Commentary on Psalm 32
Three of the readings for this Sunday, including Psalm 32, speak of sin and forgiveness.1
The first reading tells the story of the prophet Nathan confronting King David with his sin. Adultery and murder stain the reputation of this beloved king of Israel. In the Gospel reading, an unnamed woman, a “sinner,” washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. To the astonishment of those around him, Jesus tells her that her sins are forgiven.
Psalm 32 could be the song of that woman and the song of King David (though Psalm 51 is associated more closely with the story of David and Bathsheba). The writer of Psalm 32 knows the terror of secret sin, and the joy of being forgiven. “Happy are those…” he begins his psalm. Or, in an older translation, “Blessed are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”
The psalm is titled, “a maskil,” which seems to mean a wisdom-poem, or a composition designed to make one wise. The psalmist uses the same root in verse 8 to speak of instruction: “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go.” This psalm, then, is a composition designed to teach one how to live well, how to live a happy and blessed life.
So, how does one pursue this happy or blessed life? By confessing one’s sins to God: “While I kept silence, my body wasted away…Then I acknowledged my sin to you…I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (verses 3, 5).
Unrepentant, hidden sin causes grief, shame, and guilt. The sinner’s body “wastes away,” and his strength is “dried up,” like a potted plant left too long in the scorching summer sun. There is no life or vigor left in him, and his secret sin eats away at him, mind, body, and spirit. God’s hand is “heavy” upon him (verses 3-4).
It is an apt description of the effects of guilt on a person, though it seems very dated in this day and age. We do not often talk about guilt or shame. Indeed, we do not see many examples of shame in our public figures. Too often, people in the public eye who are caught in moral or ethical sin exhibit less than sincere contrition, and they issue apologies that are not apologies. (Not “I’m sorry,” but “I regret…”)
Our public figures do not provide good examples of true repentance. Even many churches do not speak of sin or guilt, trying to distance themselves from the damaging effects of misplaced shame in generations past. I am not advocating a return to fire and brimstone preaching. But what this psalm tells us, and what life experience corroborates, is that sometimes guilt and shame are entirely appropriate responses to something one has done!
I recall a student of mine describing in class one day her relationship with her friends. She said, “Sometimes I tell friends something that I have done wrong, and they say, ‘You are only human,’ or ‘You meant well,’ or “That is an honest mistake,’ or something like that. But what I really need them to say is, ‘Yeah, you screwed up.’ A friend should be honest and tell us what we really need to hear.”
The writer of Psalm 32 is, in that sense, a true friend. He does not offer platitudes. Instead, for those who truly know the depth of their sin, the psalmist offers a remedy: Confess! Pray! And God, who is faithful, will forgive your sin.
That forgiveness is what leads to true joy. The one forgiven finds a “hiding place,” a secure stronghold, in God. “You preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance” (verse 7). The forgiven sinner can “be glad in the Lord and rejoice.” She can “shout for joy!” (verse 11). The sinner does not have to deceive himself or anyone else (verse 2). When he confesses his sin, God forgives, and he can start life anew. Such new life is what the psalmist calls “happy” or “blessed.”
For those who do not know or want to follow the “way” they should go, the psalm provides a vivid image: “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” (verse 9). There is no place here for stubbornness or ignorance. The discerning person will hear and receive the instruction the Lord gives, and will follow in the way of life.
The prophet Nathan makes David see clearly the sin he has committed. The woman who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears knows the weight of guilt and sin. Over them, and over every person who knows and confesses his or her sin, Psalm 32 pronounces this blessing: “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”
1 This commentary was first published on the site on June 13, 2010.