Proponents of original sin really like to use this psalm to support the contention that all humanity is sinful (that is: full of sin, guilty) from birth. The key verse is verse 5:
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,Psalm 51.5
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Proponents of original sin take this psalm to be a commentary on the nature of mankind. For example, Calvin says of this verse that David acknowledges that even within the womb “his nature was entirely depraved” and he “was absolutely destitute of all spiritual good.” (You can read Calvin’s commentary on the entire psalm here.) Indeed, Calvin taught elsewhere that all infants (including David) are “odious and abominable to God” by virtue of their inborn sinful nature.
Is that what David is saying? Is David teaching on the sinful nature of mankind in this psalm? My contention is this: although David could be making this point, it’s far more likely that he is instead using poetic language to reflect on his own sinful state.
Psalms are poetry, and you might think I shouldn’t have to say that. Sometimes, though, in our attempts to defend a particular theological position, we treat a psalm as though it’s a “just the facts, ma’am” police report. Of course, psalms are just as inspired as the rest of the Bible, yet we must be thoughtful how we interpret them. As a poem, a psalm does more than just lay out the bare facts of a matter, and it’s different than pure didactic prose. It contains vivid imagery, metaphor, hyperbole, and other poetic devices intended to invite the reader to share in the experiences and emotions of the poet. The psalms communicate truth, and our interpretations must keep the genre of the text in mind in order to discover that truth.
Let’s look at some examples of David’s use of poetry in this psalm, starting with verse 4:
Against you, you only, have I sinnedPsalm 51.4
and done what is evil in your sight.
Is David teaching us that his sin was not against others as well as God? I think we would all agree that he sinned against Uriah, his own army, his family, and Bathsheba herself. The text says that David “despised the word of the LORD” (2 Samuel 12.9) and “utterly scorned the LORD” (verse 14), but it’s factually untrue that David did not sin against others, and David is not intending to teach us this.
So what’s the point of verse 4? Here I agree with Calvin, that “though all the world should pardon him, he felt that God was the Judge with whom he had to do.” It’s not that he didn’t sin against others; it was that his sin against God outweighed those other considerations. David is using hyperbole to make this point.
Here is verse 6:
Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,Psalm 51.6
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
In the first half of this verse, David is not claiming that what God really wants is for David’s internal organs to possess truth, and I think we all know that. David is using metaphor to show how God wants us to really and profoundly know his truth. In the second half of the verse, you may be surprised to learn that the word for “heart” is not in the text; it’s implied by the word “secret” and supplied by the English translator of the ESV. That doesn’t make it a bad translation, of course; in fact, it reinforces my point that the psalm uses metaphor. The English translator knows that in the English-speaking world, we metaphorically think of the heart as the center of our being, even though physiologically we know it serves merely to pump blood through the system. (Fun fact: in the world of David, the kidney is often used in the same way we use heart. For example, in Psalm 16.7, David literally says, “in the night also my kidneys instruct me.”)
Let’s move on to verse 7:
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;Psalm 51.7
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Hyssop was used a variety of ways in the Old Testament law; one use was to symbolically purify a leprous person (for example, Leviticus 14.7). We can imagine David thinking of that ritual as he considered his own sin and his desire that God would “pronounce him clean,” as in this passage from Leviticus. No Israelite, including David, believed that hyssop itself had power to cleanse a person from sin. David is using the imagery from the Law in true poetic fashion; he’s not teaching that hyssop cleanses us from moral guilt.
Let me repeat that the use of metaphor, hyperbole, and other poetic devices doesn’t make the psalm somehow not true or not inspired. All it means is that we must consider these poetic elements as we interpret the text.
Before we do that, though, let’s consider some other poetry from David.
Poetic devices in other psalms
Here are some lines from a well-known psalm of David:
Yet you are he who took me from the womb;Psalm 22.9-10
you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.
On you was I cast from my birth,
and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
This is another psalm, like Psalm 51, where David describes his condition at birth. According to Psalm 22, David trusted in God as a newborn (or perhaps even a fetus, depending on how you interpret “from my mother’s womb”). But when we remember that this is poetry, we realize David is not teaching here that God acted as midwife or that fetuses can have a relationship with God; instead, he’s using poetic language to describe God’s faithfulness and pursuit of him, as well as his own lifelong faithfulness to God.
What David is saying
Now, back to Psalm 51: verse 4 uses hyperbole, and verses 6 and 7 use metaphor and imagery. Indeed, the whole psalm is full of this kind of language, as we would expect from a poem: washing sin away in verse 2, broken bones in verse 8, a clean heart in verse 10, being cast away in verse 11, etc. It makes no sense to assume that David interrupts the poetry in verse 5 to provide a literal, non-hyperbolic, non-metaphorical statement on the ontology of humanity.
So just what is David trying to communicate in verse 5? He does seem to tell us that “he was a transgressor ere he saw the light of this world,” as Calvin puts it. But I see no reason why we must take this assessment literally, instead of poetically as we do the rest of the psalm. As David looked at his own sin with Bathsheba, and then his continuing actions to cover it up, he expressed his conviction in an exaggerated way to communicate the depth and sincerity of his response.
You and I do the same things. We hear others say (or perhaps we say it ourselves), “I never do anything right,” when failing at something. That’s just one example from our own lives, and the Bible is full of hyperbole like this. Examples from the Psalms are Ps 6.6, Ps 42.3, Ps 78.27, and Ps 107.26. Examples from Jesus include Mt 5.29, Mt 13.32, and Lk 10.4. Even Paul gets into the act in 1 Tim 1.15 and Eph 3.8.
Let’s treat poetic statements — in the Psalms and everywhere else — as they should be treated. Psalm 51.5 is one such statement, and it’s more reasonable to treat it as poetry than to take it literally.