Understanding Psalm 51
There is within certain denominational camps a serious misunderstanding of this beautiful Psalm of David. This error is seemingly becoming the predominant understanding of the passage to the detriment of the Church.
Often such misunderstandings are the result of presuppositions and focusing on a specific verse while ignoring the immediate context of the chapter, the broader context of the event, as well as the grammar and word choice being used – all compounded as various translations push different narratives based on their theological leanings.
This edition of Idol Killer may make some uncomfortable, as it will likely challenge your understanding of the passage. As always, we ask that you consider the matter with an open mind as we present it, then study these things yourself and draw your own conclusions.
In 2 Samuel 11 we find David has committed adultery with Bathsheba, conceived a child with her and sent her husband Uriah the Hittite to the front lines - in order to guarantee his death, all in an effort to hide his sin. This is no small matter for the Lord’s anointed King of Israel.
God was well aware of David’s sins and in Chapter 12 He sent the Prophet Nathan to confront him. Nathan tells a parable of two men; one poor, the other rich. The rich man had many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little lamb. He loved this little lamb and it grew up with him and his children. However, one day the rich man had a guest arrive and wanting to entertain him, he stole the poor man’s lamb, killed it and served it to his guest.
Upon hearing this David became enraged and told Nathan “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity!”
Nathan responded to him, revealing that David was this man and confronts him for his sins. Worse yet, as a result of David’s sins God tells him that out of his own house will rise up adversity against him and all that he has done will be exposed.
David immediately confesses his sin and Nathan tells him God has forgiven him, but there will be tragic consequences for his actions. Most heartbreaking of all, the child he conceived with Bathsheba will not survive.
Just as Nathan had said, it came to pass. The child became sick and David, knowing what Nathan said would happen began petitioning God. He fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground, prostrating himself before the Lord. Those who saw him, tried to help him up but he refused to rise or eat and drink.
This is where we find the setting of Psalm 51. A broken hearted David is pleading for the life of his sick child whom he has been told would die.
This chapter begins by informing us that this occurs after David was confronted by Nathan for his sins with Bathsheba and has David immediately pleading for mercy.
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” Psalm 51:1-3
David begins with confession, admitting all that he had done and petitioning God to forgive him and show mercy. There is no attempt to hide his transgressions from God, he is utterly broken hearted.
As he continues, it is here where we often encounter error – misunderstanding what exactly David is saying. This misunderstanding has been used to develop and support doctrines which undermine the incarnation of Christ and man’s ability to repent. So, it is here where we will focus in great detail on exactly what David is saying and why.
Psalm 51:5 Examined
In a previous article, we considered a Biblical Understanding of Sin, the various terms used to describe it, their meaning and usage. In none of them do we find that sin is a substance, but rather it is the absence of God, an offense to Him, rebellion; an act contrary to His good nature.
It was the Gnostics, an ancient cult opposed to Christianity, which viewed the material world as evil – not Christianity or Judaism. However, today many have come to view this passage through a Gnostic understanding – that David is confessing he was created full of sin and iniquity, that sin is a substance. So let’s consider the passage together and see what David actually said.
“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Psalm 51:5 ESV
“Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Psalm 51:5 KJV
“הֵן־בְּעָוֹון חֹולָלְתִּי וּבְחֵטְא יֶֽחֱמַתְנִי אִמִּֽי׃”
The term יֶֽחֱמַ֥תְנִי often translated as “conceived” is a Hebrew word never used in Scripture to define human copulation apart from this one instance. Rather, it is used to describe the sexual impulses of animals in heat. Genesis 30:38, 39, 41, 31:10
Translated as “and in sin” this word וּ֝בְחֵ֗טְא is associated with the shame and guilt one experiences from committing sin.
Commonly translated as “brought forth” חוֹלָ֑לְתִּי is the pain of childbirth, being born.
Most often translated as “iniquity” בְּעָו֥וֹן is a Hebrew term meaning punishment or consequence of sin, sowing and reaping.
With this in mind, what David is saying is this:
“Know this, my mother conceived me in sinful passion (like an animal in heat), and gave birth to me in pain and shame.” Psalm 51:5
David speaks of the sin his mother committed which led to her becoming pregnant, as no one has conceived themselves or brought themselves into being. The grammar is absolutely clear, it was she who sinned.
Additionally, as we reflect back on Genesis 3 we will remember that painful childbirth is listed among the consequences for Adam’s transgression. David tells us that he was born in pain, to the shame of his mother.
David is petitioning God to heal and spare his son who was conceived in the sinful act of adultery. He is reminding God that he himself was the result of a sinful copulation and that God spared him.
David a Product of Adultery?
Typically at this point such a question will be asked, “Does this mean David was a product of adultery?” For which we answer a resounding “No.” All Psalm 51:5 tells us is that David was the result of sin, not which sin. Though, Scripture and Jewish history do reveal a possible more detailed answer.
Idol Killer will examine the Jewish traditions regarding David’s parents in a later article dedicated specifically to that topic. However, we wanted to take a moment and set the record straight here so as not to leave this question unanswered.
“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” Psalm 51:7
Roughly five hundred years before David became King, God sent the angel of death throughout Egypt to take the firstborn sons – only those who had dipped hyssop into the blood of the lamb and placed it about their doorposts were spared. This dipping was a type of baptism, foreshadowing the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ.
In a previous article we addressed the topic of Baptism and how it is a petition to God for a clean conscience. That is precisely what we see David doing in this verse… repenting, asking for forgiveness and redemption.
“Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:9-10
David does not ask God to forgive his inherited sin and guilt, but rather is asking God to forgive his adultery and murder. Moreover, he is not asking God to give him a clean spirit – but to renew a right spirit once more within him.
In the following verses he asks God not to cast him away or take His Holy Spirit from him. He vows to teach those who transgress against God the ways of God so that sinners will return to Him – for sin is a departure from God, not a natural state of man.
“Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Psalm 51:14-17
Consequences for Sin
Returning back to 2 Samuel 12 in verse 18 we see that David and Bathsheba’s son died. However, rather than continuing on in heartbreak and pleading with God, David does something quite remarkable. Upon learning of the death of his infant son he rises, washed, anointed himself and changed his clothes. He then went and ate.
His servants marveled over this and asked him why he would weep and pleas for God to spare his son, refusing to rise or eat but then do just that once his son had died. To which David informs them:
“While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” 2 Samuel 12:22-23
So we see that David viewed his son as innocent of sin and now having passed away he believed him to be with the Lord. Knowing this, David endeavored to be faithful to God and in doing so be reunited with his son in the Kingdom.
Although Psalm 51:5 is often cited as evidence for the teachings of Original Sin and Total Depravity, a careful examination of the text reveals this not to be the case. Rather, the tragic event serves as evidence that the innocent can often suffer as a byproduct for the sins of others while remaining innocent, having committed no sin.