The Scriptural View on When Human Life Begins // Bible Study

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A Brief Study on Psalm 51:5

The Background of the Verse

  • The title: A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba. (This incident is recorded in 2 Samuel 12:1-14.)
  • A penitential psalm,
    vv. 1-3 David pleads for forgiveness because of the Lord’s unfailing love and great compassion.
    vv. 4-5 David acknowledges his sins, that they are a transgression of the Lord’ holy will, and that the Lord has every right to label him a sinner deserving of the Lord’s condemnation and punishment.
  • So the focus of this psalm is on David’s sins and his confident pleading that the Lord will forgive them.

The Verse Itself

  • Surely I was sinful at birth [literally, Behold, in iniquity I was writhed out.]
    • The word, “surely,” means to call our attention to a special point. It has the purpose of furthering what David asserted at the end of the previous verse, that God has every right to label him a sinner. We could get at the sense of this word by paraphrasing it in English as, “If you want to get to the real fact of the matter.” In other words, verse 5 is a further and more compelling truth than David set forth in v.4-5a.
    • When the NIV reads, “I was sinful at birth,” it really is paraphrasing the Hebrew which is very hard to translate directly into English. In the Hebrew David is the subject of a verb that describes his mother writhing in labor pains. There is not, of course, any English verb like “writhed out,” but with this made-up verb, I was trying to show what the Hebrew is saying.
    • The word I translated “iniquity” here means sin in the aspect of something that incurs guilt and demands punishment. In the Hebrew, it is not clear from the sentence whether the guilt is that of David or of his mother. The NIV’s translation solves the problem for us by paraphrasing in such a way that it is clear that David is referring to his own sin. We can agree with this understanding. David is not describing something sinful about the way his mother gave birth to him. Throughout the psalm, he is speaking of his own sin. Yet the way David describes his birth, focusing on his mother writhing in pain as she gave birth to him, reminds us of the painful consequences of sin that the Lord revealed to Eve in Genesis 3:16: “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children.” The writing of David’s mother reminds him that she was sinful and that she passed this sinful human nature on to him as well.
  • Sinful from the time my mother conceived me. [literally, in sin my mother went into heat for me.]
    • Now David uses a different word for sin. It means to miss the mark, to be off target. It is the general, most common Hebrew word for sin.
    • If we thought that David was less than dignified when he described his mother as writing in pain when she gave birth to him, the verb he uses here is downright crass. David’s choice of words is not the usual word used in the Bible for becoming pregnant. This word actually means to become hot, and is almost identical to our phrase, “to come into heat.” We use this phrase to describe the reproductive cycle of female animals. And the Bible does the same. This is a rare word in Biblical Hebrew. It is only used five times. All the other times are in Genesis 30-31 where the subjects are Jacob’s sheep conceiving offspring. Here is the only place that the word is used of a human being, and it can hardly be meant to be complimentary. Instead of the focus being on intercourse as a thoughtful act of human love which results in a child’s amazing conception, it is debased to mere animal sex drive. It almost reduces that act by which David’s mother became pregnant to a pornographic, thoughtless act of sex for sex’ sake. This is not a pretty picture. David hardly could have made his point that he is a sinful man born of sinful parents any more vividly.
    • This psalm, like all the psalms, is Hebrew poetry. The chief characteristic of such poetry is a mechanism called parallelism. This means that in each verse, or perhaps in two verses together, two sentences stand in a parallel agreement to each other. Often the structure of each sentence is the same as its parallel. You can see this is our verse. There are three types of parallelism identified by scholars of the Old Testament:

      Antithetical [the two clauses say opposite things]
      The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom
      But fools despise wisdom and discipline

      Proverbs 1:7

      Synonymous [the two clauses say the same thing, usually in different words]
      Wash away all my iniquity
      And cleanse me from my sin

      Psalm 51:2

      Progressive [the second clause completes the thought of the first]
      The righteous will see and fear;
      They will laugh at him, saying,

      Psalm 52:6

      The question is which type of parallelism do we have here? Obviously, it is not antithetical. But are the two clauses just saying the same thing, or is David adding to and completing his thought with the second clause. If we say that the clauses are saying the same thing in different words, David is saying that conception and birth are all part of one great nine-month event. Whether you mention birth or conception makes no difference. They are just looking at the beginning or the end of the same thing. We could understand David that way. At the same time, we can understand this verse as expressing progressive parallelism. When David mentions conception, he is adding to and making his thought more complete than it was before. Do you think it makes an important difference in our understanding of the verse?

    • The last thing we wish to look at in this verse is the arrangement of the verse. It seems a little strange. Why would David speak of his birth in the first clause and then his conception in the second? According to the natural order of things, it ought to be the other way around. However, David seems to be telling us something with this order. The place where he is standing as he writes the psalm is at the point of confessing his great sins of adultery and murder. He is saying that the Lord is absolutely right to label him a sinner. These greatly sinful acts prove it. But, in fact, his sinfulness goes far deeper than just outward acts that break God’s holy will. His holy being is racked with sin. He is sinful by nature, and as such in under God’s judgment and is what Paul calls “an object of [God’s] wrath,” (see Ephesians 2:3). Now David is saying that this has been the case from the very beginning of his existence. When was that? David looks back. The first milestone of his early existence he comes to going backward from where he is at is his birth. But he says that he can go back farther yet. He can go all the way back to his conception, the very time when he came into being as an individual separate from his mother and father. That was the time of his conception. David seems to be completing his thought with the final clause, going back as far as he possibly can go. At that time already he was a human being, answerable to God for his sinfulness and in need of the Lord’s unfailing love and compassion.

Truths to be Derived from the Verse

  • This passage is used in teaching the doctrine of original sin. In the Smalcald Articles, Luther describes original sin as “that sin [which] had its origin in one man, Adam, through whose disobedience all men were made sinners and became subject to death and the devil.” Luther quotes this passage to back up his statement, “This hereditary sin is so deep a corruption of nature that reason cannot understand it. It must be believed because of the revelation in the Scriptures.” (Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article I)
  • If David’s guilt before God began at conception that is the time when he became an individual human being. A person’s existence begins at conception.
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