Psalm 51: A Bible Study

“Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (verse 5).

 It was a lively discussion that morning on the mission field. The students of the Bible School found the words of Psalm 51 hard to understand, especially that word: “In sin did my mother conceive me.” What did that mean? Was David born out of adultery? Or was his mother a decent woman, but did God consider the deed of procreation as such as something sinful? Or had David himself committed a certain sin before his birth? The students struggled with that verse but just could not come to a conclusion. Can you?

An impressive psalm

Psalm 51 is a very impressive psalm. Just like Psalm 6, 32, 38, 79, 102 and 130, it is a so-called penitential psalm. Having a deep and humble tone, these psalms are expressions of a contrite heart. They show us what happens when God works repentance. Then a desire is born for remission of sin, reconciliation with God, and renewal of our life. We can clearly see this in Psalm 51. Again and again the poet asks the Lord to blot out his guilt and to show him a token of His favor. Fervently he prays that he may be cleansed and learn to serve God with a sincere heart. Is that also your prayer?

A sad background

Why did David bow so deeply in this psalm? The reason can be found in 2 Samuel 12. The king of Israel had fallen into a double sin. Not only had he committed adultery with Bathsheba; he had also caused her husband to die on the battlefield. As a result, the man after God’s heart had lost the joy of his salvation and the peace of his conscience. Yet he could not find the place of true remorse until the prophet Nathan had confronted him in a personal way. Then David broke down and became a guilty sinner before God. What a blessing it is when we may come to that place. Ask the Lord much to bring you there by the power of His Spirit!

Sinful from our conception

David had made a deep fall. It grieved him that he had sinned so horribly. But there was something else that grieved him: he had fallen in Adam long before he fell into actual sin. He had already fallen in Paradise. Consequently, he had been conceived and born in sin. Do we now understand what he means? David says, I did not become a sinner by committing adultery, but I’ve always been a sinner from my earliest beginning. God’s holy anger rested upon me when I was still in my mother’s womb.” How necessary it is for all of us to learn this. Martin Luther called this truth “the heaviest doctrine of God’s Word.” If we never learn this, there will be no room for that sinless Child of Bethlehem, for Him who is able to cover our original sin and guilt.

No soul?

It is hard to see how people who read Psalm 51 can deny that man has a soul right from the time of conception. Would God’s wrath really rest on something that is merely “beginning life”? If an “embryo” or “fetus” does not have a soul, can it ever be called “a child of wrath” (Ephes. 2:3)? Can “a piece of tissue” or “cluster of cells” be held accountable when it is not a human being in the biblical sense of the word? Moreover, denying an unborn baby his or her personhood leaves us basically helpless in the debate with the abortion movement. Let us realize that and take a firm stand on this issue. But above all, do not rest until you may know by experience what Psalm 51 means for your own soul.


  1. Upon David’s confession of guilt he immediately received a word of pardon (see 2 Sam. 12:13). Why then did he still have to bow so deeply in the dust and write Psalm 51?
  2. Many believe that also Psalm 32 was written after David’s fall. Read this psalm with attention. Is there a difference with Psalm 51?
  3. What does Lord’s Day 14 of our Heidelberg Catechism teach us about the profit of “Christ’s holy conception and nativity”?
  4. The truth of Psalm 51 verse 5 is a strong plea against abortion. In Psalm 139, Jeremiah 1 and Luke 1, there are similar passages. What do they tell us about life before birth?

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