First Sunday in Lent (Year A)

For around a hundred years, “form criticism” has provided the dominant approach to interpreting the psalms.

Christ in the Desert
"Christ in the Desert," detail of a chapel stained glass window, St. Joseph's Institution, Singapore. Image by Lawrence OP licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

March 9, 2014

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Commentary on Psalm 32

For around a hundred years, “form criticism” has provided the dominant approach to interpreting the psalms.

In this approach, the first step is to identify the “form” (German: Gattung) of a psalm. The belief here is that a crucial step — indeed, an essential step — in the task in interpreting a piece of literature is the task of understanding its form, its shape, its genre. The “form” provides the literary context for making sense of the words. The “form” of the piece of literature then helps you understand what the smaller phrases and words mean in context.

This makes perfect sense. And most of us do this many times every day. Some examples.

When you read a recipe for sugar cookies, you automatically register the literary form as “recipe” and you treat it as such. When the recipe says “a pinch of salt” you know that it is literal and prescriptive: it tells you what to do. You are to reach into the salt cellar, pinch your thumb and finger around some sea salt (you only use sea salt, because you have class), and throw it into the mixing bowl.

When you read an obituary, you register it as such and contextualize the words and dates as about a deceased person. If the obituary describes a man as having had “a pinch of salt,” you know that this word is metaphorical and descriptive: it tells you who the man was. He had an edge to his personality.

Literary genres are important. They are patterns of language. They signal intention and they create literary expectations. And most of the time — as long as the reader has a sufficient degree of cultural literacy — literary genres make the task of human communication easier.

The trouble, however, is that sometimes genres don’t work as well as others. Sometimes, the urge to categorize, apply labels, arrange things in drawers, line them up neatly, just doesn’t work that well.

Consider Psalm 32.

If you know a bit about the forms of the psalms, you probably are familiar with the following psalm genres:

  • Prayers for Help (also called Lament psalms)
  • Praise Psalms *(also called Hymns)
  • Thanksgiving Psalms
  • Trust Psalms
  • Royal Psalms
  • Wisdom Psalms
  • Creation Psalms
  • Historical Psalms

If you know a lot about psalms, you might be even know about:

  • Imprecatory Psalms
  • Psalms of Innocence
  • Penitential Psalms
  • Torah Psalms
  • Enthronement Psalms
  • Dirges
  • Songs of Zion
  • Acrostic Psalms
  • Festival Psalms
  • And the ever-dreaded “Mixed-Type Psalm” (sort of the adolescent, middle child of the Psalter)

But if you read Psalm 32, you are going to get mixed signals.

Is this a wisdom psalm? Verses 1-2, 8-10 sound a lot like wisdom:

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
else it will not stay near you.
Many are the torments of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD.

Is this a prayer for help? Verse 5b sounds like it:

“I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them

But other verses sound like a song of thanksgiving. See verses 3-5a:

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”

But verse 7 sounds like a Psalm of Trust:                  

You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

And verse 11 sounds like a Praise Psalm:

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

And as if that isn’t enough, the Western Church has defined Psalm 32 as one of several penitential psalms because of the psalm’s emphasis on confessing one’s transgressions to the Lord and on the forgiveness of the Lord.

Good grief! Is this a thanksgiving psalm, a lament/prayer for help, a trust psalm, a penitential psalm, a wisdom psalm, or a praise psalm?

The great German father of form criticism, Hermann Gunkel, labeled Psalm 32 an individual psalm of thanksgiving with wisdom elements — but not as a penitential psalm.1 Beth Tanner describes the psalm more accurately as a “celebration of forgiveness.”2 Tanner’s title, while not one of the formal categories, is to be preferred.

Psalm 32 is a poem. It celebrates the joy of one who has personally experienced the forgiveness of God. The ancient poet who reached for language to give voice to this joy found it necessary — or, at least, suitable — to borrow language from many different categories of Israelite theology: wisdom, prayer, thanksgiving, praise, penitential thought, and trust. For this reason, the psalm moves a bit awkwardly from phrase to phrase:

  • sometimes addressing God (“your hand was heavy upon me,” “let all who are faithful offer prayer to you,” etc.)
  • sometimes addressing what seems to be a distant, literary audience (“happy are those to whose transgression is forgiven”)
  • at one point remembering words that were addressed to the self (“I said [to myself], ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’”)
  • later speaking words of advice (“do not be like horse or mule, without understanding”)
  • and at the finale speaking a call to praise as if to a community that has gathered for worship (“be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous!).

As such, the poem may seem slightly awkward, perhaps even, dare one say, derivative — its lines seemingly cobbled together from the leftover phrases of other poems.

But this is not a poetic weakness, but an artistic strength. Psalm 32 is like that impromptu feast that a grandma serves when a beloved grandchild shows up unannounced. She rifles through the fridge, the cupboards, and the breadbox and pulls together a feast of favorite morsels. Or, as Beth Tanner has it, a celebration of forgiveness.

The theology of forgiveness — especially the Christian, Pauline doctrine of forgiveness — is certainly well known to Working Preacher audiences. There is no need to go into it at length here. But two quick words are worth saying.

First, there is grace and forgiveness in the Old Testament. Some Christians may have been raised on the false diet from the mistaken Old-Testament-equals-law-and-judgment while the New-Testament-equals-grace-and-forgiveness theological table. So it may be good to signal that the theological underpinning of the biblical doctrine of forgiveness is the character of God. And as the Old Testament repeatedly says, the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

Second, there is a role for the community here. The forgiven sinner culminates this poem by calling the community to rejoice. Rejoice! For one a sinner has found forgiveness!

That is a very counter-cultural notion. Our culture doesn’t celebrate forgiveness. We revel in Schadenfreude — enjoying the punishment of others. When some is forgiven or gets away with something, we grind our teeth.

The psalm reminds us that we have a role to play when someone is forgiven. We are to rejoice! To take joy in the new life of the pardoned! In such a way we welcome back one who had been lost to us.

The Christian community is to be a foretaste of heaven. And remember that Jesus said there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 who never went astray (see Luke 15). So that’s our communal job when someone is forgiven. Rejoice! Happy is the one — and the community of that one — whose transgression is forgiven.


Herman Gunkel, Einleitung in die Psalmen, pp. 135 and 21.

From Beth Tanner’s introduction to Psalm 32 in an unpublished manuscript of a psalms commentary to be published in 2014 (NICOT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).