What’s in a psalm?
Hebrew title for Psalm 32 is “Confession and Forgiveness”. A commentary referred to the joy of forgiveness; I perceived in it both Wisdom and Salvation. In the Psalms we find different aspects of our relationship with God – and they can be rather a “catch-all”, with lots of different elements in them.
There are times when an all-embracing approach is helpful – it takes us through a range of feelings and emotions, recognising that life itself is a patchwork of good and difficult, light and shadow. And we have a model in the Lord’s Prayer for something quite concise and yet covering a range of aspects: praise and a call for God’s kingdom to come; petition for our needs, confession of our sins, deliverance and salvation and a declaration of God’s eternal sovereignty.
So, let’s look at Psalm 32 in more detail:
v1-2 a declaration that joy comes to those who are “right” with God – sins forgiven and living an upright life.
v3-4 looking back to see how bad life was before this reconciliation. The psalmist was in a bad place; overwhelmed with their sinfulness, worn out, lifeless.
We may feel less comfortable with verse 4 – was God punishing them? I think it is more about being allowed to suffer the consequences. God does not set out to hurt or harm us, be he does allow us to suffer the consequences of our lives.
When we don’t confess, we are burdened by our shortcomings. We are carrying the guilt, the fear of retribution, perhaps feelings of inadequacy because we have fallen short of the standards of others; or perhaps a feeling of inferiority, that others will look down on us.
Confess – meanings include admit, disclose, own up to. Confession is not just about telling other people, it is about accepting responsibility. You can’t deal with something that you don’t admit to. People try to make excuses for their words and actions. But if they admit, they confess, then they are taking the first step to bringing about change. In worldly terms, for some, that may mean doing penance, or it may mean having “therapy”. But for the Christian, confession has a different outcome:
v5 so I took action, made confession, and received forgiveness.
For us, confession is followed by forgiveness. The burden is lifted. Jesus said “come to me all who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”. And he promises us that his yoke is light. None of us carry a yoke, so what does that mean for us? Well, perhaps life with Jesus is like having power assisted steering in your car – it makes the effort of turning the wheel much less?
In summary, the psalmist is saying “I’m in a good place now, but I didn’t used to be and this is how I made the journey”. The psalmist has set out their own experience of being restored to God’s presence. They then continue by advising that others should do likewise.
v6 everyone should avail themselves of your promises – your support. And they suggest that this provides protection – that the flood of trouble will not reach them.
v7-8 although written as psalmist saying this, I think it follows from v6: You are my hiding place, I will sing aloud – with the implication that the same will be true for others if they follow the advice of verse 6.
Is this true? Is this the experience of Christians through the centuries? If you watched the most recent series of “Island Parish”, you will know it was set in the Caribbean island of Antigua, and though the programme seems to have become increasingly secular in its coverage, you are introduced to a number of people of faith, and you see something of the life of the church there. And the island population includes a significant number who I think the psalmist would consider “loyal people of God”. Yet there was nothing on the news about storm Brian going round their houses and avoiding them? Perhaps this is because our view is too human – we are too concerned about material things, and about earthly selves. Is it true to say that there is only one thing we should fear – hell? We can fear illness, we can fear death, but in the scale of eternity, they are but brief and minor. The only thing that has lasting impact is where we spend eternity – so the only big thing that we need protecting from is hell. And that is exactly what God does in Jesus – offers us salvation – we are saved from hell.
So, we have had “this is what God has done for me”, and you should seek the same. But then you can almost hear the question from those the psalmist is addressing. “Oh, it’s alright for you, you’ve had this wonderful relationship with God, but where do we start?”
And so the response in v8-9 – that God himself promises to teach and guide, to instruct and advise – provided that they are open to receiving and are not stubborn and fight against it.
Have you had your flu jab? Short term pain, long term gain? Ever tried getting a cat into a basket to go to the vet? You can’t explain to a cat that vaccinations are a good thing. The psalmist writes – don’t be ignorant and stubborn, be intelligent and know that it is in your best interest.
So what about verse 10? Who are “the wicked”? Most translations use wicked, occasionally “sinners”. The Message says “God-defiers are always in trouble; God-affirmers find themselves loved every time they turn around.” If we defy God, if we do the opposite of what he says, we will have to endure the consequences, but those who trust and obey will be protected by his love.
Psalm 36, v7: “How precious, O God, is your constant love! We find protection under the shadow of your wings.”
And then finally – a call to celebrate all that God has done. Be glad and rejoice. And here is an important reminder that we should rejoice in what God has done. In our lives, we need to be wary of boasting. Suppose someone gives you a really valuable, beautiful painting, and you hang it on the wall in your home. You will probably show a few people – sharing your joy, and giving them the opportunity to enjoy seeing it too. But do you go down the whole street telling everyone how fortunate you are to have this item? No, that would be boasting (as well as tempting burglary). It is giving status to your own position, and perhaps to that of the person who gave it to you. But we can, and should, boast about what God has done, giving the glory to Him. We should shout for joy – loud enough for everyone to hear!
So, to summarise this psalm:
Joy comes to those who rest in God; life was bad before I made that decision; you should do the same and experience all that God has for you. And as you do, rejoice and be glad.
This was written in Old Testament times, and related to the Jewish people and way of life. But it is just as true for us today – living in the light of Jesus life, death and resurrection.
Paul knew this. In Romans 4 he writes about Abraham, and quotes the first two verses of Ps 32,
3 The scripture says, “Abraham believed God, and because of his faith God accepted him as righteous.” 4 A person who works is paid wages, but they are not regarded as a gift; they are something that has been earned. 5 But those who depend on faith, not on deeds, and who believe in the God who declares the guilty to be innocent, it is this faith that God takes into account in order to put them right with himself. 6 This is what David meant when he spoke of the happiness of the person whom God accepts as righteous, apart from anything that person does:
7 “Happy are those whose wrongs are forgiven, whose sins are pardoned!
8 Happy is the person whose sins the Lord will not keep account of!”
13 When God promised Abraham and his descendants that the world would belong to him, he did so, not because Abraham obeyed the Law, but because he believed and was accepted as righteous by God.
20 His faith did not leave him, and he did not doubt God’s promise; his faith filled him with power, and he gave praise to God. 21 He was absolutely sure that God would be able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why Abraham, through faith, “was accepted as righteous by God.” 23 The words “he was accepted as righteous” were not written for him alone. 24 They were written also for us who are to be accepted as righteous, who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from death. 25 Because of our sins he was given over to die, and he was raised to life in order to put us right with God.
We are called to believe – in God as the psalmist did, but also in the fullness of God the Holy Trinity that we have the privilege of knowing about. The problem for the psalmist was that although he could confess and be forgiven, there was still somehow a taint from the past. But Jesus, through his death and resurrection, wiped the slate clean.
John 10:10 – The thief comes only in order to steal, kill, and destroy. I have come in order that you might have life—life in all its fullness.
So what are we to learn from this?
Firstly, that praise is an essential part of our relationship with God.
Secondly, we need to confess, actively seek forgiveness, and in faith be assured of our forgiveness.
Thirdly, we are to tell others the good news of salvation, so that they too may know the joy that we have.