Psalm 51:5 is often used to defend the idea that humans are sinners before they are born.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me (Psalm 51:5)
In his commentary on this text, John Calvin wrote that this proves that David was a transgressor before he ever saw the light of the world (Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Psalms v2: 290).
This sort of idea is then used to prove that people are totally depraved, even from conception, not because of what they do but because depravity is part of who we are.
There are, however, several other ways of understanding this statement of David in Psalm 51:5.
Born in Sin = Learn to Sin
First, David could be saying that since he was born as a human, he learned to sin, in the same way that infants and toddlers learn to talk. It is not uncommon for the Biblical authors to speak of being “born into” something in just this way.
For example, Acts 2:8 refers to people who were born into a language, but clearly, they were not born already knowing this language, but had to learn it just like everyone else. If this is how to understand Psalm 51:5, David is saying that since he was born in sin, he learned to sin just like everyone else.
Born in Sin = Born in a Sinful World
Second, it could be argued that what David meant was that he was born into a world of sin. The phrases “in iniquity” and “in sin” would thus be understood as metonymy for “a world full of sin.” Metonymy, where a word or phrase is used in place of a different word or phrase with which it is associated, is frequently used in Scripture, and even in modern everyday speech (e.g., “the White House” is often used to refer to the President of the United States, his staff, and the decisions and policy that come from them).
So in the case of Psalm 51:5, David could be referring to the world of sin in which he was conceived and subsequently born.
Born in Sin = Poetic Exaggeration
Third, we could simply say that Psalm 51:5 is poetic hyperbole. David is, after all, confessing his sin of committing adultery with Bathsheba, and so in the midst of this confession, he my seek to exaggerate his own sinfulness by saying that he has always been sinning, even from conception.
The Psalms are full of such exaggeration, as are the rest of Scriptures. In one place, the Psalmist writes that he drowns his bed with a single tear (Psalm 6:6; the Hebrew word for “tears” is singular), and even Paul writes that he is the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).
Even today, people often use hyperbole in exactly the same way. It is not uncommon to hear a child who misses several problems on a math test to cry out in despair, “I never get any problems right!” In reality, they get most of the problems right most of the time, and in fact, got most of the problems right on that very test. So this is a possible explanation for David’s statement as well.
Born in Sin = David’s Mother Was Accused of Adultery
One final possibility is based on a traditional Jewish reading of Psalm 69.
According to various Jewish historical writings, David’s father and brothers thought that David’s mother, Nizbeth, had committed adultery and borne him out of wedlock (See my post yesterday on David’s Mother Nizbeth for more on this).
They thought David was a bastard (the word “stranger” in Psalm 69:8 has the same Hebrew root as muzar, meaning “bastard”). The truly guilty one was David’s father, Jesse, who, as a result of having Moabite blood (from Ruth) and due to some strange twists of Jewish law, believed that his marriage to Nizbeth was illegitimate and stopped having sexual relations with her to keep her from sinning. Yet he also feared that his seven sons were illegitimate, and so he had sought to gain a legitimate heir for himself by sleeping with his wife’s maidservant (Yes, it sounds strange, but you have to understand Jewish law for it to make sense).
Anyway, Nizbeth’s maidservant loved her mistress dearly, and so switched places with her before Jesse entered her bed, much like Leah and Rachel had switched places so many years before on Jacob’s wedding night. So Jesse ended up sleeping with his wife, even though he thought it was his wife’s servant. Nizbeth became pregnant, but never told her family how she had become pregnant, because she wanted to protect Jesse from public shame. The result, however, was that Jesse, their seven sons, and the entire community came to believe that Nizbeth was an adulterer. The town urged Jesse to stone his wife for adultery, but out of love for her, he refused, and several months later, David was born.
So David grew up in a family in which he was despised, rejected, shunned, and outcast. He was treated with scorn and derision (Psalm 69:7-8). The community followed the example of the family, and assumed that David was full of sin and guilt (Psalm 69:11-12). If something turned up missing, they believed he stole it, and forced him to replace it (Psalm 69:4). He was often the object of jokes and pranks, filling his plate with gall and his cup with vinegar (Psalm 69:20-21).
