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PSALM xix. 12.
Who can understand his errors ? Cleanse thou one from
secret faults. THE only method of coming to the distinct knowledge of our sins, and to a due sense of them, is self-examination; and therefore it is, that you are fo frequently exhorted to enter into yourselves, to converse with your own hearts, and to search out the evil which is in them. But often it happens that this method, after the sincerest and most labo. rious inquiry, leaves men under great
dissatisfaction of mind, and subject to the frequent returns of doubts and misgivings of heart ; left something very bad
may have escaped their search, and, for want of being expiated by sorrow and repentance, should remain a debt upon their souls at the great day of account. As in temporal concerns, men often know, that by a long course of prodigality, and many expensive vanities, they have contracted a great debt upon their estates, and have brought themselves to the very brink of poverty and distress, and yet, when they try to think and consider of their condition, find themselves utterly unable to state their accounts, or to set forth the particulars of the debt they labour under ; but the more they endeavour to recollect, the more they are convinced that they are mere strangers at home, and ignorant of their own affairs : so in spiritual concerns likewise, men who have been long acquainted with vice, and long strangers to thought and reflection, when they come to be sensible of the danger of their condition, and to set themselves seriously to repent, know in general that they have a heavy weight of fin and guilt upon their souls; but yet the particulars, though many and heinous, which they are able to recollect and charge themselves with distinctly, fall very short of the sense they have of their condition, and do by no means fill up that which they know to be the measure of their iniquities. And hence it is, that after the most careful examination of themselves, and the most solemn repentance for all their known fins, they do not always enjoy that peace and tranquillity of soul which they expected, and had promised themselves, as the blessed fruits of contrition; but suffer extremely under uncertain hopes and fears, not being able to satisfy themselves that their repentance was perfect, which they know was formed upon a knowledge of their fins that was very imperfect.
The holy Psalmist had this sense of his condition, and felt how unable he was sufficiently to acknowledge his own guilt before God, when he broke forth into the complaint with which the text begins, Who can understand his errors? or, as it runs in the translation which is more familiar to us, Who can tell how oft he offendeth? In this distress his only refuge
was to the mercy of God, confeffing, with the greatest humility of heart, that his transgressions were not only more than he could bear, but even more than he could understand : Cleanse thou me from my secret faults. Whenever men entertain doubts of their own sincerity and due performance of religious acts, it is extremely difficult to reason with their fears and scruples, and to dispoffefs them of the inisapprehensions they have of their own state and condition. Such suggestions as bring ease and comfort to their minds come suspected, as proceeding from their own or their friends' partiality; and they are afraid to hope, lest even to hope, in their deplorable condition, should prove to be presumption, and assuming to themselves more than in reason or justice belongs to them. But when we can shew them men of approved virtue and holiness, whose praise is in the book of life, who have struggled with the fame fears, and waded through even the worst of their apprehenfions to the peaceful fruits of righteousness; it helps to quicken both their spirits and their understanding, and at once to administer knowledge and consolation. And for this reason we can never sufficiently admire the wisdom of God, in setting before us the examples of good men in their lowest and most imperfect state. Had they been shewn to us only in the brightest part of their character, despair of attaining to their perfection might incline us to give over the pursuit, by throwing a damp upon our best resolutions : but when we fee them rising to virtue and holiness from the same wretched condition which we are in, and labouring under the fame difficulties, the fame anxieties and torments of mind; when we see their very fouls convulfed with the pangs of repentance, and their faith almost finking under the doubtfulness of their condition; when we hear them cry to God in the words of anguish, not knowing how to pray, or in what terms to lament their fins; when we see this nakedness of their souls, and find that they are like one of us, what secret comfort must it give to an afflicted spirit, what support to a mind oppressed with the sense of guilt, to find in these great examples what heavenly joy and peace often spring from the lowest depths of sorrow and woe!
And there is indeed, with respect to the comfort and security of a sinner, a great difference between arguments drawn from general reasonings and reflections, and those which are suggested from the experience and practice of holy men. In the case
if we consider the words of the text without regard had to the person who spoke them, we may raise many reflections from the great variety of human actions, and the complicated nature of them, from the short-fightedness of the understanding, and the weakness and imperfection of the faculties, to Thew how very hard it is, and almost impossible, for any one perfectly to understand his errors : whence might be deduced the reasonableness of the petition, Cleanse thou me from secret faults ; because where we cannot in particular recollect, we can only in general lament, our iniquities: beyond this probability we cannot go to determine the method in which God will deal with finners. But take the words as spoken by David, of the fincerity