Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults.
Psalm 19 traces the inspired psalmist’s thought process leading up to his earnest prayer to God. The journey that starts as a contemplation of creation ends with a prayer for cleansing from secret faults. As we go along with David on his meditative journey, God leads us to the same prayer for cleansing.
David begins his journey by looking at creation. But, as soon as he looks at the creation, his thoughts rise above the creation to the God who created. What does creation reveal about God? That He is glorious! “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth His handywork” (v. 1). The exquisite beauty of a clear night sky studded with billions of stars loudly proclaims the majesty of the One who created it. The broadness of the expanse of the firmament preaches a message about the God who stretched it out.
So too, the occurrence of one day following another day in constant succession pours out a certain speech; and the fact that one night always follows another is an ongoing testimony (cf. v. 2). Of what does the passing of days and nights speak? Of God’s eternal power and majesty!
That same testimony shines forth in the entire creation. Everything in God’s creation follows His decree. He directs the sun as it makes its way from one end of the heaven to the other, causing it to pour its heat over the whole earth. And, just as none can seriously deny the self-evident fact that the sun exists, neither can any seriously deny the testimony that creation gives about God. “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Creation reveals that God is and that He is to be worshiped.
Next, David turns his thoughts to “the law of the Lord,” which is perfect in every respect. It reveals everything we need to know to the saving of our souls and the glory of His name. If the heavens declare the glory of God, much more does God’s Word declare it. Creation truly leads us to contemplate the invisible things of God; but He makes Himself more clearly and fully known in His holy and inspired Word. Men desire to obtain the fine gold of this world; but, how much more to be desired are the treasures revealed in God’s Word! Earthly honey from the honeycomb is sweet; but, how much sweeter is the message of the gospel to weary souls!
David first contemplated God’s glory and majesty in the creation. But he contemplated that glory and majesty even more clearly in the law as a schoolmaster that led him to Christ. In the light of that revelation of the glory and majesty of God, David saw his own sins and sinfulness. That’s the way God leads us: from a view of His glory and majesty to a view of our own sins and sinfulness. Having such a sorrow-filled view of ourselves, we pray with David, “Cleanse thou me from secret faults.”
The question, “Who can understand his errors?” is tied to our knowledge of God as we learn of Him in His perfect law. God shows us something of the spotless perfection of His holiness and majesty in His law. The law demands perfection because God Himself is perfect. It is that demand for perfection that causes us to ask, “Who can understand his errors?”
“Errors,” according to the parallelism found in the text, are called “secret faults.” “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse thou me from secret faults.” Secret faults are sins that are kept concealed.
Some sins such as gossip, slander, and backbiting we conceal from the majority of people, keeping them within a relatively small circle. Other sins, we cloak within the confines of our consciences: envy, hateful attitudes, lustful fantasies. These sins remain concealed from most, but not from God. And the Judgment Day will bring them all to light. There is no question, we must repent of and forsake those secret sins we have hidden away. We must repent of all sin in our lives.
But David is talking about secret sins that are concealed to an even greater degree. These sins are hidden even from our own consciences. As we mature spiritually and look back at our lives, God gives us to see more and more sins we committed without even realizing it. As we grow in the knowledge of His perfect law, we realize we have transgressed it far more often and to a greater degree than we were ever aware. Things we thought were done in innocent fun we come to see as manifestations of hatred to our neighbor. Actions we justified in the past we come to see were completely unjustifiable.
One reason our sins are concealed from us is that we have wrong patterns of thinking ingrained in us. Our old man, for example, bases what is right and wrong by how something feels. The old man says, “I do right to be hatefully angry with my neighbor.” Or, “How can it be wrong to remarry when being alone is so hard?” Or, “How can it be wrong to get drunk when it helps me forget my sorrows?” “How can illicit drugs be evil when they make me feel so good?” “Surely, God doesn’t want me to be miserable.” Whenever we make feelings to be the standard of right and wrong, we easily fall into sin without realizing it.
