Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me (Psalm 51:5).
Few verses have engendered more controversy than Psalm 51:5. People argue about its meaning. Translations of the Bible are frequently judged by how they render the verse in English.
Psalm 51:5 is “ground zero” for discussions regarding “original sin” and “total depravity.” When taken out of context, the text certainly seems to lend credence to the suggestion that everyone is sinful from birth. Such a suggestion, however, does not sit well with many other passages in Scripture. In order to make sense of the verse in light of these other passages, many seek to blunt its force, suggesting it does not really mean what it seems to mean. The controversy has raged for 1500 years; it will likely continue until the Lord returns.
Such controversy is lamentable and certainly was not David’s intent when writing Psalm 51. If we wish to come to a good understanding of the verse, we do well to consider what David is writing and why he does so.
The psalm’s inscription points the way. We are told in 1 Samuel 13:14 that David is a man after God’s own heart, and most of the time he exemplifies trust in God. Yet in 2 Samuel 11:1-27 we learn of David’s heinous sins with Bathsheba the wife of Uriah the Hittite: he lusts for her, lays with her, attempts to set up a situation by which Uriah will think the child is his, and, failing that, conspires to have Uriah die in battle. When it is accomplished, he takes Bathsheba as wife. He may have been able to deceive his fellow Israelites, but he could not deceive God. God sends Nathan the prophet to David to expose his sins of lust, adultery, deceit, and murder, and David confesses his sin (2 Samuel 12:1-14). Nathan then pronounces God’s judgment: David will not die, but the child of the union will; David will experience trials, tribulation, and upheaval within his family. Most of the rest of 2 Samuel describes how these difficulties came about (2 Samuel 12:15-23, 13:1-20:26).
According to the inscription of Psalm 51, often made part of Psalm 51:1, David wrote Psalm 51 immediately after Nathan made evident his sin to him. The message of the psalm perfectly fits this context: it represents a penitent heart begging for God’s mercy and forgiveness. David has been forced to come face-to-face with his sin and the enormity of the wrong which he has done, and through the psalm he expresses not just the intellectual and rational understanding of the problem but the raw emotions and pain as well. Throughout Psalm 51 David does not merely recognize his sin: he experiences a range of emotions on account of his sin and turns to God wholeheartedly.
It is worth noting how we humans tend to get rather hyperbolic at emotionally charged moments in our lives. We tend to think and talk in extremes if we are quite happy or sad, suffering or relieved, relaxed or frustrated. We talk in terms of “always,” “never,” “forever,” and the like, even though we know intellectually that such language is extreme.
So it is with David in Psalm 51. When confronted with his sin and its terrible consequences, David feels extreme anguish and pain, a pain so real that we can feel it through the psalm. At such a time, when he considers himself, it would be quite easy to get a bit hyperbolic and go to extremes. He saw his sin for what it was, and because of it, he felt as if he was brought forth in iniquity. He felt as if he was even conceived in sin!
Feelings do not necessarily correspond with reality; just because David felt that he was sinful from birth and conceived in iniquity does not make it true in fact. With more sober thinking Ezekiel makes it clear that parents and children do not suffer for the sins of others but for their own sin alone (Ezekiel 18:1-24). Jesus will consider small children as representative of those in the Kingdom of God and will go so far as to declare that the Kingdom belongs to them (Matthew 18:1-4, 19:14, Mark 9:33-37). Such declarations are not consistent with the idea that children actually inherit sin and are in danger of hellfire the moment they leave the womb (or perhaps even earlier!). We must remember that David is writing poetry and expressing the great anguish and pain he is experiencing on account of his sin. He expresses that anguish with hyperbole, and it remains inspired by the Holy Spirit to give voice to others who will come afterward who will feel and experience similar anguish. But the statement is not true in fact, any more than we should believe that God was asleep because the sons of Korah demanded He wake up from sleep in Psalm 44:23. These are figures of speech expressing powerful emotion, and while the emotion is quite real, its expression should not be taken in such a way as to contradict what is known about God and His truth as revealed in the Scriptures. We do well to remember that the sum of God’s word is truth (Psalm 119:160).
Nevertheless, while the statement that David was brought forth in iniquity and conceived in sin is hyperbole and not true in fact, we do not do well if we try to minimize or lessen the emotional expression behind the statement. David said what he did because he was confronted with the magnitude, horror, and terror of his sin and its consequences. He felt it so acutely and thoroughly that he felt as if he was sinful from the very beginning. That is a very real experience of the depth of the problem of sin; have we ever gone through a period of time like David did? Just because we did not actively sin as children does not mean that we have escaped from the snares of sin; we stand as guilty before God of sin as David did. When confronted with his sin, David experienced great and terrible anguish, felt the problem of sin to the extreme, and in so doing turned back to God in full repentance. What would have happened if David attempted to blunt the force of his sin problem, seeking to rationalize or justify what he had done? What if he did not fully experience the anguish of feeling separated from God and in danger of losing the most precious relationship he had? Would he have expressed true contrition? Would he have remained a man after God’s own heart?
David was not, in reality, brought forth in iniquity, or conceived in sin. But he had sinned, and he felt as if he had been. He remained a man after God’s own heart, recognizing the difficulties and misery of sin not just intellectually but emotionally and viscerally as well. In so doing he gives us a voice when we are confronted with our sin and its serious consequences. Have we ever felt anything like what David felt? Are we willing to come to grips with the true depth of our sin problem and its terrible consequences, and endure that pain not just intellectually but emotionally as well, so that we can fully turn to God with a penitent and repentant heart and receive forgiveness? Let us, like David, be people after God’s own heart, recognize our sin problem, repent of it, and find salvation in God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry