MacLaren Expositions Of Holy Scripture
To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David. The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults.Psalms
The contemplation of the ‘perfect law, enlightening the eyes,’ sends the Psalmist to his knees. He is appalled by his own shortcomings, and feels that, beside all those of which he is aware, there is a region, as yet unilluminated by that law, where evil things nestle and breed.
The Jewish ritual drew a broad distinction between inadvertent-whether involuntary or ignorant-and deliberate sins; providing atonement for the former, not for the latter. The word in my text rendered ‘errors’ is closely connected with that which in the Levitical system designates the former class of transgressions; and the connection between the two clauses of the text, as well as that with the subsequent verse, distinctly shows that the ‘secret faults’ of the one clause are substantially synonymous with the ‘errors’ of the other.
They are, then, not sins hidden from men, whether because they have been done quietly in a corner, and remain undetected, or because they have only been in thought, never passing into act. Both of these pages are dark in every man’s memory. Who is there that could reveal himself to men? who is there that could bear the sight of a naked soul? But the Psalmist is thinking of a still more solemn fact, that, beyond the range of conscience and consciousness, there are evils in us all. It may do us good to ponder his discovery that he had undiscovered sins, and to take for ours his prayer, ‘Cleanse Thou me from secret faults.’
I. So I ask you to look with me, briefly, first, at the solemn fact here, that there are in every man sins of which the doer is unaware.
It is with our characters as with our faces. Few of us are familiar with our own appearance, and most of us, if we have looked at our portraits, have felt a little shock of surprise, and been ready to say to ourselves, ‘Well! I did not know that I looked like that!’ And the bulk even of good men are almost as much strangers to their inward physiognomy as to their outward. They see themselves in their looking-glasses every morning, although they ‘go away and forget what manner of men’ they were. But they do not see their true selves in the same fashion in any other mirror. It is the very characteristic of all evil that it has a strange power of deceiving a man as to its real character; like the cuttle-fish, that squirts out a cloud of ink and so escapes in the darkness and the dirt. The more a man goes wrong the less he knows it. Conscience is loudest when it is least needed, and most silent when most required.
Then, besides that, there is a great part of every one’s life which is mechanical, instinctive, and all but involuntary. Habits and emotions and passing impulses very seldom come into men’s consciousness, and an enormously large proportion of everybody’s life is done with the minimum of attention, and is as little remembered as it is observed.
Then, besides that, conscience wants educating. You see that on a large scale, for instance, in the history of the slow progress which Christian principle has made in leavening the world’s thinkings. It took eighteen centuries to teach the Church that slavery was unchristian. The Church has not yet learned that war is unchristian, and it is only beginning to surmise that possibly Christian principle may have something to say in social questions, and in the determination, for example, of the relations of capital and labour, and of wealth and poverty. The very same slowness of apprehension and gradual growth in the education of conscience, and in the perception of the application of Christian principles to duty, applies to the individual as to the Church.
Then, besides that, we are all biassed in our own favour, and what, when another man says it, is ‘flat blasphemy,’ we think, when we say it, is only ‘a choleric word.’ We have fine names for our own vices, and ugly ones for the very same vices in other people. David will flare up into generous and sincere indignation about the man that stole the poor man’s ewe lamb, but he has not the ghost of a notion that he has been doing the very same thing himself. And so we bribe our consciences as well as neglect them, and they need to be educated.
Thus, down below every life there lies a great dim region of habits and impulses and fleeting emotions, into which it is the rarest thing for a man to go with a candle in his hand to see what it is like.
