Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

The Pursuit of Happiness

October 31, 2010

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Commentary on Psalm 32:1-7

The Pursuit of Happiness

The Book of Psalms has a good deal to say about happiness. Psalm 1 opens the Book by speaking of the happiness of those whose “delight is in the teaching (Hebrew torah, NRSV law) of the Lord.” The Jewish Publication Society translation catches the sense of verse 2, saying that those who delight in the Lord’s teaching “study that teaching (again, torah, NRSV law) day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2). Other expressions of the “happiness” theme are found in Psalms 33:12, 34:8; 41:1-2, 84:5, 12; 112:1; 119:1; 127:5; 128:1-2. In each of these cases the Hebrew word translated “happy” is asherey.

Psalm 32 makes its own contribution to this theme of happiness. The theme is important for the psalm; the word “happy” (again asherey in Hebrew) appears twice, in verses 1 and 2. And the Psalm ends on a positive note with a call to be glad, to rejoice and even to shout for joy (verse 11).

Genre and Structure
The church has ranked this as one of the Penitential Psalms (along with 6, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143), thus suggesting that it should be used in connection with being sorry for sins. The lectionary has understood the psalm this way, linking it with the story of the repentant prodigal (Luke 15:11b-32, 4 Lent C) or the forgiven woman (Luke 7:36-8:3) or David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, both for 3 Pentecost C).

There is however a certain tension between the use of the psalm at a time of repentance and the rejoicing, happy theme that occurs at the beginning and the end. The structure or story that runs through the psalm explains that tension:
1-2 Four pictures of happiness
3-5 Confession is good for the soul–and body
6-11 Instruction on how to live a guilt-free, joy-filled life

Listening to the Text

1-2: Happiness is… The heading associates the psalm with David. Careful readers have often suggested that it would fit well into the time after the affair with Bathsheba (see the heading to Psalm 51 as well as the lectionary).

These opening verses give voice to the experience of forgiveness of sin, expressed in a gathering of the four major Old Testament words for sin. Verse 1 speaks of transgression, from the Hebrew pasa. The sense is rebellion, like the rebellion of one treaty party against another (2 Kings 1:1) or of children against parents (Isaiah 1:2). According to this picture, happiness is a life no longer being lived in rebellion against God.

The word sin translates the Hebrew hata which has the sense of missing a target. The same Hebrew word appears in Judges 20:16 which tells of the seven hundred left-handed marksmen who could “sling a stone at a hair, and not miss.” Happiness, according to this picture, is having one’s life headed in the right direction, on course, no longer wrongly aimed off target.

The third word is iniquity, the Hebrew awon (verse 2; translated “guilt” in verse 5). The sense of this word is to be bent over, twisted or crooked. The word also occurs in Isaiah 24:1, speaking of the Lord twisting the earth and in Psalm 38:6 where a sick person says “I am utterly bowed down and prostrate…” According to this word, happiness is being no longer twisted or bent out of shape, but straightened out.

Finally, deceit translates the Hebrew word remiyah, which has the sense of being treacherous, or not reliable, like a weapon that backfires or cannot be depended on (Hosea 7:16 speaks of a “defective bow”). This word defines happiness as living in a manner that is honest and forthright.

In sum, according to this psalm, the person is happy who is not rebelling against God, whose life is on track, straightened out and marked by integrity.

The word selah most likely means a musical interlude; the word should not be read aloud.

3-5 Confession is…This section provides a before and after picture of the psalmist’s life. Before confessing the wrongdoing of which the psalmist was guilty, that bottling up of guilt took a terrible physical toll. The symptoms here are psychosomatic, brought on by the person’s own decision to keep the wrongdoing to himself or herself. Verse 4 indicates the psalmist’s realization that a part of the problem was theological as well as psychological; things with God were not as they should be. Verse 5 points back to the joy that comes with confession and forgiveness (verses 1-2).

6-11 Instructions on how to live. Of key importance for understanding this section are verses 8 and 9. Verse 8 indicates that the psalmist is going to engage in teaching. That teaching comes to expression in verse 9 which says essentially, “Don’t be stupid! Use your God-given intelligence!”

What then would be the shape of a God-directed life? There are a number of clues: Pray in times of distress (verse 6). Trust in God as a secure, safe place to put your life (verse 7). Know that God’s steadfast love (hesed) surrounds you. And then, rather than groaning your life away, you will be glad in the LORD (simchah as in the fall festival celebrating God’s teaching, simchat torah). You will rejoice and you will no longer waste away and brood in silence (verse 3) but will shout for joy!

Toward Teaching and Preaching
The line in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America speaks of the Creator endowing every person with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The psalms, which speak much about happiness, do not speak of pursuing happiness. According to the psalms, God’s steadfast love is on the hunt, chasing after me. Another psalmist put it this way (translating the Hebrew more literally than usual) “Surely goodness and mercy (hesed) shall chase after me all the days of my life…” (Psalm 23:6).