Verse 12. Who can understand his errors? A question which is its own answer. It rather requires a note of exclamation than of interrogation. By the law is the knowledge of sin, and in the presence of divine truth, the psalmist marvels at the number and heinousness of his sins. He best knows himself who best knows the Word, but even such an one will be in a maze of wonder as to what he does not know, rather than on the mount of congratulation as to what he does know. We have heard of a comedy of errors, but to a good man this is more like a tragedy. Many books have a few lines of errata at the end, but our errata might well be as large as the volume if we could but have sense enough to see them. Augustine wrote in his older days a series of Retractations; ours might make a library if we had enough grace to be convinced of our mistakes and to confess them.
Cleanse thou me from secret faults. Thou canst mark in me faults entirely hidden from myself. It were hopeless to expect to see all my spots; therefore, O Lord, wash away in the atoning blood even those sins which my conscience has been unable to detect. Secret sins, like private conspirators, must be hunted out, or they may do deadly mischief; it is well to be much in prayer concerning them. In the Lateran Council of the Church of Rome, a decree was passed that every true believer must confess his sins, all of them, once a year to the priest, and they affixed to it this declaration, that there is no hope of pardon but in complying with that decree. What can equal the absurdity of such a decree as that? Do they suppose that they can tell their sins as easily as they can count their fingers? Why, if we could receive pardon for all our sins by telling every sin we have committed in one hour, there is not one of us who would be able to enter heaven, since, besides the sins that are known to us and that we may be able to confess, there are a vast mass of sins, which are as truly sins as those which we lament, but which are secret, and come not beneath our eye. If we had eyes like those of God, we should think very differently of ourselves. The transgressions which we see and confess are but like the farmer's small samples which he brings to market, when he has left his granary full at home. We have but a very few sins which we can observe and detect, compared with those which are hidden from ourselves and unseen by our fellow creatures.
EXPLANATORY NOTES AND QUAINT SAYINGS
Verse 12. Who can understand his errors? After this survey of the works and word of God, he comes at last to peruse the third book, his conscience; a book which though wicked men may keep shut up, and naturally do not love to look into it, yet will one day be laid open before the great tribunal in the view of the whole world, to the justifying of God when he judges, and to impenitent sinners' eternal confusion. And what finds he here? A foul, blurred copy that he is puzzled how to read; "who," says he, "can understand his errors?" Those notions which God had with his own hand imprinted upon conscience in legible characters, are partly defaced and slurred with scribble, and interlinings of "secret faults;" partly obliterated and quite razed out with capital crimes, "presumptuous sins." And yet this manuscript cannot be so abused, but it will still give in evidence for God; there being no argument in the world that can with more force extort an acknowledgment of God from any man's conscience than the conviction of guilt itself labours under. For the sinner cannot but know he has transgressed a law, and he finds within him, if he is not past all sense, such apprehensions that though at present he "walk in the ways of his heart and in the sight of his eyes" (as the wise man ironically advises the young man to do, Ecclesiastes 11:9 ), yet he knows (as the same wise man there from his own experience tells him) that "for all these things God will bring him into judgment." The conscience being thus convicted of sin, where there is any sense of true piety the soul will, with David, here address itself to God for pardon, that it may be "cleansed from secret faults;" and for grace, that by its restraints, and preventions, and assistances, it may be "kept back from presumptuous sins," and if unhappily engaged, that it may be freed at least from the "dominion" of them -- Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me, etc. Adam Littleton.
Verse 12. The prophet saith, Who can understand his own faults? No man can, but God can; therefore reason after this manner, as Saint Bernard saith: I know and am known; I know but in part, but God knows me and knows me wholly; but what I know I know but in part. So the apostle reasons; "I know nothing of myself, yet am I not hereby justified." Admit that thou keepest thyself so free, and renewest thy repentance so daily that thou knowest nothing by thyself, yet mark what the apostle adds further; "Notwithstanding, I do not judge myself; I am not hereby justified, but he that judges me is the Lord." This is the condition of all men; he that is infinite knows them; therefore they should not dare to judge themselves, but with the prophet David, in Psalms 19:1-14 , entreat the Lord that he would cleanse them from their secret sins. Richard Stock.