Not only do feelings lead us astray into secret sins; we can easily fall into secret sins because we are influenced by the prevailing views of the world that surrounds us. Sadly, we are far more creatures of our culture than we realize. For example, we unthinkingly adopt the prevailing dress style of those around us. If culture proclaims the normality of living together outside of marriage or the normality of same-sex attraction, we might be tempted to allow it. If culture says marijuana is safe and legal, we might think it’s acceptable to experiment with it. The woman who reads illicit novels or the man who uses pornography excuse themselves by saying, “What’s the big deal? Everybody does it.”
Not only our sinful flesh, not only the world, but also the Devil busies himself to lead us astray. On the one hand, he makes us suspicious of what is right and good, as if the truth were dangerous. On the other hand, he tempts us to embrace what is questionable or downright wicked. He will even quote Scripture to lead us astray, as he did with Jesus in the wilderness!
When we fail to recognize our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, we are guilty of secret faults. Our errors and secret faults point us to the original corruption we inherited from Adam. They point to the fact that we are still prone by nature to hate God and our neighbor.
When we examine ourselves in the light of God’s perfect law, we come to know that we have many secret faults hidden from our consciences.
When God gives us to realize we are guilty of secret faults, we will also say with the psalmist, “Who can understand his errors?” David is not asking for a show of hands as if he expected some of his fellow believers to answer in the affirmative. The question rather implies the confession that none of us can understand our errors and secret faults.
Furthermore, David’s question implies the personal confession: “I cannot understand my errors. I cannot detect them, discern them, or see their seriousness.” He admits that it was impossible for him to understand his errors.
When God opens up to us His perfect law, we begin to recognize the secret faults of the past. Then we realize, “If those sins remained hidden from view in the past, there must be many secret faults in me yet today.” We are so spiritually dull that it is hard to admit we still have secret faults. Only a work of grace can get us to see that we still have attitudes and desires and beliefs that contradict the perfect law of God. We still say, do, and think things that are contrary to God’s righteous standard without even realizing it. Our sinful hearts are still prone to those errors. By nature, we are characterized by a lack of spiritual feeling and discernment. We do not think very often about the holiness and righteousness of God as reflected in His perfect law. We do not think about His majesty and glory revealed in creation. We do not think about His sure testimony, His right statutes, and His true judgments. Jehovah’s perfect law applied by His Spirit teaches us our guilt before God.
By God’s grace, having seen our guilt, we will also pray with the psalmist for forgiveness.
David does not at all try to excuse his secret faults. He does not say, “But how could I have known?” Instead, he says, “Cleanse thou me from secret faults.”
The Hebrew word translated cleanse means, first, to acquit, to declare one to be exempt from punishment, to hold guiltless. Jehovah’s perfect law declares, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:10). Our prayer for cleansing is, first, that God would forgive us and cause us to know that the curse is not upon us.
We will never have peace in our hearts until we know that the guilt of all our sins, including the guilt of our secret sins, is covered by the blood of Jesus Christ. All our guilt must be blotted out. Our prayer for cleansing is first and foremost a cleansing of our guilt and a release from the punishment that is due.
At the same time, our prayer for cleansing is a prayer for deliverance through sanctification. That’s implied by what David says at the end of the psalm: “Keep thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer” (Ps. 19:13, 14). As those who are graciously cleansed, we do not want to walk in presumptuous sins. Rather, we would serve our gracious Redeemer with acceptable words from our mouths and meditations in our hearts.
We do not seek forgiveness so that we can go on sinning. Just the opposite. We cry out for forgiveness from a heart that is truly sorry for our sins. Our cry for forgiveness comes from a heart into which God has already poured His love. True sorrow for sin and a sincere desire for forgiveness cannot exist without a longing for the grace of sanctification. To pray for forgiveness without such a desire to be obedient to God would be hypocritical. Thus, the prayer for cleansing from sin’s guilt cannot be separated from the prayer for cleansing from sin’s pollution.
How many are the hidden faults that lie within my heart! By the grace of God working in us, we make that personal confession. As we make this confession, may we ever pray for cleansing, trusting in the God who made the glorious heavens, and who causes the sun to run its course day by day. Praying for cleansing, may we know that our faithful covenant God is able and willing to save us to the uttermost!