Studies in the Psalms

by Floyd Brand

Psalm 32 (KJV)
A Psalm of David, Maschil

  1. Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
  2. Blessed is the man unto whom the LORD imputeth not iniquity,
    and in whose spirit there is no guile.
  3. When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long.
  4. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me:
    my moisture is turned into the drought of summer.
    Selah
  5. I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid.
    I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD;
    and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin. Selah
  6. For this shall everyone that is godly pray unto thee in a time when
    thou mayest be found:
    surely in the floods of great waters they shall not come nigh unto him.
  7. Thou art my hiding place; thou shalt preserve me from trouble;
    thou shalt compass me about with songs of deliverance.
    Selah
  8. I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go:
    I will guide thee with mine eye.
  9. Be ye not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding:
    whose mouth must be held in with bit and bridle, lest they come near unto thee.
  10. Many sorrows shall be to the wicked:
    but he that trusteth in the LORD, mercy shall compass him about.
  11. Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, ye righteous:
    and shout for joy, all ye that are upright in heart.

This psalm has traditionally been considered one of David’s seven penitential psalms. Scripture itself does not identify this category, but the internal evidence weighs heavily in favor of it. At the same time, both the content of the psalms and the Christian’s experience leads one to believe that they were composed over a period of time, though it would be pointless to try to establish how long this time lasted. One should not think that after confessing his sin before Nathan and receiving absolution through him, David was able to put his transgressions out of mind once and for all, and then go about his life in manner as vibrant as before. Again and again the Accuser would terrify and afflict him with the heinousness of his crimes, sins committed by one who had been all his life so blessed and so sanctified, and then with the damage done to the kingdom of God, and with the aiding and abetting of the kingdom of darkness through those crimes: how can the Holy One of Israel forgive that? Again and again David would have had to take hold of the Gospel and the grace of God spoken in the absolution and the atonement for sin pre-enacted in every bloody sacrifice. Again and again David did just that, and this psalm is witness that more and more as time passed he was able to come to terms with sin and grace. The peace of God that passes all understanding did keep his heart and mind, through the promise of the Son of David who would not fail. David’s deep contrition at the words of Nathan, “Thou art the man!” (2 Sam 12:7 KJV) comes through forcefully in Psalm 51; but this Psalm is his reflection after the other word from Nathan has sunk in: “The Lord hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die” (v. 13 KJV). But here as in Psalm 51, the joy of salvation has been restored and David is ready to teach sinners the ways of God (Ps 51:12-13).

Verses 1 & 2

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

The heading already points to a tranquil state of mind, to a soul at peace with God and with itself. The psalm is a Maskil (masqīl), a meditative and instructive poem. As verse eight also makes clear, it was more than the psalmist pouring out his soul before God. The faithful Israelite can learn the lesson needful for his own justification and sanctification.

Oh how blessed is the man whose defiance against God has been taken away, and whose sin is now covered up! He now has eternal life, the very essence of which is knowing God and experiencing his grace, John 17:3. The English word “blessed” covers two different concepts. God is blessed (Heb. bārūkh, Gr. eulogētos, Lat. benedictus), praised and honored as the provider of
every good thing. The child of God is blessed (Heb. ’ashrē, Gr. makarios, Lat. beatus), as the one who has received God’s good gifts. The latter is often translated as “happy.” This is not incorrect, but it is incomplete. Where “happy” means that the person knows (or thinks) he has it good, the term in its original language points to the status, the condition, the situation of the child of God. He has every reason to be happy. He is now in good standing with the Almighty and All-holy One. This is not the fleeting joys of this life, the false joy of those in denial, or the empty joy of those who are all excited, although they really have nothing to be excited over. This is the joy of salvation, the one happiness that is pure, honest, enduring, and unlimited. Thus the translation “blessed” is rather flat. It does not convey the power and the poetry of the original very well. It is an expression filled with holy excitement. “Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice, with exultation springing!” (TLH 387:1). It makes one ready to dance before the Lord with all his might (2 Sam 6:14). While the one whose transgression is not forgiven is absolutely and totally under the curse of God, the one whose transgression is forgiven is totally and absolutely under the grace of God, and enjoys not a few or some or even most of God’s good gifts, but every last one of them. The wonderful Reformation discovery is that there is no in-between, no “part way there.” Where the guilt and condemnation of the unforgiven is total and absolute, so is the justification and righteousness of him whose sins are covered.

