Commentary on Psalm 32:1-7
Although Psalm 32 is one of seven identified by the early church as penitential psalms (also Psalms 6, 38, 51, 102, 130,143), it is actually a psalm of individual thanksgiving.1
The psalmist looks back on a time of distress, precipitated by his sin, and recounts how the LORD’s forgiveness restored him not only to a right relationship with God but also to his faith community.
The psalm begins with two beatitudes describing people who are happy/blessed (’asrey) because the LORD has forgiven them and judged them innocent. The NRSV’s translation of verse 1, “whose transgression is forgiven” is certainly correct. The phrasing, however, conceals the passive participle derived from ns’, to lift, carry, or take. A person is indeed blessed when the burden of transgression is lifted and when sin is “covered” (kasah). In this context, the latter verb means that God covers over sin or puts it out of God’s own sight. 2
That sort of concealment is quite different from the drive to hide one’s sin in silence and secrecy. “While I kept silence,” the psalmist admits, “my body wasted away.” The suffering itself was not quiet; his sickness was punctuated by loud, groaning cries of distress (s’anah; see Psalm 22:2; Job 3:24). No, the silence of Psalm 32:3 refers to the isolation that sin produces. Dietrich Bonhoeffer described that deathly power:
“Sin demands to have a man [sic] by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person.”3
In the case of the psalmist, sin infected his whole being. “My body wasted away,” the psalmist reports, “my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” It may be that secret guilt sickened him. A more likely interpretation, however, is the ancient connection between guilt, sin, and sickness. For example, Isaiah said of Zion and its residents, “And no inhabitant will say, “I am sick”; the people who live there will be forgiven their iniquity” (Isaiah 33:24). New Testament examples of this thinking appear in Mark 2:8-9; John 9:2; James 5:15. The association of disease with iniquity is an assumption that, unfortunately, persists in some circles even today.
The psalm pivots in Psalm 32:5. The reappearance of the vocabulary of the beatitudes of verses 1 and 2 informs us that the psalmist’s own experience provided the foundation for the confident opening affirmations:4
Happy are those whose transgression (pesa‘) is forgiven (ns’), whose sin (?a?a’ah) is covered (kasah).
Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity (‘on) , and in whose spirit there is no deceit (Psalm 32:1-2).
Then I acknowledged my sin (?a?a’ah) to you, and I did not hide (kasah) my iniquity (‘on);
I said, “I will confess my transgressions (pesa‘) to the LORD,” and you forgave (ns’) the guilt (‘on) of my sin (?a?a’ah)” (Psalm 32:5).
The psalmist knows the blessings described in Psalm 32:1-2 precisely and only because God graciously forgave sin and guilt. No one can earn such happiness, of course. The preacher of this text should not suppose a causal relationship between the confession of verse 5 and the LORD’s forgiveness. Grace remains always grace, ever unearned even by devoted acts of piety. The Apostle Paul makes that clear when he cites verses 1 and 2 of this psalm in Romans:
But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. So also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works:
“Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin” (Romans 4:5-8).
God is not obliged to forgive, and yet God promises to do so for the sake of the crucified Christ. That is the promise upon which we rely whenever we hear the words of absolution in corporate or private confession. That is gospel.
Nevertheless, still more good news wells up.
In Psalm 32:6, the psalmist summons the faithful to pray not so that the LORD would deliver in times of distress but because acts of loving rescue are what this God does. From the first chapter of the Bible God controls the forces of chaos, represented as water. In the psalms, ‘mighty waters’ commonly signals dire, life threatening distress (Psalms 42:7; 69:1-2, 14-15; 144:7). Christians affirm that even today God directs water to God’s purposes. Water, together with God’s promise, buries believers in a death like Christ’s in order to make us alive and free (Romans 6:1-7). Those mighty waters do reach us—thanks be to God!—and they do so precisely so we might live in the promise of resurrection.
Finally, there is the astonishing Gospel declaration at the end of Psalm 32:7. “You surround me with glad cries (ron) of deliverance.” Cries of deliverance replace groaning (verse 3). The isolation and silence of sin is broken. Community is restored. The Lord surrounds the forgiven person with a joyful, loud, shouting community voicing their glad cries. The psalmist experienced the very thing Bonhoeffer prescribed for the church: “In confession the break-through to community takes place… In confession the light of the Gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart.”5 Likewise, verse 11 affirms the joy present in the company of the broken, forgiven, community of God who celebrate with shouts (ranan, the root of “cries,” ron, in verse 7). The LORD alone makes God’s people righteous. For that, we shout our joyful thanks.
1 A.A. Anderson, Psalms (1-72), The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995), 254. Anderson correctly notes the wisdom influences in the psalm, including the beatitudes of verses 1 and 2 as well as the sapiential instruction—delivered as a diving oracle—in verses 8 and 9.
2 A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, 491.
3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. by John W. Doberstein (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1954), 112.
4 For clarity’s sake the author has omitted the object suffixes provides the lexical form of the following nouns and verbs.
5 Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 112.