“I’ve just discovered your web site and all the wonderful Christian articles there. I’m pleased with what I’ve read, and I appreciate the fact that you are willing to address and discuss some biblical issues that are difficult. I have read your article Original Sin and a Misapplied Passage. I used to think that God considered all babies innocent, and I had heard about ‘the age of accountability.’ But after learning more about the Bible, I have changed my conclusion on that. It definitely is a very hard thing to think about. Have you read Psalm 58:3ff? It seems to say that babies are seen by God as sinners. Can you explain this passage?”
We appreciate this sincere question. We are quite familiar with Psalm 58. Verses 3-6 read as follows:
“The wicked are estranged from the womb: They go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies. Their poison is like the poison of a serpent: They are like the deaf adder that stops up her ear, who listens not to the voice of charmers, charming ever so wisely. Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth: Break out the great teeth of the young lions, O Jehovah.”
The first thing that the careful Bible student must observe is the fact that this text is a part of that body of Old Testament literature that is highly poetic in nature, and as such, is punctuated with graphic figures of speech.
These four verses contain several vivid figures, e.g., the hyperbole, the simile, and metonymy. Hyperbole is an exaggeration for emphasis’ sake; simile is a comparison between two objects by the use of “like” or “as,” etc., and metonymy involves the substitution of one name for another in order to stress an important truth.
One of the most significant sources of erroneous views about the Bible is the failure to discern the difference between the literal and the figurative expressions of Scripture. And that is precisely the problem in reading this text, and concluding that it provides substance for the doctrine of “original sin” or “hereditary total depravity,” i.e., the notion that infants are born in sin. Our response to this question, therefore, involves an understanding of several important principles of interpretation.
First, the Bible teaches — in unambiguous prose — that moral responsibility for sin comes in the “youth” of one’s life, and not at the point of one’s conception, or birth (see Gen. 8:21; Isa. 7:16, etc.). For a more detailed discussion of this point, we refer the reader to our companion article on Original Sin and a Misapplied Passage. Passages such as Psalm 51:5; 58:3ff, which are highly figurative in composition, must be brought into harmony with the literal language of prose – not the reverse.
Second, when one presses the language of these two Psalms, in order to extract the dogma of “original sin,” he encounters some insuperable difficulties. Consider the following points.
If the language of Psalm 51:5 and 58:3-6 is to be pressed literally, then one encounters a contradiction between the two texts. Psalm 51:5 would teach that the child is a sinner from the moment of his conception, whereas Psalm 58:3 would suggest that the infant does not “go astray” until he is born — nine months later. Which is it – if the text is strictly literal?
The fact that the sinner is said to “go astray” (Psa. 58:3), rather than being “born astray,” reveals the individual’s personal culpability, rather than Adam’s responsibility (as in the “original sin” theory). Compare Isaiah’s declaration: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way” (Isa. 53:6). No one is considered “sinful” on account of the sins of someone else (Ezek. 18:20).
A literal interpretation of Psalm 58:3 involves an impossibility. It has the infant “speaking” lies as soon as it is born, which every parent knows is not the reality. It is the case, however, that we often figuratively (using hyperbole) refer to the language that one has spoken most of his life as the tongue of his “birth” (cf. Acts 2:8).
Similarly, the fact that these “estranged” people are said to have “teeth” at the point of birth (v. 6) is further evidence that the sacred writer is not speaking of a literal, newborn child. Can anyone cite a case of where a day-old child has told a lie?
Kill the baby?
If the text of Psalm 58:3ff is to be pressed literally, these little ones who are “speaking lies” must have their teeth broken (v. 6). And since they are compared to poisonous snakes, the implication is that they should be killed so that their venom will not be deadly to others. Can the reader not see the gross error in pressing this language into a literal mold?
Lions or people?
If the language of Psalm 58:3-6 is literal, one must conclude that the divine writer was not dealing with human beings at all, but with “lions” — and, in fact, lions that spoke lies (v. 6). What is this: an example of figurative language, or some kind of Walt Disney production?
One of the cardinal rules of Bible interpretation is that one must never force a scriptural statement into a situation wherein an absurdity is affirmed. Such certainly would be the case, however, if the “original sin” interpretation of this passage is maintained.
The meaning of the text, then, is simply this. When the panorama of one’s life is viewed as a whole, relatively early in life each rational person begins to move away from God into a sinful state of spiritual rebellion. He utters things contrary to the will of God – his speech being a commentary on the disposition of his heart (cf. Mk. 7:21). He does not listen and respond to the voice of the Lord. Such conduct, therefore, if pursed continuously, is worthy of punishment.
As one writer observes, these enemies of the Lord “are so evil, it seems as if they had been born to it (cf. Ps. 51:5). This is literally impossible, and those who use this verse to argue for infant depravity surely miss the author’s point” (Ash 1980, 198).
It is not the case that one goes astray and speaks lies from his mother’s womb in a literal sense, any more than it was a reality that Job was caring for orphans and widows from his mother’s womb (Job 31:18). Why is the Psalms passage considered to be literal, while the Job text is acknowledged to be figurative?
It is interesting to observe that Albert Barnes, the renowned Presbyterian commentator who believed in the dogma of “original sin,” conceded that this doctrine could not be sustained from this passage by itself. He said this text spoke of the fact that men “develop a wicked character” fairly “early” in life. He acknowledged that the concept of “original sin” would have to be found elsewhere in Scripture before this context could be said to lend any support to the idea (1980, 138).
Note: Barnes’ view of “original sin” was somewhat confusing. He once wrote: “The notion of imputing sin, is an invention of modern times .... Neither the facts, not any proper inferences from the facts, affirm that I am, in either case, personally responsible for what another man did before I had an existence” (1830, 7; emphasis original).
The reality is — the doctrine of “original sin” is not found in Psalm 58, or elsewhere in the Bible.