“Transgression” is the translation here and generally for the Hebrew pesha’: rebellion or revolt against rightful authority. It is the act of one who knows right from wrong and goes ahead and does the wrong anyway, or who knows what is right and makes the conscious decision not to do it. The role of the will is foremost here. David’s sins were in the category of “presumptuous sins” (Ps 19:13), sins thought out, deliberate, the carrying out of conscious choices. These sins occur when the heart has already changed from penitent to impenitent, from believing the Gospel to not caring about salvation. But blessed is the one whose defiance against God has been lifted (nasuy) picked up and taken away—taken away by another, for there is no one who has removed his own transgressions and covered his own sins. This is a work of God. In David’s time it was secured by the promise of him who cannot lie; in our time it has now been carried out, once and for all. The prophet said to David, “The Lord hath put away (he’ebir) thy sin; thou shalt not die” (2 Sam 12:13). The God of grace, and he alone, removes sin. He does it not by fiat, by a fiction, but by providing a Lamb for a burnt offering, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. John the Baptist pointed to the Incarnate Word: “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away (o airōn) the sin of the world” (John 1:29 KJV). The truth of the expiation of sin was presented to Israel every day in the temple sacrifices; but David in his contrition
realized that such did not actually bring about expiation (Ps 51:16).

Blessed is the one whose sin is covered. Sin (kha’ta) here means missing the mark, likewise the New Testament (hamartia): failing to measure up to the image of God, failing to live as he intended. One has to hit the mark with every thought, every word, and every deed, and he fails when he misses with every thought, every word, and every deed. This wrong-doing is blameworthy. God does not respond with, “Well, at least you tried,” or “Ok, try again, better luck next time.” For the sinful and unclean, the bow is weak, arrow is crooked, and the eye cannot even see the target: “I had not known sin, but by the law,” writes the apostle Paul (Rom 7:7 KJV). One never does what he should do because one never is what he should be. But blessed is the one whose sin is covered (kisuy). Sin is covered, but not in the sense of something not seen but still there. Rather, sin is rendered null and void, nonexistent as far as one’s record before and standing with God. It has lost all its power and right to condemn the sinner. Guilt is no longer a factor in God’s relationship with the one who has placed his trust in Christ.

“Iniquity,” (’awon), in verse two signifies vanity, unreality, nothingness, that which is false and empty. It emphasizes the harm that the sinner does to himself by sinning. God has set before man all that is real and true and genuine and wholesome; the sinner goes for that which is unreal, false, and empty. But blessed is the one to whom the Lord does not impute the vanity. It is not held against him, nor is he charged with it, indeed another has removed it. The concept that justification is God’s forensic or judicial act was not invented by St. Paul and certainly not by Luther. It was rediscovered by each of them, proclaimed anew, and applied to the sorts and conditions of their contemporaries. But it was the truth revealed from the beginning, and grasped by those who knew God. This is the definition of knowing God, “the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” (Rom 3:26 KJV).

Oh how blessed is the one in whose spirit there is finally no guile, no more trying to deceive God as did Adam, no more deceiving oneself. No excuses, no blaming God and one’s neighbor as did Adam, no whining as did Cain. He is honest about his sin, measuring his guilt not by the suffering it has caused his neighbor, but measuring it against the majesty of the one sinned against, God who is all holy and all gracious. He is now honest about himself, knowing that his Old Adam is as powerful and deceitful as ever. He does not think that keeping the commandments otherwise will purchase some slack for indulging in his favorite sin. He does not think that because of his high level of sanctification to date there is little danger of a horrible crash and burn. He does not wonder what got into him that he could do dastardly things. It was there all along. And then his heart is open to the gracious absolution offered in Christ Jesus.

