Proverbs 20:9

Who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin?

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Who can you fully trust? No one, especially you! Wisdom includes knowledge your heart is corrupt (Pr 28:26). You will increase in wisdom when you learn to mistrust yourself.

Only fools trust their own motives and thoughts (Pr 12:15; 14:12; Jer 17:9; I Cor 3:18-20). This crucial fact forces you to seek counsel for decisions from God or wise men, keeps you from proudly condemning others, and causes you to cry out to God for mercy.

Can you answer the proverb’s question? The answer is negative: no man can make these two statements about his heart. It is a literary style that an interrogative of positives creates a powerful negative conclusion. Man’s heart by nature is corrupt, and his motives are impure. Solomon used the power of the rhetorical negative to teach man’s depravity.

The Bible, the inspired holy book of Christians, teaches that all men have perverse hearts and selfish motives. Adam, the father of humanity, ruined the human race by rebelling against God (Rom 5:12-14). Since the Garden of Eden, all men by nature despise God and righteousness and love sin and evil (Ps 14:1-3; 51:5; 58:3; Rom 3:9-18; Titus 3:3).

Job used a rhetorical question to teach the same truth. “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one” (Job 14:4). And his friend Eliphaz asked, “What is man, that he should be clean? and he which is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?” (Job 15:14). And his friend Bildad asked, “How then can man be justified with God? or how can he be clean that is born of a woman?” (Job 25:4).

The human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, beyond even your ability to comprehend (Jer 17:9). Believe the painful truth! No man can overcome this internal curse that twists his thinking and perverts his motives (I Jn 1:8-10). Only by the creative power of Jesus Christ can men obtain a new heart of righteousness and holiness, capable of true wisdom (Rom 8:7-8; I Cor 2:14-16; Eph 2:10; 4:24; Phil 2:12-13).

What is the lesson? The doctrine is clear – man is depraved, foolish, sinful, and wicked, and he cannot cure himself. But why is this proverb here without context (Pr 20:8-10)? It fits Romans better! Remember Solomon’s purpose to teach young men discretion and wisdom (Pr 1:1-4). There are two important lessons here – others cannot be fully trusted to have pure intentions, and you must not foolishly presume your own motives are pure.

Solomon made a similar argument from the doctrine of human depravity in his book of philosophy – Ecclesiastes. He wrote, “For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not” (Ec 7:20). Again, it appears there is little or no context for the statement (Ec 7:19-21). But if you look closer, you see that Solomon was warning against thoughts of self-righteousness and excessive harshness toward others (Ec 7:16-22).

A prerequisite for wisdom is to know man’s nature – it is incurably foolish and depraved. Holy cynicism is necessary to deal with human problems. Therefore, you must evaluate others’ opinions and thoughts by the criterion of Scripture (Ps 119:98-100,128; Job 32:7-9; Is 8:20). As Paul wrote later, “Let God be true, but every man a liar” (Rom 3:4)!

But you cannot trust your own opinions or thoughts either. So you must also test your ideas by scripture (Ps 19:7-11; II Tim 3:16-17). With holy doubts about your own motives and thoughts, you will more faithfully heed Solomon’s exhortation to a multitude of counselors for your safety (Pr 11:14) and more humbly receive correction (Pr 27:5-6).

Furthermore, you must slow down to better hear others’ arguments and complaints, when in time past you might have reacted too arrogantly and quickly (Pr 18:13). After all, your judgment could be very wrong due to your corrupt heart. With this proverb’s wisdom firmly in your mind, you will slow your responses and study before answering (Pr 15:28).

Reject all self-righteousness (Pr 20:6). Let your walk prove your integrity (Pr 20:7). If a ruler corrects you, do not reject the rebuke foolishly (Pr 20:8). Examine even minor aspects of life (Pr 20:10). Even a child is known by his actions, not his words (Pr 20:11). If you have ability to see or hear truth with understanding, it is by God’s grace (Pr 20:12).

The only hope for you or any other person is the grace of God and resurrection power of Jesus Christ to give you a new heart (Rom 8:7-8; I Cor 2:14-16; II Tim 2:24-26). There is no rehabilitation of the human heart; it must be recreated. Perfection cannot be achieved here; you must wait for heaven (Heb 12:23). Even the best of men and their most noble actions are tainted and spoiled by the remaining corruption in their earthly frames.

Therefore, great humility about your condition is necessary to learn wisdom. Neither you nor any other man can be fully trusted. You must beg God for mercy on your miserable state, and you must trust every word of God over any thoughts of your own (Ps 119:113). Since you cannot make your heart clean or be pure from sin, you must cast yourself on the grace of God in Jesus Christ for the next life and trust His infallible Bible for this life.