By Robert F. Turner
In a recent letter a respected preacher and reader of Guardian of Truth asked me to write something on Psalms 19:12-13. Neither of us believe David was asking for an unconditional forgiveness of sins of ignorance. Both of us believe one may sin in ignorance (Lk. 12:47-48) — but we both believe sin is still sin, and must be forgiven if we are to be acceptable before God (cf. Lev. 5:17). This was a simple and direct request for exegesis and thoughts on David’s prayer-like statements in the Psalm cited, and we will so treat it.
The ASV reads, “Who can discern (his) errors? Clear thou me from hidden (faults). Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous (sins), “Let them not have dominion over me, Then shall I be upright, and I shall be clear from great transgression.”
Let us first consider David’s question. In preceding verses he praised the virtues of God’s law, testimony, precepts, commandments, and ordinances. “By them is thy servant warned” (v. 11). David is not questioning the adequacy nor the clarity of God’s law. The intense sincerity evident in the psalm, and the fact that “clear” or “cleanse” (KJV) means “absolve” or “set free of guilt,” forbids our thinking David sought an excuse for his sins. He asks,” Who can discern (his) errors?” in a rhetorical manner, implying none can know himself so perfectly. The “his” is supplied, but removing it only broadens the question. This is a cry of despair. Coming from one like David, in the context of a plea for mercy, it seems rather to be an asking for divine assistance in knowing his sins, that he may avoid them in the future. At the same time he recognizes man will never know either himself or the law in an absolute sense.
“Clear” (forgive) me of hidden (secret) faults – follows, and rests upon the previous rhetorical question; the hidden sins being those not perceived, those none can discern. Yes, the language (“secret sins”) could apply to sins David knew, but kept hidden from others; but would David pray for such sins? This interpretation injects brazen gall into a psalm to God by one who repeatedly recognizes Him as Pure and All-Knowing; who in the next breath prays, “Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins.” Hold the writer and his context clearly in mind, and you will reject such an anomaly-Pulpit Commentary is concise: “Who can understand his errors? rather, who can discern (or, perceive) his errors? i.e., all of them. Who will not overlook some, try as he may to search out his heart? Cleanse thou me from secret faults. Those which are hidden from me, which I cannot discern.” This is fair and clear exegesis.
The “presumptuous sins” of verse 13, are in contrast to sins of verse 12, and help to define them. From a word meaning “to seethe, boil over,” the term signifies “willful, deliberate, insolent” sin; Delitzsch says, “opposite of sin arising from infirmity.” It seems unlikely that one of David’s disposition would “insolently” ins’ yet, he prays “keep back” thy servant from such. Note David’s use of “keep back” in 1 Samuel 25:33, 39, to appreciate its use here. David knew the subtlety of temptation and sin, and wanted to stay as far from it as possible. Only by so doing could he avoid the ultimate end of total apostasy. As he says, “Then shall I be upright, and I shall be clear from great transgression” (v. 13b). It is difficult to understand how anyone, keeping these verses in context and fairly interpreting them, could conclude that David was excusing sin, or seeking to justify himself. It is far out indeed, to say they teach “unconditional forgiveness.”
But we should not close this article without warning about misuse of Scriptures “to justify a good cause.” If we believe one man teaches error on a certain text, this does not justify our misuse of that text to answer him. May one sin without being aware of it? Few, if any, deny this. Then we should not allow David’s secret sins,” however interpreted, to lead us away from the heart of claims regarding unconditional forgiveness? And even if we deemed it necessary to question “secret sins,” we should avoid mechanical arguments that “play” with words, ignoring the context.
Guardian of Truth XXIX: 24, p. 743
December 19, 1985