Verses 3 & 4

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

Selah

David is looking back on the time of his impenitence, which lasted for months. His silence was silence before God. He was no longer listening to God, and therefore not speaking to him either. His worship was now a show of godliness, mouthing the words—even the words of his own psalms—without meaning them at all. His groaning may have been for respite, but since he had nothing honest to say to God, God had nothing to say to him other than condemnation. The conjunction can be translated “when” or “because;” indeed a full understanding includes both thoughts. The psalmist’s silence was his refusal to acknowledge his sin, as the contrast with verse five makes clear. One can see the inner struggle of the one knowing he has sinned but stubbornly refusing to confess it and to seek absolution. But now his guilty conscience governed David’s conversation and interaction with those around him. He could not have a heart-to-heart communication with anyone, for he was keeping to himself that which was weighing most heavily on his mind and heart. The guilty conscience was ruining his health. It sapped his vigor. He had no energy. He was like the ground of Palestine over the summer, when day after day there is no rain and the blazing sun bakes the soil into brick, such that the plow cannot penetrate until it is softened by the early rains of late autumn. Gone was the joy of carrying out his royal responsibilities as vicar of God Most High, the true King of Israel. His leadership of Israel and his worship as an Israelite were now empty and hollow, a mere going through the motions. As long as he kept silent, he was the greatest hypocrite in the land, his every thought, word, and deed merely a piling up of iniquity upon iniquity. Once he became honest with God and with himself, he saw his guilty conscience as the hand of God pressing him down. He could not push it away or slip out from under it; it was the almighty hand. It was the voice condemning him and his wicked deeds, because the work of the law of God was written in his heart, and now all the more since he had been brought up in the knowledge of God. Until now he had lived his life in the fear of God, he had guided his people in the paths of righteousness.

When experts in the field of mental health discern rightly that a sense of guilt is at the root of one’s mental and physical maladies, they are on to something. But the expert who recognizes the fear of God as the healthy attitude and the peace of God as the first thing one should seek, is all too rare. “What saith the Lord?” has given way to “Well, how do you feel about this?”

The King James translates sha’agah as “roaring,” but other translations consistently have “groaning.” One can imagine the man with the guilty conscience groaning through his sleepless nights, grieving over the peace of God and the joy of salvation which he had thrown away forever. Still, the original meaning was roaring, as the roaring of a lion. One can also imagine the man with the guilty conscience snapping at those around him and yelling at them in rage over any little thing, and those around wondering what had come over him and why he was so touchy, when he never used to be like that—some perhaps observing that ever since he took up with that woman, he just hasn’t been the same person. His real raging was against the hand of God pressing on him and crushing him.

The Selah marks off this section from the section following. It indicates a pause, possibly for an orchestral interlude, or a change in volume or tempo or instrumentation in the orchestral accompaniment. When the worshiper has digested what he has just heard or chanted, then it is time to advance to the next thought.

Verse 5

I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;

I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.

Selah

Literally, “I made known,” as alluded to in the English “acknowledge,” which contains the word “know.” Here is the turning point. David owns up to his sin. David’s sins were against Bathsheba and against her husband Uriah the Hittite. To take any man’s wife is a wicked thing, but this was not just any man. Uriah was a Hittite, a Gentile, who had joined himself to the Hope of Israel. He made the short list of valiant heroes in the service of David, whose reign prefigured the kingdom of Christ himself. David’s sins against Uriah went beyond ordinary adultery and murder. Also afoot are betrayal and treachery and offending a child of God. Even so, the wrong against God so surpasses the wickedness against man that David’s confession rings through this psalm also: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight” (Ps 51:4 KJV). David acknowledges all of it, sin actual and original. In Psalm 51, evidently composed earlier than Psalm 32, David also took responsibility also for his character, by nature sinful and unclean. His sin was not only what he had done, but who he was that he could do such things. David did not cover his iniquity, the ruinous emptiness of his
wrongdoings. Here of course the word “cover” has the everyday sense of hiding something so that others or the person himself cannot see it, but the thing hidden remains. David had tried to hide his adultery from Uriah, and to pass off the murder of Uriah as part of a normal siege scenario. He had tried to conceal it from the eyes of men, but there is no hiding anything from God.

Now the beauty of the grace of God comes to the fore, the light of divine mercy dispelling the darkness of human depravity. Speaking to himself, or perhaps at most to Nathan the prophet, his father confessor, David merely states his intention to confess. But before he could get the words out of his mouth, the Lord has forgiven the iniquity (avon again), the vanity and ruination, of his sin, and the absolution is immediate. Forgiveness, the change of heart in God, is not contingent on the sinner’s confession. It is already there, waiting for the sinner to open his heart to it, to want it. This passage, used as the introduction to confession and absolution in the liturgy of TLH is appropriate. 1 John 1:8-9, included in newer liturgies, is more comprehensive, but the direct simplicity of Ps 32:5 remains commendable.

Verses 6 & 7

Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found;

surely in the rush of great waters
they shall not reach him.

You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with songs of deliverance.

