By Eusebio Tanicala, Ph.D.
Because we in the Churches of Christ believe in the free moral agency of every individual based on Ezekiel 14 and 18, and we define sin as a “transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4) we find Psalms 52:5 a problem. It seems to support the theory of “inherited sin” as well as the theory of “total depravity.”
Based on my study and reflection on Psalms 52, I suggest the following ideas that could help explain v.5:
(1) Consider the background of this chapter. Scholars agree that King David wrote this after he was confronted by the prophet Nathan about his crimes of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Army Captain Uriah, a Hittite. This story is in 2 Samuel 11 & 12. Note that the chapter is poetry (NKJV). Remember that poetry tends to exaggerate. This exaggeration is needed because King David exalts the holiness and righteousness of God on one hand while he brings himself down as a rotten, dirty sinner whose sinfulness penetrates deep into the inner recesses of his being. Nothing is good in him. To further exaggerate his own sinfulness, he even goes back to his own mother – that his mother was sinful or that inside the womb, David was already a sinner. The exaggeration is needed because it is generally believed that the fetus and even children are sinless. Even in the Abrahamic and Mosaical covenants, a child is innocent until the 8th day when he is obligated to be circumcised or else suffer some physical penalty. Note also that when King David commented on the death of his first child with Bathsheba, he said, “But why should I fast when he is dead? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him one day, but he cannot return to me.” (2 Sam. 12:23)
In short, King David believed in the innocence of an infant. So v. 5 should be viewed as a poetical exaggeration to describe himself as a rotten sinner. He was not talking about inherited sin or adamic sin.
(2) If we were to take v.5 literally, it would contradict passages like Mark 9:36-37; Mark 10:13-16, Ezekiel 14 and 18 where we are told that the sin of a parent is not imputed on the son. Sis is a personal transgression of the law. Therefore, Psalm 52:5 should not be given a literal meaning of “inherited sin” or total depravity.
(3) Still another view, which to me is not a strong argument, but worth exploring is to understand v. 5 as a confession of his family life. 2 Samuel 17:25 mentions Nahash, father of Abigail and Zeruiah, half sisters of David. Zeruiah is the mother of Joab (2 Sam.17:25). Joab is King David’s army commander. This suggests that Zeruiah was much older than David, David being almost of the same age as his nephew, Joab. It is inferred that Abigail’s mother was either a widow of Nahash or that David’s mother was a concubine of Nahash whom Jesse married, or David’s mother was Jesse’s concubine. Or David’s mother was not a refined woman just as Tamar was not a refined woman in Genesis 38:14-26. If the unrefined character of David’s mother comes out as one meaning, then Psalm 52:5 suggest something.
Even if view #3 is not a possibility, view #1 would still be the dominant idea that gives meaning to view #3. Any of the three views above or all of them help us interpret v. 5. #