When David said he was sinful at birth & from conception in Psalm 51:5, what did he mean?

birth 2 400px“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5NIV).

This verse is part of David’s prayer of confession for his sins (adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah). The prayer demonstrates the parallelism and figurative language of Hebrew poetry. Some of the figures of speech are related to how he wanted his sin to be removed: “blot out”, “wash away” and “cleanse” (v. 1-2); “wash” with hyssop so he is “whiter than snow” (v.7); “hear joy and gladness” (the effect is substituted for the cause), and “let the bones (body) you have crushed rejoice” (v. 8).

In verse 5 he makes the parallel statements, “Surely I was sinful at birth” and “sinful from the time my mother conceived me”. This is an example of hyperbole, where the writer exaggerates to make a point. Hyperbole is used commonly in the Bible to grab our attention and cause us to stop and think about what is being said. In this case it’s a colorful way of saying, “I’ve been sinful all my life” or “I’ve always been a sinner”. As such it is figurative and not literal.

David begins to use hyperbole in this prayer when he says, “my sin is always before me” (v.3). Was it on his mind 24 hours a day? No it wasn’t, but it filled his mind. He continues to use hyperbole in the next verse, “against you (God), you only, have I sinned” (v.4). What about his sin against Bathsheba and Uriah? He leaves them out because these sins were less important that his sin against God. The pattern of hyperbole continues in the next verse, “Surely I was sinful at birth” and “sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (v.5). Had David sinned from the time of his conception? No he hadn’t, but he feels so guilty it’s as if he’s been sinning all his life.

David also has similar thoughts in Psalm 58 where he asked God to punish unjust rulers. He uses hyperbole to describe them:
“Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies” (Ps. 58:3).
This a clearly figurative language because babies don’t spread lies from birth (they can’t communicate using words). In this case it’s a colorful way of saying, “they’ve been sinful all their lives”. Had they gone astray from birth? Of course not. Had they spread lies from birth? Of course not. As such it is figurative and not literal.

There are other figures of speech in the next verse where the unjust leader’s speech is described as “venom”, which is probably a metaphor for slander (v.4). This metaphor is extended to them being like a deaf snake, which implies they are deaf to the voice of God.

It would be wrong to use this Hebrew poetry in Psalms 51 and 58 to develop a theology of when sin starts in a child’s life. That topic isn’t being addressed in these verses.

Does this mean that babies are innocent? No and yes! On one hand they already have a sinful nature which is a characteristic of humanity (Rom. 3:10, 23; Eph. 2:1-3), but on the other hand, they are not yet accountable for their sin (Dt, 1:39; Is. 7:14-14; Jon. 4:11). Sinful behavior comes naturally. No one has to teach a child to lie or be selfish. No one is sinless (1 Jn. 1:7).

So when interpreting a passage in the Bible, we need to be careful to note its genre (is it prose or poetry?) and the occurrence of figures of speech.

Written, February 2015

Also see: If an infant dies, do they go to heaven?

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