Selah

The KJV and the NKJV have a simple future: “for this shall everyone that is godly pray.” Other translations use a jussive, “let everyone who is godly pray.” Grammatically both are permissible. The petition is not only for forgiveness, but especially for the repentant heart that receives forgiveness. Everyone who is godly has this penitent heart and wants to keep it. He prays that he would not keep silence, but confess, and that he would not try to hide anything or hide from him from whom nothing remains concealed. The time when the gracious God may be found, or put another way, when God may be found gracious, is naturally cut off by the sinner’s death. After death there is neither apostasy among the faithful or conversion of the reprobate. But this time may also be foreshortened by the hardening of the heart. “Today, if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts,” writes the psalmist (Ps 95:7-8 KJV). The one who is godly will not try to manipulate God or trifle with the time of grace. His answer to grace and forgiveness is immediate: “I’ll take it!” He will pray this way because he knows that repentance is not an achievement, an act of the soul that he can bring about on his own timetable. It is a gift. Again Psalm 51 echoes in the worshiper’s ear: “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” v. 10.

“The rush of great waters” is a metaphor for overwhelming troubles, the floods that bring death and destruction. Chief among them are sin, guilt, condemnation, a bad conscience, death, hell, and the power of the devil. But such a deluge shall not reach anyone who is godly. The grace of God triumphs over the sin and guilt of man. And if one singles out guilty conscience as a rush of great waters, the psalmist is saying that the peace of God will keep the heart and mind of the one who is godly. Faith will prevail against unbelief and doubt, and the joy of salvation against the accusations of the devil, the law, and our conscience. With Luther the believer can say to the devil, to the world, and to his own heart, “I am baptized. I belong to God, and no one is able to pluck me out of his hand.” Nothing in all creation shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord (Rom 8:39).

Furthermore, the normal troubles of life, which affect the godly as well as the ungodly, the discipline that the Father in heaven visits on his children on earth, and the wrath of the ungodly also come at the godly and threaten to ruin him. But the Almighty has everything in hand. He sets a limit to the sufferings of his children, and he enfolds a blessing into every problem. When man and devil attempt to destroy the godly individual, to undermine his confidence in God, to silence his witness to the truth, God takes it personally. Fire and smoke flare from his nostrils, and if he takes his time about avenging his elect, so much the worse for those who take their stand against him and against his Anointed.

Everyone whose transgression is forgiven now has God for his refuge. In God he is now safe. God preserves him from trouble. Not that he never suffers, but that he does not perish. The Lord grants his child far more than mere sighs of relief; rather, he surrounds him with songs and shouts of deliverance. The translations are divided, some using “songs,” others “shouts.” Both are valid. Trumpet, cymbal, and drum provide appropriate accompaniment.

Verses 8 & 9

I will instruct you and teach you
in the way you should go;

I will counsel you with my eye upon you.

Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
or it will not stay near you.

The question in these verses is whether the speaker is the psalmist or God himself. In the preceding section the psalmist was speaking to God. Here, abruptly, the person (singular) addressed is anyone who hears or reads these words. Abrupt changes in the speaker are frequent in the psalms. This writer considers the speaker to be David himself. He has been the speaker thus far; now he turns from addressing God to addressing whoever might read or hear his composition. In Psalm 51 David had foreseen and promised, “Then will I teach transgressors thy ways” (v. 13 KJV).The natural thought would be that after David’s sins, he would conclude, “But who am I to instruct anyone in the ways of God? In reverent humility, I will simply keep my mouth shut.” But this is not the way the kingdom of God works. Now David knew as never before what forgiveness is, and how it comes, and to whom it comes. He is the one with eyes open, who can guide the simple and the blind. He understands how easily those who are strong and pure can fall from the grace of God into the grip of Satan. He knows that everyone has his weak spot, and needs to work out his own salvation with fear and trembling. He realizes that grace and forgiveness are boundless. And he recognizes the power of grace to sanctify. The Holy Ghost has brought him back to, and is keeping him in, the one true faith. Hence his fervent prayer, “And take not thy Holy Spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11 KJV). If indeed the speaker is David, then this marks the complete victory of grace, to the degree it may be attained in this world. Restored to grace, David is sanctified in the highest degree, so that he loves the people of God and is capable of guiding them in his ways. The same phenomenon is found in the experience of St. Peter. After Jesus brought home to him three times his defection, with his words cutting more deeply each time, and each time Peter answering that the Lord knew the love Peter had in his heart, Jesus answered: “Feed my lambs.” “Feed my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.” You are just the one to do just that. The same is true of all Christians, entrusted as they are with the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16, Matt. 18, John 20). The proclamation of grace and forgiveness is the right and the responsibility of the forgiven. They now have that ability.

