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The NIV in Psalm 51:5

By Hugo McCord

religion, articles, christianity

The New International Version (1984 revision) in Psalm 51:5 has David saying, "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me." A young preacher asks:

[W]hat is there about this verse that is translated wrong? Perhaps you could write out this verse for me in Hebrew, and point to the words or elements of syntax that the NIV has abused. Exactly what is it that is translated incorrectly? I do not believe that there is any material discrepancy between the Hebrew and the NIV. David does say he was born in sin, but only as a hyperbole. David is exaggerating for the sake of emphasis.

Psalm 51:5 in Hebrew is:

Hen (an interjection, 'Behold'); be awon (a preposition, 'in,' and a singular noun, awon, 'iniquity'); holaleti (a first person masculine singular perfect verb in polar stem, here meaning 'I was brought forth'); ubete (the conjunction 'and' plus the preposition 'in' plus the noun 'sin'); yehematheni (a third person feminine singular perfect verb in the gal stem, plus a suffix, the first person singular pronoun, 'me'); 'immi (a singular noun 'em, 'mother' plus a suffix, the first person singular pronoun 'me' or 'mine'); literal translation: 'Behold, in iniquity I was born, and in sin she conceived me, mother mine.'

The young preacher is exactly right, and this old preacher has been wrong. Psalm 51:5 is a "hyperbole " an exaggeration "for the sake of emphasis."

The verse was never intended to be understood literally. But, accustomed as I was to literal interpretations, I fell into a trap. The literal interpretation of Psalm 51:5, magnified by John Calvin (1509­1564), has done untold harm. He wrote:

The passage affords a striking testimony in proof of original sin entailed by Adam upon the whole human family (Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 5, 290, cited by Don Jackson, Gospel Advocate, Oct. 15, 1987).

John Wesley (1703­1791) accepted Calvin's error, and taught that infants should be baptized: infants need to be washed from original sin, ... the original stain cleaves to every child of man (Wesley's Works, II, 16, cited by C.R. Nichol, A Study in the Methodist Discipline, p. 53).

The Methodist Discipline of 1894 instructed pastors, as they sprinkled babies, to say: "All men are conceived and born in sin," but an improvement was made in 1910, with the wording: "All men, though fallen in Adam, are born into the world in Christ the Redeemer" (Nichol, ibid., p. 49). To be born "in Christ" is quite different from being born "in sin."

A Nazarene pastor, in a debate at Carbon Hill, Ala., in 1932, said that the very fact that a baby cries shows he is a sinner. The reply that Gus Nichols (sitting at the table with me) whispered was all that I needed: "If crying is sin, Jesus was a sinner, for Jesus went" (John 11:35)

The doctrine of inherited sin contradicts plain passages of Scripture (as, Matt. 19:14) and it slanders the Creator, for if God is love (1 John 4:8), he does not afflict a baby with the guilt of Adam's sin.

True, being akin to Adam, every baby inherits the consequence of Adam's sin: physical death is passed to all people, "even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam" (Rom. 5:14). All of us sin representatively, also to speak, and thus death "has spread to all men" (Rom. 5:12; Heb. 7:9).

Since God is "holy" (1 Pet. 1:16) and "without iniquity" (Deut. 32:4), every human being, from the moment of his conception nine months before birth, is "perfect" until he himself commits "iniquity" (Eze. 28:15). A person's own sins separate him from God (Isa. 59:1­2). Sin is personal and not transferable. "So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God" (Rom. 14:12).

The doctrine of Mary's immaculate conception (proclaimed in a papal bull from Pius IX in 1854, Ineffabilis Deus) was manufactured to make Mary sinless so she could give birth to a sinless baby. However, the babies, Mary and Jesus, were not the only ones born sinless, for, unless God is cruel, all babies are born pure and holy.

On the marquee of a Moslem temple on 23rd Street in Oklahoma City are these words: "You are God's precious creation; you were not born in sin." In a restaurant window of Ollie's Barbecue in Birmingham is a picture of a tousled­haired lad saying these words: "I am somebody! God didn't make no junk."

But if all babies are born sinless, how could David say that "Behold in iniquity I was born and in sin she conceived me mother mine?" Back in the eighties I thought some words were understood but not spoken by David. I put them in brackets and wrote, "Behold, in [a world of] iniquity I was born, and in [a world of] sin my mother conceived me." Those words lay no sin on the infant, but places him in a world where sin is, and leaves him to grow up and do his own sinning. Someone helped me with this illustration:

In a potato patch I was born, and in a field of spuds my mother conceived me, but I was not born full of potatoes.

