The Happiness That Godly Sorrow Brings: Ten Things About Psalm 32

10 thingsIn preparation for Sunday’s sermon on Psalm 32, here are ten things about David’s confession of sin that leads to joyful song.

1. Psalm 32 is a hybrid psalm containing elements of thanksgiving and wisdom.

Gerald Wilson calls Psalm 32 a “psalm of thanksgiving coupled with instruction encouraging the reader not to resist the guidance of Yahweh but to trust him fully” (Psalms Vol. 1544). Likewise, Peter Craigie concludes Psalm 32 is “a basic thanksgiving psalm [that] has been given literary adaptation according to the wisdom tradition” (Psalms 1–50265).

For those who read the Psalm devotionally, not academically, the classification of the Psalm does not matter as much as how the elements of thanksgiving and wisdom work together. In the flow of Psalm 32, thanksgiving leads to instruction and words of wise counsel arise from God’s forgiveness for which David is thankful. In this way, it is helpful to see how thanksgiving and instruction reinforce one another in Psalm 32 and our lives.

2. Psalm 32 continues the theme of hiding from Psalm 31 and causes the theme of joyful singing in Psalm 33.

A canonical reading of the Psalms pays careful attention to the neighborhood in which any psalm is located. In the case of Psalm 32, there is good reason to see connections with Psalms 31 and 33. First, in Psalm 31 the word “refuge” repeats in vv. 1, 2, 4, and 19 as David seeks to “hide” himself from his enemies (v. 20). In Psalm 32, there is a variation to this hiding theme. David is hiding his sin from God (vv. 3–4); yet when he uncovers his sin and confesses his iniquity (v. 5), he finds the joy of sins forgiven (vv. 1–2).

Psalm 31 and 32 also relate in the way that the latter deals with the ongoing effects of sin. Whereas “iniquity” is mentioned once in Psalm 31 (v. 10), and “bones wasting away” is attributed to the onslaught of enemies; now in Psalm 32 the physical effects of sin are increased by the unwillingness to confess sin. Read together, this may suggest that the small, hidden sin of Psalm 31 has grown because David has not confessed his sin.

Next, Psalm 32 and 33 can be read together in at least two ways. First, there is not a superscription at the beginning of Psalm 33, suggesting that we read them together. Strengthening this joint reading is the way Psalm 32 ends and Psalm 33 begins with joyful song.

Psalm 32:11

Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!

Psalm 33:1–3

Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous!
Praise befits the upright.
2 Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre;
make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!
3 Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

From this connection, we might conclude Psalm 33 extends praise to God, because forgiven sinners are now able to enjoy all of creation without turning God’s gifts into idols. In other words, as the soul languishes in sin, it cannot look beyond itself to praise God for creation. Even more, creation continues to be a “fig leaf” behind which the sinner hides. But once sins have been forgiven, all of creation becomes a source of praise as Psalm 33 recounts.

3. Psalm 32 uses three words for sin.

In Psalm 32 there is a trio of words for sin. For instance, verses 1–2 begin,

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

Each of these words a different shade of meaning: the first speaks of rebellion against God and his law, the second of deviation from God’s standard, the third refers to wrong-doing and the guilt it brings. In reading Psalm 32 we should consider both the shades of meaning, but even more the comprehensive nature of sin. As Peter Craigie notes,

Three principal terms are employed to designate the dimensions of human evil: (1) transgression (peša) namely acts reflecting rebellion against God; (2) sin (hata’ah), the most general term, designating an offense, or turning away from the true path; (3) iniquity (‘awon) indicating distortion, criminality, or the absence of respect for the divine will. . . . The three terms as a whole specify the full dimensions of human evil, and hence the situation from which a person might be delivered through divine forgiveness, thus finding happiness. (Psalms 1–50266)

Importantly, joy comes when sin is acknowledged not denied, guilt is exposed not hidden, and rebellion is confessed not justified. Repeated twice (vv. 1–2, 5), these words for sin reflect the comprehensiveness of forgiveness that God gives, as well as the need to hold nothing back from God. He is able to deal with all sin and he requires that all sin be brought into the light.

4. Psalm 32 teaches us the physical effects of not confessing one’s sin.

Ulcers. Headaches. Chronic fatigue. These are just a few physical effects that emotional stress brings. And when the internal unrest is caused by unconfessed and hidden sin, Psalm 32 teaches that the body groans and the bones waste away (v. 3).

Earlier Psalm 31 identified the physical effects of iniquity and the affliction of David’s enemies (vv. 9–10). Now these effects have multiplied and David links the effects of hidden sin to physical illness.