What David has to say is a warning: Do not be senseless and stubborn. Do not pull away, as horse and mule do if not held in by bit and bridle. By nature humanity desires to pull away from God, to escape him, to flee from him. Do not do as I did, refusing to confess my sins to God until I was compelled to face them. If God had not taken the extraordinary step of sending the prophet Nathan, if Nathan had not approached me with just the right touch, I would still be pulling away from God, like a horse or mule. Do not be like that. When you have sinned, own up to it instantly, for forgiveness is awaiting the plea of every penitent heart. This is the way the faithful should go: confessing their sins, confiding in grace.

Verses 10 & 11

Many are the sorrows of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts
in the Lord.

Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!

There is no limit to the sorrows of the wicked. The New Testament reader, naturally and rightly, thinks of the everlasting punishment consisting of the unrestrained anger of the holy God. The Old Testament believer, especially early in the history of Israel, would have thought more in terms of this life, both with regard to the sorrows of the wicked and also to the love surrounding the upright. But the thoughtful among them, especially but not exclusively those of later generations, blessed with the music of the psalms and the theology of the prophets, at the very least did sense that the experiences of this life are insufficient as expressions of either boundless love or boundless wrath, the other side of the same coin. That must come after this life, as Job came to realize (chapter 19).

Following the parallelism of Hebrew poetry in verse 11, the opposite of sorrows is steadfast love, and the opposite of the wicked individual is the one who trusts in the Lord. The center of wickedness is not the evil one does to his neighbor. Without diminishing in the least the suffering one inflicts on his neighbor, still the center and root of all wickedness is not trusting in the Lord. To be sure, sins do not diminish God even though they diminish or even destroy the well-being of other people. But the love of God in providing his Son as the sacrifice for sin is so intense, and the gift of eternal life through his Son is so priceless, that to be indifferent toward this is the crowning point of iniquity. Thus when the Holy Spirit reproves the world of sin, this is not because of sexual perversion, mass shootings, or human trafficking – that too, in the fine print – it is because they do not believe in the Son of God. When the Savior and his salvation are met with refusal, this is the extreme of insult to God and of harm to oneself.

The term “steadfast love,” chesed in Hebrew, presents questions for the translators. The KJV and NKJV use “mercy,” the ESV “steadfast love,” the NEB “unfailing love,” and the commentator F. Delitzsch “favor.” “Mercy” is certainly more poetic than “covenant love” or “steadfast love,” while “unfailing love” is somewhat poetic and brings out the ceaseless character of divine love. An accurate translation should bring out the power and the poetry of the biblical text as well as its meaning. There of course lies the challenge. For all the massive scholarship that must be brought to bear on the effort of translating, often requiring many scholars, committees generally do not produce poetry. The King James Version is an exception here. It follows the sentence structure of the original quite closely, and thus some of its poetry shines through in translation, especially since Hebrew poetry is based on the balancing of thoughts within each verse. Now, since the word “love” is a monosyllable and the qualifiers polysyllabic, the modifiers supplied in modern translations tend to be stressed at the expense of the noun itself.

Back to the heart of the verse: love surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord. He is inside the enclosure, and there are no gaps that would leave him vulnerable to the weapons of the Foe. The divine love is a structure with a barrier impenetrable, on all sides as well as above and beneath. In love God provided the atonement; in the same love he provides everything else.

When Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5:22, the first is love and the second is joy, both of which ring in the closing verses of the psalm. The injunction is three-fold, “be glad,” “rejoice,” “shout for joy.” Let the salvation of Christ be the center of your thinking and living, not the way of the world which says, “be happy, it’s your choice whether to be happy or not;” or the
manufactured excitement of the modern church, which finds its “happiness” and its appeal to the multitudes in dispensing with the fear of God; but the deep and genuine joy of those who know that love for God flourishes only together with the fear of God.

And with love of God comes loving one’s neighbor as one loves himself, especially in seeking the other person’s salvation and rejoicing in his salvation as he rejoices in his own. It is characteristic of the psalms, especially the psalms of David, that they close with an address to the whole people of God.

(Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations in the above article are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)