Earlier today I received a text message from a friend of mine who had a question about something that David had said in Psalm 51:5, which says: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” It is easy to see why this verse would prompt questions, and it is possible that a great many things are true about this verse, although it must be admitted at the outset that this verse does not talk about something that can be corroborated in other verses. This reference to being born in sin is not tied to any story outside of the one that it happens to be part of, namely David’s remorse after having been exposed for his taking advantage of Bathsheba. And that story gives us enough context to start with.
So, how do we take David’s statement about being brought forth in iniquity and conceived in sin. The most obvious context for this is the fact that David knew that he had conceived a son (who later died) in sin and brought forth that child in iniquity. Our best clue to understanding what David meant about the circumstances of his own birth is the way that he responded to the birth of the child that Bathsheba bore thanks to their own union. For as much as the deed must be abhorred, David’s reply to the bad beginning he had with Bathsheba was something that he responded to in very notable fashion. He fasted and begged God to save the life of the innocent child that had been conceived as a result of his sin, even though that son did not live long enough to be named. The next son from Bathsheba that was born, Solomon, was named as his heir and raised to take over Israel. And the next son that Bathsheba bore after that was named after Nathan the prophet, who had exposed David and brought his sin to light in the first place, all of which is striking and remarkable and rather unusual. Few people are so charitable with the people whom they have wronged, and it leads one to wonder what is that David saw in his own experience that prompted him to such repentance, even if it could not undo the consequences of his sin.
We do not know much about David’s family and childhood experiences. When we first see David he is in his teens and his older brothers pretty much ignore him as a potential king. There are some reasons for this. Obviously, David is the youngest of the siblings, and may be significantly younger than the rest of his brothers, so much so that they do not think that anyone looking for the next king of Israel to anoint from the household could possibly mean their brother who is taking care of the sheep. That is significant as well, as the rest of the brothers appear to be living the life of local aristocrats (and we know Jesse’s family is significantly well off given their origins from Boaz’s family and the way that they can provide provisions for sons who are engaged in war at Saul’s court). It is possible to speculate that David may be the son of a different woman than his older brothers, and that in his own experiences with Bathsheba he saw some similarities to his own background where his father, a wealthy landowner, may have taken advantage of a young woman and then married her when she bore his son. Again, though, this would be speculation, even if a possible one based on what Psalm 51 tells us.
What other possible interpretations could Psalm 51 have if it does not literally refer to him being conceived in sin and brought forth in iniquity of the same kind that he himself had a son borne in. One possibility is a very general one, namely that David was talking about being conceived and borne by people who were sinners, the general state of mankind. A Catholic would interpret this particular verse as a reference to original sin, and the assumption that people are born into sin from the beginning. Even if one does not hold to this view, David was clearly born with some sinful inclinations that he lived out in the course of his life, and clearly he had vulnerabilities to certain kinds of sin as well. If David was meaning his reference to being born into sin, then he is being very general and nothing more can be said about the circumstances of his world. As is often the case in the Bible, we are presented with a genuine mystery that has several possibilities and little way of knowing which option (or all of them) are true. But we often cannot help but wonder.