The consequences of unrepentant silence are poetically evoked in physical terms; indeed, the physical language has led some commentators to suggest that there is a here a reflection of psychosomatic illness, a bodily a reaction to the internally contained conflicts of guilt. But it is more likely the words should be interpreted in a more general poetic sense. (Psalms 1–50266–67).

In my thinking, the poetic imagery does not overturn the physical effects of sin. Instead the poetic description captures the reality that human’s are embodied souls. Our outer flesh impacts our inner welfare, and vice versa.

Certainly, not every disease or affliction can be linked to sin. The book of Job, as well as Psalm 73, correct such a mechanical views. Nonetheless, there remains a reality that hidden sin often produces deleterious effects on the body. This is one way God leads his children to repentance and sanctifies his saints, and it is one way that “the wages of sin is death” is forewarned in this age.

5. The best way to think of forgiveness in Psalm 32 is that of a weight lifted.

The word for forgiveness (used in vv. 1, 5) communicates more than acquittal; it actually describes the lifting of a (guilty) burden. Tracing this theme throughout the Old Testament and into the New, Gerald Wilson helps us see why forgiveness as burden-lifting is such a cause of joy.

Explaining how the priest of Israel bore the guilt of the people (Exod. 28:38) and the husband could bear the guilt of his wife (Num. 30:15), Wilson comments on Psalm 32,

The affirmation in our passage that God “lifted up” the guilt of the psalmist’s sin is part of a broader use of this idiom in relation to God. In Exodus 34:7; Numbers 14:18; and Micah 7:18, Yahweh bears responsibility for the guilt of Israel. Like the husband of Numbers 30:15, he assumes responsibility for the actions of his spouse, whether right or wrong. For this reason Isaiah (Isa. 33:24) can say . . . that the sins of those who dwell in Jerusalem (lit.) “will be lifted up” or borne by God himself.

Of course the ultimate example of God’s “lifting up” or “bearing the guilt of our sin” is accomplished in the work of Jesus. Hebrews 9:28 most nearly approaches the Old Testament idiom when it declares “so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” Paul, in a less direct allusion, makes a similar point: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteous ness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). (Wilson, Psalms Vol. 1550)

From this word picture we can see how sin afflicts the body and crushes the soul. Though metaphorical in description, it accurately depicts the damage sin inflicts. Conversely, this image of burden-lifting shows how confession liberates the soul and brings healing to the body.

6. Psalm 32 is filled with personal confession and public testimony.

Corporate confession is an historic part of Reformation worship, but it is only as good as the individuals who “confess.” In Psalm 32 we discover a very personal element to the Psalm, which in turn shows how individuals are to confess.

First, in verses 3–4 David details the effect of sin on his body. Then he speaks of his personal repentance, where he (1) acknowledged his sin, (2) uncovered his iniquity, and (3) confessed his transgressions. More than just changing his feelings, verse 5 includes verbal admission of sin: “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” This testimony reminds us that we need to express with words our sins to God, not just emote feelings.

At the same time, true confession is not hidden in a closet. As verses 6–7 indicate, the repentant believer will call others to follow God. Experiencing the joy of sins forgiven, the Christian is impelled to invite others to find the same mercy. Thus, as forgiveness is received through confession, confession also leads to public testimony and gospel proclamation. In truth, telling the story of one’s life-change is not the same thing as telling the gospel, but it is a natural part of the believers story which leads into the gospel.

7. True forgiveness empowers evangelism, ethics, and exaltation.

If words are used to hide one’s sin, they are also used to expound one’s forgiveness. As Psalm 32 teaches us, once sins are forgiven it leads to evangelism, ethical living, and joyful exaltation. Notice how this unfolds. First, we see in verses 6–7 how David’s experience of grace leads him to invite others to find God while there is time:

6 Therefore let everyone who is godly
offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found;
surely in the rush of great waters,
they shall not reach him.
7 You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with shouts of deliverance.

Next, the grace that justifies David also sanctifies him. As verses 8–9 record God’s word to David forgiveness is not a license to sin, but a renewed power to live wisely,

8 I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
9 Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you.

Finally, in Psalm 32 we see how sins forgiven teaches David that illusory joys of sin will only lead to sorrow. Meanwhile, joyful song is the result of God’s pardon. As verses 10–11 state,

10 Many are the sorrows of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord.
11 Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!

