Psa 51:1 To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Psa 51:2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
Psa 51:3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Psa 51:4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
Psa 51:5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. (English Standard Version)
As verse 1 says, this Psalm is believed to have been written by David after his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. While Christians generally accept this incident in King David’s life just as it is written in the Biblical accounts, Muslims seem to generally deny the validity of the accounts. They consider it a slander against the character of one of God’s great Prophets. And as a matter of fact, there were Christians going back to the late 1st century C.E. (or very early 2nd century) who repudiated such vulgar stories about God’s Prophets as spurious. In a couple of writings attributed to the late 1st century bishop of Rome named Clement, Peter is quoted as affirming that such stories are among the “falsehoods of the Scriptures”.
If the stories are indeed spurious, then one must say about this Psalm one of these things: (1) David did not in fact write it; or (2) David wrote it, but the situation in which it was written was different. Perhaps David just recognized in himself a strong temptation toward adultery with Bathsheba, and toward using an abuse of power to attain her as his wife; and he was so depressed by this inward temptation and the struggle involved in overcoming it, that he confessed it as sin to God.
Whatever may be the truth about the “David and Bathsheba” event, my concern is with verse 5. What does it mean when David says he was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me?
Apparently there have been people who imagined that David here was either saying that sex is evil, or he was making an accusation that his mother had conceived him as a result of an adulterous affair. I myself (and from my experience, Christians generally) deny such an inference. David was saying that he himself had been sinful from the time of his conception. Whatever may be the truth concerning the affair with Bathsheba, David was so overwhelmed with a sense of his sinfulness that he affirmed he could trace his sinful desires all the way back to his birth (and even further, back to his conception).
How is it, then, that a person could be born sinful? I don’t know how Jewish theologians have understood this idea. The Christian teaching in which I was raised affirmed the doctrine of “original sin” based primarily on a statement by the apostle Paul in Romans 5. This teaching says that all of the descendents of the first man Adam were considered by God to be guilty of Adam’s “original sin”; and as a result, a sinful nature is passed down to all of those descendents.
I have written an article on Romans 5, so I won’t go into detail on that here. I will just say here that Romans 5 merely asserts that the death Adam brought into the world passed on to his descendents because they themselves followed his example and sinned. We’re not condemned for Adam’s sin, but for our own in following Adam’s example. This is in keeping with the teaching in Jeremiah 31:29 and 30, and Ezekiel’s teaching in the whole of chapter 18, that no one dies for anyone’s sins other than his own. We won’t be charged with our parents’ sin, and they won’t be charged with ours. Neither will we be able to inherit the rewards of the good done by anyone else.
Many Christians throughout the centuries have denied the current “orthodox” teaching of “original sin”; but since the time of Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.) anyone who denies this teaching has become known as a “heretic”.
Muslims agree with those Christian “heretics” that no one can be charged with the guilt of anyone else’s wrongdoing, nor given the rewards of anyone else’s righteousness. This is the clear teaching of the Qur’an, which affirms more than once that no person can carry another person’s “burden” (meaning burden of sin and guilt). So Muslims affirm that everyone is born into this world “innocent”. In Muslim thought (at least traditional Islam) there is no such thing as being born sinful.
Muslims generally will not feel any need to explain such verses of the Hebrew Scripture as Psalm 51:5. They affirm that the previous revelations have been greatly corrupted; and that while some truth remains in them, there is also much falsehood (just as the Christian apostle Peter is supposed to have said, according to the Roman bishop Clement). So they will probably just shrug their shoulders and say obviously David’s Psalm at some point became corrupted so that it now teaches a falsehood. They will deny that the Prophet David ever taught such a thing, just as they will deny the adulterous relationship with Bathsheba.
I, however, would like to offer another suggestion – whereby it is true both that we do not bear the guilt of Adam’s sin, and yet we may perhaps be born sinful.
In the “apocryphal” book known as “the Wisdom of Solomon” (8:19 and 20), we read this (Revised Standard Version): (19) As a child I was by nature well endowed, and a good soul fell to my lot; (20) or rather, being good, I entered an undefiled body. (This is not the “Biblical” book “Song of Solomon”, but one of the Jewish books contained between “Malachi” and “Matthew” in the Catholic Bibles, but Protestants don’t consider them “inspired” or “canonical”). Obviously, it will be noticed immediately that there is a contrast between David’s despairing cry that he was born sinful, and his son Solomon’s (if this book actually contains Solomon’s words or teachings) statement that he was good from birth.
But notice that Solomon said that it was because his soul was good that he entered into an undefiled body. This is the teaching of karma and reincarnation. Solomon did not affirm that he was born “innocent” – without any previous background whether good or evil. He affirmed that he was already positively “good”, and because of that he entered into a body without any “negative” karmic consequences – an “undefiled” body. As the following verses, and the next chapter, say though, despite the fact that he was born “good” he was still lacking in the wisdom he needed to rule; he needed to seek that wisdom from God, the Giver of wisdom.
Despite the obvious contrast between being born “in sin”, and being born “good”, the teaching of the preexistence of souls, multiple incarnations, and the ‘fruit’ known as ‘karma’ accrued over the course of multiple lifetimes, ties these two statements together. When David said that he was conceived in sin, and born in iniquity, he was affirming that he entered this life bearing the consequences of a former lifetime (or former lifetimes) in which he had developed evil propensities.
Was David correct in believing he was born wicked? Or did he just overstate the case due to his despair over his sin (or inclination to sin)? Well, of course I’m in no position to make any dogmatic statements about that; but I tend to believe his despair led him to overstate his situation. It does not seem to me likely that a person who was so corrupt from birth would be a Prophet of God. I’m inclined to believe that God’s Prophets come into this world very morally and spiritually developed, as Solomon said concerning himself. They may not be “perfect” from birth, but they are definitely “good”, vessels already molded by God and prepared for their role as Prophets. But as Muslims like to say, “God knows best”.
There are many degrees between “morally corrupt” and “good”; and each of us comes into this world at differing stages of development. God apportions the circumstances of our birth and life in keeping with where we are on the path of life. He does not just arbitrarily assign “defiled” bodies to some, and “undefiled” bodies to others. He doesn’t just decide that person “A” will be born with a natural tendency to evil “mischief”, and person “B” will be born with a natural inclination toward gentleness and kindness. God is just in all His ways, and gives to each person what he deserves or is prepared for.
This does not mean that we can automatically assume that someone who is born with a birth defect must have been particularly “sinful” in a previous life. It may mean that; but it could also mean that the person was so spiritually mature that he would be able to bring praise to God by means of the defect. This was apparently the case with the story in John 9 about Jesus (peace be with him) healing the man who was born blind. Jesus is recorded to have said that the blindness was not the result of sin – either his or his parents – but was in order that God might be “glorified” by his healing. This man was so spiritually mature prior to birth that he was able to accept such a birth defect willingly in order to give Jesus Christ an occasion to show the power of God.
So although we may be sure that our situations in life do not come by “chance” (“good luck” or “bad luck”), nor by mere arbitrary decree of God; we must still not jump to conclusions about a person’s spiritual state because of his physical circumstances. God knows why we are in our circumstances; and sometimes God may grant us the knowledge at least concerning ourselves (as it would appear was the case with Solomon); but unless and until God grants us illumination, we have no right to make our own judgments – particularly about other people.