I am frequently reminded of my errors and shortcomings and weaknesses, and I suppose that experience is not unique. If we are reflective people prone to self-examination and perhaps even self-criticism, we will be aware of many areas in our life that need improvement. Sometimes we may be overly harsh on ourselves, wondering how to distinguish between the godly struggling sinner and the wicked, or we may despair of ever learning the right way to think and speak and behave toward others. To the extent that these matters weigh on our mind, it is useful to look at the book of Psalms, which is a frequent source of encouragement to me (and many others, including C.S. Lewis, who once wrote a worthy commentary on the book). In particular, these issues are dealt with very directly and economically in Psalm 32.
Psalm 32 is a psalm of David, a Mashil, or contemplation. The superscription of the psalm gives no specific occasion that David is writing about, even though the contents of the psalm reflect David’s thoughts about sin and forgiveness after having resisted confessing a serious sin to God. In several ways, this psalm appears to be the sort of psalm one would write at some distance after having made a serious sin, repented of it, and seen the difference in one’s life between the suffering that results from sinful behavior and the restoration of grace and trust between God and man and between people and each other. In this situation of grace and peace, one has the leisure to reflect upon the difference between a life of godliness and a life of wickedness that one does not generally have in the heat of events while one is still struggling to find peace with God and with others. Nonetheless, such a contemplation may be of use in reminding us of what we seek as believers.
Psalm 32 opens with a statement of purpose for the psalm, giving the subject of David’s contemplation, the one whom God forgives of his sins, both himself and other believers like him. Psalm 32:1-2 reads: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” As human beings, we are going to sin and make mistakes, but the man who is blessed and godly is he whose sins are forgiven, ultimately by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and who are spiritual Israelites in whom there is no guile. Because of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, those who walk in faith and obedience are able to be counted as righteous by God, and not have their sins held against them by others.
Psalm 32:3-5 gives the historical opening, providing some context to the situation in David’s own life (perhaps that of the sin of adultery with Bathsheba discussed in 2 Samuel 11 and Psalm 51, or perhaps some other sin not discussed elsewhere in scripture). Psalm 32:3-5 reads: “When I kept silent, my bones grew old through my groaning all the day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy on me; my vitality was turned into the drought of summer. Selah. I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and You forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah.” Here we see that in David’s case, he faced great suffering and anguish, physical as well as emotional and mental pain, because of his refusal to repent.
This is worthy of some commentary. Not all physical suffering is the result of sin, and I would not wish to imply such a thing, but David equates a refusal to repent of what one knows to have been sin with suffering and anguish. When we do what we know not to do, or do not do what we know to do, the result is sickness and illness and pain within us, as our spiritual state effects our physical and emotional and mental state. As beings we cannot compartmentalize different aspects of our life so that they are unable to affect each other, but we must accept the reality that what we do in one part of our lives is going to influence and affect the rest of our whole being. This means that if we are followers of God we must obey God in body, in heart, in mind, and in spirit, and not neglect any area of our lives as an avenue for growth in godliness.
Immediately after talking about the eagerness of God to forgive once a believer repents (we should be as eager to repent as God is to forgive, as it would make life much easier on us), David moves directly to the security that results from a restored relationship with God. Psalm 32:6-7 reads: “For this cause everyone who is godly shall pray to You in a time when You may be found; surely in a flood of great waters they shall not come near him. You are my hiding place; you shall preserve me from trouble; you shall surround me with songs of deliverance. Selah.” This passage is rather upbeat but also contains some words of warning. We must seek to pray to God when He may be found. This is a reminder that God will not be around necessarily when we find it convenient, and that there may be a time limit to God’s patience with our backsliding. The reality of God’s mercy and God’s judgment should influence us to seek His mercy speedily. The fact that God is able to protect us from trouble, including floods (see also Revelation 12:15-16), and surround us with godly songs of praise, so that we show God appreciation and gratitude for his deliverance, ought to make us seek His ways even more.
The next passage contrasts the ways of the godly and the ways of the wicked concerning God as an instructor. Psalm 32:8-9 reads: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go; I will guide you with My eye. Do not be like the horse or like the mule, which have no understanding, which must be harnessed with bit and bridle, else they will not come near you.” Here we see that God promises to be a teacher to us and if we are believers we are His students, learning from the example set by godly believers, by Jesus Christ Himself, and from the instruction given to us by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This behavior of the righteous is contrasted with the fact that unbelievers (who are, not coincidentally, compared with unclean animals like horses and mules) have to be restrained by force, through coercion and judgment.
This has political implications, and so it is worthy of some discussion. To the godly person, the instruction by God of His ways leads to God’s laws and commandments serving as a model for behavior, to inspire us to godliness even where there is no explicit demand to do so, by implication from what we do know. Instruction and practice in godly ways should lead us to go above and beyond the minimum standard of God’s laws. On the other hand, for the wicked, the law and commandments of God, as they are enforced by institutions (like civil government) are coercion in that they enforce a minimum standard of obedience on pain of sanctions and penalties upon those who have to be treated like brute animals because they lack the inclination to virtue within themselves. What to do the godly person is moral instruction in righteousness is coercion to the libertarian. We ought not to be so stubborn against righteousness in our own lives as those mules or horses which are held by bridles strong.
Finally, David ends Psalm 32 with a contrast between the joys that will come to the righteous and the sorrows that the wicked will earn. Psalm 32:10-11 reads: “Many sorrows shall be to the wicked, but he who trusts in the Lord, mercy shall surround him. Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, you righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.” It would appear given the context of this psalm that David is not speaking only of the contrast between joy and sorrow in the ultimate fate of the righteous and the wicked, but about something that ought to be the case here and now in the lives of believers. This requires at least some comment, as there are many who falsely assume that those who are suffering sorrow because of their own sins, when that is clearly not the case (see, most famously, the book of Job, and also Psalm 88 ).
We need to be careful in how we apply this passage to the subjective emotional state of others (and ourselves), though. We ought to rejoice in what God has done for us, for as believers we at least look forward to an eternity of joy, no matter what circumstances God has placed us in here and now. And if we suffer now and endure faithfully, we will be richly rewarded later, and so we can rejoice in expectation of blessings that we believe that God will give even if we have difficulty finding much to celebrate here and now. This is easy to say, and difficult to do. Nonetheless, a reflection on ultimate fate in a contemplation such as this ought to affect the way we live our lives here and now, so that they are more centered on God and less centered on ourselves and the ups and downs of our lives and our emotional state.
Overall, Psalm 32 deals with the subject of the results of a personal commitment to confess sins, to have God instruct in the ways of righteousness, and to enjoy the blessings that result from obedience. We ought to follow the example of David in confessing our sins while God is ready to hear our prayers of repentance and contrition, even if we cannot assume that all believers will be blessed in as obvious and extravagant of ways as David was. However, the heavenly blessings we expect as believers, since God is faithful to His promises and cannot lie, are something that should lead all of us to appreciate the works of God in the lives of all believers. Therefore David’s psalm is applicable far beyond his own personal life.