The first medical doctor to obey the gospel in South Africa, Dr. Desmond Stumpf, baptized on December 3, 1972, read an article in the Gospel Advocate (of July 7.1983) which gave the above reasoning about the innocence of little children. Whether children are born in sin was quite important to Dr. Stumpf, for he is the father of four children plus one adopted. He rejoiced when he read the article, and he wrote a letter which was published in the Gospel Advocate (Feb. 20, 1986):

It [the article] is most supportive of the biblical viewpoint that babies are innocent and cannot be tainted with their father's sin, ... and what an iniquitous concept to think otherwise.
Every Calvinistic denominationalist (Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, DRC, Congregational, Roman Catholic, and most Baptists) believes that babies are born sinful, totally depraved and cut off from God-the first of the five points of Calvinism. The other four points are connected to and derived from this point.
The Old Testament is the source of reference for the doctrine of Total hereditary depravity to those who proclaim it. Since the Jews rely solely upon the Old Testament for their beliefs, I approached the chief rabbi of Capetown, population two million, for his opinion on the matter. His answer [below] is for all to see. I joyfully endorse the biblical doctrine that babies are born without sin and remain so until they sin later-see Ezekiel 28:15 and also 18:20 among many other scriptures.

The rabbi's reply is as follows:

Dear Dr. Stumpf: My sincere apologies for such belated reply to your letters-pressure of work is simply beyond normality. Indeed, Jews, be they Orthodox or not do not believe that babies are born in any way depraved or burdened with sin. In fact, the truth is quite the opposite, babies are totally innocent. Apologies again, Yours sincerely, Rabbi E. N. Kaye.

Babies are born sinless, but Psalm 51 does not deal with that subject. I had not studied enough. My mistake was in looking at Psalm 51 as prose, not poetry. David was born sinless in a world of sin, but that was not on his mind. The only thing on his mind was the fact that he had adulterized Bathsheba.

Literally his words were not true (conceived in sin and nine months later born in iniquity), but the soul of a sincerely penitent man, overwhelmed in grief, holding nothing back, making no excuses, spoke words poetically and figuratively true.

In the same psalm he used other words that were not literally true: "Against you, you alone," he told God, "I have sinned" (v. 4), but he had also sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah.

David prayed that God would purify him "with hyssop" (v. 7), but literally he did not expect the God would obtain a "labiate plant" called "hyssop that springs out of the wall" (1 Kings 4:33), dip it in "water" and animal "blood," and sprinkle it on him (Heb. 9:19).

Literally David did not mean that his "bones" could "rejoice," nor that God had "broken" his "bones" (v. 8). Only figuratively could he speak of God as hiding his "face" (v. 9), and of a sinner's having a "broken" heart (v. 17).

This old man (Hugo McCord) did not face up to the fact that many verses of Scripture are true only as hyperbole: exaggeration for effect, not meant to be taken literally (Webster). Only by hyperbole, figures of speech, could David call God his "rock," his "fortress," his "shield," his "horn," and his "shepherd" (Psa. 18:1­2, 23:1).

False literally, but true by exaggeration, David (Jesus) was a "worm" and no man (Psa. 22:6), one who trusted in God while on his "mother's breasts" (v. 9), one who was surrounded by "bulls" (v. 12), one whose bones were "out of joint" (v. 14), one whose "heart" had "melted in the midst of his bowels" (v. 14. KJV).

Also, in other Bible books, figurative language is often used. Job wrote that he had provided for widows "from my mother's womb" (31:16­18). What the book of Hebrews says about Melchizedek literally was impossible: "fatherless, motherless, without genealogy, having neither a beginning of days nor an end of life" (7:3).

Jesus' words, "This is my body ... my blood" (Matt. 26:26­28) were literally interpreted by Martin Luther in his debate at Marburg with Ulrich Zwingli. Both transubstantiation and consubstantiation are based on literal interpretation.

Just as David's words ("born in iniquity," "conceived in sin") are a hyperbole, "not meant to be taken literally," so are John's words as he closed his Gospel: "Now there are also many other things Jesus did, which, if each one was written, I suppose the world itself would not have room for the books" (21:25).

A young man helped this old man by writing these words:

Psalm 51 is David's response to his sin with Bathsheba. He poured out his heart in acknowledging his sin and calling for God to forgive him. It would be contrary to the nature of the Psalm for David to have excused himself because he was born with the sin of Adam or because he was born in a sinful world that influenced him. He was not concerned about the sinful world but about his own sin. David used hyperbole to describe his sin as so great that it was as though he had been sinful from his very conception (Don Jackson, Gospel Advocate, Oct. 15, 1987).

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