Could you explain the different translations of Psalm 51:5 in detail?


Could you explain the difference between the NIV and the rest of the versions concerning Psalms 51:5? In detail, if you can. The NIV seems to be saying we are born sinful, while the rest indicates we are born into a sinful world. I understand the difference but I have a hard time explaining it to someone else.


Psalm 51:5

"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 my mother conceived me." (NAS95)

"Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me." (NKJV)

"Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; And in sin did my mother conceive me." (ASV)

"Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me." (RSV)

"Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me." (ESV)

It is not often that you find such a consistency in translations, which makes the New International Version stand out as the oddball. By the way, I listed most of the literal translations and not the various dynamic equivalence ones, such as the NIV, or the paraphrases, since they would not do in a discussion of the accuracy of translations.

The Hebrew is:

henbeawon (behold in transgression) cholaletti (I caused labor pains) uvechefe (and by a sinner) yechemathni (she was in heat to conceive me) immi (my mother)

The core difference between the NIV and the remaining translations is how the preposition be is interpreted. In Hebrew, be "has a diverse range of nuances and meanings. The most common meanings are spatial." [The Complete Biblical Library: Hebrew - English Dictionary] That is, this preposition has to do with the location of one object relative to another. Generally, the word is translated as in, with, by, at, on, against, or after depending upon the context in which it was used. In the passage above, the various translations rendered be as "in." To the NIV translators, though, being "in sin" meant that a person was sinful and thus gave us what they felt was an equivalent phrasing. They readily admit that what they translated is not precisely what was given, but they assert that their translation better captures the intent of the original author.

Therefore, we need to move the context of the passage.

"[To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.] Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight - that You may be found just when You speak, and blameless when You judge. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me. Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom" (Psalm 51:1-6).

The context is thus established. This is a psalm David wrote in reaction to Nathan convicting him of his sin with Bathsheba. The focus is on David's personal sin that he committed, his acknowledgment of that sin, and his desire to be cleansed from his sin. The most straightforward reading of verse 5 has David admitting that he was born into a sinful world and that the world had influenced him to sin (the outside influencing the inside). But God desires righteousness to be within a person to shine outwardly. The NIV reading has David claiming that he has always been sinful, even from the point of conception. The problem is that this changes the flow of thought. In verses 1-4, David is talking about what he had done, but in the NIV he switches to say he hasn't done anything differently because he has always been sinful without any action on his part.

Thus we move to the larger context of the book of Psalms. Is the NIV's rendering consistent with other statements of David concerning his birth? In Psalm 22:9-10 David said, "But You are He who took me out of the womb; You made me trust while on my mother's breasts. I was cast upon You from birth. From my mother's womb You have been my God." (NKJV) The NIV agrees in this translation, "Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you even at my mother's breast. From birth I was cast upon you; from my mother's womb you have been my God." (NIV) So which is it? Was David trusting in God at birth or was he a sinner at birth? The two are not compatible ideas.

Further, we move to the larger context of the Bible. Here we find a definition of sin, "Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness" (I John 3:4, NKJV). Or as the NIV renders it, "Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness." Sin occurs when a person breaks God's law. Notice the use of "whoever" or "everyone." Sin happens when someone breaks God's law. If the NIV translation is correct for Psalm 51:5, how does a newly conceived child break a law? After all, the NIV has David claiming he was sinful at conception. So what law was broken by his being conceived? The answer is obviously, "none."

So what do we have? The NIV translation isn't a direct reflection of what Psalm 51:5 actually states, it is what the translators believe the passage meant. Their belief doesn't match another statement of David in Psalm 22:9-10 nor is it consistent with what God said the definition of sin is. The only logical conclusion is that the translators of the NIV inserted what they wanted the passage to say instead of staying with what the passage actually said.

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