Commentary on Psalm 32
Verses 3-5 of Psalm 32 articulate the simple story of forgiveness. The key is found in the move from concealing sin to confessing sin, and divine forgiveness comes to the fore. These verses reflect the reality that “silence kills” with the associated difficulties the text narrates in the denial of sin: the body wasting away, groaning all day, an ever-present oppressive presence that dries up the person the way severe drought and heat waves dry up land and vegetation in a day of global warming. Unconfessed sin gnaws at a soul in a debilitating and devastating way. The unconfessed sin brings two negative consequences.
It is, however, the verb “acknowledged” in verse 5 that marks the sudden shift that brings hope. The speaker of this poetic narrative has now acknowledged this sin to God. The change is sudden and the speaker suddenly speaks their admission of sin and guilt. The sin is no longer hidden (verse 5), the same word for “covered” in verse 1. To acknowledge is to say out loud, to speak clearly of the sin, to say what this soul has been experiencing as deadly. The third line of verse 5 includes a self-quote: ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’. It is notable that “sin,” “iniquity,” and “transgressions” are all used to identify the wrong doing.
Such a full vocabulary of sin suggests the readiness of the speaker to blurt out the whole of this distorting and death-giving sin. Concealing the sin has brought death and brings great weariness. Acknowledging the sin to “you,” the emphatic pronoun for YHWH, brings immediate forgiveness or lifting of the guilt that comes with the transgression. There is no divine punishment or discipline; there is simply the unvarnished telling of the truth.The poetic story is of the falsehood of silence that is radically changed to truth telling, and the God of all mercy is at the ready with forgiveness.
Readers/hearers would do well to pause and remember the story of David and Bathsheba and Uriah, often associated with Psalm 51, and how this simple narrative of Psalm 32 is reflected in 2 Samuel 12:13 with David’s confession to the prophet Nathan: “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan replies: “Now the Lord has put away your sin. You shall not die.” David has remarkably defied YHWH, the Torah, and the prophet! And yet the prophet announces forgiveness.
In contrast to the brief narrative of confession and forgiveness in Psalm 32, however, note that the 2 Samuel text goes on to identify the death of the son from this oppressive violation of Bathsheba as the deadly result of this transgression (verse 14). The story of Saul and Samuel in 1 Samuel 15 is also relevant. Saul confesses sin and seeks forgiveness but remains unforgiven. Psalm 32 provides one remarkable account of confession and forgiveness, but it is not the whole of the complex proclamation about sin and forgiveness in the Older Testament.
The striking drama of confession and forgiveness in Psalm 32:3-5 is then surrounded with teaching material in verses 1-2 and 6-11. The shapers of the psalm find it crucial for the community to learn wisdom from the basic narrative of sin and forgiveness. Out of experience the one who has been forgiven teaches others, not in a prideful way, but with an emphasis on God’s forgiveness. God is the one who forgives; the task of persons of faith is to confess, tell the truth in the relationship with God and other persons. God forgives and restores wholeness. Others are invited to confess their sin and depend on divine mercy.
The opening verses of the psalm take the form of beatitudes, wise reflections on whole living here focused on divine forgiveness. Forgiveness is central to full living, and essential to forgiveness is the absence of deceit. The wise person of faith does not hide transgressions but acknowledges them to the God of grace. The contrast is between dependence on divine mercy and sufficiency of the self to hide and manage the sin and guilt.
The verb “impute” in verse 2 is significant. God assigns “no iniquity” to one who has sinned and is forgiven, not to one who is sinless. The person who stands before God as forgiven is whole. For contemporary readers, I do not think the rendering “happy” communicates the significance of the text. The term begins a beatitude with the wisdom reflection of life walked in a whole, healthy path, a life in faithful relationship with God and others.
Two additional uses of the verb “impute” are worth mentioning. Paul quotes Psalm 32:1-2 in Romans 4:7-8 to suggest that forgiveness—and not circumcision or any other qualification—is the basis for new life. In that same passage, Paul refers to Genesis 15:6 and Abraham to whom God assigned righteousness—“imputed.” Forgiveness before YHWH derives from divine mercy.
Verses 6-7 invite readers/hearers to trust in YHWH and to pray at times “of distress, the rush of mighty waters.” The distress is chaos; it may come from guilt, but not necessarily. The narrative of forgiveness in verses 3-5 has taught that the safe place for persons is in YHWH. The psalm urges an open response to YHWH, in this psalm characterized by turning to YHWH in confession of sin. YHWH freely offers forgiveness and that is the hope for humanity, not some misguided sense of sinless autonomy.
Psalm 32 is listed among the Penitential Psalms in Christian tradition. There is not, however, any sense of what is commonly considered penitence in the psalm. The psalm is rather about the amazing forgiveness of YHWH rather than some discipline or work of penitence. God restores life through forgiveness. The emphasis in Psalm 32 is upon divine hope to forgive and on the human capacity to tell the truth in a direct way. Truth telling—confession—makes possible forgiveness. Silence kills. This wisdom lesson in poetry fits well with modern psychology’s concern to deal with denial and self-deceit which harbor guilt. The ancient psalm understood that silence kills. Contemporary studies of such silence have often been conducted by women in the face of authoritarian societies led by men, societies often built on deadly silence.
Psalm 32 begins with the wisdom teacher commending confession and forgiveness as crucial to fullness of life. The poetry then narrates the deadly effect of silence contrasted with the true and direct confession of transgression to the God of all mercy who forgives. The remaining verses call readers and hearers to the faithful life of prayer with YHWH who forgives and who preserves. The psalm is a teaching psalm about sin and forgiveness calling faithful readers and hearers to prayer of confession.