But I can imagine a man saying, ‘Well, if I do not know that I am doing wrong, how can it be a sin?’ In answer to that, I would say that, thank God! ignorance diminishes criminality, but ignorance does not alter the nature of the deed. Take a simple illustration. Here is a man who, all unconsciously to himself, is allowing worldly prosperity to sap his Christian character. He does not know that the great current of his life has been turned aside, as it were, by that sluice, and is taken to drive the wheels of his mill, and that there is only a miserable little trickle coming down the river bed. Is he any less guilty because he does not know? Is he not the more so, because he might and would have known if he had thought and felt right? Or, here is another man who has the habit of letting his temper get the better of him. He calls it ‘stern adherence to principle,’ or ‘righteous indignation’; and he thinks himself very badly used when other people ‘drive him’ so often into a temper. Other people know, and he might know, if he would be honest with himself, that, for all his fine names, it is nothing else than passion. Is he any the less guilty because of his ignorance? It is plain enough that, whilst ignorance, if it is absolute and inevitable, does diminish criminality to the vanishing point, the ignorance of our own faults which most of us display is neither absolute nor inevitable; and therefore, though it may, thank God! diminish, it does not destroy our guilt. ‘She wipeth her mouth and saith, I have done no harm’: was she, therefore, chaste and pure? In all our hearts there are many vermin lurking beneath the stones, and they are none the less poisonous because they live and multiply in the dark. ‘I know nothing against myself, yet am I not hereby justified. But he that judgeth me is the Lord.’
II. Now, secondly, let me ask you to look at the special perilousness of these hidden faults.
As with a blight upon a rose-tree, the little green creatures lurk on the underside of the leaves, and in all the folds of the buds, and because unseen, they increase with alarming rapidity. The very fact that we have faults in our characters, which everybody sees but ourselves, makes it certain that they will grow unchecked, and so will prove terribly perilous. The small things of life are the great things of life. For a man’s character is made up of them, and of their results, striking inwards upon himself. A wine-glassful of water with one drop of mud in it may not be much obscured, but if you come to multiply it into a lakeful, you will have muddy waves that reflect no heavens, and show no gleaming stars.
These secret faults are like a fungus that has grown in a wine-cask, whose presence nobody suspected. It sucks up all the generous liquor to feed its own filthiness, and when the staves are broken, there is no wine left, nothing but the foul growth. Many a Christian man and woman has the whole Christian life arrested, and all but annihilated, by the unsuspected influence of a secret sin. I do not believe it would be exaggeration to say that, for one man who has made shipwreck of his faith and lost his peace by reason of some gross transgression, there are twenty who have fallen into the same condition by reason of the multitude of small ones. ‘He that despiseth little things shall fall by little and little’; and whilst the deeds which the Ten Commandments rebuke are damning to a Christian character, still more perilous, because unseen, and permitted to grow without check or restraint, are these unconscious sins. ‘Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth.’
III. Notice the discipline, or practical issues, to which such considerations should lead.
To begin with, they ought to take down our self-complacency, if we have any, and to make us feel that, after all, our characters are very poor things. If men praise us, let us try to remember what it will be good for us to remember, too, when we are tempted to praise ourselves-the underworld of darkness which each of us carries about within us.
Further, let me press upon you two practical points. This whole set of contemplations should make us practise a very rigid and close self-inspection. There will always be much that will escape our observation-we shall gradually grow to know more and more of it-but there can be no excuse for that which I fear is a terribly common characteristic of the professing Christianity of this day-the all but entire absence of close inspection of one’s own character and conduct. I know very well that it is not a wholesome thing for a man to be always poking in his own feelings and emotions. I know also that, in a former generation, there was far too much introspection, instead of looking to Jesus Christ and forgetting self. I do not believe that self-examination, directed to the discovery of reasons for trusting the sincerity of my own faith, is a good thing. But I do believe that, without the practice of careful weighing of ourselves, there will be very little growth in anything that is noble and good.
The old Greeks used to preach, ‘Know thyself.’ It was a high behest, and very often a very vain-glorious one. A man’s best means of knowing what he is, is to take stock of what he does. If you will put your conduct through the sieve, you will come to a pretty good understanding of your character. ‘He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls,’ into which all enemies can leap unhindered, and out from which all things that will may pass. Do you set guards at the gates and watch yourselves with all carefulness.
Then, again, I would say we must try to diminish as much as possible the mere instinctive and habitual and mechanical part of our lives, and to bring, as far as we can, every action under the conscious dominion of principle. The less we live by impulse, and the more we live by intelligent reflection, the better it will be for us. The more we can get habit on the side of goodness, the better; but the more we break up our habits, and make each individual action the result of a special volition of the spirit guided by reason and conscience, the better for us all.
