Saturday, March 2, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 32

Psalm 32 is all about the stupidity of stubbornness, the relief of confession, and the joy of forgiveness. It begins with happiness. “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” The Hebrew word for happy here, 'esher, can also mean blessed. Blessed, then, are those people whose transgressions (Hebrew pesha‛, also meaning revolt or rebellion) have been forgiven (Hebrew nâśâ', carried off, taken away, swept away) and whose sins (Hebrew chăṭâ'âh, offence) have been covered (Hebrew kâsâh, literally, filled up). Take note of a couple things here. The Hebrew nouns for transgression and sin imply deliberate wrongdoing. Those committing these transgressions and sins are doing so by choice. Further, the verbs in this verse are both in passive tense. Someone else is doing the forgiving and covering. Finally, the Hebrew verbs for these actions suggest a complete separation from sin through them. Transgressions are carried off or swept away. They are no longer clinging to the sinner; they have been removed. Forgiven sins are portrayed as empty places that have been filled up. This fits nicely with theological reflections that identify evil or sin as non-being or emptiness, as an absence of good, which is being and fullness. According to this definition, when a person sins, he or she says “no” to goodness and love and creates an empty hole, a chasm, that God, though His merciful forgiveness, wants to fill back up. 

The next verse continues to describe those who are happy or blessed: “Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” People are blessed when God takes away their guilt, when He wipes it away. He no longer charges them with their crimes. Also happy and blessed are the people who are true. These people are honest with themselves and with God. They know what they have done. They know who they are. They understand that they are not perfect, and they admit it. They realize they have rebelled and offended God, and they acknowledge it. They aren't trying to fool God...or themselves.

In the next few verses, the psalmist recalls a personal anecdote about sin and forgiveness. For some time, he was silent about his sin. He tried to keep it secret. He wouldn't admit his wrongdoing, and this preyed on him, both physically and mentally. He felt heavy, like his body was decaying. He groaned and moaned all day long. He could sense God's hand resting heavily upon him at all hours, reminding him of what he had done. He became weak and parched. Sin and guilt do that to a person. They eat at one's mind, chipping away at peace and joy, creating stress that can have ill effects on the body and mind. God doesn't want that for His children, so He leans on them, applying enough pressure so that they recognize Him and turn to Him. He does not want to squash anyone; He wants them to speak up so He can free them of the sin and guilt that are devouring them. 

Eventually, the psalmist gives in. He confesses his sins, owns his guilt, and places the whole mess before God. The Hebrew word for confess is yâdâh. It literally means to cast down or throw. By implication, then, it means throwing one's sins away from one's self, casting them out by bemoaning them to God.

And God forgave him. God carried away (nâśâ') the iniquity (Hebrew, ‛âvôn, guilt, evil, perversity, depravity) of his sin. It was gone. 

A priest once told a story about a person who was seeing visions of Jesus and receiving messages from Him. In order to test the reality of these experiences, the person's confessor told him to ask Jesus about a particular sin the confessor had once committed and confessed, for only Jesus would have known about this sin. The visionary did so, but Jesus responded that He didn't remember the sin. He had forgiven it long ago. It had been wiped away forever. 

The psalmist goes on to offer some good advice. If anyone is in distress, he should pray for God's forgiveness. He should confess his sins and have them removed from the situation. He should make sure that he is right with God. If he is, the psalmist implies, then the trials of life will be more bearable, “the rush of mighty waters shall not reach” him. His worldly troubles may not disappear, but the greatest disaster of all, separation from God, will not crash down upon him. 

In the next verse, the psalmist's advice turns to praise. “You are a hiding place for me;” he says to God. “You preserve me from trouble; You surround me with glad cries of deliverance.” God is a shelter for His children, a secret place where they can hide in safety from the torments of the enemy. God protects them, guarding them from their foes and encircling them with songs of rejoicing, for He has delivered them from those who wish to do them harm. This is a beautiful, hopeful portrait of a loving God Who will not allow His people to face their trials on their own. He gives them refuge and protection. He saves them, opening a way for them to escape from their troubles and turn their worries into shouts of joyful praise. 

In verses 8 and 9, the psalmist resumes a tone of instruction. “I will instruct you,” he tells his audience, “and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.” The psalmist has learned about confession and forgiveness through personal experience. He wants others to take advantage of this knowledge so they won't have to go through the same suffering he did when he was holding all his sin in his heart. I see your struggles, he seems to say. I've been there. I can give you good advice. It worked for me. Just listen and follow my path, and you, too, can have peace and friendship with God. 

The psalmist continues with a warning. Don't be stubborn. Don't be like a horse or a mule that needs to be bridled and led around. Approach God freely and humbly. Use the free will God gave you, but not as an excuse to run wild like an animal. Instead, use it in conjunction with your reason to make good decisions and remain always near Him. 

Verse 10 presents a contrast. The wicked, the psalmist asserts, will be subject to many torments (Hebrew mak'ôb, grief, sorrow, affliction), but those who trust in God will be surrounded by His “steadfast love.” God loves everyone, even those who do not love Him. But those who love God and place their confidence in Him will be better able to perceive His great love. They are open to it. They allow that love to surround them, comfort them, and uphold them. 

The psalm ends with an invitation to praise: “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” Why should they rejoice? They have confessed their sins and been forgiven. Who has done this? God. What must we do then? Stop being stubborn; confess our sins; accept God's merciful forgiveness; and exult in His great love.

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