There are numerous other details to this story, but the point for our purposes here is that this may be what David is referring to in Psalm 51:5. If this Jewish history is true (and we have no good reason to believe otherwise), then almost everybody—including David’s own father and brothers—believed that David was born as a result of adultery, which is why David writes, “I was brought forth in iniquity; and in sin my mother conceived me.”
What does Psalm 51:5 mean?
No matter which of the views above we adopt, the view that is most unlikely is the Calvinistic idea that David is making some sort of theological statement in Psalm 51:5 about the universal total depravity of all humans.
This sort of theologizing was not David’s intention and it does not fit the context of the chapter. There are numerous other explanations for this verse which make much better sense of the verse itself and the context as a whole.If you want to read more about Calvinism, check out other posts in this blog series: Words of Calvinism and the Word of God.
Pal Madden says
B E W A R E !
Jeremy Myers says
Eh…. beware what?
Paul Swilley says
I think what is important here is the fact that David is repenting of his sin and in so doing is confronted with the holiness of God just as Isaiah did when God called him to be the prophet to Israel. I don’t believe it was an overstatement but rather knowing he had sinned against God
Jeremy Myers says
Yes, that is another good point from this chapter. One of the things that made David a man after God’s own heart is NOT that he never sinned, but that when he did, he confessed it to God.
Brian Midmore says
But is Psalm 51.5 absolutely central to the TD argument? There is no doubt that David inheritted the Adamic nature that made adherence to the Law of God impossible (except by God’s grace). Thus if he was born into Adam was he not also (in some sense) the inheritor of Adams sin and sinfulness. Are you just using Ps 51.5 as a man of straw?
Jeremy Myers says
A straw man? No, I am simply offering explanations of texts that most often quoted and referenced by Calvinists when they defend Total Depravity. Psalm 51:5 is one of those Bible verses which Calvinists seem to cite most often.
David’s sin while still inside the womb of his mother is still dormant. In other words he is sin infected. The fallen man-David’s dormant sin has been activated later when he was born already capable to think evil and have actually done evil things.
Just so I understand you better, do you believe in the doctrine of original sin — we’re born imputed with Adam’s sin and inherited his fallen nature?
No, that’s false. The bible does not teach that we are imputed with Adam’s sin. That would be manifestly unjust.
PHILLIPS PHILLIPS says
The Bible says the sin of the parents are not cast on the children .Jesus said to them become like little children. Why would he say that if they are born in sin .Fact babies do not died and go to hell.Why? because they have not sinned but only have the nature to sin at some point in growing up .
Philip writes: “because they have not sinned but only have the nature to sin at some point in growing up”
My Response : David has not actually violated any laws while inside his mother’s womb, but it cannot be denied as one of the fallen man, that he is sin infected. He possess a sinful nature that is still dormant while inside his mother’s womb. You say in your statement that he(David) “have the nature to sin…” and you are correct in saying this.
Stephen Hege says
The jewish history about David appears to be very interesting. It actually correlates quite well with the hebrew rendition of Psalm 51:5, which shows that David’s mother had labour pains when he was born and his mother was biologically and sexually active when he was conceived. After studying the hebrew content of Psalm 51:5 and then reckoning the Jewish history of David mother and her estranged relationship with his father, a person would have to be intentionally deluded and have a carnal mind to claim that David was born with sin, and especially so to claim that he was born with the sin of Adam.
The spirit and soul of every child comes directly from God who is sinless and perfect, so it is impossible for a child to be born with sin.
Jesus was also born of a woman and he did not in any way inherit sin from his mother, He was the perfect sinless and totally innocent lamb of God which took away the sin of the world for all who repent and believe in Him, and are “born again”.
what lol!? Jesus was not born of a regular sexual Relationship which is why he was born without the stain of original sin which comes through a normal sexual Relationship between two spouses.
Stephen Hege writes: The spirit and soul of every child comes directly from God who is sinless and perfect, so it is impossible for a child to be born with sin.”
My Response : I agree to the first part of your statement posted in this thread. In addition to that, I also believe that The spirit and soul are immortal components of man as tripartite being. The soul and spirit leaves the body at the time of death. The spirit comes back to God according to Ecc. 7:12, while the soul is the one being punished in hell or the one that is brought to the custody of Abraham, the Bible calls it as “Abraham’s bosom” – where the soul of Lazarus was brought by the angels.