Verse 12. Who can understand his own errors? None can to the depth and bottom. In this question there are two considerables:
- A concession;
- A confession. He makes a grant that our life is full of errors; and the Scriptures say the same, while they affirm that "All we like sheep have gone astray" ( Isaiah 53:6 ); "I have gone astray like a lost sheep" Psalms 119:176 ; that the "house of Israel" hath "lost sheep," Matthew 10:6 . I need not reckon up the particulars, as the errors of our senses, understandings, consciences, judgments, wills, affections, desires, actions, and occurrences. The whole man in nature is like a tree nipped at root, which brings forth worm eaten fruits. The whole man in life is like an instrument out of tune, which jars at every stroke. If we cannot understand them, certainly they are very many. Robert Abbot,
Verse 12. Who can understand his errors? If a man repent not until he have made confession of all his sins in the ear of his ghostly father, if a man cannot have absolution of his sins until his sins be told by tale and number in the priest's ear; in that, as David saith, none can understand, much less, then, utter all his sins: Delicta quis intelligat? "Who can understand his sins?" In that David of himself complains elsewhere how that his "sins are overflowed his head, and as a heavy burden do depress him" ( Psalms 38:4 ); alas! shall not a man by this doctrine be utterly driven from repentance? Though they have gone about something to make plasters for their sores, of confession or attrition to assuage their pain, bidding a man to hope well of his contrition, though it be not so full as required, and of his confession, though he have not numbered all his sins, if so be that he do so much as in him lieth: dearly beloved, in that there is none but that herein he is guilty (for who doth as much as he may?) trow ye that this plaster is not like salt for sore eyes? Yes, undoubtedly, when they have done all they can for the appeasing of consciences in these points, this is the sum, that we yet should hope well, but yet so hope that we must stand in a mammering (Hesitating) and doubting whether our sins be forgiven. For to believe remissionem peccatorum, that is to be certain of "forgiveness of sins," as our creed teacheth us, they count it a presumption. Oh, abomination! and that not only herein, but in all their penance as they paint it. John Bradford (Martyr), 1510-1555.
Verse 12. Who can understand his errors? By "errors" he means his unwitting and inconsiderate mistakes. There are sins, some of which are committed when the sun shines -- i.e., with light and knowledge; and then, as it is with colours when the sun shines, you may see them; so these, a man can see, and know, and confess them particularly to be transgressions. There are other sins which are committed either in the times of ignorance, or else (if there be knowledge), yet with inobservance. Either of these may be so heaped up in the particular number of them, that as a man did when he did commit them, take no notice of them; so now, after the commission, if he should take the brightest candle to search all the records of his soul, yet many of them would escape his notice. And, indeed, this is a great part of our misery, that we cannot understand all our debts. We can easily see too many, yet many more lie, as it were, dead and out of sight. To sin is one great misery, and then to forget our sins is a misery too. If in repentance we could set the battle in array, point to every individual sin in the true and particular times of acting and reacting, oh, how would our hearts be more broken with shame and sorrow, and how would we adore the richness of the treasure of mercy which must have a multitude in it to pardon the multitude of our infinite errors and sins. But this is the comfort; though we cannot understand every particular sin, or time of sinning, yet if we be not idle to search and cast over the books, and if we be heartily grieved for these sins which we have found out, and can by true repentance turn from them unto God, and by faith unto the blood of Jesus Christ, I say that God, who knows our sins better than we can know them, and who understands the true intentions and dispositions of the heart -- that if it did see the unknown sins it would be answerably carried against them -- he will for his own mercy sake forgive them, and he, too, will not remember them. Nevertheless, though David saith, "Who can understand his errors?" as the prophet Jeremiah spake also, "The heart of man is desperately wicked, who can know it?" yet must we bestir ourselves at heaven to get more and more heavenly light, to find out more and more of our sinning. So the Lord can search the heart; and, though we shall never be able to find out all our sins which we have committed, yet it is proper and beneficial for us to find out yet more sins than yet we do know. And you shall find these in your own experience; that as soon as ever grace entered your hearts, you saw sin in another way than you ever saw it before; yea, and the more grace hath traversed and increased in the soul, the more full discoveries hath it made of sins. It hath shown new sins as it were; new sins, not for their being, not as if they were not in the heart and life before, but for their evidence and our apprehension. We do now see such wages and such inclinations to be sinful which we did not think to be so before. As physic brings those humours which had their residence before now more to the sense of the patient, or as the sun makes open the motes of dust which were in the room before, so doth the light of the word discover more corruption. Obadiah Sedgwick.
Verse 12. Who can understand his errors? Who can tell how oft he offends? No man. The hairs of a man's head may be told, the stars appear in multitudes, yet some have undertaken to reckon them; but no arithmetic can number our sins. Before we can recount a thousand we shall commit ten thousand more; and so rather multiply by addition than divide by subtraction; there is no possibility of numeration. Like Hydra's head, while we are cutting off twenty by repentance, we find a hundred more grown up. It is just, then, that infinite sorrows shall follow infinite sins. Thomas Adams.
