Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Who knew? The ancient psalmist was a clinical therapist, saying in effect, “Don’t hold in your pain, or it will eat you alive!”

"Zacchaeus (Misereor Hunger Cloth - Ethiopia)," Alemayehu Bizuneh.  Used by permission from the artist. Image © by Alemayehu Bizuneh.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

November 3, 2013

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Commentary on Psalm 32:1-7

Who knew? The ancient psalmist was a clinical therapist, saying in effect, “Don’t hold in your pain, or it will eat you alive!”

The author of Psalm 32 had discovered this modern truth long ago and acknowledged it to those around him: “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long” (verse 3). His is a kind of teaching testimony, contrasting this deadly silence with the life-giving release of giving voice to honest confession. Note the deliberate move from “I kept silence…” (verse 3) to “I said…” (verse 5).

But what was the poet’s silence about? Luther, perhaps not surprisingly, saw it as pride: “I did not want to recognize or acknowledge my sin. I thought I was pious.”1 Many commentators agree, though this is not the only possible reading. Might the psalmist here be echoing the terror of Psalm 77:2 (“My soul refuses to be comforted”) — a cry shared by Jacob (Genesis 37:35) and Rachel (Jeremiah 31:15), both inconsolable over the death of their children? Could not all of them have said together, “I am so troubled that I cannot speak” (Psalm 77:4)?

Asked in a different way, is the psalmist closed in on a silent self because of the pride of sin or the deep depression of pain and sorrow? We probably cannot tell from this distance, so the pastoral response would be to refrain from blaming the victim. In any case, the effect is the same. Whether deliberate or imposed by the vicissitudes of life, “The silence is the rejection of grace.”2

For the psalmist, release finally came through finding or being given the courage to speak up, more by speaking “to you.” Screaming one’s pain, anger, terror, or guilt in the solitary confines of a closed automobile has its own benefits, no doubt, but the person-to-person acknowledgment of distress and remorse is inestimably richer. The other might be a family member, trusted friend, pastor, or counselor, or, as in the psalm, it might be God. That is not an either/or, of course. God is present and active in any of those other open and healing conversations.

The psalm raises another thorny issue: in my silence, says the pray-er, “my bones wasted away” (verse 3, NIV) — all of this in some way related to God’s hand being “heavy upon me” (verse 4). Here, Psalm 32 parallels Psalm 6:2-3, “Heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror. My soul also is struck with terror.” Bones and soul, physical and spiritual distresses come as a package in the Psalter. That should come as no surprise to us, since we have learned well that spiritual and mental distress can act out in physical symptoms. But is this the work of the “heavy hand” of God? Our psalm, like so many others, connects sickness and sin, forgiveness and healing.

That profound biblical reality can be used abusively, as it was by Job’s “friends” and many others, then and now: “You’re sick? Well, you only brought it on yourself.” Occasionally, of course, that might be immediately true, but more often it is not. Still, the notion that what the Bible calls “sin” is much larger than simply my particular peccadilloes, dates back to the garden. As Gerhard von Rad has noted, Genesis 3 “wants to indicate how all the disturbances of our natural life have their roots in a disturbed relationship to God.”3

Now, confession of sin and physical distress, as brought together in pastoral care and Christian worship, should bring the whole human condition before God, not to shame the one at last able to speak his or her distress, but to announce a forgiveness and renewal that brings “glad cries of deliverance” (verse 7), because my whole self, my whole community, my whole world has been addressed.

Psalm 32 is one of the seven “penitential psalms” of the early church (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143), psalms so categorized because they were seen as particularly appropriate for the developing Christian emphasis on individual sin and forgiveness. The designation is useful so long as it does not overlook the Old Testament’s emphasis on the relation of body and soul, person and world.

Commentators have suggested a late date for Psalm 32, in part because of its movement from a particular expression of confession and forgiveness to a more generalized teaching. My experience, says the psalmist, leads me to say, “Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you” (verse 6); more, “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go” (verse 8). That teaching emphasis coupled with the opening beatitudes (“Happy are those…”, verses 1-2) and the lumping together of what were once quite distinct terms for “sin” (“transgression,” “sin,” “iniquity”) causes many to call Psalm 32 a “wisdom psalm,” one of those psalms that reflect theologically, and practically on the breadth of human experience.

In fact, the psalm’s message can be seen as an extended version of Proverbs 28:13, “No one who conceals transgressions will prosper, but one who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” It is well to remember that an appropriate faith response to such observations is always, “Yes, but….” True, things often work this way, but they may not. Christian people should properly reflect on the truth of proverbial generalizations in the Bible and learn from them, but the value of the Psalter is the ability of the authors both to recognize those truths (as here in Psalm 32) and also to scream against them (as in Psalm 44:17-19).

Especially for the pastoral counselor and preacher, generalities will not work. Prior to Psalm 32’s generalizations was a particular story of terror and healing. Today’s proclaimers of the psalm will want to ask what is particular about this day, this experience, this person or these people I am called to address.

1Martin Luther, “The Seven Penitential Psalms,” in Luther’s Works, vol. 14 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1958), 149.

2James L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 147.

3Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, vol. 1 (New York: Harper, 1962), 275.