If you’ve ever read Psalm 51, you may have noticed the different words used to describe sin and wondered, “What is the difference between transgression and sin and iniquity?”
King David wrote this psalm after the prophet Nathan confronted him about his sin with Bathsheba.
A quick review of 2 Samuel 11:1-27 reminds us it was the time of year when kings went out to war. As part of his job as king, David was also what we might call Commander-in-Chief of the military.
He literally led the army into battle. David was an expert in military strategy but he decided to delegate a bit. He stayed home and let his generals lead.
What is a Sin of Omission?
King David’s decision to stay home was the first step on the path to his moral failure. It was what we sometimes call a “sin of omission.” He didn’t do what he knew he was supposed to do.
Although it wasn’t a written rule for the king to command the army, David was a warrior. He was expected to lead his men in battle.
Once the armies were in the field, it was too late to take back command. David was probably at loose ends and maybe not sleeping too well.
We know this because he got up from his bed one night and wandered around on the roof of his palace. As he gazed over his kingdom, he saw a young woman bathing at her nearby home.
Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah, one of David’s soldiers. It was night and she was in what she probably considered a safe place. David allowed his gaze to linger on her body.
The longer he looked, the more he liked what he saw.
When a Look becomes Lust
It didn’t take long for looks to turn to lust. He sent for her. Took her. Had sexual relations with her. The situation went from bad to worse.
When Bathsheba became pregnant, David feared exposure of his sin. To cover it up and protect his reputation, he had Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, killed in battle.
Afterward, David took Bathsheba in as one of his wives. He previously took Abigail as his wife after the death of her husband. (See 1 Samuel 25:2-42) David’s actions looked generous and kind but they were merely designed to cover his sin.
Does Sin have Consequences?
After his son by Bathsheba was born, the prophet Nathan came to David and confronted him about his sin. You can read about it in 2 Samuel 12:1-15. When David confessed his sin, the prophet told him God forgave him.
Despite God’s forgiveness, he would still suffer severe and public consequences. Although he sinned in secret, the murder of Uriah could not go unpunished.
Psalm 51 is David’s prayer of repentance and expresses his desire to be reconciled into relationship with God.
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your steadfast love, according to Your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” Psalm 51:1,2 ESV
In the first two verses, he uses three different words to describe his sin. Each word describes a different step on his path to moral failure. A quick word study will help us understand our own path of sin.
What is a Transgression?
The word translated as “transgression” is pešaʿ. It comes from a root word meaning “to rebel” which comes from a root word meaning to “stride or rush about.”
This is an act of rebellious disobedience that ends in sin. A transgression is not unintentional. Even though we know it’s wrong, we do it anyway, much like a two-year-old who ignores the warning of his parents and heads straight toward the hot stove or other danger.
This “striding out” is, in a way, the first step on David’s journey toward destruction.
David knew it was wrong to indulge his lustful feelings when he saw Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, bathing. He knew it was wrong to take another man’s wife and to have sexual relations with her but he did it anyway.
These were all intentional acts of rebellious disobedience and they were all transgressions.
What is Iniquity?
The Hebrew word ʿāôn is translated as iniquity. It comes from a root word meaning to make crooked, distort, or perversity. The idea here is of great guilt due to a sin deserving of punishment by the court. A crime.
David’s crimes included both taking another man’s wife (essentially kidnapping her), committing adultery with her, and murdering Uriah. According to Jewish law, these crimes could have been punished with death.
What is Sin?
The Hebrew word translated as “sin,” ḥaṭṭā’āṯ, comes from a root meaning to miss the mark, as in an archer aiming at a bullseye whose arrow fails to hit the target. It sometimes refers to habitual sin.
From staying home when he sent the army out to adultery with Bathsheba to the murder of Uriah, David missed the mark of righteousness and godly behavior.
Every wrong action along the way, whether transgression or iniquity, was sin.
What is the difference between Transgression, Iniquity, and Sin?
By using these three words to describe his sin, David indicates his moral failure began as a transgression of rebellion. He didn’t do what he should’ve done (lead his men in battle) but instead stayed home where he had idle time.
He used this idle time to spy on Uriah’s wife and allowed himself to be consumed by lust. His lust distorted his pure heart of love for the Lord and his character.
This distortion of his sense of right and wrong (and the resulting actions) are examples of iniquity. Ultimately, his iniquity fueled his adultery with Bathsheba, the murder of her husband, and the attempt to hid his sin by his marriage to her.
The first act of rebellion/transgression led him down the road of habitual sin and iniquity (or crime) worthy of punishment by death. (the murder of Uriah) Transgressions and iniquity both miss the mark of holiness and godly living and are, as a result, both sin.
Rebellion. Distortion of Character. Habitual sin.
What do Transgression, Iniquity, and Sin mean for us?
David’s transgression (watching Bathsheba, lusting for her) led him to his iniquity (habitual, one sin after another, adultery, and the murder of Uriah.)
It cost him the death of his newborn son, public disgrace, the respect of his men, the rebellion and death of his son Absalom, and more.
When we indulge in thoughts about sinful actions they can lead to a single act of rebellion which leads to more and more sin.
Before we know it, our transgression (rebellion) has taken us further down the road of sin than we ever expected, kept us in a lifestyle of iniquity longer than we thought possible, and cost us more in consequences than we ever wanted to pay.
A Little Good News About Sin
There is good news, however. Despite all his mistakes, God did not stop loving David or providing for him. Although God gave David serious consequences for his sin, when David admitted his sin and asked for forgiveness, God not only forgave him but He also restored David to a sweet relationship with Himself.
We’ve all messed up, sinned, maybe even progressed from an accidental sin to a lifestyle of sin and disobedience. Although we may feel the way David felt in Psalm 51, as if we can never get past all the wrong things we’ve done, we can take hope from the grace God showed David.
God never stops loving us. When we repent (express our regret and turn away from our sin), God will forgive us, cleanse us from our sin, and restore us to a sweet relationship with Him.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9