Verse 12. Cleanse thou me from secret faults. It is the desire of a holy person to be cleansed, not only from public, but also from private and secret sins. Romans 7:24 . "O wretched man (saith Paul), who shall deliver me?" Why, O blessed apostle! what is it that holds thee? What is it that molests thee? Thy life, thou sayest, was unblamable before thy conversion, and since thy conversion. Philippians 3:1-21 . Thou hast exercised thyself to have always a conscience void of offence toward God and toward men. Acts 24:16 . And yet you cry out, "O wretched man," and yet you complain, "Who shall deliver me?" Verily, brethren, it was not sin abroad, but at home: it was not sin without, but at this time sin within; it was not Paul's sinning with man, but Paul's sinning within Paul: oh! that "law of his members warring (secretly within him) against the law of his mind;" this, this made that holy man so to cry out, so to complain. As Rebekah was weary of her life, not as we read for any foreign disquietments, but because of domestic troubles: "The daughters of Heth" within the house made her "weary of her life;" so the private and secret birth of corruption within Paul -- the workings of that -- that was the cause of his trouble, that was the ground of his exclamation and desires, "Who shall deliver me?" I remember that the same Paul advises the Ephesians as "to put off the former conversation" so "to put on the renewed spirit of the mind" ( Ephesians 4:22-23 ); intimating that there are sins lurking within as well as sins walking without; and that true Christians must not only sweep the door, but wash the chamber; my meaning is, not only come off from the sins which lie open in the conversation, but also labour to be cleansed from sin and sinning which remain secret and hidden in the spirit and inward disposition. Obadiah Sedgwick.
Verse 12. Cleanse thou me from secret faults. Learn to see thy spots. Many have unknown sins, as a man may have a mole on his back and himself never know it. Lord, cleanse me from my secret faults. But have we not spots whereof we are not ignorant? In diseases sometimes nature is strong enough to put forth spots, and there she cries to us by these outward declarations that we are sick. Sometimes she cannot do it but by the force of cordials. Sometimes conscience of herself shows us our sins; sometimes she cannot but by medicines, arguments that convince us out of the holy word. Some can see, and will not, as Balaam; some would see, and cannot, as the eunuch; some neither will nor can, as Pharaoh; some both can and will, as David... We have many spots which God does not hear from us, because we see them not in ourselves. Who will acknowledge that error, whereof he does not know himself guilty? The sight of sins is a great happiness, for it causeth an ingenuous confession. Thomas Adams.
Verse 12. Cleanse thou me from secret faults. The law of the Lord is so holy that forgiveness must be prayed for, even for hidden sins. (Note -- This was a principal text of the Reformers against the auricular confession of the Roman Catholics.) T.C. Barth's "Bible Manual." 1865.
Verse 12. Secret faults. Sins may be termed "secret" either,
- When they are coloured and disguised -- though they do fly abroad, yet not under that name, but apparelled with some semblance of virtues. Cyprian complains of such tricks in his second epistle, which is to Donatus.
- When they are kept off from the stage of the world; they are like fire in the chimney; though you do not see it, yet it burns. So many a person, like those in Ezekiel, "commit abominations in secret" -- that is, so as the public eye is not upon them. He is sinful, and acts it with the greatest vileness; all the difference betwixt another sinner and him is this -- that he is, and the other saith he is, a sinner. Just as a book shut and a book opened; that which is shut hath the same lines and words, but the other being opened every man may see and read them.
- When they are kept, not only from the public eye, but from any mortal eye; that is, the carnal eye of him who commits the sins sees them not; he doth, indeed, see them with the eye of conscience, but not with the eye of natural sense. Even those persons with whom he doth have converse, and who highly commend the frame of his ways, cannot yet see the secret discoursings and actings of sin in his mind and heart. For, brethren, all the actings of sin are not without, they are not visible; but there are some, yes, the most dangerous actings within the soul, where corruption lies as a fountain and root. The heart of man is a scheme of wickedness; nay, a man saith that in his heart which he dares not speak with his tongue, and his thought will do that which his hands dare not to execute. Well, then, sin may be called "secret" when it is sin, and acted as sin, even there, where none but God and conscience can see. I think sin is like a candle in a lantern, where the shining is first within and then bursting out at the windows; or like evils and ulcerous humours, which are scabs and scurvy stuff, first within the skin, and afterwards they break out to the view on the outside. So it is with sin; it is a malignant humour and a fretting leprosy, diffusing itself into several secret acts and workings within the mind, and then it breaks abroad and dares adventure the practice of itself to the eye of the world; and be it that it may never see the light, that it may be like a child born and buried in the womb, yet as that child is a man, a true man there closeted in that hidden frame of nature, so sin is truly sin, though it never gets out beyond the womb which did conceive and enliven it. Obadiah Sedgwick.
