRSV do not use capitals for either word, and the NASB, (T)NIV, ESV, CEV, NLT and HCSB capitalize both words.
In French the Louis Segond 1910, has “ton esprit saint” which is distinctly different from “Le Saint Esprit,” the name of the Holy Spirit in Luke 1:35. However, la Bible du Semeur, 1999, has made the two correspond as “l’Esprit Saint”.
Another tradition preserved the phrase “spirit of holiness” as in the Darby translation 1890.. The equivalent for this appears in the Elberfelder translation, 1871, “den Geist deiner Heiligkeit” and in the David Martin translation, 1744, “l’Esprit de Ta Sainteté.” Today in English only the NLT offers the variation “your spirit of holiness” as a footnote.
Although exegesis and theological thinking is supposed to come from the original languages, it is virtually impossible not to be influenced by the version which one meets in one’s own language first. Therefore, we see several distinct lines of interpretation for this verse. Psalm 51:11 can be used to illustrate the representation of the third person of the trinity in the Hebrew scriptures, or to teach that God can remove His indwelling Holy Spirit from an individual,
- Psalm51 says, “Take not Your Holy Spirit from me.” The Holy Spirit is the third person in the Triune God. The Holy Spirit is the sole giver of God-pleasing spiritual life. “No one can say that Jesus is Lord but by the Holy Spirit.” The psalm makes it pretty clear that the Holy Spirit can be taken from you and me.
The other interpretation leads to commentary such as that of Herman Bavinck (1854-1921)
- He gives the spirit of prophecy to the prophets,4 and renewal and sanctification and guidance to all of God’s children (Ps. 51:12-13 and 143:10).
and from Whitten, 2004, page 186,
- This is the plea by David for God to restore the condition of sanctification to his spirit.
Since there are no capital letters in Hebrew, one cannot say with certainty that “holy spirit” should appear in English capitalized or not. However, if the addition of capitals is going to cause people to fall into error and then preach that error from the pulpit, I feel that the publishers have a responsibility to add a footnote or reconsider the use of capital letters in this passage and others.