Then, again, I would say, set yourselves to educate your consciences. They need that. One of the surest ways of making conscience more sensitive is always to consult it and always to obey it. If you neglect it, and let it prophesy to the wind, it will stop speaking before long. Herod could not get a word out of Christ when he ‘asked Him many questions’ because for years he had not cared to hear His voice. And conscience, like the Lord of conscience, will hold its peace after men have neglected its speech. You can pull the clapper out of the bell upon the rock, and then, though the waves may dash, there will not be a sound, and the vessel will drive straight on to the black teeth that are waiting for it. Educate your conscience by obeying it, and by getting into the habit of bringing everything to its bar.
And, still further, compare yourselves constantly with your model. Do as the art students do in a gallery, take your poor daub right into the presence of the masterpiece, and go over it line by line and tint by tint. Get near Jesus Christ that you may learn your duty from Him, and you will find out many of the secret sins.
And, lastly, let us ask God to cleanse us.
My text, as translated in the Revised Version, says, ‘Clear Thou me from secret faults.’ And there is present in that word, if not exclusively, at least predominantly, the idea of a judicial acquittal, so that the thought of the first clause of this verse seems rather to be that of pronouncing guiltless, or forgiving, than that of delivering from the power of. But both, no doubt, are included in the idea, as both, in fact, come from the same source and in response to the same cry.
And so we may be sure that, though our eye does not go down into the dark depths, God’s eye goes, and that where He looks He looks to pardon, if we come to Him through Jesus Christ our Lord.
He will deliver us from the power of these secret faults, giving to us that divine Spirit which is ‘the candle of the Lord,’ to search us, and to convince of our sins, and to drag our evil into the light; and giving us the help without which we can never overcome. The only way for us to be delivered from the dominion of our unconscious faults is to increase the depth and closeness and constancy of our communion with Jesus Christ; and then they will drop away from us. Mosquitoes and malaria, the one unseen in their minuteness, and the other, ‘the pestilence that walketh in darkness,’ haunt the swamps. Go up on the hilltop, and neither of them are found. So if we live more and more on the high levels, in communion with our Master, there will be fewer and fewer of these unconscious sins buzzing and stinging and poisoning our lives, and more and more will His grace conquer and cleanse.
They will all be manifested some day. The time comes when He shall bring to light the hidden things and darkness and the counsels of men’s hearts. There will be surprises on both hands of the Judge. Some on the right, astonished, will say, ‘Lord, when saw we Thee?’ and some on the left, smitten to confusion and surprise, will say, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name?’ Let us go to Him with the prayer, ‘Search me, O God! and try me; and see if there be any wicked way in me; and lead me in the way everlasting.’
Keep back 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.Psalms
Another psalmist promises to the man who dwells ‘in the secret place of the Most High’ that’ he shall not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day, nor for the pestilence that walketh at noonday,’ but shall ‘tread upon the lion and adder.’ These promises divide the dangers that beset us into the same two classes as our Psalmist does-the one secret; the other palpable and open. The former, which, as I explained in my last sermon, are sins hidden, not from others, but from the doer, may fairly be likened to the pestilence that stalks slaying in the dark, or to the stealthy, gliding serpent, which strikes and poisons before the naked foot is aware. The other resembles the ‘destruction that wasteth at noonday,’ or the lion with its roar and its spring, as, disclosed from its covert, it leaps upon the prey.
Our present text deals with the latter of these two classes. ‘Presumptuous sins’ does not, perhaps, convey to an ordinary reader the whole significance of the phrase, for it may be taken to define a single class of sins-namely, those of pride or insolence. What is really meant is just the opposite of ‘secret sins’-all sorts of evil which, whatever may be their motives and other qualities, have this in common, that the doer, when he does them, knows them to be wrong.
The Psalmist gets this further glimpse into the terrible possibilities which attach even to a servant of God, and we have in our text these three things-a danger discerned, a help sought, and a daring hope cherished.
I. Note, then, the first of these, the dreaded and discerned danger-’presumptuous sins,’ which may ‘have dominion over’ us, and lead us at last to a ‘great transgression.’
Now the word which is translated ‘presumptuous’ literally means that which boils or bubbles; and it sets very picturesquely before us the movement of hot desires-the agitation of excited impulses or inclinations which hurry men into sin in spite of their consciences. It is also to be noticed that the prayer of my text, with singular pathos and lowly self-consciousness, is the prayer of ‘Thy servant,’ who knows himself to be a servant, and who therefore knows that these glaring transgressions, done in the teeth of conscience and consciousness, are all inconsistent with his standing and his profession, but yet are perfectly possible for him.
An old mediaeval mystic once said, ‘There is nothing weaker than the devil stripped naked.’ Would it were true! For there is one thing that is weaker than a discovered devil, and that is my own heart. For we all know that sometimes, with our eyes open, and the most unmistakable consciousness that what we are doing was wrong, we have set our teeth and done it, Christian men though we may profess to be, and may really be. All such conduct is inconsistent with Christianity; but we are not to say, therefore, that it is incompatible with Christianity. Thank God! that is a very different matter. But as long as you and I have two things-viz. strong and hot desires, and weak and flabby wills-so long shall we, in this world full of combustibles, not be beyond the possibility of a dreadful conflagration being kindled by some devil-blown sparks. There are plenty of dry sticks lying about to put under the caldron of our hearts, to make them boil and bubble over! And we have, alas! but weak wills, which do not always keep the reins in their hands as they ought to do, nor coerce these lower parts of our nature into their proper subordination. Fire is a good servant, but a bad master; and we are all of us too apt to let it become master, and then the whole ‘course of nature’ is ‘set on fire of hell.’ The servant of God may yet, with open eyes and obstinate disregard of his better self and of all its remonstrances, go straight into ‘presumptuous sin.’
Another step is here taken by the Psalmist. He looks shrinkingly and shudderingly into a possible depth, and he sees, going down into the abyss, a ladder with three rungs on it. The topmost one is wilful, self-conscious transgression. But that is not the lowest stage; there is another step. Presumptuous sin tends to become despotic sin. ‘Let them not have dominion over me.’ A man may do a very bad thing once, and get so wholesomely frightened, and so keenly conscious of the disastrous issues, that he will never go near it again. The prodigal would not be in a hurry, you may depend upon it, to try the swine trough and the far country, and the rags, and the fever, and the famine any more. David got a lesson that he never forgot in that matter of Bathsheba. The bitter fruit of his sin kept growing up all his life, and he had to eat it, and that kept him right. They tell us that broken bones are stronger at the point of fracture than they were before. And it is possible for a man’s sin-if I might use a paradox which you will not misunderstand-to become the instrument of his salvation.
But there is another possibility quite as probable, and very often recurring, and that is that the disease, like some other morbid states of the human frame, shall leave a tendency to recurrence. A pin-point hole in a dyke will be widened into a gap as big as a church-door in ten minutes, by the pressure of the flood behind it. And so every act which we do in contradiction of our standing as professing Christians, and in the face of the protests, all unavailing, of that conscience which is only a voice, and has no power to enforce its behests, will tend to recurrence once and again. The single acts become habits, with awful rapidity. Just as the separate gas jets from a multitude of minute apertures coalesce into a continuous ring of light, so deeds become habits, and get dominion over us. ‘He sold himself to do evil.’ He made himself a bond-slave of iniquity. It is an awful and a miserable thing to think that professing Christians do often come into that position of being, by their inflamed passions and enfeebled wills, servants of the evil that they do. Alas! how many of us, if we were honest with ourselves, would have to say. ‘I am carnal, sold unto sin.’
That is not the lowest rung of the slippery ladder. Despotic sin ends in utter departure.
The word translated here, quite correctly, ‘transgression,’ and intensified by that strong adjective attached, ‘a great transgression,’ literally means rebellion, revolt, or some such idea; and expresses, as the ultimate issue of conscious transgression prolonged and perpetuated into habit, an entire casting off of allegiance to God. ‘No man can serve two masters.’ ‘His servants ye are whom ye obey,’ whomsoever ye may call your master. The Psalmist feels that the end of indulged evil is going over altogether to the other camp. I suppose all of us have known instances of that sort. Men in my position, with a long life of ministry behind them, can naturally remember many such instances. And this is the outline history of the suicide of a Christian. First secret sin, unsuspected, because the conscience is torpid; then open sin, known to be such, but done nevertheless; then dominant sin, with an enfeebled will and power of resistance; then the abandonment of all pretence or profession of religion. The ladder goes down into the pit, but not to the bottom of the pit. And the man that is going down it has a descending impulse after he has reached the bottom step and he falls-Where? The first step down is tampering with conscience. It is neither safe nor wise to do anything, howsoever small, against that voice. All the rest will come afterward, unless God restrains-’first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear,’ and then the bitter harvest of the poisonous grain.
II. So, secondly, note the help sought.
The Psalmist is like a man standing on the edge of some precipice, and peeping over the brink to the profound beneath, and feeling his head beginning to swim. He clutches at the strong, steady hand of his guide, knowing that unless he is restrained, over he will go. ‘Keep Thou back Thy servant from presumptuous sins.’
So, then, the first lesson we have to take is, to cherish a lowly consciousness of our own tendency to light-headedness and giddiness. ‘Blessed is the man that feareth always.’ That fear has nothing cowardly about it. It will not abate in the least the buoyancy and bravery of our work. It will not tend to make us shirk duty because there is temptation in it, but it will make us go into all circumstances realising that without that divine help we cannot stand, and that with it we cannot fall. ‘Hold Thou me up, and I shall be safe.’ The same Peter that said, ‘Though all should forsake Thee, yet will not I,’ was wiser and braver when he said, in later days, being taught by former presumption, ‘Pass the time of your sojourning here in fear.’
Let me remind you, too, that the temper which we ought to cherish is that of a confident belief in the reality of a divine support. The prayer of my text has no meaning at all, unless the actual supernatural communication by God’s own Holy Spirit breathed into men’s hearts be a simple truth. ‘Hold Thou me up,’ ‘Keep Thou me back,’ means, if it means anything, ‘Give me in my heart a mightier strength than mine own, which shall curb all this evil nature of mine, and bring it into conformity with Thy holy will.’
How is that restraining influence to be exercised? There are many ways by which God, in His providence, can fulfil the prayer. But the way above all others is by the actual operation upon heart and will and desires of a divine Spirit, who uses for His weapon the Word of God, revealed by Jesus Christ, and in the Scriptures. ‘The sword of the Spirit is the Word of God,’ and God’s answer to the prayer of my text is the gift to every man who seeks it of that indwelling Power to sustain and to restrain.
That will keep our passions down. The bubbling water is lowered in its temperature, and ceases to bubble, when cold is added to it. When God’s Spirit comes into a man’s heart, that will deaden his desires after earth and forbidden ways. He will bring blessed higher objects for all his affections. He who has been fed on ‘the hidden manna’ will not be likely to hanker after the leeks and onions, however strong their smell and pungent their taste, that grew in the Nile mud in Egypt. He who has tasted the higher sweetnesses of God will have his heart’s desires after lower delights strangely deadened and cooled. Get near God, and open your hearts for the entrance of that divine Spirit, and then it will not seem foolish to empty your hands of the trash that they carry in order to grasp the precious things that He gives. A bit of scrap-iron magnetised turns to the pole. My heart, touched by the Spirit of God dwelling in me, will turn to Him, and I shall find little sweetness in the else tempting delicacies that earth can supply. ‘Keep Thy servant back from,’ by depriving him of the taste for, ‘presumptuous sins.’