Verse 12. Secret faults. "Secret sins" are more dangerous to the person in some respects than open sins. For a man doth, by his art of sinning, deprive himself of the help of his sinfulness. Like him who will carry his wound covered, or who bleeds inwardly, help comes not in because the danger is not descried or known. If a man's sin breaks out there is a minister at hand, a friend near, and others to reprove, to warn, to direct; but when he is the artificer of his lusts, he bars himself of all public remedy, and takes great order and care to damn his soul, by covering his "secret sins" with some plausible varnish which may beget a good opinion in others of his ways. A man does by his secrecy give the reins unto corruption: the mind is fed all the day long either with sinful contemplations or projectings, so that the very strength of the soul is wasted and corrupted. Nay, secret actings do but heat and inflame natural corruption. As in shouldering in a crowd, when one hath got out of the door, two or three are ready to fall out after; so when a man hath given his heart leave to act a secret sin, this begets a present, and quick, and strong flame in corruption to repeat and multiply and throng out the acts. Sinful acts are not only fruits of sin, but helps and strengths, all sinning being more sinful by more sinning, not only in the effects but in the cause: the spring and cause of sin will grow mad and insolent hereby, and more corrupt; this being a truth, that if the heart gives way for one sin, it will be ready for the next; if it will yield to bring forth once at the devil's pleasure, it will bring forth twice by its own motion. A man by "secret sins" doth but polish and square the hypocrisy of his heart: he doth strive to be an exact hypocrite; and the more cunning he is in the palliating of his sinning, the more perfect he is in his hypocrisy. Obadiah Sedgwick.
Verse 12. Secret faults. Beware of committing acts which it will be necessary to conceal. There is a singular poem by Hood, called "The Dream of Eugene Aram" -- a most remarkable piece it is indeed, illustrating the point on which we are now dwelling. Aram had murdered a man, and cast his body into the river -- "a sluggish water, black as ink, the depth was so extreme." The next morning he visited the scene of his guilt --
"And sought the black accursed pool,
With a wild misgiving eye; And he saw the dead in the river bed, For the faithless stream was dry."
Next he covered the corpse with heaps of leaves, but a mighty wind swept through the wood and left the secret bare before the sun --
"Then down I cast me on my face,
And first began to weep, For I knew my secret then was one That earth refused to keep: On land or sea though it should be Ten thousand fathoms deep."
In plaintive notes he prophesies his own discovery. He buried his victim in a cave, and trod him down with stones, but when years had run their weary round, the foul deed was discovered and the murderer put to death.
Guilt is a "grim chamberlain," even when his fingers are not bloody red. Secret sins bring fevered eyes and sleepless nights, until men burn out their consciences, and become in very deed ripe for the pit. Hypocrisy is a hard game to play at, for it is one deceiver against many observers; and for certain it is a miserable trade, which will earn at last, as its certain climax, a tremendous bankruptcy. Ah! ye who have sinned without discovery, "Be sure your sin will find you out;" and bethink you, it may find you out ere long. Sin, like murder, will come out; men will even tell tales about themselves in their dreams. God has made men to be so wretched in their consciences that they have been obliged to stand forth and confess the truth. Secret sinner! if you want the foretaste of damnation upon earth, continue in thy secret sins; for no man is more miserable than he who sinneth secretly, and yet trieth to preserve a character. Yon stag, followed by the hungry hounds, with open mouths, is far more happy than the man who is pursued by his sins. Yon bird, taken in the fowler's net, and labouring to escape, is far more happy than he who hath weaved around himself a web of deception, and labours to escape from it, day by day making the toils more thick and the web more strong. Oh the misery of secret sins! One may well pray, "Cleanse thou me from secret faults." Spurgeon's Sermons (No. 116), on "Secret Sins."
Verse 12. The sin through ignorance (Heb.) is the same that David prays against in Ps 19:12, "Who can understand his errors (Heb.)? cleanse thou me from secret things!" These are not sins of omission, but acts committed by a person, when at the time, he did not suppose that what he did was sin. Although he did the thing deliberately, yet he did not perceive the sin of it. So deceitful is sin, we may be committing that abominable thing which casts angels into an immediate and an eternal hell, and yet at the moment be totally unaware! Want of knowledge of the truth, and too little tenderness of conscience hide it from us. Hardness of heart and a corrupt nature cause us to sin unperceived. But here again the form of the Son of Man appears! Jehovah, God of Israel, institutes sacrifice for sins of ignorance, and thereby discovers the same compassionate and considerate heart that appears in our High Priest, "who can have compassion on the ignorant!" Hebrews 5:2 . Amidst the types of this tabernacle, we recognize the presence of Jesus -- it is his voice that shakes the curtains, and speaks in the ear of Moses, "If a soul shall sin through ignorance!" The same yesterday, today, and for ever! Andrew A. Bonar, in "Commentary on Leviticus," Psalms 4:2 .
Verse 12. (last clause). This is a singular difference between pharisaical and real sanctity: that is curious to look abroad, but seeth nothing at home: so that Pharisee condemned the Publican, and saw nothing in himself worthy of blame; but this careful to look at home, and searcheth into the secret corners, the very spirit of the mind. So did good David when he prayed, Cleanse thou me from secret faults. Nathanael Hardy.