Altogether, Psalm 32 teaches that the immediate joy of sins forgiven does not lead to more sins which God can forgive. Rather, forgiveness leads to a path of wisdom and righteousness so that the forgiven sinner can continue to enjoy the God who saves and sanctifies. Nevertheless, we should not assume—as some do—that this path of wisdom and righteousness is one of sinlessness.

Instead, the path of righteousness is one that learns to confess sin with regularity. As John will say in his first epistle, “I am writing these things to you that you may not sin, but if you do sin”—and the unstated fact it is that God’s children will continue to sin—“we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:1–2).

Truly, Psalm 32 does not promise sinless perfection, but neither does it permit sinful license. It calls sinners to stop hiding their sin and to walk in fellowship with God. And for those in fellowship with God because of sins forgiven, it instructs to live a life of ethical living, evangelism, and exultant worship. Indeed, by means of testifying to the grace of God we are reminded of what God has done for us and it empowers us to continue to walk with him.

 8. Psalm 32 calls us to communion with God in the good times.

Psalm 32 is an excellent psalm to counsel someone (ourselves or others) who is dealing with sin. It is also a psalm that teaches those in the marrow of life to not forget the Lord. As Gerald Wilson states, we should not take communion with God for granted. If God is available to us today, we should not postpone conversation until tomorrow:

There is a sense of realistic urgency in the psalmist’s call to prayer. While God is always present with humans, he is not always available to be found by them. Reluctance to confess leads to delay and compounds the possibility of human error. God does not make himself readily available to those who seek him only in times of extreme distress. The psalmist’s exhortation is that a relationship of trust and reliance on God must be built in times of relative peace and security, so that when the “mighty waters” of trouble come, the one who has an established pattern of communication with Yahweh will not be overcome. (Wilson, Psalms Vol. 1547)

Psalm 32 with its description of physical ailment is a severe Psalm and one that teaches us to pursue God’s kindness before the severity of life becomes too great. As Isaiah 56:6–7 states, “Seek the Lord while he may be found. Call upon [God] while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”

Truly, this is the Christian’s mindset. We do not simply seek God in moments of crisis; we also seek him during the good days, so that when suffering comes we will both know the God who saves us and how to commune with the God of light even in the dark. Indeed, if God has given you life and health today, wisdom teaches you to cultivate your relationship with God and not evade him until storm clouds arise.

9. Psalm 32 reminds Christians that maturity in Christ will result in greater sensitivity to sin.

While this Psalm can speak to the sinner who stands outside of Christ, in the context of David’s life, it seems better to see it as the experience of a believer. In this case, we learn two important truths: (1) Christians can hide sin just like anyone else, (2) the more mature / more holy a Christian is, the more they will feel the pain of sin.

John Calvin makes the point astutely,

The more eminently that anyone excels in holiness, the farther he feels himself from perfect righteousness, and the more clearly he perceives that he can trust in nothing but the mercy of God alone. Hence it appears that those are grossly mistaken who conceive that the pardon of sin is necessary only to the beginning of righteousness. As believers are every day involved in many faults, it will profit them nothing that they have once entered the way of righteousness, unless the same grace which brought them into it accompany them to the last step of their life. Does anyone object that they are elsewhere said to be blessed “who fear the Lord,” “who walk in his ways, “who are upright in heart”? The answer is easy, namely, that as the perfect fear of the Lord, the perfect observance of his law and perfect uprightness of heart are nowhere to be found, all that the Scripture anywhere says concerning blessedness is founded on the free favor of God, by which he reconciles us to himself. (Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms)

10. Psalm 32 stands against our modern understanding of happiness and blessing.

The first nine observations about Psalm 32 relate to the Psalm in its original context. But as it confronts the world today, it teaches us an important lesson. True and abiding happiness is not found in the pleasures of sin, but in its forgiveness. True blessing is not what people can do and get away with; true blessing begins with confession and continues with praise to God for his grace in salvation and creation.

The kind of happiness, presented in Psalm 32, is foreign to today’s world, but that doesn’t make Psalm 32 irrelevant. Just the opposite, the promise of happiness that comes on the other side of confessing sin is the most liberating, life-giving joy available.

For this reason, we need to remember the goodness of confession. When our hearts are tempted to hide our wrongdoings, it is the joy that stands on the other side of the cross that empowers to confess and leads us to find life in Christ’s atonement and the Spirit’s work of sanctification.

To this end, let us read and pray Psalm 32, so that our joy in sins forgiven might lead us to know God and sing songs of praise for his glorious grace—grace that pardons and grace that empowers us to live in wisdom and holiness.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds