The little psychologist within us is often hard at work to pinpoint the origin of our 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, introducing mayhem into our lives.
I’ve not only probed into my own past in this quest for a cause; I’ve pondered the past of one with whom I feel a deep and abiding kinship—the biblical David. When I was just a boy, the slingshot-wielding, Goliath-slaying boy David was my hero. In my twenties, when I became a poet and hymn-writer, I kept up a discipline of praying the whole book of Psalms monthly, then progressed to weekly, in order to learn by heart every Psalm that David had written. Later still, when I succumbed to the temptations of the flesh and inflicted emotional carnage upon my wife and family, I immersed myself into the narrative of David’s downfall, when he not only committed adultery with Bathsheba but arranged the murder of her husband, Uriah.
As I have asked myself a million times over, “Where did things go wrong?” so I have asked David the same. How is it that the shepherd boy, who once slew the Philistine giant with a single rock, matured into a man who couldn’t win a battle against his own penis? What was the cause of his rebellion against God? Pride? Apathy? Lust? Greed? Perhaps, I thought, if I can discover the starting point of David’s road to ruin, I could better understand my own sordid history.
If there is an answer to this question, there is no more likely place it will be found than in Psalm 51, David’s famous post-adultery confession. In line after line, the penitent poet laments his wrongdoing: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me….Against You, You only, I have sinned, and done what is evil in Your sight.” He describes himself, and his heart, as unclean; he needs God to wash him, to blot out his sins. The Lord has broken his bones and he fears the loss of the Holy Spirit. But does David give us an answer to our question of why he sinned so grievously? Was it his becoming king that engendered arrogance and an I-can-have-anything-or-anyone-I-want attitude? Was it the fact that he neglected his vocation of leader of the army and stayed behind in Jerusalem? Was it his lust-filled heart that enticed him to bed Bathsheba?
Perhaps all of these had a part to play in the tragedy of David, but in Psalm 51, when he notes the cause of his downfall, he highlights none of these. In fact, he takes us back to much earlier in his life, before his kingship, before his service to Saul, even before he killed Goliath. This penitent goes to the deepest, earliest source of his sins of adultery, lying, killing, and cover-up.
It’s in verse 5 of the psalm, where the king prays, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” Not when he was an adult king, not when he was a boy shepherd, but when he was a baby conceived, things went wrong with David. And with me. And with all of us. We do not begin our existence as humans with a clean slate. We are conceived and born as fully flawed people, heirs of the corruption that was once voiced so starkly by Moses when he wrote of man: “every intent 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 instructive to me, however, is that of all the places in the Scriptures where the Holy Spirit could have voiced this truth about man’s conception in sin, he chose to do so in this psalm of King David. 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?
Perhaps it is because what David did gives perfect expression to the imperfection that has poisoned our very nature. He lacked for nothing, yet wanted more. As Nathan the prophet would chide him:
Thus says the Lord God of Israel, “It is I who anointed you king over Israel and it is I who delivered you from the hand of Saul. I also gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your care, and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added to you many more things like these! Why have you despised the word of the Lord by doing 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, dear reader, 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 about our iniquitous birth, our sinful conception, is the story of another David whose birth, indeed, whose conception, changes everything. If not a single cell of sanctity is ours and ours alone, 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 manifest 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 to do His work of saving us. 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.