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Bible Articles and Lessons: P-Q

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Psalms, "Messianic" sin?

Does Psa 51:5 apply to David or to all of us? Does it apply to Christ?

"Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me" (KJV).

"Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me" (NIV).

"Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me" (RSV).
The first phrase refers to David's birth, and the last phrase refers to his conception. But was it David's mother who was "in sin", as KJV and RSV imply, or was it David himself who was "sinful", as NIV implies? Surely the latter.

The title of Psa 51 testifies that it has to do with the sin of David with Bathsheba; like Psa 6, 32, 38, 102, 130, and 143, it is a psalm of profound penitence.

Is David making an excuse in v 5 -- ie, "I can't help myself; I was conceived and born in sin!" In view of the abject admissions of sin elsewhere in the psalm, this doesn't seem reasonable.

Is David blaming his mother for his own sin? -- ie, "I was conceived out of wedlock; therefore it is my mother's fault that I am a sinner!" Again, this doesn't make sense in view of his other admissions of his own sin.

Or... is David simply describing the legacy of "sin" in his own human nature, not as an irresistible impulse to do evil, as something which he was powerless to resist, but as an inclination toward evil which he failed to resist? (I would think this must be the case.)

In the same sense we are all "sinful at birth, sinful from the time [our] mothers conceived [us]".

Was this also true of Jesus? Of course. "Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one" (Job 14:4).

"How then can man be righteous before God? How can he who is born of woman be clean? Behold, even the moon is not bright and the stars are not clean in his sight; how much less man, who is a maggot, and the son of man, who is a worm!" (Job 25:4-6). Can such words properly be applied to Jesus? He applies similar words to himself, if we understand Psa 22 as his words prophetically: "But I am a worm, and no man; scorned by men, and despised by the people" (v 6).

"Now Joshua (surely a type of Jesus?) was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, 'Remove the filthy garments from him.' And to him he said, 'Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with rich apparel' " (Zec 3:3,4). Jesus as the true high priest was clothed in, symbolically, "filthy garments", which are equated with "iniquity"; when were these "filthy garments" taken away? At his resurrection, both literally and figuratively.

Was Jesus, like all of us, conceived in "sin", and born in "sin"? Of course. How else explain the offerings for cleansing from childbirth? Or the ceremonial "uncleanness" of menstruation -- unless it be connected with childbirth? Or the need for circumcision, along with another offering, even for the baby Jesus? Or, for that matter, the need for baptism: "Thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness..."? Or, again, the need for the High Priest to offer for himself as well as the sins of the people whom he represents?

But how could Jesus be connected with the confessions of sin committed which we find in Psalm 51 (eg, vv 2,3,5,7,9)? He can, in the sense that he shared the weaknesses and temptations of human nature ('tempted in all points like we are... compassed with infirmity... learned obedience...": Heb 4:15; 5:2,3; etc), and in the sense that such words were prophecies of his bearing the burden of human sin (cp Joh 1:29; 2Co 5:21; 1Pe 2:22,24; Rom 8:3; Heb 2:14,15). From this point of view, all the vv in Psa 51 listed above are truly Messianic.

Of course, the verses of confession in Psa 51 need to be read regarding Jesus with a different slant from what David meant when writing about himself, or from what we mean when praying about ourselves. But this is a normal characteristic of Messianic prophecy. For example, the "leprosy" expressions of Isa 53 have an obvious figurative meaning with reference to Jesus and the sin-disease, but they fit Hezekiah, the prototype, in a strictly literal fashion.

There are, in fact, quite a number of psalms with Scripturally-attested Messianic application, in which "sin" and "iniquity" are associated with the subject. Some examples:

Here are three undeniably Messianic psalms. Yet each contains phrases that seem at first glance inappropriate to a sinless Messiah. How should we deal with such "problems"? Some might argue, for example, that Psa 69:1-4 and Psa 69:6-36 are all Messianic (surely they are!), but that Psa 69:5 alone out of the whole psalm applies only to David. But is this really a satisfactory or satisfying way of handling Scripture? Does it not in fact create more problems than it solves?

This approach (ie, of applying the terms "sin" and "iniquity" in such passages to the nature Christ bore) was regularly followed by the earliest Christadelphian expositors. John Thomas, as an example, wrote the following:

"Sin, I say, is a synonym for human nature. Hence, the flesh is invariably regarded as unclean. It is therefore written... [here JT quotes Job 25:4; 14:4; 15:14-16; 2Co 5:21; Rom 8:3]... Sin could not have been condemned in the body of Jesus, if it had not existed there. His body was as unclean as the bodies of those for whom he died; for he was born of a woman, and 'not one' can bring a clean body out of a defiled body; for 'that,' says Jesus himself, 'which is born of the flesh is flesh' (Joh 3:6)...

"Speaking of the conception and preparation of the Seed, the prophet as a typical person, says, 'Behold I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me' (Psa 51:5). This is nothing more than affirming that he was born of sinful flesh; and not of the pure and incorruptible angelic nature" (Elp 127,128).
Such passages refer to Messiah's inheritance of cursed human nature (cp 2Co 5:21; Rom 8:3; Heb 2:14; etc.). The mere presence in Jesus of propensities to sin was surely an enormous trial. An impulse to sin which is repeatedly resisted may teach us more about the power of "sin" (or sinful tendencies) than does an impulse quickly yielded to. So, in that sense, Jesus would know more about the "power" of "sin" than any other man.

Many students of the Psalms, who are willing enough to believe that Messiah's experiences are foretold in some or even in many psalms, hesitate when they come to Psa 32. The confession of sin is so explicit that it seems impossible to believe that divine inspiration intended this psalm to be not only about David but also about His Son.

Yet, viewed from another angle, such a reading has a certain seemliness. Consider these details, which all belong to a context of much miraculous healing:

  1. "Jesus knowing in himself that virtue had gone out of him...." (Mar 5:30).
  2. "That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, 'Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses' " (Mat 8:16).
  3. "The Son of man hath not where to lay his head" (Mat 8:20) -- the words of a weary man.
  4. A storm-tossed ship, yet Jesus is asleep (Mar 4:38).
If this side of Christ's activities proved such a drain of his physical powers, is it not reasonable to presume that he experienced also a drain of his spiritual powers in his conflict against sin without and the propensities to sin within? Jesus, "tempted in all points like as we are" (Heb 4:15), must have found the very existence within himself of impulses belonging to the fallen side of human nature. Before ever he died on the cross as a sacrifice, in this sense "the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isa 53:6; 2Co 5:21).
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