The little psychologist within us is often hard at work to pinpoint the origin of life’s problems. During marital strife, we sift through everything from sexual proclivities to spending habits to discover the source of our discontent. When raising a rebellious child, we replay every episode in his upbringing to determine where things may have gone awry. We want to know when Pandora’s box was cracked open and mayhem invaded our lives.
The answer to this question is hidden in the heart of Psalm 51.
The poet laments his wrongdoing: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me…. Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:3–4). He describes himself as unclean. God needs to wash him, to blot out his sins. The Lord has broken his bones, and he fears the loss of the Holy Spirit.
Why did David sin so grievously? Was it his kingship that engendered an I-can-have-anyone-I-want attitude? Was it his lust-filled heart that enticed him to bed Bathsheba and kill her husband?
Perhaps all of these had a part to play, but he highlights none of these. In fact, he takes us back to much earlier in his life, to the deepest, earliest source of his sins.
He says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (v. 5). Not when he was a king crowned, but when he was a baby conceived, things went wrong with David.
And with all of us. We do not begin our existence as humans with a clean slate. We are conceived as fully flawed people, heirs of corruption. As Moses wrote, “Every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Only. Evil. Continually. That sad triad of words would serve well as the title of the biography of humanity.
What is it about David’s life, and this psalm, that make this so fitting a place to utter this dire pronouncement of humanity’s corruption?
David gives perfect expression to the imperfection that has poisoned our very nature. He lacked for nothing, yet wanted more. As Nathan would chide him:
Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight?” (2 Samuel 12:7–9)
Notice the God-verbs: I anointed, I delivered, I gave, I would have added. It’s like the garden of Eden all over again. On this Adam-like David, God piled gift upon gift upon gift. Yet still that forbidden, female fruit David plucked. Curved in on himself, David craved what the Lord had not given to satisfy his own lust and greed and selfishness.
I have done that too. And you have as well. Why? The sin in which our mothers conceived us conceives in us all manner of evil.
What is rather startling, however, is that hidden within this verse is the story of another David whose birth, indeed, whose conception, changes everything. If not a single cell of sanctity is ours, if not a vestige of original purity is tucked away in the folds of our being, then the only way in which we have hope must be found in someone outside ourselves. If our conception is sinful, we need one whose conception was pure for us. If our birth is in iniquity, we need one whose birth was holy for us. If our lives constantly ooze selfishness and greed and lust, then we need one whose life was replete with righteousness, who resisted every temptation, who kept every divine law flawlessly for us.
That is why the Son of God did not appear on earth as a full-grown man. He came into this world via the womb, as we all do. He passed through every stage of life that we pass through, but he did so perfectly, that in his perfection, we might receive our own perfection in the eyes of the Father. For Christ was not conceived for himself, but for us. He was not born for himself, but for us. He did not keep God’s commandments for himself, but for us. He did not die and rise again for himself, but yes, for us. He fully meant what he said when he told his disciples, “I did not come to be served, but to serve.” The service of Jesus for us began in utero, for in utero our service to self began.
Psalm 51 is ultimately much more than the prayer of David’s repentance, as well as ours. It is the proclamation of the gospel of a new and better David, whose conception conceives within us new hope of a new life of forgiveness and reconciliation to the Father. This David, this Jesus, blots out our transgressions, washes us thoroughly from iniquities, and cleanses us from our sins. For from conception to cross, from full womb to empty tomb, he is the sole source and cause of our salvation.
This post is from the forthcoming book The Sinner/Saint Devotional: 60 Days in the Psalmsavailable May 19th