In Christian tradition, Psalm 32 has long been classified as one of the seven "penitential psalms," which are often read during the liturgical season of Lent.
As a season of repentance, discipline, and preparation, Lent brings themes of sin, confession, and redemption to the forefront of our thinking. Reflecting on Psalm 32 is particularly appropriate for this first week of Lent, as this text provides instruction on the means and results of confession. The psalmist testifies to the relief, both physical and spiritual, that came to him when he confessed his sin to the Lord, and the Lord forgave him.
The many changes of address in this psalm, combined with the three uses of the mysterious but probably musical term "selah," remind us of the liturgical foundation of the psalms. We can imagine that this poem was sung, perhaps with alternating voices, as part of a worship experience in ancient Israel or Judah. The opening verses lay out the theme for the rest of the psalm: forgiveness yields happiness. They serve as declarative wisdom sayings. The beginnings of verses 1 and 2, "Happy are those...," recall the wisdom phrases bracketing Psalms 1 and 2 as the introduction to the Psalter.
In fact, the relationship between those psalms and Psalm 32 is complementary. As J. Clinton McCann, Jr., points out, "By defining happiness in terms of forgiveness, Psalm 32 functions as an important check against any tendency to misunderstand Psalm 1. That is, to be righteous is not a matter of being sinless but a matter of being forgiven, of being open to God's instruction (Psalm 1:2; see 32:8-9), and of trusting God rather than self (verse 10; see Psalm 2:12)."1
In verses 3-7, the psalmist addresses God in a prayer that also serves as instructive testimony for his listeners. Silence had brought him suffering; confession brought forgiveness, and with it, relief (verses 3-5). What he has learned from his experience, and what he wishes to share, is that the faithful should turn to God in times of suffering in order to find deliverance (verses 6-7).
The voice of the psalm then shifts from addressing God in the voice of a supplicant to addressing the pupil in the voice of a teacher (verses 8-9). The identity of the first-person speaker is unclear. Perhaps God is speaking to the psalmist; perhaps a teacher is speaking to the psalmist; perhaps the psalmist himself is a teacher addressing a student. I find the latter possibility most compelling, as it fits well with the testimonial nature of verses 3-7. In any case, though, the didactic motivations of the psalm come into full view in verses 8-9.
Like any good teacher, the speaker makes an analogy to something the student already knows well in order to illustrate the concept she or he is trying to communicate. "Do not be like a horse or a mule," says the teacher (verse 9). Discipline of those animals, so that they might follow in the right path, requires physical restraint. They lack understanding. The pupil, on the other hand, has the opportunity for understanding, if only the pupil will be surrender to the tutelage of the speaker.
This metaphor of the stubborn horse or mule contrasted with the obedient student is helpful for us today as well, especially as students of scripture entering into the season of Lent. We are called to be renewed, even intensified discipline throughout these forty days. That discipline is not something that can be forced upon us with bit or bridle, but is rather something we must submit to freely. It is popular these days to think of Lent as a time to take on a new spiritual practice rather than simply give up a vice, and this psalm helps us in that embrace of new habits. Perhaps we will begin a new discipline of daily study of the Bible, or perhaps we will reinvigorate our daily prayer lives. Whatever practices Lent brings to us, we should submit to them with the joy of those who are being instructed in the gladness brought on by God's forgiveness.
Psalm 32 ends similarly to the way it begins: with an address to the general audience, declaring a wisdom saying (verse 10). The very last verse, though, is neither instruction nor testimony, but rather a quick series of three exhortations: "Be glad!" "Rejoice!" "Shout for joy!" Joy is not an emotion often associated with Lent, when we silence our Alleluias until Easter. But this psalm, which at its heart is about the uncomfortable topics of sin and confession, begins and ends with references to happiness, not misery. To acknowledge and repent of sin is to receive God's forgiveness. There is no response but joy, even in the somber season of Lent! During Lent, we await Jesus' death, but we also await his resurrection. Even now, sin gives way to forgiveness. Death gives way to life. God's steadfast love continues to surround us (verse 10).
The psalmist's testimony continues to instruct us today: silence is death-dealing, but confession gives life. God forgives. In response to the grace we have received, we submit ourselves willingly to the disciplined study of how best to follow God, rejoicing continually in gratitude for the love poured out upon us.
1 J. Clinton McCann, Jr. New Interpreter's Bible 4:805.