Sunday, January 24, 2010

Psalm 19:12-13a: A Plea for Forgiveness or Strength?

Today’s readings are Neh. 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; Luke 4:14-21 and 1 Cor. 12:12-31a.

It’s been a while since I’ve read Psalm 19 and reading it again was like seeing an old friend. That may sound corny but it’s how I felt. I read through it a couple of times and decided to look at a few commentaries. It was while reading John Goldingay that I discovered a different interpretation of vv. 12-13a. Here’s how the passage reads in the ESV:

Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me!

Every other translation I consulted had the same thought. It was a plea for forgiveness and a request not to be dominated by sin. Here’s the commentary from Goldingay with his translation first:

Who can understand wanderings?—free me from secret acts,
Yes, withhold your servant from the willful.

“EVV [abbreviation for {many} translations] add a pronoun to suggest that v. 12 asks who can understand one’s own individual wrongdoing, but this is not the psalm’s point. It rather begins from a more general sense of puzzlement at the human inclination to go off the rails. The mystery of human sin is the fact that we all go astray even though we can see that God’s expectations make sense, in the way vv. 7-11 have described.
LXX and Jerome assume that v. 12 then asks God to cleanse the suppliant from hidden or secret wrongdoings, but this obscures an issue in the Hebrew. The verb is not one meaning ‘cleanse’ but naqa (piel), ‘acquit.’ The OT makes a number of references to acquitting the guilty, but always in order to affirm that God does not do so and that human beings should not (Exod. 34:7; Job 9:28; 10:14). One person can certainly forgive another, and kings can pardon wrongdoers, and God can both forgive and pardon, but the OT does not use the law-court image in this connection because acquitting the guilty is an immoral act and one destructive of the community’s foundations. It is therefore unlikely that the psalm is asking for cleansing in the sense of acquitting existing wrongdoing, even (or especially) secret or hidden wrongdoing.
But naqa (niphal) can denote being free or empty, and the piel verb here seems to have an equivalent meaning. The cleansing for which the psalm is asking is not forgiveness but the removing of the inclination to wrongdoing. That makes for a good link with the verse’s opening question and a good lead-in to the parallel colon. Further, without the plea for acquittal for past sin, vv. 12-14 have more coherence. Their concern throughout is with a life of obedience that issues from the right attitude to God’s expectations that vv. 7-11 have lauded. They are asking for strength, not forgiveness.”
In explaining “secret acts” Goldingay says there may be two things in mind. It could be the “secret plots that precede actual wrong deeds; hiding is involved when people are planning acts of deception or malice (cf. the cognate nouns in 10:8-9; 101:5).” But it can also involve people who are “seeking help from other deities”. He mentions the secret rites in Ezek. 8 where people are bowing down to the sun. This would tie in nicely with vv. 1-6. “The challenge of vv. 7-11 then concerns a religious life lived by Yhwh’s word rather than one that follows the religious practices of other peoples.”

The “willful” are not sins but rather the “kind of people who are involved in secret plans to do wrong to someone or who secretly worship other deities” and “who do not feel any obligation to take any notice of Yhwh’s instructions. . . The plea constitutes another recognition that the person who sees the wisdom in Yhwh’s teaching (vv. 7-11) is not thereby immune from the pressure to join people who walk another way. The masculine ‘willful’ complements the feminine ‘hidden,’ the ‘hidden things’ being the deeds and the ‘willful people’ those who do them. In another context ‘sparing me from the willful’ could imply protecting me from their attacks (cf. LXX?), but in this context it will signify a plea that I not be sucked into their willfulness (cf. Ps. 1). Yet these two needs may overlap. The willful lean on people to join them—or else.”

Psalms, Volume 1: Psalms 1-41, 294-296.


Scripture Zealot said...

I can't believe how relevant your posts are. You're probably tired of me commenting on all of them. Psalm 19 is one of my favorites if not my favorite so this post of great interest. I did a long post on part of it using older commentaries. That was the most time I ever spent on a post. This sheds new light on what that verse possibly means. Thanks for taking the time.

Louis said...


I could never tire of your comments. You are always welcome. I'm very glad that you have found more than one post relevant. I have enjoyed Goldingay's commentaries on the Psalms and would like to do some other posts from them in the future. Thanks for reading and for commenting!