Behold,I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. (Psalm 51:5; ESV)
It is of great interest to me that people like to use Psalm 51:5 as a proof text for total hereditary depravity. The reason I find it a curiosity is because the Psalms are not a good place to establish doctrine or theology. It is very dangerous to go to the Psalms, which are admittedly poetic, and assume doctrinal teaching is the intention of the psalmist. But when it fits our theology, that is exactly what we do.
One of the reasons people believed the earth was flat was from taking a literal understanding of the Psalms rather than recognizing that poetic language was being used by the psalmist. Anyone who has taken any amount of English literature and/or Hebrew poetry classes understands that there are hyperbole, metaphors, and the like which are used heavily in the Psalms. Christians also believed that the earth was the center of the universe and that the sun revolved around the earth because of a literal, scientific reading of the Psalms and a few other Old Testament references. Rather than recognizing the poetic language of hyperbole (exaggeration for effect), many false doctrines have been established concerning the age of the earth, the nature of the earth, and science itself.
To run to the Psalms and hang all of one’s theological hopes on one particular passage is simply foolish. It is like running to Psalm 90:10 and saying that every person will live to be 70 years old, but no older than 80. That is not the point. The Psalms were never intended to be a description for scientific evidences nor systematic theology. The Psalms are songs, poetry set to music, and must be read in that context. Otherwise, great damage is done.
Some may continue to argue that David was trying to teach some systematic theology in Psalm 51. However, in reading the whole of the psalm and David’s emotional response toward his grave sin, it is more likely that Psalm 51:5 is poetic hyperbole. That is, the weight of David’s sin is so great that he feels like he has been sinning against God from the very beginning of his existence. And who among us has not felt the same way when confronted with our sins? At times we feel that we have been sinning from the very start of life as we are frustrated with Satan’s continued success to cause us to cave into temptations. As Paul would lament in Romans 7 that we do what we do not want to do and do not do what we want to do for God. It is a very natural expression of our hopelessness in our fight against sin and our need for God’s mercy.
The Psalms should not be used as our theological or doctrinal “last stand.” The Psalms were never intended for such usage.