That Spirit will strengthen our wills. For when God comes into a heart, He restores the due subordination which has been broken into discord and anarchy by sin. He dismounts the servant riding on horseback, and carrying the horse to the devil, according to the proverb, and gives the reins into the right hands. Now, if the gift of God’s Spirit, working through the Word of God, and the principles and the motives therein unfolded, and therefrom deducible, be the great means by which we are to be kept from open and conscious transgression, it follows very plainly that our task is twofold. One part of it is to see that we cultivate that spirit of lowly dependence, of self-conscious weakness, of triumphant confidence, which will issue in the perpetual prayer for God’s restraint. When we enter upon tasks which may be dangerous, and into regions of temptation which cannot but be so, though they be duty, we should ever have the desire in our hearts and upon our lips that God would keep us from, and in, the evil.
The other part of our duty is to make it a matter of conscience and careful cultivation, to use honestly and faithfully the power which, in response to our desires, has been granted to us. All of you, Christian men and women, have access to an absolute security against every transgression; and the cause lies wholly at your own doors in each case of failure, deficiency, or transgression, for at every moment it was open to you to clasp the Hand that holds you up, and at every moment, if you failed, it was because your careless fingers had relaxed their grasp.
III. Lastly, observe the daring hope here cherished.
‘Then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression.’ That is the upshot of the divine answer to both the petitions which have been occupying us in these two successive sermons. It is connected with the former of them by the recurrence of the same word, which in the first petition was rendered ‘cleanse’-or, more accurately, ‘clear’-and in this final clause is to be rendered accurately, ‘I shall be clear from the great transgression.’ And it obviously connects in sense with both these petitions, because, in order to be upright and clear, there must, first of all, be divine cleansing, and then divine restraint.
So, then, nothing short of absolute deliverance from the power of sin in all its forms should content the servant of God. Nothing short of it contents the Master for the servant. Nothing short of it corresponds to the power which Christ puts in operation in every heart that believes in Him. And nothing else should be our aim in our daily conflict with evil and growth in grace. Ah! I fear me that, for an immense number of professing Christians in this generation, the hope of-and, still more, the aim towards-anything approximating to entire deliverance from sin, have faded from their consciences and their lives. Aim at the stars, brother! and if you do not hit them, your arrow will go higher than if it were shot along the lower levels.
Note that an indefinite approximation to this condition is possible. I am not going to discuss, at this stage of my discourse, controversial questions which may be involved here. It will be time enough to discuss with you whether you can be absolutely free from sin in this world when you are a great deal freer from it than you are at present. At all events, you can get far nearer to the ideal, and the ideal must always be perfect. And I lay it on your hearts, dear friends! that you have in your possession, if you are Christian people, possibilities in the way of conformity to the Master’s will, and entire emancipation from all corruption, that you have not yet dreamed of, not to say applied to your lives. ‘I pray God that He would sanctify you wholly, and that your whole body, soul, and spirit be preserved blameless unto the coming.’
That daring hope will be fulfilled one day; for nothing short of it will exhaust the possibilities of Christ’s work or satisfy the desires of Christ’s heart.
The Gospel knows nothing of irreclaimable outcasts. To it there is but one unpardonable sin, and that is the sin of refusing the cleansing of Christ’s blood and the sanctifying of Christ’s Spirit. Whoever you are, whatever you are, go to God with this prayer of our text, and realise that it is answered in Jesus Christ, and you will not ask in vain. If you will put yourself into His hands, and let Him cleanse and restrain, He will give you new powers to detect the serpents in the flowers, and new resolution to shake off the vipers into the fire. For there is nothing that God wants half so much as that we, His wandering children, should come back to Him, and He will cleanse us from the filth of the swine trough and the rags of our exile, and clothe us in ‘fine linen clean and white.’ We may each be sinless and guiltless. We can be so in one way only. If we look to Jesus Christ, and live near Him, He ‘will be made of God unto us wisdom,’ by which we shall detect our secret sins; ‘righteousness,’ whereby we shall be cleansed from guilt; ‘sanctification,’ which shall restrain us from open transgression; ‘and redemption,’ by which we shall be wholly delivered from evil and ‘presented faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy.’