“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.”
Most biblical scholars believe David wrote Psalm 51 soon after repenting of his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and his subsequent sins of lying to her husband and then murdering him in order to cover up her pregnancy which resulted from their fornication (2 Samuel 11-12). The psalm itself is beautiful and teaches us a lot about the godly sorrow God wants us to have so that we can truly repent of our sins (cf. 2 Corinthians 7:9-11). Yet, the verse quoted above in the psalm is often misused and misunderstood by many in religious circles who take it as biblical proof that we are all born into this life as sinful creatures due to inheriting the sin of our ancestors, a doctrine commonly known as “original sin.”
David also said, “The entirety of Your word is truth…” (Psalm 119:160a). In other words, one must take into account everything that the Bible says about a particular matter in order to find the truth about it. This is common sense when you think about it, especially when you apply this rule to other areas of your life. When you were hired at your job, you might have gone through a period of orientation in which you were trained and instructed on all of your duties and responsibilities. Perhaps you were given a manual outlining all of your responsibilities. If you ended up deciding to the rules on only one page of the manual, your boss would not be happy with you. He would expect you to take into account everything outlined in the manual, not just one page.
In like manner, God expects us to heed all of what His Word says rather than picking and choosing. To illustrate, this is why we make a mistake if we think that we are saved only by believing in Jesus. This is because while the Bible says that those who believe in Jesus are saved (John 3:16), it also says that those who confess their faith (Romans 10:9-10), repent of their sins (2 Corinthians 7:9-10; Luke 13:3), are baptized (Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21) and live obediently (2 Peter 1:5-11) are saved. One must take into account all of what God’s Word says.
This rule also applies to properly understanding what David was talking about in Psalm 51:5. Elsewhere in Scripture God specifically says that we are not born in a sinful state and do not inherit the sins of our ancestors. Ezekiel taught this truth with several illustrations before ending by expressly stating, “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:1-20). He later told the king of Tyre, “You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created until unrighteousness was found in you” (Ezekiel 28:15), something which would not have been true if the king had inherited the sins of his ancestors when he was created.
If children are inherently sinful, Jesus would not have taught us to become like them in order to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:2-3; 19:14). Likewise, God would not have told Israel that their children have no knowledge of good or evil and would not be put to death for their father’s sins if their children were in fact born evil due to inheriting their father’s sins (Deuteronomy 1:39; 24:16). The Holy Spirit would not have inspired Paul to write that Jacob and Esau had not done anything bad before they were born if in fact they had been conceived in sin (Romans 9:11).
So what did David mean in Psalm 51:5? Remember that the psalms are poetry and poetry is filled with figurative hyperbole not meant to be taken literally, something used quite commonly in the Psalms (cf. 22:9; 58:3, 6). That’s why David was likely using poetic hyperbole to express the deep anguish over his sin with Bathsheba. He wasn’t saying he was born in original sin because the Bible clearly and specifically teaches the opposite.
Remember, always take everything the Bible says about something to find the whole truth.