Jonathan Edwards on Psalm 19: How to Make Your Principles Fit Your Practices

BSM Barshinger Jonathan Edwards

In Psalm 19, David celebrates God’s revelation first in creation and then in Scripture. He describes in poetic language the nature of God’s word as perfect, right, and pure, and the function of God’s word as reviving, rejoicing, and enlightening the soul. But what happens when sinners ponder Scripture and confront its pristine picture of God’s holiness? Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) helps us consider such a question in a sermon he preached on Psalm 19:12.1

As the psalmist meditates on the incomparable worth of God’s laws—“More to be desired are they than gold” (Ps 19:10)—he naturally turns to self-reflection, considering how his life matches up with the “excellent, pure law of God.” And that leaves him asking a question: “Who can discern his errors? / Declare me innocent from hidden faults” (Ps 19:12).

The phrase “hidden faults,” Edwards explains, emphasizes “not those that are hidden from others but those that are hidden from ourselves.” From this Edwards draws the following theme: “’Tis an exceeding hard thing for men to be sensible that they are sinful and offensive to God.” Why? Because we are blind—ignorant of God and ourselves.

Edwards describes how prone we are to hiding our faults from ourselves. We cloud our vision of our own sin. Still, we like to maintain harmony in our souls. We resist the feeling that we are contradicting in our lives what we hold true in our hearts. Because we are, in our fallen state, bent toward sin, we often feel an internal tension between what we believe and what we do—what Edwards calls our “principles and practices.”

Such a tension results in “a very uncomfortable, disquieted life,” and we understandably desire resolution. How do we find it? As Edwards puts it, “If [people] don’t bring them to agree together by bringing their practices to agree with their principles, they will do it by bringing their principles to agree with their practices, which is what is most frequently done.”

For example, if I hold the principle that I ought to treat people with kindness and dignity, but in practice I am short and condescending to my subordinates at work, I have an inner conflict. I could resolve that conflict by aligning my practices to fit my principles. But as Edwards observes, I will typically resolve that inner conflict by bending my principles to fit my practices—finding some exception based on, for example, my business context or the need to maintain authority.

How should we go about resisting the slide into compromised principles? Edwards exhorts us to diligently examine ourselves and ask God to show us our errors (Ps 19:12; cf. 139:23–24), for we need the Spirit to enlighten our blind eyes. But he also calls us to “seek an eminent degree of a savor and relish of divine things.”

In other words, when God reorients our hearts to love what he loves, we are prepared to embrace principles that harmonize with God’s ways, to stop justifying our secret sins, and to bend our practices to God’s principles. That is the way out of a “disquieted life,” and into a place where our words and thoughts are “acceptable in [God’s] sight” (Ps 19:14).

Edwards reads Psalm 19:12 in three contexts. He reads it in the immediate biblical context, which contrasts the excellence of God’s word with the shortcomings of the human heart. He reads it in the theological context of all Scripture, which enables him to drill more deeply into the nature of sin by considering our self-deception. And he reads it in a pastoral context, uncovering the subtle manifestations of our hidden faults and showing the pathway to align our practices with God’s holy principles.

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This article was originally published in the January/February 2022 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.

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  1. All quotations in this article come from Jonathan Edwards, “517. Sermon on Ps. 19:12 (September 1739),” in Sermons, Series II, 1739, vol. 54 of the Works of Jonathan Edwards (Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University, 2008), which are all available in Logos Bible Software. I have modernized spelling and capitalization.
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David P. Barshinger

David P. Barshinger is the author of Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms (Oxford University Press, 2014), and he blogs at exploringchurchhistory.com. He currently serves as a book editor at Crossway.

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