The soul and spirit is being infused by God to the union of the sperm and fertilized egg during sexual intercourse of man and woman. This is what we call procreation. We are pro-created being not directly created by God. The one produced by man in procreation during sexual intercourse – this is the body-fetus that is formed inside the womb, not ther Spirit and the Soul.
Once the soul and Spirit is infused by God during the process of pro-creation, the soul and Spirit that is sinless becomes contaminated by the sinful virus coming from the parents. The first time we were born in this world is that we are born in the flesh according to Jesus in John chap 3. The flesh is the natural man, the fallen man, the dead in sin- (Eph. 2:1, 2:5, Col. 2:13). All of us come from the first man Adam the fallen man. The product is not a spiritual man, but rather a fallen man also infected with sinful nature. That is why Jesus said , we need to be born again in the spirit. – Man cannot do this by himself for he is spiritually dead. It is the job of the Holy Spirit to enliven the spiritually dead fallen man so that his body, soul and spirit can respond to the gospel call and be able to come back to God.
If your idea is true that it is impossible for a child to be born with sin, – then it contradicts what the Bible says in Romans 3:23, 9:11-13
Rom. 5:12 Therefore just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.
Corrigendum : Ecclesiastes 12:7 is the correct reference in my post above.
corrigendum : The correct reference cited must be Romans 3:10-11 not 9:11-13. Sorry for this.
Really enjoyed this article… Opened up some new possibilities for me in my understanding of this Psalm – thank you for sharing.
neville briggs says
It is perhaps something to notice that in John’s gospel in chapter 9, the Pharisees oppress a man who was healed by Jesus and the Pharisees use the same phrase to jeer at this man as being inferior
” you were born in sin” they say and throw him out.
Perhaps the danger that arises from making a theology from David’s phrase is that some begin to think that they are superior; the elect and separate, like the Pharisees, much more favoured than the evil tainted genetics of those locked into depravity.
Perhaps it is better to put that part of the psalm in the category of minor interest and hold to the major category of theology that the Lord loves us, saves us and accepts us. Whatever we are, we are His.
Calvinists and others add to the Bible when they interpret this verse to arrive at their doctrine of original sin. They add the idea that David said, “all people are conceived in sin”. David only said that HE was conceived in sin! However we interpret this verse we must admit that this verse only tells us about David (or perhaps his son by Bathsheba), not everyone. We are not allowed to take away, nor add to scripture. This verse does not teach that everyone was born in sin, period.
Another helpful discussion on this verse can be found at https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/276-original-sin-and-a-misapplied-passage
where we can see how other passages of the Bible would contradict Psalm 51:5 if it actually taught that David was guilty of sin from conception. There are several valid ways to interpret Psalm 51:5 that do not lead toward a Calvinistic doctrine of “original sin”. A wise interpreter would set this verse aside as too vague and unclear on this particular issue and seek Biblical truth on this subject in the clear passages throughout the Bible that teach that God does not hold children to account for the sins of their parents! (Ezekiel 18:20 and Romans 14:12 for example)
PHILLIPS PHILLIPS says
Calvinism is a wicked lie . Now free will is utter nonsense .Read the book of Job Satan seek to destroy Job faith in God . Satan mention why Job follows God .Note Satan does not say because Job has no free will to choose . Calvinism is dumb and dumber at work . Note God does not say oh Job cannot turn from me because he has no free will to turn .The whole testing of Job or anyone would be worthlessness if Calvinism were true . Calvinist love the lie .
T.S. Petersen says
Thanks for sharing this thoughtful and thought provoking article. I found it on a google search as I was preparing a Sunday School lesson I will be teaching. I appreciate your approach—far too often Christians fight over the meaning of particular scriptures. In doing so, only the adversary wins. I believe we can only discern spiritual truth by the power of the Holy Spirit. In order to receive that guidance an open, teachable mind is required. The beauty and power of scriptural writing is that it often has many layers of truth to be uncovered. I believe this is one such example. You have outlined four plausible alternative (non-Calvinistic) interpretations. Moreover, the four you present are not mutually exclusive. I am in complete agreement that Calvin’s interpretation seems the least plausible.